This blog begins where something ended; specifically, a Twitter parody account: @NicewayCodeGB (which is still suspended at the time of writing; the real account, by the way, is @nicewaycode and I borrowed the name’s format from @HighwayCodeGB). I’m not sure what caused it to be taken down: I doubt 88 tweets in 24 hours was enough to hit the spam alarm, and The Nice Way Code claim that they had nothing to do with it, so I vaguely suspect that one of the people who mistook it for real (most of whom were put straight by other followers) dobbed it in. No matter; I think it’s probably served its purpose.
Anyway, this post explains the reasoning behind that account, and is interspersed with some of the tweets from it.
(Update: The account has now been reactivated. The suspension was automated and was due to tweeting too many replies/mentions. Unfortunately, Twitter don’t email you any information and nor is it accessible via the mobile apps, so until you log in via the full web UI you have no idea what the reasons are.)
Let me introduce myself. I’m an ordinary bloke. I’m in my late thirties and – no doubt like you – I’ve been using the roads all my life; whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car. Some would label me a cyclist because as well as a means of getting around it’s a leisure pursuit of mine, but then I’m also fond of hiking, running and karting, none of which warrant using the terms ‘pedestrian’ or ‘motorist’ to define me as an individual either. I’m no more defined by the mode of transport I choose than I am by what I have for lunch (today I’m a sandwichist).
I’d also regard myself as a responsible road user. I don’t speed, I don’t jump red lights, I don’t jump out in front of buses. I’m considerate: when in the car I’m patient enough to wait for safe overtaking opportunities when passing people on bikes, and when on the bike on rural roads I’m happy to pull over to avoid excessively holding up traffic. And I’m courteous: I wave thanks to anyone who cedes priority and to any passing drivers who are patient and safe when I’m on my bike. I’m not perfect, but I try my best to understand my weaknesses and make sure I never make the same mistake twice. I’m a big believer in all these things adding up to making our shared lives just a little bit better.
So when a campaign such as The Nice Way Code, seeking to make us all more responsible and considerate and courteous on the roads – or in their words, “designed to make the roads a more tolerant and harmonious place” – comes along; well, that should be right up my street, shouldn’t it?
About The Nice Way Code
Unfortunately, The Nice Way Code have decided to launch this week, including on social media, but to withhold the real content of their message until next week. The thing is, the iron of social media heats and cools very rapidly, so to heat it up and wait a week to strike is only going to leave people making assumptions.
Still, assumptions aside, the initial messages are not good. One of the first posts (now deleted from their blog but still on Facebook) says “Delighted to see Bradley Wiggins’ former manager [Richard Allchin] wading into the debate about road use etiquette!” and links to a related story in The Times.
Unfortunately, as is clear from the linked article, Mr Allchin waded in rather clumsily, armed with totally unsubstantiated and opinionated statements (the article references some more credible data) that are partisan and harmful to the discussion.
We don’t really know much at this stage, other than that this kind of contribution delights the people at The Nice Way Code.
With this as an opening (and, at this stage, lonely) gambit; well, how can I put this politely? Expectations are low.
Equality is not what it seems
Anyone familiar with UK equality legislation should understand that equality is not about treating people equally. Equality is about understanding people’s disparate needs and allowing them to achieve the same goals.
This approach is empowering and egalitarian, and it is a fine basis for a civilised society. It is what enables people to contribute to and gain from the world that we build; whether it is a blind person learning from a web page being electronically spoken to them, a wheelchair user being able to go to the theatre, or a woman gaining a seat on an all-male company board.
Sadly, this approach is but a distant oasis from the desert of attitudes that govern our road space.
Here is just one example of the disparity of needs on the road (picture by @veloevol).
It’s a stark illustration of vulnerability. One vehicle can be seen crushed under the rear axle of the other. The incident was fatal.
Even a small, inexpensive car provides sufficient protection for its occupants to drive into a brick wall at 30mph or more and step out uninjured. At the same speed, replace the brick wall with a person on foot or on a bicycle, and there is a good chance they will die.
The needs of road users are wildly and fundamentally disparate. This, and the principle of equality as supporting common goals rather than refusing to differentiate, must be at the heart of any discussion about sharing on the roads.
The low expectations
We’ve been here before with “share nicely” campaigns. We’re still seeing people killed and injured regularly. There is no one single solution, but it seems fair to say that segregation is key to ensuring people’s safety. In urban areas, that’s simply (ha!) a matter of making it happen. In rural England, it’s more complex, and for various reasons – some transient, some persistent— some pragmatism is required. The bottom line is that at time people will have to share the roads. So how do we improve safety?
