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Hedge-blog: driver attitudes in Utrecht and Harrogate

31st July 2015

Relaxed cycling in Utrecht

I recently cycled in Utrecht, and made a video about the attitudes of road users there. This week, I cycled in Harrogate town centre, on a weekday between 5 and 6pm. The difference was striking.

In Utrecht, most drivers are careful and patient, and there's a bit of give and take between road users. This is the Utrecht driver attitude video:

In Harrogate, the average driver attitude is very different. My perception is that when people driving cars in Harrogate come up behind a cyclist, their first and overriding thought is, 'I must get past as soon as possible.' Safety and the Highway Code are secondary, or not considered at all. Backing off and waiting is not regarded as a viable option.

Many streets have parked cars on one or both sides, and/or are not very wide. As a result, it's difficult to overtake a bike as prescribed by the Highway Code, leaving plenty of space. Rather than wait, most people squeeze past anyway, leaving very little space. Most of the time, this just means they get to the next traffic lights or queue slightly sooner.

On Victoria Avenue this week, the driver of a blue BMW was so desperate to get past me, that she didn't see two people about to use the zebra crossing. I stopped to let them cross, while the driver failed to do so, and drove on through. 

That incident is indicative of a massive attitude problem in Harrogate (and the UK). Far too many drivers go into 'warrior' mode in their cars, especially in rush hour, and this leads to dangerous driving. It would be far better if they set off a minute or two earlier; or arrived at their destination a minute or two later.

Another type of dangerous behaviour I've often noticed on Harrogate's roads, is the use of mobile phones. Crossing the Leeds Road at the Prince of Wales roundabout the other day, I saw a man in a black Porsche Carrera holding his phone in his left hand, and talking into it. It didn't surprise me. If you walk past any junction in Harrogate, you won't have to wait long before you see a driver texting or otherwise using their mobile. It's commonplace.

Drink driving is broadly recognised as a danger, and is socially unacceptable. The distraction caused by messing around with phones is comparable with drink driving, and yet using a phone while driving is not stigmatised in the same way. 

But it's aggressive and impatient driving which is most likely to deter people from riding bikes in Harrogate. I'm a confident cyclist, but I didn't enjoy cycling in the town centre during rush hour, and I'd probably avoid doing it again. What about children or less experienced cyclists? They are probably also put off. Given the driver attitudes, at the moment our cycle infrastructure is not up to the job of making people on bikes feel safe.

Are there any bright spots? Yes - one driver made an exemplary overtake when I was on Beech Grove. He gave me plenty of space. If someone had taken a photo of his manoeuvre, it could have been used to illustrate rule 163 of the Highway Code. The (to me) surprising aspect of it was that it was a taxi driver.

Nevertheless, one impeccable overtake is not enough. It's not only better cycle infrastructure that's needed in Harrogate - it's also time to re-think our attitudes when driving.

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