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How drivers and cyclists can get along

Leow Ju-Len
28/12/2015

 cyclist in window

Drivers and cyclists CAN share the road, says Leow Ju-Len. All it takes is a little humility.

SINGAPORE — Drivers and cyclists seem like cats and dogs sometimes. Hardly a week goes by in Singapore where you don’t see outrageous dashcam footage of some kind of driver/cyclist interaction, which either party (or both) behaves, well, outrageously.

I don’t have all the answers, of course, but I think the simple problem is a lack of mutual grace. Too many cyclists ride in a way that suggests they feel they are above the law. Too many drivers behave in a way that suggests they feel cyclists are beneath them.

Worse than that, these problems may never go away because it seems like any discussion about the matter quickly devolves into the kind of discourse you get on a YouTube post. Cats and dogs dislike one another so much, they will find fault with the other party for just standing there, after all.

To a cyclist, I’m a driver so I must be blind, entitled, arrogant and homicidal. You’re a cyclist, you must be poor, inconsiderate and a suicidal scofflaw. And you wear Spandex, so you’re obviously a deviant.

The thing is, never actually having cycled on Singapore roads before, I realise that I’d been pondering the matter a bit blindly. Not that being a cyclist for a day gives you all the information you need to solve the Spandex World’s problems, but at least you have something to go on. Otherwise you might as well try to convince someone that eating durian is daft and inconsiderate, without actually tasting the stuff yourself.

Anyway, because I have the courage of a terrapin, I decided that for my first time out in the big, bad world of the Singapore cycling scene I wanted my hand held, and held tight. Roll forward, Steven Lim from the Safe Cycling Task Force. Because he’s a nicer guy than I am, and in spite of the fact that there would be television cameras rolling (watch the clip), Steven agreed.

Now, “Safe Cycling Task Force” sounds like machine guns are involved, but generally speaking the most dangerous thing on Steven is the box of shag tobacco that he carries with him, so he can roll his own cigs. SCTF folk conduct safe riding clinics and volunteer their time as safety marshals on big ride events, instead of spending time on the Internet complaining about drivers.

Steven himself has some pretty forthright views about how drivers and cyclists could get along better. Surprisingly, very little of it has to do with how people in cars are the assholes and the cyclists are the victims. If anything, he feels that it’s time cyclists took a bit of responsibility for their own actions, and made themselves less easy to dislike. This means everything from obeying traffic light signals (which is the law, anyway), to not taking over a hawker centre when riding in a big group.

He doesn’t even think that dedicated cycling lanes, which the Spandex crowd has been baying for for years, will solve any problem. No use, he says, if cyclists don’t know how to use them graciously anyway.

Instead, Steven advocates simple behaviour changes that he showed me on a 15km ride. The first thing I noticed as we set off? He swivels his head to look back often. Like every 10 seconds or so. This gives him a good idea of what’s going on around him, but it also lets the drivers behind him know that he’s aware of them. I have to say, that second point makes sense. How many times have you followed a crawling bicyclist, wondering if he notices that there’s a queue of cars building up behind him? Chances are, he hasn’t noticed at all, which of course makes you fume about his lack of consideration.

The other thing Steven does is to signal his intentions good and early — right arm held out if he’s turning right, and so on. That’s the law, too, by the way. 

Three simple things can turn cycling from combat to mutual engagement

Hand signals, says Steven, let drivers know exactly where he intends to go, and prevents any coming-togethers caused by wrong assumptions. If he wants to go straight through a junction, he holds his right hand out so that cars who want to turn left into the filter lane don’t assume that he’s filtering off, too.

In fact, Steven’s hands seem to be off the handlebars nearly as much as they’re on them. He waves at cars to stop for him if he’s traveling straight and a car wants to merge into his lane. He does the flappy up-and-down motion to indicate that he’s slowing down or stopping. And most important of all, when someone does give way, he waves his thanks.

Following him and watching all this, the single biggest surprise to me was that a number of drivers actually smiled and waved back. Result? Our 15km ride turned out to be pretty stress-free in the end.

One or two drivers behaved badly, of course. A taxi driver couldn’t quite wait for us to change lanes for a right turn, and buzzed past on the left to cut ahead aggressively. But, having learnt to swivel my head around for the sake of awareness, I could see him coming anyway and didn’t feel particularly in danger. A man is liable to take it somewhat personally when he feels he’s been suckerpunched, but if he saw it coming beforehand, he’s more likely to blame himself if he gets his jaw broken.

Anyway, I found that three simple things can turn cycling from combat to mutual engagement: swivel your head to look back often, signal your intentions good and early, and wave to say “thanks”.

Above all, Steven seems to use the roads with a sense of humility. His actions basically say, “Please note, here I am.”

Most drivers would appreciate the consideration. “No one in his right mind sets out to kill someone when he leaves the house, anyway,” says Steven. He’s right, of course. And very often, even cats and dogs can get along just fine.

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