Forget cyclists. Think humans: Passing distance law idea gets irrational reaction

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Yesterday two TDs announced that they want to target dangerous overtaking by setting a passing distance of bicycles into law, but the irrational level of reaction to the proposed measure was extreme in the volume and strength.

There was huffing and puffing from George Hook and others who openly hate cyclists. Just how irrational the reaction was is best viewed by listening to the RTE Radio One presenter Sean O’Rourke’s interview with Fine Gael TD Ciaran Cannon, one of the proposers of the law.

Why I am picking on Sean O’Rourke? Because I respect him as one of the best current affairs presenters on Irish radio. He’s usually fair and balanced. I can’t recall anytime he was so starkly unbalanced, unfair and uncompassionate about human life.

When Cannon outlines how he was cycling in a cycle lane outside the Old Wesley Rugby Club the other day when a bus passed him too closely and Cannon said it was “very close, almost touching my elbow”, O’Rourke’s reaction was that “Maybe the basic wisdom is that you don’t argue with a bus”.

Cannon was cycling in a cycle lane going straight and a bus overtakes him… how is that arguing with a bus?

Cannon tried outlining how cyclists are fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. He also outlined how the majority of motorists, especially in rural Ireland, do give enough space, and the problem is a notable minority of drivers (that’s generally this writers view too — so we’re not saying car driver = bad, ok?).

O’Rourke then reads out a text message asking for “fines for the cyclists coming too near to a car” — as if this was some kind of reasonable comparison. Maybe it is comparable in some alternative universe where our laws of physics  and risk of bodily harm don’t apply.

Concern was expressed by people texting or emailing into the show by about cyclists breaking red lights and cycling on footpaths. Clearly cyclists should not be doing these things. But in the context of a proposal for a safety measure, this is classic whataboutery — a firmer requirement for motorists to safely overtake has nothing to do with cyclists breaking red lights. 

The reasoning that people on bicycles don’t deserve protection because some of them break the law is bonkers. It would be like saying some car drivers misbehave, so truck drivers should be free to overtake them as close as they want. 

Cannon tried to reason with O’Rourke and outline how it’s about road safety and putting responsibility onto the person driving the 1.5 ton plus vehicles at speeds of 60km/h and above. But O’Rourke’s reply that the passing distance law would be a “charter to turn cyclists into road-hogs”.

O’Rourke only got worse as it went on. He said on a rural road, with a solid white line down the middle of it, you might “have to maybe wait five minutes before you could pass a cyclist”, because you can’t cross the white line. This description sounds like a narrow rural road — and he seems to be suggesting without the passing law it’s ok to pass a cyclist without crossing the white line.

This is how people driving end up killing other people who are cycling. A large percentage of cycling deaths in the last few years relates to where motorist passed too closely on such rural roads.

Cannon said it will end up like drink drinking laws where there was little public support at first, but the culture changes. O’Rourke then goes on to ask about a potential “trade-off” including increased fines for not using lights or a new law on mandtory high-vis clothing and then “everybody gains” — the message here isn’t safety, it’s to do something to appease motorists.

While covering the passing distance item and later on in the show as O’Rourke read out messages from the public and expressed how large the public reaction was, he seemed spurred on by mob who have grievances with cyclists. It was like Liveline or Newstalk, not Today with Sean O’Rourke.

The idea that reasonable motorists should not wait behind a cyclist until its safe to pass is a dangerous one, it encourages all motorists to take extra risk for fear of upsetting the motorist behind them.

It is all irrational. Like the irrationality of the motorists who often used to overtake me dangerously where the wide section of the Phibsborough Road ends, just to rush a mere second or two ahead to a traffic light or congested traffic in the middle of Phibsborough. This is the “must overtake cyclist” logic — the same thing applies for some drivers on rural roads or those who overtake when there’s traffic coming the other way.

This irrationality is hateful, it lacks respect for human life and it has no place on our airwaves, especially not on programmes hosted by respected journalists.

10 Comments

  1. Well written, Cian, good on you. Segment on Today FM with Damien O’Tuama(https://www.todayfm.com/The-Last-Word-with-Matt-Cooper/podcasts/67583/Widening-The-Gap-Between-Motorists-And-Cyclists) was much much better than what you describe from RTE, a showcase of reasonableness.

