Aggression from motorists towards cyclists has put people off cycling and, in some cases, it doesn’t stop at just threats of violence. Reporter Claudia Dalby talks to cyclists who have been blasted out of it and looks at what can be done to tackle driver aggression towards cyclists.
The intimidation and aggression can result in some people stopping cycling or avoiding cycling on certain roads or even whole areas. Others are not deterred and call for more to be done in terms of enforcement and infrastructure.
Linda Collins has been commuting by bike in Dublin for sixteen years. She finds herself in an aggressive or dangerous situation with a driver at least once or twice a week, she says.
One particular altercation recently was different to the others, Collins says, over the phone. It was particularly aggressive, and put her life in danger.
Her commute is 2km through the north city, each way. She was cycling her usual way, taking off for a green light, when the driver behind her began honking at her in a 30km/h zone, where there’s another set of traffic lights just over 100m ahead.
Collins cycles an e-bike and she says she might take off at 25km/h. “Which is fairly fast,” she says.
In response to the honking, Collins slowed down. “It’s the right thing to do,” she says. “I’m definitely not going to move out of the way.”
She says that cyclists can’t beep, they can’t respond equally, and beeping could startle someone and cause an accident.
The driver beeped at her for the length of street, and shouted profanities. Pedestrians checked that Collins was okay.
“They sensed he was intimidating, being a bully,” she says.
As she took the right turn, the driver revved his engine as though to hit her — the pedestrians shouted warnings to her, she says. When she caught up to him where he was stopped in traffic ahead, she tapped his window.
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The driver got out of his car
“I’ve never seen a man in his mid to late 30s jump out of a car to start a fight,” she says. “I said, ‘I’d better move on, this guy has serious road rage’.” She cycled off before he could reach her. “He had serious issues.”
Nicholas, a Deliveroo driver, says that recently, a taxi driver had revved up behind him on the one-way Richmond Hill Street in Rathmines. “It was a small street and I didn’t have much space to ride.”
The driver honked repeatedly, and accelerated close to his bike, he says. “He made a dangerous overtake and threw the car at me, almost hitting me. I was very scared, because I thought something worse could have happened.”
Nicholas slowed down and let the taxi driver go.
Cyclists in Dublin say that not enough is done to reduce the amount of alterations that occur — not enough infrastructure changes, not enough policing.
Collins says in general, she will have a notable conflict with a driver once or twice a week while doing her daily commute in and out of work.
According to a London Cycling Campaign 2023 study, 93% of 1,000 female respondents said that drivers had used their vehicles to be intimidating, and 77% said it happened more than once a month.
Drivers shouted “get off the road”, and tailgated, close passed and even deliberately hit cyclists with their vehicles, the study said. More than one in five of the respondents had given up cycling temporarily or permanently after these incidents.
Drivers showing aggressive tendencies are typically male, says Collins. “Taxi drivers sometimes, but they wouldn’t be the biggest offenders. It’s males, mid 30s, 40s, 50s, generally single occupier.”
Where does this behaviour come from?
Dr Robert Egan, an engineering research fellow at Trinity College Dublin, studied driver aggression as part of his 2019 PhD. The behaviour originates, he says, “in a long-standing belief that cyclists disrupt the flow of traffic.”
Road design implies this, he says. Prioritising the car has led to a common and widely accepted view that cyclists are a nuisance to healthily flowing traffic — cyclists getting in people’s way and posing dangers when drivers are trying to get to work, to drop the kids, to live their lives.
Ireland’s Design Manual of Urban Roads and Streets, a tool for road design, outlines that in the 60s, planning should prioritise the flow of traffic and segregate pedestrians.
Egan refers to a 2015 paper by Dr Erika Hanna, a social historian at the University of Bristol who has focused on the history of the built environment in Ireland and Britain. Hanna outlines how cyclists made up 30% of journeys in 1961 traffic counts for Dublin city and Dún Laoghaire, but how this was “effectively planned out of the city in favour of a vision of universal car ownership and use”.
He says this has led to drivers believing that they have more of a right to the road than a cyclist. They may not be conscious of this belief. But it makes them think that cyclists have to be disciplined to know their place.
This means that vulnerable road users aren’t protected enough, Egan says. “Public space should be reconfigured to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport, and mitigate domineering driver behaviour. You want to eliminate interactions between the drivers and vulnerable road users.”
How do cyclists respond?
In his PhD study, Egan found that a diverse cohort of cyclists experienced segregation, disregard by drivers and an absence of police protection when cycling in Dublin.
Cyclists were routinely disregarded by aggressive behaviours, the study found, such as being beeped at for occupying a primary position on the road, having their right of way ignored, and being cut-off, tailgated, and close passed.
