Picture this. You’re approaching a four-way junction, the lights are in your favour, and you’re going straight ahead. There’s a car coming in the opposite direction, indicating to turn right (i.e. across your path), but you know you have right of way, so you carry on. You make eye contact with the oncoming driver, and he or she notes your presence, and then turns right anyway. You have to brake sharply, or swerve to avoid being hit.
This has happened to me a lot lately. And I always find it rather chilling – because the driver is well aware that she or he is performing a manoeuvre that will result in my serious injury or death unless I do something to avoid it, and yet none of their human instincts intervene to stop them. I mentioned this to a friend recently; “god, that’s fucking dark” was her response. It certainly is.
Much as half the world whinges about dangerous cyclists bombing through red lights, you’re actually very unlikely to be seriously injured by a cyclist. This is partly because, if you step out in front of me, my own self-preservation instincts will kick in, and I’ll instinctively swerve to avoid you. I think this is the reason I’ve hit so few pedestrians. Couriers sometimes joke that, if someone steps out in front of you, you should just aim straight for them (especially if they’re fat), because it’ll be a softer landing. But I don’t think many people’s instincts would let them actually do that, even if it were logically the safer option. I’ve fallen off avoiding pedestrians more often than I’ve hit them. And when I have hit them, our injuries have been fairly equal. (And of course, if a cyclist and a pedestrian, or two cyclists collide, the damage is likely to be cuts and bruises, or at the very worst broken bones. Sometimes serious; rarely life-threatening.)
But wrap someone up in a secure metal bubble, with airbags and side impact protection systems and whatnot, and they no longer need this self-preservation instinct – at least where soft, cyclist-sized objects are concerned. So a driver can aim their car at a cyclist, and if the cyclist doesn’t get out of the way – well, that’s her problem. (If a cyclist hits a pedestrian, the problem is fairly mutual.)
Doesn’t that scare you? It fucking scares me.
What’s also been scaring me lately is how we just seem to accept that thousands of people will be killed and maimed by cars every year. Road accidents are treated like a force of nature, or fate – something that might suddenly happen to you at any moment, but that you can’t do anything to predict or prevent. And this perceived ‘inevitability’ means that far too little blame is attached to deaths or injuries caused by (oxymoronic?) dangerous driving.
To illustrate this: in the past week or so I’ve read of people being arrested, and even jailed, for putting cats in dustbins, hamsters in microwaves, and goldfish down their throat. Fair enough. But what about the thousands and thousands of animals killed on the roads every year? All the flat pigeons and squirrels I ride past on a daily basis? All the dead rabbits and foxes and badgers and pheasants – and even deer – you’ll find cluttering up our country lanes? Why aren’t the animal-loving British public up in arms about this? Has anyone ever been arrested over roadkill? Or is it just a necessary by-product of a completely essential pastime? And let’s not get started on the laughably light penalties for killing a human being with your car. The man who drunkenly microwaved his hamster was sent to prison for nine weeks. Cause death by dangerous driving and you might well get off with disqualification and a fine.
And here’s another illustration. Recently Lawrence got back from supporting his friend Ashley through part of the Race Across America – the toughest bicycle race in the world. 3,000 miles in three weeks, riding non-stop at high speed until you fall off your bike with exhaustion. Lawrence did a third of it, and hasn’t been quite himself since. Ashley finally pulled out, with sunstroke and dehydration, somewhere in Missouri.
The race was won by a superhuman individual called Jure Robič. It was his fifth victory, and he also holds the 24-hour cycling endurance record (518.70 miles). Read this 2006 article about him, and his body, and his mind – it’s fascinating, and he sounds like an utterly extraordinary human being, and indisputably one of the world’s greatest athletes.
He died on Friday, killed by a car whilst out on a training ride near his home in Slovenia. He was 45, and leaves a wife and a young son.
Are we really OK with this?