Cyclists vs Drivers

In 2013 I spent three months in the UK and rode my bike a lot. After having ridden in Paris, Rome and Naples - where traffic is heavy and the scooters and bikes make their way crazily, competently through it - I was appalled by how aggro British drivers were when it came to cyclist rights. In France and Italy it did not anger drivers when cyclists broke various laws, sometimes in the name of speed and sometimes in the name of safety, although most would not consider running a red light safe. I guess drivers there are used to seeing crazy stuff. Or perhaps the riders are more competent, hold their line, communicate and generally don’t do anything too unexpected. Hell, I don’t know what it was but I felt safer on the road in those big cities and even in Sofia than I did riding through central London. I wrote the following article after a particularly deadly two-week period for London cyclists in November 2013.


Six cyclists have been killed in London in 12 days. The outcry is as loud as it is toothless. An acquaintance posted some suggestions on his blog about how to improve rider safety. Most ideas avoid confronting the fact that this is war. Until riders accept it, and the fundamental attitude adjustment that goes with it, they will continue to make feel-good and fairly pointless gestures that do nothing to improve safety. I have other ideas.

Know Your Rights - and be willing to fight for them.

Ride assertively, confidently, which means competently so you better well learn. Take the lane. Riding in the gutter indicates you are willing to yield, it shows you have already yielded. You submit. It makes you prey.

When assertive is not enough be aggressive. The driver is operating a deadly weapon. You are not. The ONLY defense is offense. Be proactive. Be willing to educate a driver with physical force - because if he or she behaves contrary to the law and to your rights ignorance of said law or rights is no excuse. Educate him - or her.

Keep the speed differential low. If you are riding in a 30mph zone ride as close to 30mph as possible. If you can't then understand how the difference between your speed and the average speed of traffic must affect your actions, and the consequences of them. If you can't reduce the speed differential then improving your fitness will go a long way toward making you safer. And less of a target.

Hold your line. Be consistent. Communicate. You have a right to the road but that right is tied to the responsibility to be competent. And the responsibility to impede the flow of traffic as little as possible - however you choose to interpret and express that.

Ride in what ever way you believe makes riding safer for you. It's your ass that might get smoked so make decisions and take action according to what you believe is best for you in that moment. The admonitions or righteousness of others be damned. When I believe it is safer for me to jump a red light than to sit idle, with a foot down, in traffic, defenseless (because I have more options when I am moving) then I WILL run that light. If you want to shout or sing or have words because you think my actions affect you in a way that is of greater importance than my safety then have at it. Maybe we can educate each other.

The thesis that the illegal actions some riders take has a negative affect on the opinion motor vehicle operators have for cyclists only works if the same is true for car and truck drivers. When a car jumps a red light you (as a driver) don't instantly condemn all drivers you only shout epithets at that particular driver - and never at yourself when you are behind the wheel. No, the red light-jumping cyclist incurs driver wrath because he is not in their tribe. No cyclist is. All cyclists are targets because they are outsiders.

Motor vehicle drivers insist that cyclists should obey the law because drivers must, and do. This simply isn't true. Drivers hate cyclists because they break the law and get away with it. The fearful law-abider hates the cavalier outlaw because the outlaw represents what he has repressed in himself. All drivers are as free to break the law as cyclists and pedestrians. The majority don't because they are afraid of being caught. No one likes to confront his own lack of courage or liberty and it's often the messenger who suffers.

If you won't be assertive then take passive defensive measures. If you think lights are good then ride with lights. If hi-viz makes sense to you then wear it. If you believe a helmet could reduce the consequences of an accident wear one. But do not imagine that your defensive measures make you safe - or that they remove your obligation to ride competently. Or that they increase your rights. And don't start taking risk you can't manage just because your hi-vis, armored get-up makes you feel impervious to physics.

Don't use mirrors. Mirrors reduce your awareness to the size of the mirror glass. They trick you into believing you are more aware than you are - and that you can do something about what you see coming. Mirrors interfere with cyclist-driver communication: you know the driver is there but you have not indicated to the driver that you know he is there. Turn your head, make eye contact, communicate your intent and do all that while holding your line. And if you can't hold your line get off the road.

If you like riding to a soundtrack then by all means wear headphones and turn it up as loud as you choose to. Unless, of course, the presence of music makes you ride stupidly. If music prevents you from practicing aware, attentive and assertive riding then you shouldn't listen while you ride. If music does not negatively affect your competent cycling behavior then crank it. Car drivers are listening to music, talking on the phone and texting. They are operating deadly weapons. If one of them is going to smoke me I'm going down to a death metal soundtrack. And if I am beating the shit out of - excuse me, educating - an ignorant driver I want that same soundtrack. 

Finally, understand that the cyclist-driver relationship will NEVER be respectful. Sure, some drivers will respect you. When they do please acknowledge their behavior and thank them. This won't be too much of a burden because it won't happen often. Most drivers - at least the ones who actually see you and many don't - think you are a loser who doesn't earn enough money to buy a car, that you don't pay taxes or own property, that you are marginal and not fully participating in society. You are holding them back and they - the real contributors to the success of the economy - have the right to threaten you, nudge you, bump you, coerce you, and condemn you because you don't conform, nor could you possibly produce anything meaningful for society. They know this because you have chosen to ride an outdated, under-horsepowered vehicle that is more closely tied to recreation than to productivity.

I love the urban combat of riding a bike in the city. I treat it as war because I believe it is. In the last 12 months I have ridden in cities where respect for the cyclist is high (Paris) and in cities where it is lower than low (Sofia and Tel Aviv). I have ridden in London, Naples, Rome and Los Angeles. Every city has a special cyclist-driver character. If you try to impose your behavior on that you will lose. If you try to express rights without taking and defending them you will lose. If you want the Nanny State to make cycling-specific, protected lanes on which you may ride without concern for motor vehicle traffic you will be waiting a long fucking time. If you want to roll with the heavyweights you had better be heavyweight yourself or nimble enough and aware enough to avoid how the heavies throw their weight around. Every one of them is trying to kill you. The sooner you accept it and change your behavior to address it the sooner you will see that the campaign cyclists need is not one of toothless diplomacy. Frederick the Great's declaration that, "Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments" is worth remembering.

Because cyclists have no arms, and no teeth, all we can do is take responsibility for our individual safety ourselves - by whatever means necessary. And the best we can hope for is the benevolent intervention of a State-sponsored organization that does have the power to enforce legislation designed to cause social change. The sheep haven't fared so well in the past so I'll maintain my right to behave in whatever way I believe is best for my own security.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight