Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The End of Road (Rage)

What possesses drivers to purposely want to injure someone who has offended them?

Over the weekend, a bunch of us were cycling on the N1 just outside Bloemfontein. We had covered just over 50km, and had just crested a hill after a long drag. On our left was a slipway to a big Engen 1-Stop. As we cycled past the slipway that brings these vehicles back on the N1, a gold Mercedes suddenly appeared from behind, swung left, right in front of us narrowly missing those of us in front.

It then sprinted off towards one of our guys who had ridden ahead to buy water at the shop. The driver drove right by Hennie, then stopped the car thirty metres in front of him, half on the shoulder and half on the gravel, and put his car into reverse. We heard a crunch of gravel and saw a cloud of dust fly up as the Mercedes angrily gained on our friend. Four of us, including me, then stood up on our bikes to move onto this scene, not really knowing what to do, but knowing our buddy probably needed our help.

He must have seen the four of us advancing on him, because he suddenly came to a stop within a metre or two of our friend, and seconds later we would have been right at his door – and then, with a final hand gesture out the window, the guy screeched back onto the road and roared off.

“That was ugly. That was really ugly,” was all I could say. Obviously at that point we had another 50km or so to ride on the same highway, but now with the knowledge that madmen like the one we’d just witnessed were haunting these same highways. It’s a terribly unpleasant thought.

One of the guys wanted to call the police, but the Mercedes had no number plate – it had been placed in the rearview window. We could see it was a GP plate, and it was headed to that province, that’s all. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m sorry we didn’t call the cops. After all, how many vehicles are there on the road that meets this description?

- Gold boxed shape Mercedes Benz (a sort’ve old style), with no number plate.

The driver, as far as I could see, was a white man, middle aged or older, with grey hair. I can’t be sure because I saw him from the rear and slightly from the side, and it happened very quickly.

It’s also not the first time we cyclists have experienced such unconscionable behavior. But it is one of the worst cases I remember seeing. We do often notice drivers who narrowly miss us (that means the passing car rips the hairs on your arms as they whisk by), and then confirm it was done on purpose by either hooting or shaking a fist angrily at their rearview mirrors.

This attitude of thinking a road is designed only for cars is a dangerous one. We have a culture of driving our cars and expecting everyone and everything to get out of the way. What would the average person do if came across a baby that happened to crawl its way to the middle of the road? Just drive over it because it doesn’t belong there? Of course not.

So here’s a guideline. Most of the time drivers of cars do have right of way. You have the roads to yourselves. Enjoy. But when something on the road is a slow moving thing, and especially if the machine involved, if any, is delicate (I’m thinking a pram, a bicycle or a pedestrian pushing a shopping cart), then they ought to have the right of way. Not because they are stronger or faster or better equipped, but because the person in the car is. We drivers can afford to be more graceful to other (usually very temporary) road users.

Once when I was young (and a dumb driver) I overtook on a blindish rise and was immediately faced with an approaching car. A do or die situation. The oncoming car did not change his trajectory. He did not move onto the shoulder to make space for me. He kept right on going, so at the last moment I dived to the right shoulder and this guy passed on my left, between me and the bus. Yes it was my fault, but what is going through the head of a driver who simply expects to always have the right of way, come hell or high water?

For those people who have a bone to pick with us cyclists…well, let me start by saying: you win. If you make the slightest impact with a cyclist, the smallest glancing blow, it’s almost guaranteed that the cyclist will be killed, and you might have a small bloody dent in one of your panels.

I don’t side with cyclists who blame car drivers for everything. I don’t think there is any point in cyclists blaming drivers and vice versa. We can both be more considerate, so let’s be more considerate. Cyclists can also consider the road users behind them who have to patiently drive slower behind them. A lot of the time we do consider other road users. Believe me; we have to because our lives depend on it. We’re well aware of the reckless disregard for life so many South Africans appear to have on the roads. Why guys?

We drive too fast, we drive drunk, and we don’t seem to realize that when we climb into a car we’re putting ourselves at high risk for premature death. The chance is thousands of times greater that we’ll die in a car wreck than be gobbled up in a shark attack. Yet most of us seem to have a giddy sense of fear when we swim alone or quite deep in the sea. Why no similar impulse when we get behind the wheel?

Please, drivers, bear in mind that the effort it takes to steer your car around a cyclist is minimal. You shift your steering wheel an inch and then back and that’s it. It’s true that cyclists do sometimes wander over the road, but there are a lot of hazards to avoid. The number of potholes alone is shocking. The risk is greatest when a cyclist maneuvers wide – sometimes because he or she has no choice – and just then a driver is either daydreaming or making a point to show the cyclist his place on the road, and then gets the near-miss wrong.

When cycling over 100km the shoulders get very tired, and the body starts to cramp.
When you see cyclists on the open road, the best rule of thumb is to treat them like a car. Move to the other lane. Please don’t hoot before you pass us, as that rattles us, especially since turning to look at you may cause us to drift slightly to the right when doing so.

You’re welcome to hoot or wave after you’ve past us. I can guarantee you; most of us will smile and wave back.

No comments: