The Waitakere Ranges is so popular with cyclists even Lance Armstrong rode there on a visit. (Photo: Getty Images)

Motorists v cyclists: Why the growing anger on our roads is a danger to us all

A cyclist filmed delaying a driver on a west Auckland road is so alarmed at the reaction that he’s issued a plea for Kiwis to come to their senses and end the cultural war.

The inflammatory issue of cyclists riding two abreast or otherwise inconveniencing those in automobiles is regular clickbait on New Zealand news sites and social media.

Cyclists’ versus motorists’ rights on the road is about as polarising a topic as the Trump presidency. Usually rational citizens can transform into rabid talkback callers at the mere suggestion their share of the tarseal is being infringed. It’s a Kiwi thing: Drivers and cyclists appear to co-exist on impossibly narrow European roads without expletives flying and dashcam footage going viral.

So it was that this video of cyclists on a winding west Auckland road one recent sunny Sunday incited online outrage.

Keen cyclist Richard Hellaby thinks this was the back of the bunch he was with on Swanson’s Coulter Rd. He and his fellow riders were so alarmed at the reaction that he has penned the below opinion piece.

“(I) feel I’ve fallen into a cultural war,” he writes. “It’s tribal – the almost visceral hatred of drivers for cyclists and of cyclists for drivers.”

Cyclists riding in a bunch on a west Auckland road provoked the ire of a motorist. (Screengrab: Nikki Bessem/NZ Herald)

He believes that the bunch should have tried harder to keep to the left but this was just after descending a hill and with some riders carrying more speed than others the group spread out a bit wide – not ideal, but it happens. They became aware of the car, one of very few on this quiet morning, and the standard call of “car back” went out.

What the video does not show is what happened next, Hellaby says. The driver passed on the next bend, just where the road finally straightened out. Any earlier and the car itself may have hit the oncoming traffic. Total delay? About 20 seconds, he says. “In fact, until I saw the article, I thought that the driver was very considerate bearing in mind it was a tricky twisty section and the bunch was reorganising itself.”

The motorist was outraged one of the cyclists crossed the centre line. (Screengrab: Nikki Bessem/NZ Herald)

Jayson Bryant and two other cyclists were riding in the opposite direction. “We saw them coming down, we saw the car. We didn’t think anything of it.”

These roads on the edge of the Waitakere Ranges are popular with cyclists because there’s not much traffic, he says.

He rides five to seven days a week – in the city on weekdays, and out west on the weekends. He’s noticed the incidence of cyclist/motorist rage reducing in recent years, but says every time there is a story in the media such as the recent Coulter Road video there’s an uptick in clashes.

“We get this kind of inflated scenario when motorists think it’s okay to get overheated.

“Sometimes cyclists are to blame. But the aggression is generally, ‘we’ve caused a delay of a few seconds’,” Bryant says.

The real point is where this ugly tribalism is leading us, Hellaby argues. The following is his attempt to view it from both a driver’s and a cyclist’s perspective.

Richard Hellaby on drivers v cyclists

I’m an enthusiastic driver. At 14 I was consciously counting down the days until I could get my driver’s licence, and praying that the long threatened raising of the age from 15 to 16 wouldn’t occur. It didn’t. I started driving, and loved it. Even in Auckland.

But well before I could reach the pedals of a car, I remember the sheer joy of learning to ride a bike. The freedom. The fresh air on your face. The thrill of seeing just how fast and far you could go.

For some reason, in my late teens and into my early twenties, I stopped riding my bike. Maybe it was a bit of teenage laziness. Maybe it was because it wasn’t all that cool. Most likely, however, it was because it was just too easy to drive my car.

Then, one day, a slightly over-eager colleague convinced me to join a work triathlon. In preparation for the cycle leg, I borrowed an uncle’s old bike, put on my baggy running gear, and went for a short ride around the block. Initially as a few cars went past I wondered what the hell I was doing. They seemed so fast, so big, and so solid. But then the freedom, the fresh air, the thrill of seeing just how fast and far you could go…

I was hooked once more. At least on the cycling part. Not the lycra. That took some time.

Now, 10 years later, I still want to like both driving and cycling, but feel I’ve fallen into a cultural war. It’s tribal – the almost visceral hatred of drivers for cyclists and of cyclists for drivers. We get in our cars and feel the road is ours, to be used to get from here to there without delay. We get on our bikes and feel that we have to assert our right to be on the road, and that preemptive strikes are often the best form of defence. And guess what, the media dig it. It’s the ultimate clickbait.

With that clickbait appetite, responsible journalism cannot win. But what’s really at stake here, what’s this tribalism leading us to?

Surely it’s an attack on our tolerance of each other when innocent mistakes and slight inconveniences occur. Do we not normally pride ourselves on being unfailingly polite when someone accidentally steps in our way while walking through a crowded shopping mall, or when we carefully pass a plodding horse along a narrow country lane?

Perhaps it’s discouraging others, with less confidence or “arrogance” than a MAMIL, from picking up a bicycle to commute to work. For both that person and us all, shouldn’t riding a bike be encouraged? It can be a convenient form of daily exercise, it has eased congestion in many cities around the world, it is cheaper than constantly filling up with fuel, and a little part of the driver in me has to admit that, until we’re all in soulless electric cars, it’s cleaner for our environment.

And most obviously this tribal war, spurred on recently by the Herald, increasingly affects actual, real, lives. As a driver, despite the feeling of justification I might get when reading articles titled “Fury over ‘dangerous’ cyclists”, could I really deal with the reality of hitting and killing a cyclist because, from my perspective, that cyclist got in my way and delayed me for 30 seconds? Or is that 30 seconds more valuable to me than the rest of the other person’s life?

Now about those Lime Scooters…


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