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Wheels of fortune

An Cailín Rua

Drivers have a responsibility to keep the roads safe for cyclists, writes Anne-Marie Flynn

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

It’s perhaps a consequence of the Greens being in government (however long that will last), combined with the Covid situation, and a growing emphasis on health, but of late, there has been a lot more talk about cycling.
Specifically, cycling versus driving, and the startlingly divisive discussion around the sharing of road space between two-wheeled and four-wheeled journey-makers. Regardless of whether you are city, town or country-based, you won’t have far to go to find strong opinions on it.
Dublin, of course, and Cork are the obvious examples of how streets are essentially becoming tense battlegrounds for space. It seems that generally, cyclists argue that drivers have a sense of entitlement, are impatient and fail to respect the safety of cyclists. Drivers point the finger at cyclists breaking red lights or other road rules; conveniently ignoring that many drivers do so as a matter of course. In the country, a common complaint is about cyclists cycling two abreast on quieter roads, thereby not allowing drivers to overtake. For those unaware, this is a safety strategy; cycling two abreast firstly discourages risky and dangerous overtaking. It also ensures that drivers need to spend less time on the wrong side of the road while overtaking than if cyclists were in single file.
This is what happens when road infrastructure does not protect all road users equally; it pitches them against each other. In Dublin, as in most cities, transport planning has prioritised cars, with public transport and cycling – both cheaper forms of transport - left to battle it out in the margins. It’s not restricted to our cities either.
I cycled to work when I lived in Dublin, because it was faster – and cheaper - than driving or relying on public transport. It may have been a false economy though because it took years off my life. I adhered rigidly to the rules of the road, not because I’m particularly virtuous, but because I was too terrified not to. Leaving the house every morning, at the very least, you expected one scare on your journey; at least one wing mirror tipping you, at least one bus driver trailing you within touching distance, or at least one five-axle turning left, cutting you off at a junction. Cycling in towns or in the country can be equally terrifying, but for different reasons; driver impatience and oblivion being the main ones.
Cyclists are castigated for not wearing helmets, despite the fact that they are not mandatory, and despite evidence that making helmet use mandatory actually reduces the number of people cycling – an undesirable effect when safety in numbers is a more desirable strategy. TDs and bike shops lobbying for such a law might find they end up reducing the market for cycle equipment; something I suspect might rapidly change their minds. I do think it’s helpful when cyclists wear hi-vis and are sensible enough to have lights on their bikes, but given the role drivers play in Ireland’s relatively high levels of cyclist fatalities, the focus should really lie there.
The ‘drivers versus cyclists’ debates is remarkably polarising; it ignores the fact that many drivers cycle and many cyclists drive, and that all anyone wants to do is reach their destination safely. I have been the nervous cyclist and the impatient driver. It is also a grossly false equivalence; physics alone suggests that a driver protected by a two-tonne metal casing is probably more likely to survive a collision than a cyclist relying on a helmet. If cyclists take the moral high ground on this one, maybe it’s justified.
Drivers ultimately have a responsibility here. No one is more entitled to be on the road than anyone else, and for many reasons, not least the climate crisis, we should be encouraging more cycling on our roads. It’s surely not too much to ask to be considerate of cyclists; to not park in cycle lanes, to check our wing mirrors, and have just a tiny bit of patience on winding roads. Not overtaking aggressively for the sake of a few measly seconds would be a good start. Surely in a country as sparsely populated as ours, there is room for us all?