COMMENT & ANALYSIS: When you listen to and transcribe the arguments made by opposers of the minimum passing distance law, strong narrative emerges that cyclists are people whose behaviour violates social norms.
This is part three. Read part one and two first — find them here.
Cycling is constructed as an inherently dangerous activity, with people who engage in it framed as reckless, irresponsible, and delusional: people who believe they are invincible and therefore knowingly refuse to protect themselves.
They are further inhuman because they would swerve into the path of an overtaking vehicle purely to get the driver into trouble. Verona Murphy does this on Today with Sean O’Rourke on 25 January this year:
“The new proposed law enforces a strict liability on only the motorist. It is irrelevant if the cyclist is the one who actually veers into that path, and at that time it’s recorded on video it can be shown that the distance wasn’t one metre in a certain zone or 1.5m in the country…
I do not understand why they refuse to protect themselves by wearing helmets…
we’ve got, we’ve got to inform the public. In Australia, what liability attaches to the cyclist?…
The cyclist isn’t mentioned, so if the cyclist veers further onto the road than is, when the motorist happens to be overtaking him, there is absolutely nothing…”
I should emphasise that Verona is by no means the only one to engage in this, and there are others who go much farther. Sean O’Rourke offered this jaw-dropper as cyclist fatalities climbed, in an interview with Ciaran Cannon in February 2017:
Ciaran Cannon: I was in the cycle lane, the defined cycle lane, and a bus passed very close to me, almost touching my elbow. Ahem, I’m an experienced cyclist, I was able to cope with that, but it’s a very, very frightening experience for the vast majority of cyclists…
Sean O’Rourke: Yeah and maybe the basic wisdom should be you don’t argue with a bus if you’re on a bike.
He listened to the situation described, and posited that the problem was that the cyclist did this crazy thing: in their form as incredibly vulnerable sack of flesh, they instigated an argument with an eighteen-tonne-metal-monster.
There is a word for this phenomenon: dehumanisation. Where people are aware of it, we usually think dehumanisation is only when a group of people are given animal-like characteristics, as has happened on Irish television.
However, dehumanisation also means representing a group of people as being lesser humans, as lacking some qualities that make us fully human. Case in point: knowingly engaging in an extremely dangerous activity, refusing to protect yourself, believing yourself to be invincible, picking a fight with a twenty-tonne machine, deliberately swerving into the path of a car hurtling past them.
The problem with what these people are making themselves guilty of is that the discourse they put out there, the national conversation they shape through their privilege of access to media broadcasts that reach almost every ear in our nation, is that discourse matching this tone and content is associated with the path to violence, often as a deliberate tactic in the process of training soldiers to kill.
Verona, Sean, and many others may never lift a finger to cause direct and deliberate harm to any cyclist, but they tell a very large group of people, all by definition armed with a deadly weapon, that cyclists are less than human, they are to blame for their own misfortune and more than that, they will try to pin that blame on you, the innocent driver.
They don’t commit direct violence against cyclists, but they turn the soil, work in the fertiliser, plant and water the seeds. They should not throw their hands up in shock if something grows.
Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.