Hand me my gun, I’m cycling to the shops

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.



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21 responses to “Hand me my gun, I’m cycling to the shops

  1. Ian

    Actually I’m not convinced that motor cars *are* always intended primarily as transport, given that a mix of biking and public transport would be a vastly more efficient way to get around most cities. I sort of suspect there’s a mixture of transport, display and aggression, and that therefore the “wrong hands’ could be ‘nearly anyone’s hands”.

    In fact I think cars are much worse than guns – most people holding a gun know fine they have responsibility to behave properly, whereas most drivers appear completely oblivious to the risks.

  2. You know, I don’t think these are such crazy thoughts. I can totally understand where you’re coming from.

    We had a bit of a heat wave here the other week, so all the local motorists were going about with their windows open. When I came across a car completely obstructing the footway, I reflected on how easy it would be to pour the bottle of juice I was carrying all over the laptop that was sitting in the passenger seat. When a taxi driver nearly crashed into a bus because he refused to wait for me to start moving when the light turned green, and I caught him up at the next red light, I reflected on how easy it would be to punch him in the face. It’s not a noble impulse, but it is a *human* impulse.

    I don’t actually think any of this is the answer, but I do think that campaigning for liveable cities needs to become much more aggressive. I think that, if there’s anywhere in the UK a mass movement could be created, it’s my city. Car ownership here has never risen above 50%.

    It’s a funny thing. I have always felt a deep unease about the state of the places I live in and travel through. What I lacked until a few years ago, when I started reading blogs like yours, was the ability to articulate precisely what is wrong. I think a lot of people are the same. They know Glasgow is a dump, but they’re not really aware of the radical transformation that is possible.

    I think there’s a lot of potential to get more people on board. We could accuse the council of prioritising suburban drivers over the people who actually live here. We could talk about the whole childhood freedom issue, and the contribution of transport policy to our Third-World life expectancy. Trouble is, I don’t know how to move this beyond the blogosphere.

  3. The guns idea is brilliant.
    And if drivers get shot and die, well, they should have known to wear a bullet proof vest. What did they think would happen without such vital equipment?

  4. adventcontrols

    The only people who will read this and not scoff at it are people who regularly ride bicycles. I understand your argument and I’ve thought it myself many times. Your man in the ‘road’ though will just think you’re mad as he’s never seen the reality of what his driving means to the vulnerable people who, to him, may as well be inconsequential sprites in a computer game.
    You’ll never change the way people behave and when they have a car they behave badly to others. If you isolate someone from facing other people by hiding him in a car and then frustrate him by limiting his ability to move in a queue of traffic he/she will act selfishly.
    You can however change cars. When you get on a train and you’re late you can’t ask the driver to put his foot down. Just like if you fancy living dangerously and are after a bit of fun it makes no difference; the train does the same speed regardless. You happily accept the limits of how long your journey will take as it’s out of your hands… and that is how your car should be. You shouldn’t think it’s a tool for getting around faster as that inevitably disadvantages someone else (and by disadvantage this includes risking someone else).
    I don’t understand why we can buy a product which is marketed on the fun aspects of how dangerous it is to all who are in proximity to it… how quick it is. Fast cars are in high insurance groups for a reason (despite what your average Top Gear fan style denier might say) and the worst thing is that it’s most likely to be the people on the outside, totally uninvolved with the car, who are most in danger. Its inevitable people will die if these products exist.
    You cannot trust someone to behave with a car when you sell them something which can be driven dangerously. You are effectively giving them permission to misuse it regardless of any law that may say otherwise.
    If I sold a product which will definitely kill people if it is misused (but made no effort to avoid misuse and actively marketed it for this purpose) I would be in jail.
    Motor manufacturers could easily add the electronics to keep the cars safe; in fact it’s already there in most cars. It’s called ISA http://intelligentspeedadaption.wordpress.com/
    They need to be forced into mandatory ISA and you’ll get more sympathy trying to make cars safer than trying to make the world safer for cyclists because ISA will benefit pedestrian and motorists – groups of people bigoted motorists are not able to dislike as they, at some point, will become part of. And don’t forget the government is simply the mouth-piece of the people who will do what they are told.
    All we need is the law to be changed to hold motor manufacturers responsible for the deaths caused by their products which, to me, seems entirely reasonable.

  5. Gar

    Of course you do have the right to a licence for a gun the same as the road user; however if you threatned the car driver in the same measure and to the same physiological effect you would most certainly get had up, and fined more than £100 if you killed a car driver who got in your way. If you manufactured your own bullets you could even hit and run and get away with it, as so many car drivers do. I dont recomend it though.

