A cyclist taking part in the 90-mile Velothon Wales in June suffered serious leg injuries when he came off his bike at 30mph after riding over drawing pins that had been deliberately strewn across the road on a downhill stretch seemingly chosen to cause the most carnage.
In July, police in Brighton issued warnings about wires strung between trees in Coldean Woods, a popular woodland bike track, after cyclists reported spotting the wires on two separate sections. Earlier in the month, a cyclist in Dorset suffered cuts after hitting 15 individual strands of fishing line strung across a cycle path in a country park.
Fortunately, the threats from these types of malicious incidents are comparatively rare. The dangers posed by heavy goods vehicles alone are a far greater threat to cyclists. But why has this apparent backlash against cyclists become so personal? How does someone make the leap from muttering abuse from behind their wheel to stringing wire up between trees hoping to decapitate passing riders?
Cycling safety campaigners highlight how the tone of the debate around cycling has become increasingly polarised and venomous. Some have suggested that such incidents are linked to a public and media narrative in which cyclists are constantly demonised as serial law-breakers who supposedly love nothing more than dressing up in lycra, jumping red lights and riding on the pavement terrorising pedestrians.
Bikes are “Frivolous”
There is seemingly no end to the anti-cyclist vitriol so often dressed up as balanced journalism published in print and online calling for cyclists to be ‘banned’ from Britain’s roads.
Whether it’s because cyclists occasionally eat couscous for lunch, wear “pompous little pointy plastic hats,” or simply don’t belong on the road because they don’t pay the mythical ‘road tax’, the message is clear; cyclists are a menace to society.
Dr Rachel Aldred, a sociologist at Westminster University, suggests that cyclists in Britain so often get victimised because, unlike in Denmark and the Netherlands, bikes are seen as “frivolous” and have no place in the serious and adult environment of the road. “It’s as if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing on the roads, almost like you’re playing in the street and getting in the way of the traffic, like you’re a child.”
“There’s also this dual way you can be stigmatised as a cyclist – it was historically seen as something for people with no choice, but now it’s seen as something for people who have a choice. It’s a leisure or play thing that they shouldn’t be doing in this inappropriate place.”
Dr Ian Walker, a psychologist at Bath University, told The Guardian newspaper that the debate around cycling could be compared with the historical treatment of so-called ‘societal out-groups’ “What you see in discourses about cycling is the absolute classic 1960s and 1970s social psychology of prejudice. It’s exactly those things that used to be done about minority ethnic groups and so on – the overgeneralisation of negative traits, under-representation of negative behaviours by one’s own group, that kind of thing. It’s just textbook prejudiced behaviour.”
A perceived lack of respect for the rules of the road is often cited as one of the main gripes motorists have against cyclists. Although the average cyclist is no more inclined to break the law as the average motorist, cyclists claim that a rider spinning through a red light right in front of queuing traffic for example is far more conspicuous than a driver edging past 20mph in a residential street.
Dr Tom Stafford, a psychology lecturer at the University of Sheffield theorises that “motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.” Drivers stuck in traffic have all the time in the world to stew over a cyclist breaking rules they themselves have to follow, and it is this widely mentioned sense of frustration felt by motorists upon witnessing cyclists undertaking on the inside, jumping red lights, or weaving in and out of stationary traffic, that spawns so much antipathy.
"The very fact that cyclists are able to filter through traffic grates on many motorists and they take that out on cyclists," says cycling journalist Carlton Reid. Growing levels of bad feeling between cyclists and motorists breed increased aggression in the minority of both camps, perpetuating the apparent war of attrition between the two.
Smile - You’re on Camera
When a Norfolk driver tweeted "Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier. I have right of way - he doesn't even pay road tax!" after she struck a rider on the 100-mile Boudicca Sportive ride in Norfolk in 2013, the ensuing uproar exemplified the growing social media backlash often taken against drivers who are seen to have threatened or endangered the lives of cyclists.
Many cyclists now routinely wear helmet cameras to record such incidents to identify those guilty of dangerous driving. Road rage footage involving heated altercations between cyclists and drivers frequently appears on sites such as YouTube complete with license plates in view and full audio commentary.
When such videos are posted online, the consequences for those involved can often be far more severe than if the matter simply went before a court. When helmet cam footage of a road rage incident involving a driver in Richmond, South West London, went viral, the video sparked outcry on social networks along with calls for a boycott of the identified driver’s chain of coffee shops.
Some argue that the presence of helmet cameras often inflames the situation and cyclists have been accused of goading already enraged motorists into more incriminating behaviour. Both motoring and cycle safety groups agree that filming incidents between cyclists and drivers can sometimes escalate minor disagreements into full-blown physical confrontations.
There is no doubt that the explosion in the number of people taking to two wheels over the last 10 years has completely altered the dynamic of driving on Britain’s roads but it is important to remember that cyclists and drivers are often the very same people. While there is clearly bad behaviour from both sides, cyclists argue that it is a totally unequal relationship.
Referring to the so-called on-going ‘war’ between drivers and cyclists, Olympic track cycling champion, Chris Boardman said: “You’ve got 2% of vulnerable road users versus 98% in two tonnes of steel. How can you possibly have a war? I think that’s called a massacre. What could a cyclist possibly do to somebody in a car?”
It seems that the only weapon cyclists have in their arsenal is to publicly shame drivers for their actions.
Unfortunately, the threat to portray a motorist as the next Ronnie Pickering is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent that red mist from getting the better of them.
Oliver Jeffcott is a personal injury solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.
Oliver is a keen cyclist who has written extensively on cycling and road safety for numerous national publications.
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