Thursday, 10 July 2008

Them and us

There is much comment in the press today following the trial of the cyclist who knocked down a young girl who subsequently died of her injuries. I don't want to comment on the specific case: out of sympathy for those involved; and because all I know is from press reports, so I must trust the judgement of others.

However, I do have views on the resulting commentary.

My first point is that most cyclists are also motorists and pedestrians. As a cyclist I have suffered experiences of poor driving. As a driver I have suffered experiences of poor cycling. As a pedestrian I have suffered both.

Bad experiences include aggressive overtaking, cutting in, and other unpredictable behaviour from drivers. But it is not all aggression - there are also annoying experiences of over-cautious, rather than aggressive driving. For example, I particularly dislike drivers who remain on my shoulder continuously, when there is ample room to pass. But if I was to rant against one particular group of drivers it would be the silly young lads in hatchbacks who think it is funny to hoot their horn, or yell out at cyclists to get a reaction.

Similarly when walking, I get annoyed at cyclists careering along the footpath - but I also get annoyed at cars that are parked on the kerb and obstruct the path. They are presumably left by people who have never had to negotiate a baby buggy, or a wheelchair along a footpath. When driving or riding, I come across pedestrians who dither on the edge of the pavement, or step out without looking, or sudenly change direction. Groups who stand in the middle of a cycle path, or drift from side to side, oblivious to people trying to get past. Equally, when driving, I am frustrated by groups of cyclists hogging the road, or individual cyclists jumping lights or weaving through heavy traffic.

So there are faults among all groups. But there is also considerable courtesy, and thoughfulness among all groups. At least in my experience the many courtesies massively outweight the few faults. Perhaps I am lucky in the places that I visit. Perhaps the balance is the other way round in places that I haven't visited. Or perhaps this ferocious war of words between pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists is a little exagerrated.

When it comes to the practicalities, I am, of course, responsible for my own safety. And if I come into contact with a heavy moving object I am going to end up hurt. So it is in my own interests to watch out for how others behave - particularly when I am not in a car. It seems to me that the fact that some behave badly puts an extra responsibility on me, it doesn't absolve me from responsibility.

I also have a responsibility for the safety of others. I don't want to deliberately harm anyone else, but I also need to take care that I don't cause harm accidentally. Unfortunately, like everyone else, I sometimes make mistakes. So far, I've not made a mistake that ended very badly. Either because I got lucky, or others took evasive action. But anyone with any imagination who has driven a car, or ridden a bike, must know that there have been situations where without a bit of luck, or a bit of help, they could have caused a pretty serious accident.

So it seems to me that when commentators divide the world up into cyclists (them) and motorists (us); or cyclists (us) and motorists (them) they are setting off in a pointless direction. The world doesn't work that way. We are all sharing the roads and footpaths, most of use use a mix of transport, and in any case we all have to rub along together. There is no "them" and no "us".

Secondly, we are all responsible for how we behave, whatever form of transport we are using. No matter how well intentioned, we are all fallible, and we need to look out for our own safety, and the safety of others, whether we are driving, riding, or walking. We have to recognise that anyone can make a mistake, including ourselves, and act to compensate. This isn't something to complain about - it's the inevitable result of being a fallible social animal.

Thirdly, there are a few idiots out there, who sometimes act irresponsibly. Whether they are malicious, misguided, or more likely, just incapable of foreseeing the consequences of their actions, they definitely exist. However, owning a bike or a car does not turn somebody into an idiot. They are not idiotic drivers, or idiotic cyclists. They are just idiots. And they should be censored for that, not for being drivers, or cyclists.

And finally, we should be cautious about drawing conclusions from a very specific case. Historically, any serious rail accident has driven more poeple onto the roads, despite the fact that the roads are inherently less safe than rail travel. Improving safety is pretty obviously a good thing. But while an accidental death is a tragedy, one tragic case should not lead to the conclusion that this is the area that most urgently needs action. Despite the fact that there are at least two other cycling-related accidents in today's news, this remains a relatively safe form of transport. There are plenty of downsides to the alternatives.

We do not have to over-react in order to sympathise with those involved in this particular tragedy.

1 comment:

kimbofo said...

Well said!

The "them" and "us" mentality gets us nowhere.

I actually think being a cyclist makes you a better car driver and vice versa, because you get to experience road use from two different perspectives.