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Pedal at Your Own Peril

4 minute read
Matt McAllester

Emma Way did not become a figure of contempt for British cyclists because she nudged Toby Hockley off his bicycle and into a hedge as she drove past him on a country lane on May 19. No, she achieved that infamy by confessing to her crime online. “Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier,” Way, 22, tweeted after the collision that left Hockley, 29, with a bruised body and the status of a martyr for Britain’s cyclists. “I have right of way — he doesn’t even pay road tax!” She ended with a hashtag popular with tweeting British motorists: #bloodycyclists.

It was the tweet heard around the roads of Britain, and it resulted in Way’s being convicted in November of driving offenses, losing her job as a trainee accountant and acknowledging in court that the comment rated “11 out of 10” on the stupidity scale. In an interview on national television after her conviction, she noted that since the story broke, she had been cyberbullied and had received “malicious communications.” What she did not say was that she was sorry for knocking Hockley, a chef, off his bike. “I was quite angry at the mannerism of the cyclist on the road,” she said. “My point of view is that he was on my side of the road — that’s not the way you drive.”

Way to stoke the fire, Ms. Way. By continuing to pin the blame for the incident on the cyclist, the young driver fell further into an already considerable chasm that divides modern Britain. The BBC last year featured an hour-long documentary — with lots of footage of raging cyclists and cab drivers — whose title explained the situation succinctly: War on Britain’s Roads.

It wasn’t entirely an exaggeration: people are dying in this conflict between cyclists and drivers. London in November seemed like a particularly dangerous place for the two-wheeled combatants. Six cyclists were killed in less than two weeks, a mounting toll chronicled in increasingly mournful headlines. Six in a few days is a lot; the total killed this year in Britain’s capital is 14. The deaths sparked a bout of public recrimination. When London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, himself a cyclist, appeared less than sympathetic after the fifth death — he told a radio host that some of the dead cyclists “have taken decisions that really did put their lives in danger” — he was transformed from cycling champion to heartless pro-car politician and joined Way as a target of the particularly passionate fury that cyclists can muster.

The anger has become political in Britain, as it has in many countries whose governments encourage citizens to cycle rather than drive to work, to lessen the impact on the environment and on traffic. Johnson has arguably done more than any previous politician for London cyclists, establishing a $1.6 billion fund to make cycling safer in the city and appointing London’s first cycling commissioner. Even though the number of cyclist deaths in London has been dropping steadily in the past two decades, the demand from cyclists for the city to adapt grows as the number of bikes on the road grows. As does the particularly passionate fury that cyclists can muster.

I know the emotions of the London cyclist: I’m a cyclist myself. Depending on the weather or how lucky I’m feeling, I’ll opt for my bike rather than the Underground to travel the 13 km to TIME’s office in London. I love it. I meander through Hyde Park, past Buckingham Palace, through Trafalgar Square and across the curves of the Thames, and I feel blessed by the beauty of this city and glad to be alive. At times, by the end of it, I feel lucky to be alive.

Because cycling is very risky — no matter the number of bike lanes or level of traffic policing. When I’m cycling, huge lumps of metal, driven by people protected by seat belts and cocooned by steel, race past me at great speed, and my default assumption is that, while none of them want to kill me, every one of them could.

Whether or not Johnson is right that some of the cyclists who died recently were breaking the law, all of us make a very personal decision about risking our lives by getting on our bikes. And we should know that when we ignore red lights to get ahead of the traffic, or get too close to trucks or buses because we feel it’s our right to be there, then we are making a mistake even dumber than Emma Way’s tweet. In the war of the cyclist vs. the driver, the driver will nearly always come out alive. Less so the cyclist.

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