  6. Gar

    Further to these posts for me the biggest problem of being a cyclist only, ie no car, is the road status question. The more road cycling you do, the more you feel it, which is why I used the forest tracks to get me places, even 30 miles away, without using the roads at all. In to the centre of bournemouth off road all the way.

    I have had to give up cycling for good in th last few weeks due to permanent injury, and advancing years, aged nearly 70. I said I would give up when I’m 70, and I’m not far from 69, so that is ok!
    The wheels will go hang on the wall before long/

    Happy and economical days cycling to you all!


    Ps Dont take two wheels too seriously.

  7. Isn’t it legal to carry a gun while riding a bike, anyway? Why wouldn’t it be?

  8. rdrf

    The gun analogy is actually quite apt: a lot of car journeys don’t HAVE to be made, and a lot fewer could be made in a different transport system. A lot of gun owners are careful and don’t threaten others either wilfully or through carelessness. And a lot of USA citizens will demand the “right” to bear arms the same way UK motorists will demand the “right” to drive how, where and for whatever reason they want. US gun owners feel they HAVE to have guns 9and sometimes carry them concealed) in the same way that lots of drivers HAVE to drive in the manner they desire.

    It is important to point out that most problems arise from carelessness rather than more wilful endangering by drivers. However, this should not excuse them – on the contrary, it outlines the need for more controls on motor danger.

    These controls may be by engineering the highway, or by engineering cars, or by law enforcement or whatever. It can be done by those who are simply prepared to drive very carefully. Ultimately it depends on us seeing (mis)use of motor vehicles as a dangerous social problem for other road users as well as cyclists, and we don’t.


    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum http://www.rdrf.org.uk

    P.S. Also right about tax. Should you be allowed to assassinate anybody who pays less tax than you? Or people whose external costs (pollution etc.) are so much greater.

  9. “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”

    ― Robert A. Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon

  10. It’s quite depressing for me that in many countries in order to get a gun you need to go through very difficult application process while getting a driving license is so easy. IMO driving a car should be as much restricted as owning a gun, simply because both are deadly weapons (and that cars are mainly used for transportation isn’t really a good excuse – probably more people buy guns to defend themselves than to attack others, so what?). This isn’t very unrealistic, professional drivers or airplane pilots already have to pass more tests.

    Heavy, fast and dangerous motor vehicles shouldn’t be something “for everyone”. Of course, some people can’t get around without a car, but this should be an exception from the rule.

  11. It wouldn’t even need to be a real gun. A suitably shaped piece of wood, painted black, would surely persuade a threatening driver to back off.

    Unless he had a real one. And given the correlation between loutish driving and criminality that’s not so improbable even in relatively gun-free UK.

    And if the Police will carelessly shoot dead someone carrying a thing so remotely gun-like as a table leg…

    Nope, if you want to go around threatening people with impunity, a car is the perfect weapon. And Robert Heinlein does NOT have the answer .

    Anonymity is the facilitator of this anti-social behaviour. In a small place where everyone knows everyone else and their car, people drive with a lot more consideration, because they’ll be held to account for their misdeeds next time they darken the door of the village shop or pub. But in a town, driving confers complete anonymity. I think people would drive with a lot more care if their registration number started with their postcode.

  12. Reblogged this on nazanfennell and commented:
    There is no such a thing as “Road Tax”

  13. Bill G

    I wonder how many reckless and dangerous drivers of skip lorries would have to be shot before the annual number of KSI pedestrians and cyclists by skip lorries fell below ten?

  14. great article. but one minor question, where does it show that the one way street is 2 way for cyclists?
    i agree, lets be like americans and allow everyone to carry guns.
    actually, why dont american cyclists do it already!? it would certainly level the playing field, ha ha

  15. Reblogged this on Infrastructural and commented:
    Very well put.

  16. Have often had the same thought, that if drivers thought each cyclist may be carrying a firearm it could balance things up a little.

    I wouldn’t condone the carrying of firearms by anyone but the analogy allows people to consider the effect an aggressive driver has on vulnerable road users.

    My own experiences with Chris Juden’s comment about accountability. I have lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone else (and their parents) and now in a larger one, pop. 60,000. Relative anonymity, and the perception that you won’t be found out, allows all sorts of anti-social behaviour to occur that wouldn’t happen in the smaller community.

