It wouldn’t even have registered

Cross-posted from the Near Miss Project.

Reading through some of the qualitative data, I am struck by the extent to which keeping an incident diary makes you see things differently. As one person comments:

‘It’s been really good thinking about it today. Most of what I’ve written wouldn’t even have registered with me on another day, as I have come to accept it as the way things are. I tend to only remark nowadays on the more unusual things.’

Recording near misses based on a specific day is hence likely to produce different results to recording ‘after the fact’ on an ad hoc basis. Without the prompt of a pre-planned day’s diary, people remember the aggressive incidents, the deliberate attempt to run them off the road. Those incidents are the ones that mean even confident, regular cyclists come into work shaking.

Of our nearly 5,000 incidents, around 200 include reference to deliberate aggression; around one in ten diarists experienced one or more incidents of this sort on their diary day. A relatively common experience is aggressive tailgating (revving, often honking, close behind a cyclist). Other examples include:

‘A van came towards us, round a bend, at speed, across the middle of the road. We were single-file and in the middle of our half of the road. He did not slow and shouted at us.’
‘Cyclists were trying to get to the front of the junction to turn left – driver pulled up on the right to go left and began shouting at cyclists to get out of the way for him.’
‘I was approaching a chicane, within 20m, travelling at 12-15mph; with the signage indicating that I had priority. Oncoming car pulled out, flashed his lights to full beam, ignored three “give way” signs on his side, and blasted his way through. I did a savage emergency stop – almost losing my back wheel from under me.’

As I’ve said, these are the examples that stand out because the people reporting felt that another road user (usually, but not always, a driver) was behaving in an actively hostile way. But over 95% of incidents don’t involve this. For example:

‘Was descending the hill and for most of the length a car followed uncomfortably close. There was little sign of impatience (I was doing the 20 mph speed limit) just seemed to be general ignorance or carelessness about following distances.’

The 95% are the incidents that many current regular cyclists have in a sense normalised – people need to write a diary just to uncover these things. These may be the things that you have to constantly forget, to cycle in the UK:

‘I think I was more aware of the hazards and irritations today because of the survey. Most of the things that annoy me have had worse examples in the past, which informs my perceptions of them.’
‘Though it may seem like I cycle completely annoyed by everything, I always enjoy it! I usually have around 5 incidents per day, perhaps as I was recording these I was a bit more aware of them.’
‘This was a typical day. I was watching carefully, but was surprised how many incidents I must normally “let go” without thinking about it. Clearly an innate anti-stress coping mechanism!’

Obviously, the 95% of incidents vary. There’s probably not much transport policy and planning can do about the person who spotted an ex-boyfriend and needed to speed up to avoid having to talk to him. Water voles are probably going to continue to be an occasional hazard on canal towpaths.

But a lot of the 95% are not incidents of this type. They’re more worrying: pointing to a casual disregard of the needs and safety of people cycling, and, also worrying, suggesting that to be a cyclist you almost have to expect this to happen and be ‘vigilant’ in trying to prevent it. Which doesn’t exactly help in making cycling a fun and easy mode for everyone, of all ages and abilities.

‘Today’s route probably comprises some 80-90% of all my cycling. So I know the route very well, and know where obstructions are likely to be, where drivers usually cut corners, come round blind bends too quickly, ignore stop signs, etc. This means I approach these hazards fore-warned and can take action to mitigate the dangers or at least can be ready to stop or manoeuvre as might be necessary. Even so, having four or five incidents like this over the length of the journey is hardly unusual.’

In my personal view, improving driver education can certainly play a role, and I hope the Near Miss Project can contribute to this, highlighting particularly problematic types of behaviour and its impact on people cycling. But – thought it pains me as an educator to say this – I don’t think most of what we learn comes from being ‘educated’. It comes from the broader cultures in which we live and learn about who matters, what to count, what our peers judge acceptable and unacceptable. Education and training’s part of this, but only a part. (We learn gender very young, as we see how adults treat us even while we’re toddlers).

The data to me also highlights the role of broader cultural problems about the status of cycling. These are not just located at the individual driver level. They’re systematically linked to, and reinforced by, the ways we traditionally ‘do’ policy, enforcement, funding, planning and infrastructure.

For example, poor provision for cycling has historically sent the message that cyclists are marginal, don’t matter, don’t need continuous, safe, comfortable and direct routes. I think one really important outcome of good infrastructure (like improvements in other areas) could be educational: upping the status of cycling, by making it clear to everyone from engineers to drivers that local political and policy leaders think cycling deserves money and roadspace. And crucially, infrastructural change is an area where local transport authorities can make a difference right now.

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One Response to It wouldn’t even have registered

  1. Pingback: Interview with Dr Rachel Aldred on increasing everyday cycling – the write-up | Unofficial Unsanctioned Women's UCI Cycling Blog

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