Writer Jon Ronson thinks the social media campaign against Jason Wells is an example of the kind of dangerous shaming he spent two years researching for his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. But he also thinks the failure of the judicial system to deal with road violence against cyclists is "a story that should be told".
In case you've been in an isolation tank for the last week, Jason Wells is the owner of the Brew chain of cafes in South London. He was recently fined £90 for a public order offence after an incident in which he passed a cyclist dangerously close. Wells then told the rider the presence of witnesses was the only reason he didn't launch a physical attack.
The rider, who has asked to be known just as Micheal, videoed the incident. Wells has a total meltdown, unleashing a tiurade of threats and abuse against a bike rider whose only offence was not to be narrow enough for Wells to avoid hitting him.
On Tuesday Ronson tweeted about the case:
A lengthy conversation followed between Ronson and various Twitter cyclists including me.
There was a lot more, and you can read it all for yourself on Ronson's Twitter page
Unarguably, the response on social media to Wells' action has been, shall we say, enthusiastic. Cyclists have spread the word about Wells' actions and encouraged people not to frequent his cafes, one of which has a bike repair service.
A boycott and campaign of negative publicity seems perfectly reasonable to me. Wells has a business that courts cyclists, but has displayed utter contempts for us.
As you can see from his comments, Ronson is concerned at the negative effects such a campaign of public shaming can have. He cites PR flack Justine Sacco who lost her job after getting on a plane and tweeting: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
In my opinion that was a joke about white privilege, but an easily misinterpreted one.
But there's a very big difference between Wells driving his big black car at a cyclist and an idiotic remark on Twitter.
I'm not generally a fan of the way mobs with virtual pitchforks and flaming torches assemble on social media about trivia. When pub landlord James Walker was the subject of Twitter ire over what was clearly a piss-take aimed at his friends I spoke to him and was convinced he was genuinely sorry.
Walker handled the situation well, responding to people who contacted him to have a go, apologising directly and explaining the background. He didn't fall silent and let things fester, while issuing a brief communication via a PR agency as Wells did.
Wells made it worse with his mealy-mouthed PR nonpology. He didn't apologise for hitting Michael, or for threatening to beat him up, he merely apologised for "any offence caused". It's the wording we've heard time and again from someone who is only sorry that they got caught.
Ronson is right on the money when he talks about "glee" in the response to Wells. After years of the police and judicial system failing to adequately punish those who endanger cyclists, here was someone we could hit back against directly.
As well as the #boycottbrew campaign on Twitter, TripAdvisor has been inundated with negative reviews of his cafes though according to the Evening Standard these have now been deleted. In the Q&A section, people are instead asking "I normally have toast for breakfast, but I understand the owner "eats cyclist for breakfast" can I ask, how do you cook your cyclists?" and "I cycle a lot to keep fit. Will you use foul language and threaten me?"
Brew Cafe's Facebook page is also stuffed with negative reiews and condemnation of Wells' behaviour.
None of this would be necessary if a number of things had happened differently. Firstly, of course, Wells could have simply waited until it was safe to overtake, rather than trying to squeeze his big black car into too small a gap.
Then, when Michael yelled at him, he could have simply apologised, instead of going off on a now-infamous threatening rant.
But more importantly, the police could have brought a more serious charge of at least careless driving. Dangerous driving would seem more reasonable. Actually hitting another road users seems to sensible people to meet that offence's standard, driving that's "far below the minimum acceptable standard expected of a competent and careful driver" and "obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous".
Michael says he was "disappointed with the fine, because I'm pretty sure [Wells] can afford it". Had Wells been dealt with properly by the law, I wonder if Michael might have kept the video to himself.
Several of us made the point to Jon Ronson that CPS and police failure to properly deal with motoring offences against cyclists was a large part of why torches and pitchforks were out.
Ronson's been there himself. Before he knew that Wells had been fined, Ronson tweeted: "I think the cyclist should have taken the footage to the police, not posted it on social media. However one time a driver was a lunatic to me on my bike and I went to the police and they couldn't have cared less."
That driver, Ronson said, "was fucking terrifying".
When it was pointed out just how common this was, Ronson replied:
I hope that means we'll see a Jon Ronson article about the issue of the system's disregard for road attacks on cyclists. I doubt anyone would read a whole book about it, but a well-researched story by a respected journalist would help push forward the campaign for justice on the roads.
: Cycle paths and the Highway Code
In the aftermath of this incident, I've seen claims that there's a speed limit for cyclists on cycle paths, and that the Highway Code recommends faster riders use the road and not cycle paths.
Both of those beliefs are wrong.
This misconception comes from a bit of proposed advice to cyclists mentioned on Bikehub's Cycling and the law page.
That page says "According to this advice issued by the Department of Transport, cyclists likely to be riding 18mph or faster should use roads not cycle-paths."
The provided link takes you to a notice that the page has been archived, and then refers you to the archived page.
It turns out that 'ride on the road if you're riding over 18mph' was never offical Department for Transport advice.
It was suggested, but not officially issued as advice, in a consultation exercise about a code of conduct for cyclists on cycle paths.
The archived DfT page says (my emphasis):
The following key messages are suggested as the basis for a code of conduct notice for cyclists. The code could be posted at points of entry and at intervals along the route. This will be especially useful when the facility is new.
Ride at a sensible speed for the situation and ensure you can stop in time. As a general rule, if you want to cycle quickly, say in excess of 18 mph/30 kph, then you should be riding on the road.
I have not been able to find any evidence that this was ever official government advice. It is definitely not in the Highway Code's Rules for Cyclists.