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10 Things cyclists wish drivers understood

10 Things cyclists wish drivers understood

With a bit more empathy and understanding, we'd all be happier and safer sharing the roads. Here are 10 key points for drivers.

Sustrans’ Bike Life 2017, the UK’s biggest assessment of cycling in cities, reveals four in five people (78%) want more protected bike routes built to make cycling safer, even when this could mean less space for other road traffic.

The Bike Life study is run every two years by cycling and walking charity Sustrans and seven major cities: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Greater Manchester and Newcastle. Inspired by the Copenhagen Bicycle Account, it looks at progress across infrastructure, travel habits, public attitude, and the wider impact of cycling.

Bike Life shows that most people living in these cities think cycling is a good thing. In fact, out of the thousands of residents interviewed, 64% said they would cycle more if on-road cycle routes physically separated from traffic and pedestrians were available. What’s more, over two-thirds think their city would be a better place to live and work if more people took up cycling.

So it seems the biggest obstacle we face to getting more people on their bikes is the implicit danger of sharing the road with motorists and riding a bicycle in traffic.

Animosity on the roads between cyclists and motorists leads to dangerous driving and injury. Cyclists often hear the same things from drivers so here are 10 key points for drivers that may help them understand cyclists more and make sharing the roads with them that bit safer.

1. We're not meant to ride close to the kerb

Cycling and motoring organisations alike advise cyclists to ride a good distance out from the kerb. In certain situations, to stop drivers trying to squeeze past when there isn't room to overtake safely, cyclists will 'take the lane'. That means riding in the centre of the lane. It's not an attempt to wind you up. We're trying to get to our destination safely. We're not in the way of traffic riding like this. We are traffic! If you overtake like the Highway Code says, it won't make any difference if a cyclist takes the lane or not.

Cycling Kerb

2. Bike paths are optional

There's no obligation for cyclists to use cycle lanes (on road) or cycle tracks (separate from the carriageway), just as there's no obligation for drivers to use motorways, which were built for them. That's just as well: some bike paths aren't fit for purpose. Cycle lanes can lure you into the gutter or the dangerous edge of roundabouts. Cycle tracks can be narrow, obstructed with street furniture (or parked cars!), or shared with pedestrians. Almost every cycle track gives way to every road it intersects, making progress slow. Where cycle facilities help our journey, we'll use them. Let's both ask the council to provide some good ones. 

Having said that, motorists must remember there is a penalty for driving in a cycle lane. You can face fines of up to £130 for straying into cycle lanes. You might think this is excessive, but too many lives have been lost already from driving like this, so there has to be stringent measures in place to discourage it.

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3. We do pay for the roads

It's a myth that 'road tax' pays for the roads. Roads are paid for out of general and local taxation, not Vehicle Excise Duty. Any cyclist who pays tax pays for the roads. As it happens, most adult cyclists in the UK have a car too.

4. Sometimes we wobble or swerve

Another reason to give us room on the road is that sometimes we have no choice but to wobble or swerve. A bike has to be balanced and won't always travel in a perfectly straight line. A sudden gust of wind, whether it's a crosswind or the backdraft of a vehicle passing too close, can upset a cyclist's steering. A pothole in our path might make us crash if we don't jink around it.

5. We're not telepathic

Any road user could say this, and cyclists are no different. Please, let's just communicate with each other. Don't force us to guess: use your indicators. (On a roundabout, by the way, that means signalling left before your exit, not continuing to indicate right.) When you're stepping out of a car that's stopped on the road, check behind before opening your car door. Too many cyclists have been 'doored'. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre.


6. We're moving faster than you think

There probably isn't time for you to pull out of that side road when we're coming towards you on the main road. There definitely isn't time for you to overtake us, brake, and turn left into a side road. Cyclists move faster than you think. Most of us commuting to work can comfortably do 15mph and fitter cyclists on road bikes can cruise at 20mph. Downhill we might be travelling at 40mph or more. Factor in this speed. If you wouldn't attempt a manoeuvre when another car is that close, it's probably not safe to attempt it when a cyclist is that close. You're gambling with our safety.

7. Anger is often fear

It's frustrating when you're driving, and someone foolishly pulls out on you or cuts you up. Maybe you blare the horn to remonstrate. Imagine what it's like when what's at stake isn't a dented bumper and your no-claims bonus but the very real risk that you'll be heading to hospital in ambulance. In this high-risk situation, your body dumps adrenaline into your system, ready for fight or flight. That's where a cyclist's swearing and the gesticulating comes from. That flash of anger? It's not road rage: it's fear.

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8. Close passes are dangerous

Highway Code Rule 163 tells drivers to 'give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car'. Horse riders tend to be given space, with drivers passing wide and slow. Cyclists are often passed by cars close enough to touch… with an elbow. This is dangerous: one wobble by us or further misjudgement by you and we're on the tarmac. It's also very intimidating. To any driver who thinks it's safe, try this: go to a railway station and stand inside the yellow line at the platform edge when a high-speed train is passing through. That's what it's like when someone in a car passes too close.

9. That cyclist who annoyed you? We're not them

Some road users are idiots. Some of those idiots drive cars, some of them ride bikes. It probably was annoying when you saw that cyclist jumping a red light. It's equally annoying, with more serious potential consequences for others, when drivers exceed the speed limit. But not all cyclists jump red lights and not all drivers speed. Extrapolating from one bad apple creates an antagonistic us-and-them attitude that helps no one. Let us agree that bad road users are bad road users and do our best not to be one.

