Why the war between drivers and cyclists?

Cyclist in traffic

A motorist's tweet boasting about hitting a cyclist created uproar when it went viral. What does it reveal about the battle on the UK's roads?

Toby Hockley was on the 100-mile Boudicca Sportive ride in Norfolk when he says he was struck by a car and flung into a hedge. The driver didn't stop. Hockley emerged from the hedge, sore but intact.

It sounds like a run-of-the-mill depressing incident from the UK's roads. But the shocking part came later.

A young woman tweeted: "Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier. I have right of way - he doesn't even pay road tax! #Bloodycyclists."

The post was retweeted hundreds of times and took on a life of its own.

Soon cyclists had informed the police, identified the woman, tracked down where she worked and told her employer.

Norwich Police tweeted the woman back and told her to report the collision at a police station. "We have had tweets ref an RTC with a bike. We suggest you report it at a police station ASAP if not done already & then dm us".

Police have contacted both the cyclist and the tweeter and are investigating.

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The "war" between cyclists and motorists was played out in Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford ordered the removal of bike lanes

It's a different story in Britain's first cycling city, Bristol, as Tom Geoghegan found as he clambered on to a two-wheeled machine

The incident and the speed of the backlash on Twitter with the hashtag #bloodycyclists being appropriated by bike users, highlights the simmering tension on the UK's roads.

"I am a #bloodycyclists just trying to get about London. Would be nice not to risk my life every morning just trying to get to work," tweeted @lennyshallcross.

There appears to be a burgeoning, visceral anger in the cyclist-driver relationship.

The recent explosion of cyclist numbers in the UK's cities has changed the dynamic of driving. In heavy traffic cyclists are often the fastest things on the roads, more agile at getting through gaps than motorbikes.

Drivers do not always see them. They may forget to check their mirrors. It can be difficult for bikes getting through clogged traffic with lorries and vans blocking both sides of the lane.

Cyclists complain of drivers winding down their windows to hurl abuse. Drivers make a similar complaint about being shouted at.

Cycling campaigners are calling for a new law in Scotland to make motorists automatically at fault in an accident. The UK is one of only five European countries - Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Ireland being the others - that does not currently have the "strict liability" law. Some cyclists now wear helmet cameras to record anti-social behaviour.

The cyclists' response to the Norfolk tweet is a sign of the growing social media "enforcement" action taken against drivers who are seen as having either endangered or threatened two-wheelers.

Who's at fault?

  • Analysis of accident data suggested factors involved in crashes can be attributed "fairly equally" to drivers and cyclists
  • Child cyclists were much more likely to have contributed to accidents, while incidents involving cyclists aged 25 and over were more often put down to the driver
  • Some 2,801 cyclists were said to have contributed to serious collisions between 2005 and 2007, 43% by failing to look properly and one-fifth by riding out from the pavement
  • Over the same period, 2,587 drivers were said to have contributed to serious crashes, with 56% failing to look properly and 17% through a poor manoeuvre
  • An observational study, conducted in London and published in 2007, stated that between 13% and 17% of cyclists jumped red lights. Car drivers - including taxis - were the next most common offenders, followed by those in vans.

Source: Transport Research Laboratory

"It's relatively common because there are a lot of cyclists out there with helmet cams and they will post licence plates and video of bad motorists," says cycling journalist Carlton Reid.

Then there are deliberate attempts to scare cyclists, some commentators allege. "Many cyclists have been on the receiving end of 'punishment passes' [driving to instil fear] which can be extremely close, or can even see people being hurt," says Reid.

In 2011, 107 cyclists died on the roads in Britain and more than 3,000 were seriously injured, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

But there's a flipside. Cyclists, to many drivers, are serial flouters of the rules - jumping traffic lights, weaving in and out of the traffic, not signalling and failing to stop at zebra crossings.

There's "huge antipathy" between people on bikes and in cars, says motoring journalist Quentin Willson.

"We've got a minority of cyclists and car drivers who are aggressive," he says. "It results in a war of attrition between two and four wheels."

Today it is perhaps less politically correct to attack cyclists than drivers - but anecdotally many will privately curse cyclists passing them in traffic congestion.

Screengrab from Twitter The #bloodycyclists hashtag was largely hijacked by the two-wheeled community

John Griffin, boss of minicab firm Addison Lee, has argued that an influx of novice cyclists could lead to more accidents. "It is time for us to say to cyclists, 'You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up'," he wrote.

