COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Imagine you could magically change one belief drivers have about road use. What would it be? For me a top contender is the belief that you pass a cyclist when you encounter them on the road. Instead, I would want all drivers to think of it as overtaking, and the concept should be identical to overtaking any other vehicle.
At the moment the most widespread belief is that the presence of a cyclist on the road should make as close as possible to no difference to a driver. Society believes the cyclist’s duty is to position themselves such that the driver can pass them, the same way they’d pass a lamppost.
Cyclists are viewed as a feature on the road that should not affect the flow of motorised traffic. In other words, there is a widespread belief that the width of a car and the width of a bicycle should be accommodated in a lane simultaneously.
Roads don’t need to be very narrow for this belief to become problematic. Drivers continue to behave as they believe things should work: the lane should accommodate the width of their car and the width of the cyclist side by side.
If the lane is narrower, it’s a tighter squeeze, and if they think about it at all, I think people would reason that’s just the way it is in narrower streets.
Isolated in a metal box, devoid of ever experiencing for themselves what such a situation feels like for cyclists, many drivers don’t see the harm. Likewise, the belief that the lane at all times should accommodate both the width of their car and the width of a cyclist means that when the cyclist positions themselves in such a way that the driver cannot squeeze past, many respond with anger. That anger stems from the belief that they should be able to pass the cyclist. If the road is simply too narrow, the go-to response is anger with the cyclist for being there.
The phrase expressing this in a few words is when people vent their frustration with cyclists who “don’t stay on the left side”. Per the law, cyclists have a right to the width of the lane, so unless they are cycling into oncoming traffic, they are “on the left side”.
Few people comprehend this. The proposed Minimum Passing Distance Law allows drivers to still intrude into part of that space, provided they don’t come closer than a metre/1.5 metres to the cyclist. That should be viewed as the grace that it is.
Until we figure out magic, we should perhaps avoid talking about drivers passing cyclists. Vehicles only pass each other on the road if they are in separate lanes. Otherwise it’s an overtake, and we should call it that.