Note: This is a post that was mostly written while I was still living in London, but have only just got around to finishing.
Two lethal weapons – one is accepted and commonplace, the other is not.
If I had a licence to own a machine that can be used as a dangerous weapon, would it be acceptable for me to use it to threaten people who are in my way as I travel?
Would it be fine and normal for me to threaten to use this machine to injure or even kill people, to bully them into submission so they will kowtow to my will and get out of my way, sharpish.
Could I get away with this behaviour on a regular basis, openly flouting the law by using this deadly machine to exert dominance over other human beings?
The machine I’m talking about is a motor vehicle, and I do in fact own a license to use one. What I certainly don’t do is use it aggressively.
But some people do use their motor vehicles in this way.
Unpleasant incidents while cycling were a regular occurrence when I lived in London. It could be something minor, such as someone pulling out of a junction despite seeing me approaching. Or it could be something major, such as someone intentionally driving directly at me. This sort of thing happened often enough that I decided to leave London and emigrate.
These incidents happen because a car is a powerful machine which is capable of injuring or killing people, and some people use this potential for harm to threaten others, to bully them out of the way.
Now, allow me to hypothesise: To balance the deadly potential of motor vehicles, it should be legal to carry a gun while riding a bike.
Think about that for a moment (though it clearly is a ridiculous suggestion). Why should people in cars hold all the power?
Once upon a time
Let me tell you a true story. I was riding along a narrow street in London, too narrow for overtaking, so I was in the hallowed “primary position“. I could hear the Mini far behind me being driven aggressively fast on these residential streets, then as the car approached, the driver started honking his horn and revving his engine at me because there wasn’t enough room for him to overtake.
What an upstanding citizen! I asked what the hell he thought he was doing, and he shouted back that a police officer had told him he should beep at people on bikes if they’re in his way. Then he trotted out the usual “I pay road tax” bullshit, at which point I told him to educate himself about what VED is. “I’m a student!” he replied.
So here we have a young man (who as a student won’t be paying any income tax, irrelevant though that is) who is using a car to transport himself around central London. He’s speeding around narrow back streets to avoid traffic lights on the main roads, and feels that paying £200 a year vehicle tax entitles him to act like a thug, bullying people who he considers to be slowing him down.
(Why is it even possible to use residential streets in this way? Lambeth council, despite claiming to prioritise walking and cycling, have consistently failed to civilise their roads. The car is clearly still king in Britain.)
I wonder how he would feel if he saw me walking along the street behind his mother, shouting “MOVE” at her and telling her that she should get out of my way because I pay more tax than she does and therefore believe I am entitled to push her around.
I’m sure this man finds himself in such situations, stuck behind someone slow while walking down the street. And I’d bet my life that he doesn’t shout at them to move, or push them out of the way, but waits until there’s space to pass. It’s because he was in a motor vehicle that it is socially acceptable for him to threaten someone in a way that he wouldn’t do on foot.
Now let’s bring in our cyclists-with-guns hypothesis. Surely if I’d been in possession of a gun that would have evened things out between us somewhat? He had his deadly machine to threaten me with, why shouldn’t I have a deadly machine to threaten him with?
I’m not saying I’d have actually needed to fire the gun, merely wave it at him, point it at his car to show that we both had dangerous machines, to signify that it’s surely the best for everyone if we proceed calmly and according to the rules of the road.
But I didn’t have a gun, so instead the person with the deadly machine was able to threaten me unilaterally.
It’s another true story
Another location, similar story.
Cycling down a street which is one-way except for cycles. A white van is coming towards me, well above the 20mph limit. Despite the massive width of this road, the driver is actually aiming for me. He’s flashing his lights and as he approaches I can see him waving his hand and mouthing “what are you doing?” at me.
It seems he hasn’t realised that the street is two-way for cycling (or, indeed, noticed the 20mph speed limit on this long, straight wide road that invites fast driving) and has decided to take the law into his own hands and punish me himself.
Luckily for me, he decides that merely threatening to hit me is enough, and swerves away at the last moment, narrowly missing the front of my bike.
It’s not as though I was even in his way – it’s a wide road which could easily handle one motor vehicle in each direction. Had I been driving a white van like him, he might well have let me pass without comment. But because I was on a bike that means I’m suddenly fair game for threats and abuse.
So yet again someone feels that they have the right to intimidate and threaten other people who are going about their lawful business. (And again, I wonder how he would feel if I was shoving his grandmother aside in the supermarket, or barging in front of her at the checkout queue?)
Back to our gun hypothesis. Had the driver suspected that, because I was on a bike I was likely to be carrying a firearm, I expect that he would have thought twice before intentionally driving a large white van at me.
That’s the beauty of the gun idea. The gun doesn’t even have to be used, it merely evens out the threat. We would both have the potential to abuse the deadly machine we are in charge of and injure or kill the other. We would both have to respect each other as a result.
But, of course, I don’t have a gun, so the threat was entirely one-sided, and only one of us was able to throw our weight around.
Back to reality
I’m sure most people who ride a bike in the UK have at least a few stories like this of their own. Some get used to this aggressive behaviour and see it as normal.
But I don’t see it as normal. It’s an injustice that riding a bike marks you out as a member of an underclass that can be abused at will by others.
This behaviour is backed up – even encouraged – by the government in the way they’ve designed our roads and streets, and in the way the justice system favours drivers and frequently seeks to blame the victim.
They’ve created an environment (both physical and legal) where driving a polluting vehicle around residential streets at high speeds is seen as normal and acceptable, but riding a bike carefully around those same streets is seen as abnormal, deviant and questionable.
Should we be surprised at the attitudes which have been bred from this environment?
If I were to carry a gun or a knife or even a baseball bat around the streets, pointing it at anyone who was in my way, shouting at people to move aside, would that be acceptable? Even if I was trained in to use it safety and never actually harmed anyone, would that be okay with you? If you’re a reasonable person, I’m sure you’ll say it’s not.
So why is it normal and acceptable to use a motor vehicle in exactly that manner?
Motor vehicles are frequently used to threaten and bully (it happens all the time), and those people that do so usually get away with it. Even when the police do become involved, the end result is often very lenient.
Even genuinely careless driving with no ill-intent is threatening to those people outside a protective metal box. Motor vehicles are not seen as the dangerous machinery that they are, and they are often operated without the care they require. That they’re frequently marketed as fun toys can’t help this public perception.
If even an experienced, senior lawyer with clear video evidence of a death threat has to go through years of legal wrangling to eventually achieve a slap on the wrist for the thug that threatened to kill him, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The cycleway is the only way
So what’s the solution? Well, in the short term our police and justice system needs to treat threatening driving with the same severity that they would treat knife or gun threat. I fail to see much difference between them.
Secondly, the idea that cycling is a mode of transport used only by a strange minority of people, will not go away until a large number of people are cycling. And we do know what must be done to get that large number of people cycling.
We should not be discouraged by the fact that it may take great political courage to create such conditions. We need to continue to push and protest to grow the political will required.
Footnote: If you’re about to start furiously commenting about guns, please understand what a hypothesis is. I’m not actually advocating liberalising gun laws, that’s patently ridiculous. Of course, the only purpose of a gun is to threaten or kill, whereas motor vehicles are primarily intended for transport. I’m merely using the parallel to point out how a motor vehicle in the wrong hands becomes as deadly as a gun. Like guns, motor vehicles can be used as dangerous weapons capable of murder, yet unlike gun violence, traffic violence seems largely accepted by British society today.