Loose cannons on roads

The war between cyclists and motorists is dragging on, with no sign of a solution. A cyclist writing to my local newspaper, the Norwich-based Eastern Daily Press, recently lamented the “daily slaughter of the roads” and added, with grammatical casualties mounting, that there was only one place for “environmentally and health-conscious cyclists” to ride to avoid this horrific no-man’s-land – the pavement, of course.

Sadly, this brings thousands of innocent civilians into danger, and there is nowhere for them to retreat to, however “environmentally and health conscious” they might be. So they may get mown down by loose cannons at any moment.

From what I have read, many cyclists think this a price worth paying for their own safety, despite the fact that there is no forced conscription into the ranks of cyclists: pedestrians, on the other hand, have no alternative but to walk. Unless they drive, of course, but you will find few cyclists keen on that idea.

The same writer, horrified that cyclists might be banned from the pavements (they are, actually, but no-one seems to care, least of all those who castigate motorists for not obeying the law) points out that “reckless driving by some motorists does not lead to all motorists being banned from the road”. No, but it messes them up through carpet-bombing city streets with road humps, ludicrously low speed limits and speed cameras in lucrative positions.

The average motorist is a pretty good driver, really, and unlikely to discharge his weapon in a threatening manner. He (or she) knows the appropriate speed to drive at for the conditions and pays pretty good attention to what is going on around him. Nevertheless he is, in the words of another EDP correspondent, a “scapegoat for the failings of others”. British soldiers abroad will know the feeling.

Much of the war is sustained by the use of spin. A cleric writing in the same edition of the EDP warns of death traps on rural roads and “speeding motorists with mobile phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and often also calming children in the back seats”. Thus the civilian far from the front line will assume that all motorists who exceed the speed limits are also criminally careless when driving: far from true, but a handy weapon of mass destruction.

Recent surveys have revealed that over 80% of drivers break the speed limit, which can be presented in two ways: either most drivers are habitually dangerous, or they all know the speed limits are unrealistically low. The same survey revealed that a quarter of those polled believed speed cameras could improve road safety – or, put another way, nearly three-quarters thought they couldn’t. I wonder which way the High Command will be wording its propaganda.

Meanwhile snipers continue taking potshots, and motorists are in defensive positions: from October, drivers who defend themselves against a motoring charge will have to pay the bulk of their costs, even if found not guilty. “This is like the way witches were tried in the Middle Ages,” said one commentator. To me it seems about as fair as the recent suggestion that when a cycle and a car were in collision, the motorist should always pay. Having seen the random progress of so many guerilla cyclists, I can see how this might be a useful piece of artillery.

But there are signs of a fightback. In Nottingham, in a rare employment of chemical warfare, Boots UK has threatened to move its entire car parking provision across the city boundary to avoid paying an “outrageous” proposed workplace parking levy. And there are more and more signs that speed camera camouflage tactics are getting exposed.

There is, sadly, a risk that spies being dropped into rural villages with radar guns are facing the ultimate penalty. “Catching people out will get people’s backs up,” said one. “It’s not very nice if you catch someone you know.”

Exactly. And if you didn’t think you were superior in some way, you wouldn’t be trying to catch them. Which would be much nicer.

If you want to, it is easy to make life difficult for inconsiderate road users without trying to inflict pain on people who simply prefer a different mode of transport. But when you start a war, it’s hard to stop it. The signs are that we will go on taking chunks out of people who are behaving in a perfectly reasonable and inoffensive way.