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OPINION

Choosing the road less traveled

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There’s only one way to beat road rage – and it isn’t just shouting louder than the other guy

Road rage is a curious phenomenon. In our quietest, most reflective moments I hope we would all be prepared to admit that none of us is perfect – that we sometimes react to perceived poor road craft in a way that doesn’t show us in a very good light and which might even inflame any confrontational situation in which we happen to find ourselves.

When cyclists feel threatened by bad driving, more often than we care to admit it we shout and swear and gesticulate with the worst of them, justifying our uncharacteristic loutishness by saying that we are in fear of our lives in these situations. And of course that’s true – there’s nothing quite like a near-death experience with its unwanted rush of adrenaline to add a bit of an edge to your debating style.

What’s also true is that far too many motorists (and let’s not duck the fact that most of us are motorists too) get dreadfully wound up when they’re behind the wheel and do things that they – we – wouldn’t dream of doing anywhere else. We shout at strangers, we refuse to consider views other than our own, we threaten each other, we explode if our progress is impeded, we protect our place on the road with a rabid, disproportionate zeal. Most of the time, most of us do none of these things, of course, but it’s a pretty rare motorist who can truly claim to be innocent of all charges. I know I can’t.

With depressing regularity, things escalate to a ridiculous level. We all watched the recent YouTube clip of the cyclist’s altercation with everyone’s favourite Australian café chain owner and Landrover driver with a mixture of horror and barely concealed glee, our prejudices hardening by the second as we stared, slack jawed at the driver’s spittle-flecked lunacy. Many of us chose to downplay the role played in the drama by the cyclist himself. Or if we didn’t, we rationalized it with the old yes-but-we’re-not-endangering-anyone’s-life defence. It’s a good defence too, even if it doesn’t take any of the heat out of these volatile clashes.

It is mind-boggling that this titanic confrontation, which could so easily have ended in a serious assault and injury – perhaps even a jail sentence – stemmed from a moment’s misguided irritation triggered by someone not using a cycle path. Can you imagine such an explosive encounter stemming from something so trivial anywhere other than on the road? At the supermarket checkout, perhaps, when someone brings six items to the five-or-fewer queue? In the café, when someone beats you to the fairy cake you had your eye on? Hardly.

The only comparable scenario I can think of might be in a city centre pub at chucking out time on a Friday night when a pint is spilled, but that would be fuelled by industrial quantities of lager and shots. There is no such explanation for road rage.

So what does explain it? Is it cultural? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen any violent bike vs car encounters on French, Italian or Spanish roads and, let’s face it, they're hardly nationalities known for suppressing their feelings. Perhaps that’s the issue – perhaps us Brits are all so buttoned up for so much of the time that we need an outlet for our rage. But laughing boy in the Richmond Landrover was Australian so there goes that theory.

The only logical explanation I can think of is traffic congestion. My completely unscientific observation is that the emptier the road I’m using, the nicer other road users are. I’ve never felt safer than I did when I was cycling in the Massif Central a few years ago. On the odd occasion that I encountered cars (perhaps a dozen on a really busy day), drivers would toot (not BLARE) their horns and wave and smile as they passed, giving me as much space as the road allowed. But then they weren’t late; they weren’t being held up; they weren’t desperately cursing the moment they started this infernal journey…

So what do we do about it? I have no idea. In order for congestion to ease, the roads would have to become emptier, at which point we would flock back to them like the fools we are. We are so completely, pathetically and terminally in thrall to the motorcar that I can’t see this pattern ever changing.

So collectively, perhaps, we are doomed. But individually we have the power of choice. We can choose to not drive. We can choose to avoid the busiest roads at the busiest times – leave earlier; take the scenic route! We can choose to be courteous rather than combative.

Perhaps we can even choose, in those red-mist moments of inflamed passions and righteous fury, to remember that really we’re all the same. That crimson-cheeked loon you’re screaming at for being so wrong, so stupid and so dangerous really might as well be you.

Lifelong lover of most things cycling-related, from Moulton Mini adventures in the 70s to London bike messengering in the 80s, commuting in the 90s, mountain biking in the noughties and road cycling throughout. Editor of Simpson Magazine (www.simpsonmagazine.cc). 

