Sunday 22 May 2022

Cyclists should allow cars to overtake


I spent a part of my childhood living in the Highlands. Many of the roads were much worse then. I learned as a passenger from the back seat how to use passing places. One of the key lessons was to allow overtaking. The other was not to be selfish. If all road users learned these lessons wherever they are we would all be safer and calmer.

I believe in being courteous on the road and thinking about the needs and safety of everyone we meet. If I see someone trying to get out of a side road my tendency is to stop and let them if it is at all possible to do so. This isn’t because I am being particularly virtuous. I think driving is safer for me if I am courteous to other road users.

It's also necessary to think of the safety of others using the roads especially if they make a mistake. People frequently overtake when it is dangerous to do so, but it’s possible to lessen the danger by allowing space to cut in or by slowing down to help someone who has misjudged the possibility of overtaking. It’s in the self-interest of all of us to do everything we can to avoid accidents.

I learned while at university that riding a bike was particularly dangerous. In Cambridge everyone rides a bike and students see it as an essential part of the experience. But Cambridge is a particularly dangerous place to cycle with narrow roads and ditches full of water at the side of many roads. I used to warn new students to get to know the place before riding a bike, but they usually ignored the advice. Deaths were quite common.

Many car accidents are survivable, but cyclists and motorcyclists will frequently be killed while the driver of the car or lorry that hits them survives. It is right therefore that car and lorry drivers should be particularly aware of the safety needs of pedestrians, horses, bikes and motorbikes. We will probably survive a collision, they most likely will not.

Every road user has an equal right to be there, but we all need to be realistic about our behaviour and we all need to think about each other’s needs. A balance is needed and I’m afraid some users are getting the balance wrong.

Thirty years ago, bicycles were almost exclusively used for short journeys. People would ride to work or sometimes a few miles into the countryside. As a child I never saw cyclists in the Highlands making long journeys. The roads were unsuitable and the mountains too large. But since then, the number of cyclists has increased massively.

This hobby does not appeal to me, but obviously people have a perfect right to enjoy the countryside as they please. But what they do not have the right to do I believe is to deliberately obstruct other road users.

Driving round Scotland, I find that the vast majority of cyclists are courteous and thoughtful about other users. The Highway code says that they have the right to ride in groups or to ride in the middle of the road or to ride two abreast, but most cyclists will adjust how they are riding if they see that a car wants to overtake.

Most cars too are patient. No one sensible wants to get into a dispute with another road user. I have not witnessed cars beeping their horns or drivers shouting even when people riding two abreast fail to let people pass.

But there is clearly a contradiction in the advice given by the police on single track roads to allow overtaking and the view of many cyclists that they are perfectly within their rights on narrow roads to ride in such a way that it is impossible for others to overtake for as long as they please.

A while ago I tweeted about this and received a response from a police force questioning my driving ability and whether I ought to have a licence. But a free society allows people to question the laws and rules that govern the use of roads. It is perfectly justified to for instance think that the speed limit ought to be eighty miles an hour while obeying the actual one. It is equally permissible to question the rule that cyclists ought to be allowed to ride two abreast whenever they see fit. Of course, I have to follow rules and obey laws I disagree with, but it is the mark of a totalitarian society that does not even allow me to doubt the wisdom of these laws.

But this is the mark of modern policing. It has become authoritarian about issues such as homosexuality, transgender and lockdown rules, so that it requires not merely that people obey the law, but that they agree with it. While obeying the law it ought to be possible for me to think that homosexuality is sinful and that it is impossible for a man to become a woman. But this is no longer the case on a range of issues. It is now necessary to remain silent lest the police object to my thoughts and find them hateful. But there is a phrase for such a police force. It is “thought police”.

I think that allowing cyclists to ride in groups or two abreast is dangerous not merely for other vehicles, but for the cyclists themselves. The reason that the police demand that users of single-track roads allow overtaking is not merely that failing to do so will be frustrating for other users, but that it will cause accidents. If you hold up the local fisherman who needs to catch the tide long enough, he will take the first opportunity that presents itself to overtake you even if the road is only just wide enough and he can only just see far enough ahead. Of course, he should wait patiently as his chance to get his boat out fades. So too we should all wait patiently as we miss appointments or are late for work because Extinction Rebellion has blocked the road or cyclists are riding two abreast, but it is human nature to be impatient.

It is rarely a problem passing cyclists in a car, unless they deliberately set out to obstruct and this unfortunately is happening more and more frequently. Suddenly on a main road the traffic slows to a crawl. What has happened? The traffic jam stretches back hundreds of yards. Instead of going seventy everyone is going ten miles an hour. We edge forward, wondering what can be holding us up. Eventually it becomes clear. Two cyclists riding two abreast have caused the jam. No one beeps at them. No one remonstrates. Everyone waits on this rather twisty road for a place where it is safe to pass. If the cyclists had just moved to single file, it would have been easy to pass them, but because they take up nearly the whole of one lane it is difficult. But why should the rule for single track roads not apply on a fairly narrow two-lane road?

The problem with the Highway Code rule about riding two abreast is that certain cyclists view it as allowing them to ride two abreast whenever they please and no matter how many other road users they obstruct. It is as if they see it as their purpose to obstruct.

As the law stands two cyclists have a perfect right to behave in this way, but there is also a moral law. They are being selfish.  We know that drivers sometimes overtake when it is unsafe to do so. They do this because they are frustrated. Sometimes when they do this, they have an accident and sometimes someone gets killed. Everyone ought to wait patiently behind the two cyclists even if their riding two abreast means that no one can overtake ever. This is the police advice in this situation. But we all know that eventually a car driver will take a chance.

So, what do I do when I come across two cyclists riding two abreast in such a way that it prevents me overtaking?

1 I beep at them risking a confrontation.

2 I wait patiently until a sufficiently empty stretch of road is visible even if that means waiting an hour.

3 I overtake when I think it’s probably safe to do so, but I’m not 100% sure.

In this situation drivers frankly have to take a chance or else the traffic jam will stretch all the way from Inverness to Wick. Suddenly you see a stretch of road ahead. It looks just about long enough. You make it and breathe a sigh of relief. But one day you won’t make it, or else someone else in the traffic jam will discover a diminishing stretch of road with car speeding towards them from just round the corner.

No doubt the two cyclists will feel virtuous as they pass two abreast the mangled wrecks.  We didn’t do anything wrong. It was safer for us to ride two abreast because it made us more visible. We had no obligation to move to single file, because we can ride two abreast whenever we judge that it is safer for us to do so and we judge it to be safer always. The police will agree with the virtuous cyclists and tut-tut at the folly of car drivers.

Pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists horses and herds of cattle should be able to use the roads as safely as cars and lorries, but if I suddenly found that my car was going ten miles an hour due to an engine fault and I saw that others wanted to pass I would pull into the first layby I saw out of politeness and out of concern for the safety of other road users and also because I was brought up on roads where there is an obligation to allow overtaking.  

Most cyclists get this, but some I’m afraid set out deliberately to obstruct as many wicked cars as they possibly can.