We know what’s coming: vehicularisation of cyclists and pedestrians (as if being car-like is actually a goal, rather than an unfortunate byproduct of wanting to travel at more than 20mph); helmets and hi-vis (as if those who are hit by cars are to share the responsibility of being hit); collective responsibility (as if drivers can’t be expected not to endanger one cyclist if the kid down the street rides in the dark with no lights on – why should my personal safety be contingent on utterly irrelevant third parties’ actions?).
Frankly, the usual evidence-free, counterproductive, vehicularist, victim-blaming bullshit. That’s what we expect. Which is why I took to reshaping parts of The Highway Code as The Niceway Code.
The Nice Way Code say that “If the Nice Way Code can inform, remind or nudge people to be more aware of each other and share the road, then that’s got to be good for everyone.”
No, it’s a waste of time for everyone. A pointless gesture. I’d like you to bear in mind the above image of the tipper truck here:
Nice schmice. Let me be clear: when I’m on my bicycle and I’m passed by a car, all I care about is whether it’s patient enough to wait for a safe opportunity to pass and then does so widely, so that the risk to me and other road users is minimised. That’s it. I don’t give a toss how they feel about me, whether they think all cyclists abuse the law or whether they think “road tax” still exists; I don’t care about anything other than they don’t hit me or come close to doing so. There’s lots of people I think are tossers, but that’s a whole world away from me finding people who wear the same jumper as them and deciding I don’t give a monkeys for their physical safety.
Equally, if someone drives a car into me I couldn’t give two hoots whether the nicest person in the world or whether their view of cyclists is entirely rose-tinted and adoring. They’ve got a car and if they’re not driving it with sufficient care, I’m fucked, and that’s all there is to it.
There is only one winner from a “be nice” campaign, and that is the person in a car who thinks they have a greater entitlement to the road than others.
The missed target
The problem is not really one of how nice people are. Even if we take it as read that the ideal solution is physical separation of modes of transport (which is what we should be striving for in urban and suburban environments), the secondary pragmatic issue is still not one of niceness. It is one of poor driving standards.
People who kill on the roads do not do so because they intend to. They do so because of incompetence and distraction. Whether it’s adjusting a satnav while driving, failing to slow down into a glaring sun, using a phone, failing to hand in a licence when eyesight deteriorates, or whatever, people do these things because they’ve got away with it for so long and they genuinely believe they’ll keep getting away with it.
Being nice does nothing about that. Retesting people every five years might. Effective punishments for bad driving that doesn’t cause an accident (this time!) might.
But the idea that if I’m a nice cyclist who uses lights and doesn’t jump red lights (and that’s me) then I’ll be safe is beyond satire. I’m not scared of the attitude that cyclists are twats, I’m scared of a Land Rover driving into my arse at 60mph.
The only real way in which misguided, generalised and prejudiced attitudes towards cyclists are problematic is in the context of gaining the political will to implement things such as dedicated infrastructure and better legislation.
Yet here we have politicians spending nearly half a million pounds of public money trying to address this meta-problem. These are the people who are in a position to actually do something, and all they’re doing is pointlessly poking around with something that does nothing more than hold them back from doing that. If they’re keen to address that problem then the maddeningly obvious course of action is to ignore it and actually do something.
We are not equal
The idea that everyone should be held to an equally high standard of conduct, and the idea that everyone should be apportioned an equal level of responsibility, are both fundamentally flawed.
The generalised activity of getting from A to B requires neither training nor regulation; what requires these is the act of operating a heavy and powerful vehicle. It is the ability to amass kinetic energy that presents danger and, therefore, it is this that demands responsibilty. This is why we train, test and licence people who choose these vehicles.
Roads exist, of course, to allow people to get from A to B. The choice of vehicle, and the choice of responsibility that goes with it, is fairly free. The idea that we should train everyone to the same standard in order to transport themselves is another example of being at odds with equality legislation: it is treating people as equal, rather than understanding their different needs and enabling them to achieve equal goals.
If there is a battle to be fought, it is the battle of separating these two concepts – transporting oneself and operating a vehicle – in the minds of many road users.
And this is a battle that I doubt The Nice Way Code can win.
Further comment on the Nice Way Code campaign can be found in the next post, The Horse and The Python.