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40 comments

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kitkat replied to ianrobo | 8 years ago
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ianrobo wrote:

make people resit driving tests every 10 years and attend driving awareness courses. Simple really. Stupid you can pass a test at 17 and not be tested again for 50 years when everything changes.

This AND

Making more in the driving test of how to pass slow moving road users. A lot of drivers will come up to a cyclist or horse without considering their overtake plan until they're on top of the person and then if something is on-coming it's about emergency manoeuvres

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atgni replied to kitkat | 8 years ago
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kitkat wrote:
ianrobo wrote:

make people resit driving tests every 10 years and attend driving awareness courses. Simple really. Stupid you can pass a test at 17 and not be tested again for 50 years when everything changes.

This AND

Making more in the driving test of how to pass slow moving road users. A lot of drivers will come up to a cyclist or horse without considering their overtake plan until they're on top of the person and then if something is on-coming it's about emergency manoeuvres

Odd that a first aid qualification is only valid for 3 years (potentially helping someone), but the driving licence (regularly causing first aid skills to be needed) only needs re-signing at 70ish not even a re-test then.

Seems relatively simple to get everyone to re-take the theory element for renewal of the photo card every 10 years. That way everyone might be up to date on highway code revisions.

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lolol | 8 years ago
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Definitely an education problem, there really should be a passing a cyclists safely part of the driving test.
I have recently thought that motorists are nervous about passing cyclists, they dont know what the right thing to do is, so they get all het up and blame the cyclist for putting them in the situation, bloody cyclists making me feel all nervous.

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giff77 replied to lolol | 8 years ago
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lolol wrote:

Definitely an education problem, there really should be a passing a cyclists safely part of the driving test.
I have recently thought that motorists are nervous about passing cyclists, they dont know what the right thing to do is, so they get all het up and blame the cyclist for putting them in the situation, bloody cyclists making me feel all nervous.

There was a column in the Glasgow Herald last week that a significant majority of motorists felt that their overtaking skills endangered themselves and other road users. Of the people questioned I think it was 85 % that felt this way. Many felt that they were unsure of when and where to make an overtake.

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alotronic replied to lolol | 8 years ago
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lolol wrote:

I have recently thought that motorists are nervous about passing cyclists, they dont know what the right thing to do is, so they get all het up and blame the cyclist for putting them in the situation, bloody cyclists making me feel all nervous.

There's a lot in this. Nerves. Adrenaline goes up <- errors and confrontation more likely. Specially when there are lines of vehicles and there is perceived pressure on to make a fast pass from other cars.

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sm | 8 years ago
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Great post Martin, nice to see some reason. Much comes down to education and perception. In this instance the driver perceived the cyclist to be running foul of the law. Education and training as part of the driving test would help. The rules of the road and how to overtake cyclists, two things we should never misjudge.

More here on why drivers rage against cyclists, we're simply not normal!
https://humancyclist.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/driver-cyclist-hate-war/

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Martin Thomas replied to sm | 8 years ago
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Thanks sm - that's also a fine blog post you link to. I'll take some time to wander around there and read some more of your stuff  1

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sm replied to Martin Thomas | 8 years ago
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Thanks Martin, glad you enjoyed it and happy reading!

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PhilRuss replied to sm | 8 years ago
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[[[[[[[ Perhaps the clue is in the name; "Road-rage"!! The name excuses the behaviour, legitimises it. (It's not the fault of the driver, it's the road conditions that are to blame...). If the twerp who coined that phrase ever invents "Shop-rage", "Plane-rage", "Rush-hour rage" or "Bus-queue rage", then those examples of infantile stupidity will become accepted too. And I bet it wasn't a cyclist that thought up such a wonderful cop-out.
P.R.

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fukawitribe replied to PhilRuss | 8 years ago
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PhilRuss wrote:

[[[[[[[ Perhaps the clue is in the name; "Road-rage"!! The name excuses the behaviour, legitimises it.

It's rage on the road, not with it.

PhilRuss wrote:

And I bet it wasn't a cyclist that thought up such a wonderful cop-out.
P.R.

I'm not so sure, it was Cerys Matthews wasn't it ?...

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/your-bike-charity-2261870

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