Egan also looked at how cyclists typically responded to this behaviour. They usually adapted their behaviour to manage the endangerment posed by drivers, like Nicholas’ reaction to the aggressive taxi driver.
Some dodged — cycled on the pavement or gutter, braced themselves, or acted blasé about dangerous interactions.
Others, however, behaved in a way that “provoked responsibility” in the driver — forcing them to respect the cyclists’ place in the road. So they used assertive road positioning, called out the behaviour, insisted on their right of way, and report the behaviour to the police.
Collins says she is not afraid to slow down, to confront drivers. Years of experience on the road taught her that this is the only way to respond.
“I am five foot nothing,” says Collins. “I won’t be bullied.”
She’ll typically get out and confront the driver in bad situations. “I’ll ask them, ‘is there a job more important than me getting home safe?’” she says. That can make them stop and think.
Collins says she used to be more timid on the roads, she’d pull in when people threatened her. “In the beginning I’d pull in, wondering what am I doing wrong. It took a few years to realise I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Once, a man cut her off to mount a path. If she hadn’t had quick reflexes to dodge him, she could have died, she says. She confronted him. “He stood back and said, ‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t think’.”
Sometimes, you get arrogant drivers who think they are more important and that their time is more valuable, she says, and you are a hindrance.
For those people, she says, you have to grow a thick skin.
What can cyclists do?
Collins used to send video recordings to the Gardaí. “But I stopped that. I don’t want to bring it home and trawl through camera footage.
“Years ago I would have had cameras on my bike, reporting to the Guards,” she says.
Her husband, Peter Collins, regularly reports cycling conflicts to the Gardaí, but little can come of it. Gardaí and summons don’t show in court, she says. “Gardaí don’t see this as an issue. There’s a lack of enforcement, a lack of understanding of the rules of the road.”
Collins has stopped recording. “All I’m doing is annoying myself, it’s happened, it’s over.”
Sometimes, cyclists don’t have the opportunity to go to Gardaí, or else there are too many barriers to doing so easily.
Ger O’Halloran, another long-term cyclist, says a van overtook him closely, past a narrow pedestrian island
“I was scared, so I roared back,” he says. “He started to slow down, waited for me to catch up.”
Then, he started driving alongside O’Halloran. “Cursing and swearing,” he says.
He said that the driver said, “I’ll kill you now” before swerving the van towards O’Halloran, trying to knock him off his bike. Luckily, O’Halloran had been holding the van with one hand, to balance himself, so he wasn’t swept beneath the body.
“It was the most shaken I’d been,” he says. He rang the Gardaí after, who asked him to go to the station to make a report. “I didn’t have time, it was just too much hassle.”
What could be done? Infrastructure and better reporting
Egan says he would be eager to see an expansion of the official rights of cyclists and the responsibilities of drivers in road traffic law. “An officially recognised basis for treating cyclists with extra care and priority.”
This is implied in the RSA’s Road Safety Strategy 2021 – 2030, he says. Action 43 states that the Department of Transport should lead a review of road traffic policy and legislation, “to prioritise the safety of walking and cycling.”
There must be stronger penalties for drivers colliding with cyclists, and more ramifications for aggressive behaviours like tailgating and beeping, he says. Minimum legal passing distances should be mandated, too.
Infrastructure is just as important, he says, and certain streets should be designated just for cycling.
But before that, the tweaks to existing infrastructure that have been made should be policed and enforced. Collins says drivers need to start respecting the bike box so that cyclists can turn right more safely. “They are not for drivers to sit and wait. They need to be enforced.”
The footpath build-outs which cause cyclists and drivers to bottleneck should have a ramp, forcing drivers to slow down, says O’Halloran.
Rows of parked cars mean cyclists want to move into the centre of the road to avoid being doored, but this can frustrate some drivers, he says. “They will rev behind you, start getting loud and impatient.”
Cycling on congested roads can be safer, he says, because cars can’t quickly overtake you.
Collins says it needs to be easier to report to people, and the system needs to work. “There needs to be an outcome, more frequently.”
Deterred from cycling?
O’Halloran says he is not deterred by the experiences he has on the road, because of his bigger reasons to cycle. “Environmental reasons, reduce my emissions, exercise.”
Sometimes, his stories make his family and friends nervous, and he’s conscious that he might be deterring them from taking up cycling.
“It’s not the most supportive message, that every single driver will try to potentially hurt you,” he says. “I love cycling, think it’s brilliant.”
He might not mention certain bad experiences on the road, he says. “A lot of those horror stories are bound to happen when you interact with traffic, over the 1,000s of days where nothing has happened.”