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2 February, 2007

Equal, not special

Writing in the Daily Torygraph Telegraph, Andrew Gimson suggests that 'Bicyclists are justified in breaking the law'.

Like Ian at Spinneyhead, I'd argue that we're not, but unlike Ian I wouldn't go on to say that car drivers are more dangerous, justifying greater attention from the police. That relativism isn't relevant, and I take the view that the police should be actively targeting bad cyclists, not as an afterthought when they get a little spare time. A large part ¹ of the bad image imposed on cyclists is that they're perceived to get away with ignoring laws, so it'd be in the interests of cyclists if the police were to take action against all road users – drivers and cyclists identically, not one or the other.

To return to Gimson's argument: his sensationalist introduction eventually gives way to an entirely conventional, reasonable view: that there are certain circumstances when cyclists might be justified in breaking the letter of the law, taking due care.

When I started bicycling, I was appalled by the behaviour of many other bicyclists. They were dangerous, reckless and rude. The way in which they wove in and out of the traffic, acting like the kings of the road and forcing busses and cars to give way, struck me as quite unacceptable.
True, though if the cyclists did have the right of way in those instances, as road users of equal status with buses and cars, they were absolutely correct to assert it. Bikes shouldn't automatically defer to cars.
But what is the most unacceptable aspect of this hooliganism? It is not the law-breaking but the sheer rudeness.
To force other drivers, and pedestrians, who are proceeding in an orderly fashion, to give way as one races past at breakneck speed on one's bike, is very bad manners.
I couldn't agree more (so long as those other drivers and pedestrians really are acting legitimately, rather than parking or walking in a cycle lane). There's no need for rudeness, and cyclists have no special status justifying self-righteousness.
There is, I realise, another point of view. The main demand of many other road users is that bicyclists should invariably obey the law, so should never go through a red light or trespass on a pavement.
Yes, I'm a cyclist ², and that is my view. Cyclists are road users, with the same rights and obligations as any other. They have no special dispensations to act above or outside the law. Cyclists should never, ever, ride on a pavement (walking with a bike is fine).
It seems to me that the only people who can with honour maintain this purist line are those who, while walking through a town at night, have never crossed an empty street against a red light. There are circumstances in which it is perfectly reasonable to do that, because not a single other vehicle is in sight.
That's entirely different, and makes the earlier statements somewhat disingenuous. True, in a tiny number of very specific circumstances, such actions might be reasonable, but that's a long way from the blanket statement in the opening line, that "bicyclists are justified in breaking the law".

I would cycle past a red traffic light on an entirely empty road at 2am (after stopping to check that it really was safe to proceed), not least because traffic lights controlled by pressure sensors ignore bikes and would stay red all night! However, it doesn't remotely follow that I'd do so under any other circumstances, and if another cyclist did, I'd cheerfully act as a witness in a full prosecution.

A second problem with this whole issue is the idea that 'cyclists' do anything. Cyclists are not one coherent mob of people all acting identically, any more than 'drivers' are. Cyclists are individuals, acting individually, who happen to be acting individually on bicycles. The actions of one are not the responsibility of any other, and it's unfair to blame all for the illegitimate actions of some. 'Cyclists' don't ride through red lights, certain irresponsible individuals do.

¹ Another part of the bad image imposed on cyclists is media-driven hype, so it's mildly encouraging to see a right-wing newspaper giving screen space to a reasonable, if sensationalised, point of view.

²: I said 'I'm a cyclist' there merely for clarity (I hope) in that sentence, but as I said subsequently, I don't regard myself as 'a cyclist', as I think classification into homogeneous groups is flawed and divisive.
I'm emphatically not a cycle-activist, either – smug Greens simply make me see red.
I'm a road-user who happens to ride a bike. I claim equal status with car, bus and lorry drivers, but no rights or especial consideration above and beyond them.

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