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Why we need to stop the fake war between car drivers and cyclists

By Kate Chambers // BBC The Social contributor // 13 July 2021

During the pandemic, many more of us have taken to two wheels – journeys by bike have increased by 47% across Scotland since March 2020. And as we get out of our cars and on to Scotland’s roads, many more of us are seeing how cyclists are treated by other road users. No one enjoys confrontation. But for those of us who choose to get around by bike, there’s more chance of a negative altercation than a puncture!

The number of times I’ve had hassle from someone driving a vehicle – whether that’s abuse shouted from windows, threatening behaviour or close-calls with drivers not giving me enough space.

Drivers... you ok, hun?

Why we need to stop the fake war between car drivers and cyclists.

If it were up to me, I would avoid the road completely. I much prefer journeys along cycle pathways or on segregated cycle lanes, but the reality is that the cycling infrastructure in Scotland isn’t up to scratch. Existing paths take you on detours, others aren’t maintained properly and can be covered in glass, potholes and other delights.

Despite my reluctance, I find myself cycling on busy roads most of the time... and I can’t help noticing how angry and frustrated many drivers are. As I struggle up a never-ending hill, I find myself genuinely wondering, ‘What are drivers so upset about?’.

The thing is, I am a driver and a cyclist (yes, you can be both). And when I drive, I am amazed at how society is designed to make life easier for drivers. Our entire infrastructure is focused on making things more pleasant for people in private vehicles: vast car parks taking up valuable space in our cities, the growing sprawl of “drive-thru” restaurants. We’ve even got drive-in cinemas now. Despite the roadworks and the potholes, there’s no denying that it’s a cars’ world.

So why are drivers raging? 60% of UK drivers say they see a greater number of road-rage incidents than they did 10 years ago, whilst 76% of drivers believe that motorists are ‘less patient today than they were in 2009’. And the pandemic has only heightened feelings of stress and anxiety for many.

The reality is that those feelings of frustration, anger or stress that are brought to the road are making life difficult and dangerous for vulnerable road users, those of us who want to walk and cycle.

Cycling has brought joy into my life and I want it to be something that everyone can enjoy whenever they want to. If I’m honest, the thing that frightens me most when I cycle is knowing that many drivers have negative attitudes towards people on bikes. Research has shown that drivers perceive cyclists to be more likely to abuse the rules of the road and behave more unpredictably than their fellow drivers.

Despite the lack of evidence for this, there is a strong dislike and distrust of bikes on roads.

Of course, people on bikes are not perfect. Some cyclists don’t always obey the rules of the road, some make mistakes: we are all human beings. I will hold my hands up and say that I have broken the rules and made mistakes – both as a driver and a cyclist. The difference is, when I make a mistake in my car, I can do a lot more damage.

If you’ve ever found yourself behind the wheel of your car, feeling an unholy rage towards a cyclist, ask yourself where that comes from? What exactly are you angry at?

Don’t get me wrong, I love riding my bike but sometimes, it’s hard. On the tough days, I become hyper-aware of my vulnerability on the road. It’s just me – all 5ft 4” of me – against tonnes of metal, whipping past at speed. And I know the risks. In 2019, there were 572 pedal cycle casualties in Scotland. I have been unfortunate enough to collide with cars and have seen the vulnerability in high definition. In 2016, I saw a man on a bike lose his life. He was hit by a driver, with me cycling just behind. Witnessing such a horrific scene, a part of me did not want to cycle again. But another part of me was more determined not to be frightened out of something I love. The roads are for all of us.

Approximately 71% of people in the UK do not cycle. So, it’s no surprise that research finds drivers have negative attitudes to people on bikes, and see them as an ‘out group’. If you don’t cycle, then it’s difficult to really know how it feels when a car passes you so closely you could touch it. A friend of mine once told me that she was “tempted to hit” a cyclist with her car because she was tired of being stuck behind them. It’s easy to dehumanise someone who is detached from you, but we are friends, family, children, parents, and we all have the right to use the road.

Many drivers admit to finding the experience of driving frustrating, yet we continue to allow car infrastructure to dominate, causing damage to our environment and our physical and mental health.

If you’ve ever found yourself behind the wheel of your car, feeling an unholy rage towards a cyclist, ask yourself where that comes from? What exactly are you angry at? No one likes being inconvenienced but is it worth risking another person’s life so that you can get to the shops a bit quicker?

The reality is that our country is moving towards more active travel, because it is better for the planet, better for our health and better for society. There are plans for investment in more cycle lanes, better maintenance, and behaviour change campaigns. In 2019, £60 million was committed by the Scottish Government to develop active travel infrastructure across Scotland. In our lifetime, there is going to be more space for people to walk, wheel, cycle, sit, shop, and play, which is exciting and potentially transformational. And since our current car-based society makes us all so raging anyway, this can only be a good thing, right?

In the meantime, hopefully we can be calmer and more considerate to each other when we use our shared roads. Oh! And if you just hate cyclists for no logical reason... oan yer bike pal!