Two Close Shaves

7 November 2012

Today Barack Obama was re-elected to office. And I was almost hit by a motor vehicle. Twice.

There's been a lot of talk about shared space between motor vehicles and cycles, of whether segregation is the answer, or road speed management with 30 kph or 20 mph limits, and so on. I live in a wijk - a neighbourhood - of Utrecht that has a high proportion of residental properties, including a large number of students for the nearby university. The roads are shared, with bike lanes marked each side, and the little available road width dictates that motor traffic has to share those lanes. It generally works well, probably because residents use their bikes in preference to their cars. Children cycle happily to school, cycles travel five abreast at busy times, and tolerance of minor holdups is part of the equation.

view from the cycle path

Today though I was reminded of how it only takes a couple of idiots to damage a situation like this, and how there is this huge imbalance in power between the two major modes of travel. The cycle route to the university passes through a park, which means immediately after a slow roundabout all the cycle traffic has to turn left across the road. Most people seem to blindly stick their arm out for a moment, then veer across, expecting vehicles behind to wait. I'm a little more cautious, having seen what British traffic does, and am maybe more aware of what is behind me. This morning I was in a group of about ten cycles pulling over to the crown of the road, ready to take the left turn, when a Gemeente (town council) - owned vehicle simply pushes through on the outside, and against oncoming traffic as well. I was genuinely surprised at an example of such blatent bad driving. Nobody was hit, but it was very close.

The second event this evening was only 100m away, and approaching a set of traffic lights which turned red just before I arrived. I had stuck my arm out to turn left, and only the sound of the revving engine behind stopped me from actually moving over from near the curb. The white van struck my outstretched hand as it passed at speed, and then continued through the lights which had been red for at least a couple of seconds. The road is very well lit, and I had a jacket with reflective piping along the arm. Most people don't bother about high visibility clothing - there's no need if others always expect cycles to appear from nowhere. I don't think the van hit anything else, and I wasn't hurt, but it was very close to causing multiple casualties.

How do you stop this sort of thing happening? I don't know - maybe you can't, but if offenders are caught then the penalty should fit the worst possible outcome, not the lucky escape that happened. Maybe attempted murder is the appropriate charge, with massive amounts of publicity to act as a deterrent.

In Britain there would be the immediate suggestion that you need a helmet camera to be able to pass evidence to the Police. Such incidents are so rare here that there would be little to report, and no utility cyclists have helmets anyway. In Nederland, there simply is not the same level of conflict between different types of road user.

The incidents also set me musing on other characteristics of Nederland drivers. In my experience over several years of cycle touring and living here, drivers typically pass cyclists closer than in any other country, and that includes Britain. Shared roads are usually in built-up areas or country lanes, where maximum speeds are posted as maybe 50 kph. You usually see segregated facilities for higher speed roads, and often for lower speed ones too. I've grown used to close motor traffic - even the buses do it - but today's two incidents show that there is a fine line to be drawn between accepted and dangerous behaviour.