Part of my job as a cycling instructor is to deliver SUD (Safe Urban Driving) courses to lorry drivers. The SUD was introduced because, while HGVs make up the lowest percentage of vehicles on London’s roads, they are involved in the highest proportion of fatalities. The course involves taking a group of drivers (almost always men, and often large) out on bikes and showing them another perspective – what it means to be a good cyclist, and why there are so many bad ones. It’s an excellent programme – nearly every burly trucker who takes part says something along the lines of “I’ve been dreading this all week,” but by the end they are beaming and thanking us sincerely for a great day.
It’s just as educational for us to sit in their cab and see what they really can see, to see how tiny the bike looks in comparison to their vehicle, to get a feel for what it’s like to have several tonnes of truck behind you and to have to check all those mirrors.
I drove a white van once, along the same streets that I usually cycle down, the heavy tyres and suspension absorbing each blip, pothole and rough patch that I usually have to keep my eyes peeled to avoid. What scared me most (apart from the fear that I would hit a cyclist — imagine!!) was the number of bicycle riders that pulled out round parked cars or buses without looking. Nearly every one. I just wouldn’t feel safe on my bike if I didn’t check behind me before each manoeuvre. What surprised me most was how few cyclists there were. There seem to be more if you’re one of them. They’re much easier to ignore if you’re in a large vehicle. And what also surprised me is how little I envied them. Even the ones who sailed through the traffic, easily getting to the front of my queue. They just looked so cold! All wrapped up in scarves and gloves! And it looks so dangerous! All that traffic! They seem so vulnerable! Rather them than me. Even though I know how wonderful it is to be on a bike, warm as soon as you get going, reliably making your journey in the predicted time regardless of how heavy the traffic is, much less dangerous than it looks, the freedom of powering yourself an utter joy. I used to wonder why car users didn’t feel more tempted to join us cyclists. But having changed places for just a few hours, I’m now not surprised that more drivers don’t ditch their vehicles for two wheels.
So changing places really is vital for people to empathise with the other side. Make cyclists realise that being more aware and following the Highway Code is so important. Let van drivers see why that cyclist is riding so far from that car door, why they are sitting in the middle of the lane at junctions, or why they are not looking round all the time, and why they filter down the inside even though that’s the danger zone. It should be mandatory for all professional drivers on London’s streets: buses, taxis, delivery drivers. There’ve even been suggestions that a cycle lesson should be part of the standard driving licence. Perhaps that day will come, and hopefully it won’t take another cyclist death to make it happen.