Willson is sympathetic to the plight of cyclists. But an aggressive minority have become a metaphor for everything drivers hate. "They're dressed exclusively in Lycra and wraparound shades, they ride on the pavement, go the wrong way down one-way streets and straight through red lights. And that's why motorists hate them."

Cyclists argue that the minority who break the rules are simply more conspicuous when they misbehave. Drivers stuck in a queue of traffic have plenty of time to watch as an errant cyclist jumps a red light, for example.

There is also a sense of frustration as car drivers watch a pedal-powered vehicle overtake them. "The very fact that cyclists are able to filter through traffic grates on many motorists and they take that out on cyclists," says Reid.

The tweeting motorist's claim that she had a greater right to be on the road because she paid road tax is a widely held but inaccurate belief, says Reid, who runs a blog called - with deliberate irony - ipayroadtax.com.

The reality is that there is no "road tax", he says. Road construction and maintenance is paid for by everyone through general and local taxes. The Vehicle Excise Duty that motorists pay is levied according to engine size or CO2 emissions.

A pupil at a school in Harrow Weald, Middlesex, makes a right turn at a model halt sign during a cycling proficiency test in 1961 Is it time for the return of the cycling proficiency test?

Critics miss the point that bikes don't emit CO2 and that many cyclists also own cars and are paying VED anyway, he says.

While there is bad behaviour on both sides, it is an unequal relationship. The driver is protected by a metal shell while the cyclist is exposed.

"It's scary as a cyclist because you are the vulnerable road user," says Rob Spedding, editor of Cycling Plus.

"You have someone in a few tonnes of metal bearing down on you and you are just flesh and bone. It's potentially fatal."

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Here is a selection of your comments.

The Addison Lee bloke is right in a way. There isn't room for cyclists on the road. It would make much more sense for cycling on the pavements - either shared paths or separate paths - to become regulated. It happens in many, many cities all over the world, particularly where there are footpaths both sides, or a wide footpath. My main argument I guess is that if cycling were invented today, there is no way the authorities would allow it on the road, for health and safety reasons.

Richard, UK

I recently sent a video to the police of a van driver who had dangerously cut me up while I was cycling in Hatton Garden. He was sent a warning letter. I now think that a lot of drivers do not realise how dangerous their driving is to a cyclist. They believe they have passed you when only the front of their vehicle, not the side or the back has. I'm sure if drivers spent a week on a bike on London roads they would become a lot more considerate.

Peter Libman, London

Yes, there are irresponsible cyclists. There are also irresponsible drivers. Try sitting by a road and counting the proportion of drivers on mobile phones. I usually find about 1 in 7 to 1 in 10.

Virtualpenguin, Cheltenham

I am in a big heavy car that could potentially kill them and I am the one who would get the blame if they were to get hurt. But they seem to think that gives them carte blanche to act as they please on the roads. I can't avoid you if you swerve out in front of me. I can't reposition my car if you sneak inside me in a queue of traffic. Have some bloody patience, follow the Code and be respectful of the half a ton vehicle please.

Leanne Groom, Southampton

Cyclists don't destroy the roads (unlike motor vehicles) so they shouldn't have to pay road tax. However, many cyclists need to learn to respect other road users. I would be in favour of a licensing system and the same penalties that motorists receive for breaking the rules of the road. When I was a racer in the 80s there was no Cavendish or Wiggins to give my sport the cache it has now. Then I was treated with disdain by motorists. Now, with the sporting success of our riders, all cyclists should be courteous road users so motorists show equal respect so that the next cyclist fatality is not a potential gold medallist.

James Butler, Northampton

Very often I will be clearly indicating a left turn in busy traffic and have a cyclist overtake on the inside at the point where I am turning. Drivers need to be very careful to avoid cyclists, but cyclists need to demonstrate some common sense. Why on earth should a car/bicycle collision automatically be the driver's fault. Cyclists should have insurance.

Mark, Cardiff

As a cyclist myself in London, I am fully in support of more cyclists on our roads and better, safer routes. However, I also sometimes walk part of the way to work, and many cyclists make this a dangerous and stressful experience. In several places, cyclists dart in and out of pedestrians as we walk across zebra crossings, go through red lights on busy junctions, and ignore one-way signs. Many refuse to even slow down as they approach crossings, and I've almost been knocked over several times. Coupled with this behaviour, there is also seemingly an air of arrogance amongst a minority in the cycling community. Of course cyclists and pedestrians are more at risk than car users, as they are unprotected, but all road users need to be more careful and respectful to others.