  2. Well said Cian. It is indeed bonkers how some people irrationally view people on bikes. It’s classic ingroup / outgroup thinking. The very same sort of thinking that brought Nazis to power and killed a whole lot of people. It’s a disgrace that a national broadcaster promulgated this mindset. A complaint to the broadcasting authority perhaps? Would Mr O’Rouke have been allowed to get away with this if he were talking about Jews? Or women? Of course not.

  3. I doubt anyone who pays any attention to the car culture is any way surprised at these reactions. In fact I’m sure most of us could have predicted the diversionary tactics of complaining about cyclists and traffic lights and the attempt to make an equivalence between a cyclist closely passing a barely moving car and a fast moving car passing a cyclist too close.

    The only thing that surprises me is no mention of road tax or how will motorists know they are overtaking a cyclist when they are invisible due to lack of high-viz. The idea that motorists are the real victim when they kill or seriously injure a cyclist is a new one but rapidly growing in popularity, I think someone missed an opportunity by not trying that one out.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this attempt and the rabble rousing against it increase motorist anger at cyclists (crazy though that would be) and increases aggression towards cyclists.

  4. I tried to measure overtaking distances on a hack I set up. Not very successful I’m afraid – it wouldn’t work with fast overtaking vehicles which was most of the time. However I did manage to cycle fast enough on the descent into Skerries on the Lusk road and I got three measurements – 1.3m, 0.5m and 1.2m. Not very scientific I know but it says something that they are all less than 1.5m. (Not taking into account wing mirrors.) I didn’t realise that I had become so used to close passes that I only notice the really close ones. I agree with this proposed law and I hope it will do some good.

  5. A similar irrational response from Paul Williams on Newstalk breakfast. There is a destructive media narrative doing the rounds mostly perpetuated by middle-aged male commentators, no doubt swaddled in comfortable cars and self-righteous anger. The pro-cycling presenters, and there are a few, are not vocal enough in their defense of cyclist rights, preferring to treat the likes of Hook’s dangerous ranting as good-natured banter which it ceased to even vaguely resemble some years ago.

  6. Well said Cian! Comments on Imdependent & Journal were dreadful too but as you say a respected journalist is in a different league. Could you email your article to S O’Rourke Show and maybe individual cyclists or cycling campaigns coyld contact them too

  7. Until learner drivers are first required by law to undergo safety training & testing on bicycles – before “graduating” to driving lessons, our future drivers will never have the ability to see these issues from anywhere other than their cosy seat in warm & safe 1 ton metal box.

    I’m a driver with well over 30 years experience, and my cycling days almost date back that far too. But after buying a roadbike a few years ago to tackle the Wicklow 100, I suddenly discovered just how fragile life is on 2 wheels, when cars, trucks & buses “buzz” you …. I gained a new perspective and the experience made me a safer & far more attentive driver. Both tribes must learn from each other if we are to safely share our narrow roads.

  8. My reaction to all these kind of scenarios is to respond with ‘what about my 80 year old mother cycling their bike to the shops? Or what about my 8 year old kid cycling their bike to school? Are they not deserving of respect?

    For some reason, the term ‘cyclist’ has become synonymous with lycra-clad MAMILs on a sunday morning, which then invokes some sort of irrational resentment. Many commentators seem to forget than a bicycle is primarily a form of transport.

  9. gardareserveJohn Moore February 23, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    Excellent Response Cian.

    Anyone can be a cyclist.

    The fact is that cyclists are somebody’s niece, sister, brother, father, mother, grandchild.The likes of George Hook and Paul Williams seem to forget fact when they use the airwaves push home their own personal agenda’s.

    When a car and a cyclist collide, it’s never the car driver that dies or sustains serious injury. Twenty cyclists killed on Irish roads last year by cars/trucks is horrendous. How many people did cyclists kill ? Zero is the simple answer so the arguments that cyclists are responsible for their own misfortune is misguided to say the least. Cyclists need protection and this law makes some attempts to commence this process. These TD’s deserve our support.

  10. I wonder if O’Rourke is comfortable with being on the same level as George Hook? Hook’s comments represent the most ignorant, arrogant, bullying people in Ireland who when driving become a dangerous threat to people on cycles. We should not need a law like this, if we were all civilised, but people like Hook force us.

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