  17. sonofrojblake

    We’re in a short period of history where this is a problem. It will solve itself shortly, I absolutely guarantee. There are already self-driving cars on the road. They will very likely be available for sale before 2020. They will be affordable before 2030. They will be ubiquitous by 2040. And by 2050, it will be illegal to drive a car on the road “manually”. Cars you drive yourself will still be made, but they’ll be like “track day” cars are now – non-road-legal toys for the rich, usable only on private land. And the rest of us will be able to be driven around in comfort to and from wherever we want to be, without effort or exposure to the weather and with as much luggage space as we need. It’ll be great. And much, much safer. Mark my words…

    • USbike

      Without getting into other issues that self-driving cars wouldn’t solve, whether this works well or not will depend on how the said cars will be designed. Will it give enough space when passing a cyclist? How much? Will it adapt to different roads: quiet neighborhood roads vs. 6 + lane high volume/speed arterial roads that may not even have bike lanes, etc.? Will all brands have to adhere to certain specifications? But this then brings up additional questions. What is the appropriate passing distance/speed? What if it’s a busy arterial with narrow lanes and no room to pass-will the car just slow down and hang behind the cyclist? If there were to be a malfunction and a subsequent collision, then what? And how good would they be in detecting pedestrians/cyclists? Would they be able to differentiate situations where cars have priority vs. ones where pedestrians/cyclists have priorities based just on signage and road markings?

      All this remains to be seen, but as of now I’m not convinced that this is going to be a good panacea to our current transportation problems. As I mentioned above it won’t even address issues like congestion, noise pollution, air pollution (if not electric powered), wear-and-tear on the roads, amount of space needed for a given road or for parking, lack of exercise, unpleasant urban environment, among other environmental externalities, etc.

  18. mikey bikey

    My fantasy cycling modus operandi was to imagine “if a bike & rider weighed not 100kg, but 100,000kg”. Suddenly everybody else using the road keeps out of cyclists way, ‘for their own safety!’
    I thought of it reading nonsense about how helmets were the safety panacea for all dangers on the road, when a powered roll cage even, was not enough.
    Coming back to reality, the problem is the lack of the political will to institute strict, or even presumed liability on UK roads. Knowing that if they hit cyclists, automatically, means compensation, FPN, community service, ban, vehicle confiscation, jail, etc, depending on severity of the offence. With the penalty rising every month if they fight it, to get rid of court timewasters. That should do for starters! Cheers, Mikey

  19. Anon

    I think, especially when looking at your story with the white van, we need better education of road rules, people being less aggressive and people admitting mistakes and learning instead of being defensive.

    I know what you mean about traffic violence seeming to being accepted and your analogy about pushing past on the pavement, so often I see fellow motorists do stuff and I just think what are they thinking, would they do that if they were face-to-face? Just this week I’ve seen someone pull up beside and then swerve at someone as they had the temerity to join from a slip road in front of them (as far as I could see from 100m back the guy did nothing wrong), 3 drivers undertaking at over 70mph (the person was lane-hogging a bit but surely you can’t be in so much of a hurry you want to risk them returning to the left into your side!?!), one person driving over a crossing that an old lady was still walking slowly over because the light had gone green and a bmx-er ride the wrong way round a roundabout and flip the finger at a driver who had to stop for him. It’s just ridiculous. People need to remember being on the road doesn’t make them invincible and no matter how much they think they have the right to have everyone move out of their way, we all have as much right to be on the road.

    I’m glad your gun carrying analogy doesn’t happen though as I would’ve been shot, despite looking out for fellow cyclists! I closed up behind 2 guys riding next to each other, just coming up to a blind corner. I had no issue waiting to pass as I’d rather not have to choose between crashing head on or taking out 2 cyclists, but the guy behind me wasn’t in the mood for waiting and beeped his horn. The guys on the bikes obviously thought this was me though as I was then the first person to pass them after the corner, and when I passed them one of them did the pretend “I’m gonna shoot you” motion with his hand. Maybe he’d read this post! 🙂 Antagonising like that is not the solution though is it. Someone other than me might stopped and got out and confronted him then there’s a fight and it’s cyclist v driver on the news again. We need to think of some way of stopping these situations from happening in the first place.

    Maybe as waiting on the government to sort education and waiting on self-driving cars will take a while, we should try and convince people of other things that can be done to make things safer. Make cams compulsory (bikes and cars). That way dodgy driving and threats like this should theoretically be a thing of the past. Maybe to stop the stupid comments about road tax etc we should have to register our bikes somewhere and get license and number plate, wouldn’t bother me. We could campaign to get a bit of cycle training included in driving tests. Get more dangerous roads to be widened / have cycle lanes added / reduce speed limits. Speak to your Mp, join the next ride on parliament, call out your mates / relatives on their dodgy driving…

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