So why have we this apparent antipathy between motorists and cyclists? Well, I have my own pet theories which are shamelessly offered here without any of the usual impediments such as scientific proof or historic accuracy.
Let’s make one thing clear right from the start: It is only a minority, on both sides, which is engaged in this mutual enmity. Likewise, it is only a minority of cyclists who habitually treat the rules of the road and other road users with an arrogant disdain and it is only a minority of drivers who behave badly towards cyclists – so there is absolutely no rational justification for a wholesale condemnation of one group by the other.
It seems to me that the root of the problem goes back to a time, perhaps 50-60 years ago, when there were far more bicycles in everyday use and also far fewer motor vehicles, and especially private cars. It is easy to forget, even for those of us who lived through those days, that in the 1950s you could not take it for granted that the average British household owned a car. Indeed it would be interesting to see reliable data to show the order in which an average family in the UK acquired a telephone, television, washing machine, refrigerator and car – my guess is that most of these would have been absent from the average British home at the start of the 1950s. Bicycles were numerous throughout the 1950s and even then the car was not necessarily the next step as families and individuals experienced increasing prosperity. Motorcycles had been popular for decades already and this continued. Many families chose a motorcycle and sidecar as the next affordable mode of transport before succumbing to the greater comfort of a car and while this was happening well before the Second World War it continued well into the 1950s. Then there were motor-assisted bicycles and mopeds, and motor scooters. Then along came the Mini (no, not the skirt, the car) to catch the imagination of the public and especially of the trendy younger set. The world of two-wheeled transport was never seen in the same light again, until recently that is.
So what has changed? It is stating the obvious but I will anyway and in no particular order: 1/ The global warming debate has persuaded a lot of people to give up burning so much fossil fuel and start using some pedal power. 2/ At last we have woken up to the fact that the cost of fuel is high and likely to rise further long-term. So pedal and save money. 3/ There also appears to be a growing awareness that modern lifestyles involve too high a concentration of calories and not enough physical exercise. So eat less, save on gym fees (and food) and buy a bike.
Bikes had been frightening the horses in some numbers well before cars came along. And, as I have indicated above, both bikes and cars were around in considerable numbers without any particular trouble between cyclists and motorists even when cars were increasing in numbers and bicycles were about to decline. Prosperity has made cars available to the overwhelming majority of the population during the past half century but bicycles have never died out, far from it. What is dying out is that generation of motorists who rode bicycles in their youth and who then spent the early part of their motoring career sharing the road with cyclists and thinking nothing of it. That generation never questioned the right of cyclists to be on the road, rarely failed to treat them with due consideration and while I have no doubt that both parties were well able to engage in a “full and frank discussion” when either made a daft move on the road, I am sure that such occasions were scarce and there was certainly none of this nasty modern aggression which seems to be all too ready to spread its poison at the slightest provocation.
The problem now is that too many drivers of motor vehicles have little or no experience of cycling and have never been accustomed to dealing with many cyclists as a normal, everyday occurrence. At best they are uncomfortable in the vicinity of cyclists and at worst a bit fearful, seeing cyclists as wobbly and unpredictable and not quite in control and liable to fall off any moment. It all arises from a failure to understand cycling. Fortunately this applies to only a minority of drivers and we can hope that they will improve with experience.
Others seem to regard cyclists as oddities that shouldn’t be there rather than fellow road users with equal rights to the road. Their perverse attitute may be due in part to the notion that because cyclists don’t pay road tax and don’t have to pass a test, we are not entitled to be on the road. In these cases it’s called ignorance. Ignorance of recent history and (why am I not surprised?) ignorance of the very book that they were required to study in order to acquire a driving licence, namely The Highway Code. I know it’s not a perfect book but it is not particularly complicated either and there are lots of short words and lots of pictures – and there is no excuse for pretending that cyclists are not supposed to be there; that is not just ignorance, it’s stupidity.
Then there is the third group of drivers, those who take all other road users in their stride, cyclists included and who wouldn’t have any particular views about cyclists one way or the other were it not for the incidents or even accidents that have come their way involving cyclists. Maybe the cyclist was in the wrong, maybe not. It’s the blame game. We all do it. Have a bit of a run-in with a taxi driver or a bus driver and, suddenly, all taxi drivers or bus drivers are sub-human.
Needless to say I condemn those cyclists who give us all a bad name by deliberately breaking the rules, whether they are commuting cyclists and others who ought to know better than jumping red lights, cycling on pavements, weaving around in slow-moving traffic etc. These people would do well to remember that most of the Highway Code applies to them, not just the few pages addressed to cyclists. As for those even worse offenders who race around city streets in gangs regardless of other traffic and with a general air of recklessness, passing on the wrong side of keep left bollards, unpredictably cutting across oncoming traffic, cycling on pavements, jumping red lights, cycling against the flow of traffic, on the wrong side of the road, etc. I suppose one day even they might grow up.
Perhaps it might defuse the situation a bit if we all remember that there are such things as genuine mistakes and we all make them. A bit more courtesy on the road would go a long way – remembering to acknowledge the driver who slows down or gives way rather than just accepting it with the attitude “well, he didn’t have any choice did he?” You lose nothing by giving a friendly smile or wave. It is the person who cannot respond to such a gesture who is the real loser.