Vulnerability, cycling rights and road rules

“Of course cyclists should use the road” she said. ” But they must follow the rules of the road. I just saw a cyclist going the wrong way down a one way. They are an accident waiting to happen, and of course the motorist will be blamed.” I gulped a little hard and looked down into my coffee, because I do that. I cycle the “wrong way” down a one-way road. I justify this because it saves me negotiating two right turns, narrow roads and, honestly, I dice with death to go that long way round. I looked down into my coffee because I am not an habitual rule breaker. I am the sort of person who blushes when stopped at a road block and is wracked with guilt until the SARS return is in. How, then, to explain my one-way street aberration? I justify it by seeing myself when cycling, for the most part, as a pedestrian on wheels. And because I see myself as a pedestrian on wheels, rather than as a small car, I can do things that pedestrians do. Like go down “one way” roads.

This particular definition of cycling is not uniquely mine, it is also reflected in the language we all use to describe things moving on wheels. So we will talk about an “accident involving two cars“, or of “a cyclist has been knocked over”. With motoring we talk of the vehicle as active. With cycling we talk of the person as active. To say “an accident involving two motorists” suggests an unfortunate event outside of the vehicles when two people bump into each other. To say “a bicycle has been knocked over” creates images of falling bicycles, perhaps in a shop. The language reflects a sense of the “cycle-plus-cyclist” being more about the human on it, and the “car-plus-driver” being more about the vehicle. So, is a cyclist more like a wheelchair user, then? Or more like a car? Because if cyclists are more like a wheelchair users, then they should be following a different set of rules from those of cars.
I don’t think there are any easy hard and fast rules on this. When I go out cycling with my 12 year old daughter I seek out places where she is treated like the vulnerable child she is. I want both of us to be treated as carefully as wheelchair users should be treated. I want to be safely separate from the car traffic. I want safe places to cross where we are given plenty of time, I want wide margins to allow her to make mistakes. In this case, I want us to be treated as more human than vehicle. Many “serious” cyclists lobby hard to be treated as car traffic. For them speed and ease of movement is key, and their sense of vulnerability is less pronounced then mine. These groups call for lanes which enable cyclists to be treated with the same rules as car traffic, but with some additional space and allowances.
There is, then, as with most issues in streets and traffic, no clear cut answer. The street is a place where we each negotiate for space, time and priority. This negotiation, though, is not equally matched. Motorists are somewhat protected from danger by their surrounding vehicles. By contrast, cyclists are very vulnerable, as the cycle road deaths clearly show. And so until cyclists can be ensured safety as road traffic, then they should be granted some rights to behave like pedestrians at times.
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