10. It's other drivers that slow you down

Waiting 10 seconds to overtake a cyclist will make no detectable impact on your journey time. Even a whole minute sitting behind us at 15mph won't make you late – unless you left home late. What really slows you down is sitting stationary or near stationary in queues of other cars, when lots of other drivers (other drivers just like you!) are trying to funnel through a limited amount of road space. It might feel frustrating when cyclists blithely filter past, but every cyclist who does this instead of driving is one car fewer in the queue. Cyclists reduce traffic jams.

Cycle to Work gif

That’s just about the most important ten things that cyclists wish were taught in driving lessons, speed awareness courses, even in the national curriculum! We’ve made our case but what about the questions we often face from motorists? We’re going to cover some of the classics:

Why don’t cyclists…?

…get off the pavement?

It might be because: a) it's a shared-used path; or b) the cyclist considers the road there unsafe. Shared-used paths aren't always obvious; sometimes there's nothing more than an occasional blue sign to indicate it's intended for cyclists too. The safety issue is trickier. It is against the law, and any adult cyclist lacking the confidence to cycle on the road ought to get some cycle training. But no one expects young children to ride on the road. And if the choice is between, say, a busy dual carriageway or a quiet footpath alongside it, many adults would choose the path. Police discretion is therefore a useful tool when it comes to issuing Fixed Penalty Notices for pavement cycling. 

…wait in the queue like me?

cyclists queuing

Because filtering through traffic is legal and saves time. Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) for cyclists are so common because highway engineers endorse filtering. Filtering lets cyclists get to the head of the queue, so that they can get through the junction before being overtaken. This reduces the risk of accidents. What cyclists are not allowed to do is wait in front of the stop line, so if there's no ASL you'll need to wait at least one vehicle back.

 …need a licence and a number plate?

Because a bicycle licence would be like the old 37 ½ pence dog licence that was abolished: something that would cost more money to implement than it would bring in in revenue, to no real effect. And because cyclists, like pedestrians, can be identified by their faces, unlike drivers who are hidden by their vehicles. Cycling training is excellent but a mandatory test would reduce cycling levels, particularly among children. Broadly speaking, you need a licence to do things that are potentially dangerous to others or involve going onto private property. So, licences are required for cars, firearms, or fishing in someone's pond. They're not required for pedestrians or cyclists.

…wear a helmet?

Because it's not a legal requirement in the UK, unlike you’re riding a motorcycle. Many do anyway. That's the short answer. The long one opens a Pandora's box of exclamation-ridden claims, counter claims and accusations. Helmets do offer some head protection but you're approximately as likely to require such protection while driving, walking, or stepping out of the shower. Cycling organisations in the UK – British Cycling, Cycling UK, and the London Cycling Campaign – all endorse the legal position: the right of the individual to choose to wear a helmet or not.

 …have insurance?

Because it's not a legal requirement. On a national level, uninsured cyclists are not a significant problem – unlike the million or so uninsured drivers. Like pedestrians, who are also not obliged to have insurance, cyclists have a limited capacity to cause harm. Many cyclists nevertheless do have third-party insurance, either via their home insurance policies or through membership of a cycling organisation. Given how much time you'll spend on your bike as a cycle commuter, third-party insurance is well worth having. Do look into it.

…buy a car?

Because you've already got one? Because you don't want one for travelling five miles to work? For short urban journeys, a bike is often quicker than a car. It's much cheaper. And it's healthier – for you and for everyone else, because you get daily exercise and you don't cause road deaths, air pollution, traffic jams, or noise pollution. Considering the major reason that people choose not to cycle is because of dangerous driving and motorists, why is that cyclists are always on trial?

…cycle in single file?

Because cycling side-by-side is more sociable and isn't against the law. The Highway Code (Rule 66) says: 'never ride more than two abreast'. Given that two cyclists abreast take up less space than a car, it won't affect drivers who overtake in accordance with the Highway Code; these drivers will already be on the other side of the road. A group of cyclists riding side by side can be easier to overtake than a long line in single file, as it will take half as long to pass them. That said, there are circumstances such as busy roads where it's courteous for cyclists to switch to single file.

Riding Bikes Side by Side

To expand on the last question, we think it’s time to clear up some of the furore around riding two abreast. People often ask, “can cyclists ride side by side”? And the answer is an overwhelming yes. Not only are cyclists allowed to ride two abreast, it’s safer for them to do so when riding in a group.

A video starring Chris Boardman, explaining why it’s okay for cyclists to ride two abreast has gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and Vimeo. The video, titled Side by Side, rule 163 of the Highway Code: that cyclists should be given as much room as motor vehicles when being overtaken. Among supporters for the clips, which also feature master driving instructor Blaine Walsh, are motoring organisations, and there are hopes that they will be adopted as official road safety videos by the Department for Transport.

Olympian and British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman said the popularity of the video shows “a genuine desire for a culture of mutual respect on our roads to thrive”.

He said: “The response so far has been extremely encouraging. Our aim was to make people more aware of rule 163 of the Highway Code. Getting more people on their bikes will have a series of benefits for this country and ensuring that the roads are safe places for cyclists is a crucial step towards this.”

So, there we have it. We do not claim that cyclists are angels and that we’re always in the right but there are mistruths and misunderstandings all over the place when it comes to cycling on the road. If more motorists took the time to understand what we’ve said above and accept it, we could all be much safer. More importantly, we could encourage more people to get on their bikes as part of a healthy lifestyle that also reduces our pollution levels. But most of all, although we may have sounded indignant in this, let’s get along! Let’s find some common ground, give each other space and co-exist on the roads.

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