Madeleine Lewis, London

I cycle to work every day and the other evening I was clipped by a motorist. The driver decided that she would go past me, giving about an inch of space (despite there being ample space in the rest of the road) and clipped my handlebars. I was lucky that I was not c. 5m further up the road, where a bus was stopped. I would have swerved into that bus because of her. When I cycled past and confronted her about it, she ignored me, kept looking straight on and drove off from the traffic lights without so much as an apology. I was rightfully very angry - I could have been seriously hurt because she wouldn't give me the space I required.

Jacob, London

As a pedestrian I have no particular axe to grind, but I would comment that the three times I have been nearly run over were all by cyclists ignoring the rules of the road. Twice it was cyclists riding at speed through a red light on a pedestrian crossing, the other time by a cyclist - again riding at speed - on the pavement. I think cyclists should be subject to the same rules as all other road users: a licence, number plate, insurance and a tax disc.

Charlie, London

I bridge the gap being mostly a motorbike commuter. I often have to explain to friends and family the legal right I have filtering through traffic and so I have no problems with cyclist except however when they ignore the rules, which, anecdotely, seems all too often. I frequently watch them ride through red lights. When I do take the car to work there is a small pedestrian under pass which clearly used to have a 'Cyclist dismount' notice. This never happened and the signs have been bent and twisted and now forcibly removed. The antaganism felt twoards cyclists is less to do with 'they don't pay tax' but more their lack of obeying the rules of the road which, if others did the same would quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Shane MacManus, Belfast

I ride the Boris Bikes to work which is just a 10 minute trip. I have had two van drivers actually attempt to drive me off the road, one of which I could see clenching his steering wheel in anger as he drove directly at me. It got to the point where I was going to wear a camera to record these attempted assaults.

Charles, London

The media image of a war between cyclists and motorists seems to be - no surprise here - hugely influenced by the fact that most journalists are based in London and the cyclists there behave in a completely different fashion from those elsewhere!

Martin Kiely, Warrington

A major problem with cyclists is visibility. Many times I seen cyclists on black bikes, in black clothes with a black helmet or no helmet at all. Hence they contribute to their own vulnerability.

Peter Aird, London

What about cyclists' behaviour with pedestrians? Pedestrians have no protection against the rogue cyclists who ride on the pavement, jump red lights, ignore zebra crossings and go down one-way roads the wrong way. The cry is always 'poor cyclists'. What about 'poor pedestrians'?

Jan Jenner, Surbiton

I must admit to a few isolated instances of red-light jumping on my ride into work. I only ever do this at around 08:00 on a Sunday morning. It annoys me when other cyclists jump red lights with total disregard for everyone and everything. What are these people thinking, wearing headphones and listening to music whilst cycling through rush-hour traffic? They are truly a menace as they're not listening and they don't even look around themselves when they decide to swerve out in front of me or other traffic. Headphones/earbuds and hands-free sets should definitely be against the law, and the prohibition actively enforced.

Nthaniel Browne, Southampton

I have a theory, unproved and perhaps unprovable, that there is a particular type of competitive and aggressive attitude to road use that is uniquely British. It affects both cyclists and motorists here, but less so in other countries, not all of which have the much-vaunted infrastructure of Holland or Germany. The gentle pace of Dutch cycling would be unacceptable to many Brit cyclists who do not feel that they are making decent progress at anything less than 20mph, easily attainably on most modern bikes on the level without being Tour de France fit. The Italians, who have a healthy cycle racing culture and whose drivers are largely considered lunatic, seem to rub along with each other on their roads happily enough.

John Richards, Cardiff

Cycle paths are the answer. Keeps drivers and bikers apart.

Bill Mcleod, Cape Town, South Africa

I used to commute in and out of Birmingham and my experiences were similar to those described here. I was once deliberately knocked off my bike by a motorist. I got back on my bike and confronted him and he laughed in my face. I took his number plate and went to the police station that evening. I gave them a statement of the event, and the police responded by saying "...and what do you want us to do about it" - seemingly confused that I thought that it was a problem. Our lives are put at risk because people don't want to wait for us to get out of their way, or take issue with the fact we are there at all - the worst part is there are no consequences for them. It was a frightening experience, and one that I hope to never have again.

Jack Nelson, Smethwick

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