Drivers, drains, and brains

My route to college includes a road with a Z bend: sharp right followed immediately by a sharp left. That exact section of road also has a number of recessed drains probably about twenty metres apart. Therefore, even cyclists who don’t believe in the merits of vehicular cycling* have to move to a position in line with where motor traffic’s closest-to-the-kerb tyre would run.

On Thursday two car drivers overtook me on the turn, one giving an oncoming driver a near heart attack because overtaking on a blind bend is not a good idea. No accident, but a close call. What took the cake was that I joined a queue of waiting traffic at the T junction about thirty metres after the bends… right behind both cars that had overtaken me dangerously.

Now, I get that people are frustrated by cyclists slowing them down to a fraction of the speed they are capable of and allowed. What intrigues me is what foundational thinking framework is lodged in the mind of a driver that results in them making the split-second decision that overtaking the cyclist is worth the risk of one of the most dangerous types of collisions: head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. The situation Thursday highlighted the pointlessness of this risk: these drivers gained literally nothing. I don’t believe in overtaking traffic on the left, but it would have been my legal right to do so and to cross that intersection before them. As it was, I stayed in the queue of traffic, so they risked collision, injury, death for the sake of making a right turn at best thirty seconds before me.

There is no logic here, so what prompts such folly? I am convinced that dangerous road user behaviour doesn’t start with the moment in which poor decisions are made. Therefore, changing such behaviour will not start with addressing the moment in which poor decisions are made. The key lies in shifting the springboard from which these decisions originate. I believe also that this behaviour is most visible in road user interactions involving cyclists, but that the “bakermat” – the place of origin – of a lot of dangerous road user behaviour resulting in injury and death is the same.

Imagine if we could address that core, if we could shift the launch pad to direct decisions into a safer trajectory. It could save so many lives.

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*Vehicular cycling means you cycle as part of the traffic stream, placing yourself in line with other vehicles for visibility and predictability (our eyes are in the front of our heads, so cycling as close to the kerb as possible takes you out of the line of sight and focus of drivers, and violates the Road Safety Authority’s advice to “Be Safe, Be Seen”. It also places you in the lane with the highest number of obstacles, increasing your risk of swerving into oncoming traffic – drain covers, holes, debris, pedestrians stepping into the road without looking which yes, happens unbelievably often. A British qualitative study mentioned cyclist unpredictability as a major stressor for drivers, so putting yourself in a lane where you’re more likely to swerve unpredictably does drivers no favours, even if they don’t realise that). Segregation (separated cycle lanes) seems to work better for cycling safety, but in a situation where you have no other choice but to share a surface with motorised traffic, many argue it is the safest practice.

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