How our road rules feed road rage

A still from a video showing a large VW people-carrier being driven over the two wheels of a bicycle. A second car is to that car's left and there is a set of traffic lights in the background.
A car being driven over a bicycle, 28th May 2021. (Source: Hackney Cyclist.)

A couple of weeks ago I saw a video shared of a driver of a large car using his vehicle to damage someone’s bike (nearly injuring the cyclist’s leg in the process) before driving off. People noted that in the comments (though I didn’t see them), there were people blaming the cyclist, suggesting that there must be “more than meets the eye” and something must have gone on before filming started which would constitute ‘provocation’ on the part of the cyclist. The cyclist had fallen against a car that was stopped to the left of the offending vehicle and may have come into contact with the latter; however, this driver quite obviously drove his vehicle at the cyclist in an attempt to damage the bicycle and injure the rider. I commented to the people who had shared the footage that the act was “naked thuggery”, a lot like punching someone in the face for causing you ‘disrespect’.

However, in my opinion our road rules help to encourage such behaviour. We have a priority system that dictates that the vehicle on the road has priority over a vehicle joining. The same is true at roundabouts: that priority is to circulating traffic, meaning that if someone arrives at the roundabout after you from a road feeding into it from your right, they still have priority even though you were there first. This system works fairly well at roundabouts that are not too busy; at busy roundabouts, it results in people being trapped in approach roads as the roundabout is dominated by traffic from one or two routes which are not obstructed by traffic from their right. A good example is the Waggoners’ Roundabout near Hounslow in west London, in which traffic frequently builds up on the A4 from the west as traffic from the A312 from the south and the A4 from the east cuts across it to get to the M4. When trying to get onto the roundabout from that direction, I frequently have to edge out as nobody will give way as they are all travelling too fast, and people will do really stupid things, like swerving wildly, to avoid slowing down to allow someone out that they have priority over.

I saw a video on YouTube a few weeks ago praising what the author called the “modern roundabout” with priority only and no signals. Apparently some mayor somewhere in the USA was building loads of them as he thought they were the answer to all the city’s problems. However, to me they are typical of the outdated British road rules; the vehicle with the most power behind it gets to carry on while the one that needs to build up speed has to wait — all very well in the 1930s when there were few cars around but in the 21st century it results in lengthy waits for a gap that might never appear or a driver who deigns to ease off on the gas. In other words, the biggest bully gets his way, and the result when he doesn’t is that he gets angry, makes dangerous manouevres (pulling out into the oncoming lane just to avoid easing up, for example) or shouts or, at worst, attacks another driver or cyclist.

While some problems can really only be solved by alterations to junctions, such as signalising the aforementioned Waggoners’ Roundabout, we need more of a culture of taking turns and letting people go. In Germany, there is a concept called the “zipper principle” in which, when two lanes merge, drivers are expected to merge in turn. In this country, while sometimes there are signs saying “merge in turn”, in practice drivers will try to force their way past and block people they see as “jumping the queue” even if they had been using a legitimate open lane. If a cycle lane exists, drivers expect cyclists to use it, even if it is interrupted by side roads, and get angry and even violent when a cyclist using the main traffic lane, as they are perfectly entitled to do, slows them down. Worse, the public and even the police will justify thuggish behaviour if the victim had ‘provoked’ it by getting in someone’s way or jumping a queue. We need road rules that are written for our time rather than the dawn of motoring, which encourage cooperation and which do not allow people to think they have a ‘right’ to go first which provokes anger when someone who has been waiting to go decides that their journey is just as important as someone else’s.

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