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Highway Code Words
by Robert Crampton

Cyclists in London break the law. Constantly, routinely, flagrantly. By law-breaking, I do not mean the sort of mass naughtiness that took place during the demonstrations in the capital last summer. I mean the everyday, individual transgressions against the highway regulations that I think here, among friends, we can all admit to.

Having though about it a bit, I think I break the highway code for three reasons. The first is about safety: the safest option is often the illegal one. The second is about maximising the advantage of being on a bicycle rather than in a car. Cars can't go on pavements, bicycles can, and quite often the temptation is too great to reject.

The third reason is the most controversial: there is a good feeling -- I would hesitate to use the word thrill, but the feeling is close to that -- to be derived from small acts of inconsequential disobedience in which the only potential victim is yourself and for which, in any case, you will almost certainly go unpunished.

Sometimes all three reasons combine in a particular manoeuvre, and become hard to disentangle. I think the cycling personality combines both the rationalist and the rebel, the public spirit and the free spirit. I certainly like to think my cycling personality does; that I cycle both because it is the cheapest, quickest, most hassle-free and ecologically defensible means of getting around central London, but also because it accords the most freedom to live for a short while outwith the system (which often involves living outwith the law), and get away with it.

The best way to illustrate all this is to look at my journey to work. I am -- again, I suspect, like most cyclists -- something of a pedant for detail. So I know that this journey is exactly 2.2 miles (my record, for the record, is 11 minutes 22 seconds, late at night, on freshly pumped tyres, and owing much to favourable weather and benevolent traffic lights). Over that short distance, I estimate I break the law four or five times, sometimes for safety, sometimes for speed and convenience, sometimes for the hell of it.

Let's count. I get the bike out of the garage and get on it. That sounds fairly harmless, but, if it's dark, I have already broken the law by having a flashing rear light attached to the bike rather than to me.

I did not realise this was wrong until recently. When I did, I did not start attaching the light to my clothing instead of the bike, nor did I start putting the light in non-flashing mode. Why not? Because my girlfriend, who drives a car, told me that cyclists are easier to see if the light is flashing; because it would be a hassle to change over; and because it seems like a bloody stupid rule in the first place.

I come out of my house and have to cross a corner of London Field, in Hackney. I join a cycle lane for about 50 yards. There are lots of cycle lanes in parks, where you don't need them, and few on roads, where you do. I don't think I break any law in London Fields, unless you count the occasions when I indulge myself by going full tilt over the concrete humps in the skateboard area, daring myself to get the front wheel off the ground but never quite managing it. That is probably against some bylaw or other.

Leaving the park, I head south down Broadway Market. Any congestion there -- there usually is -- and I go on to the pavement. I keep a lookout for pedestrians and I go very slowly, but I know I shouldn't do it at all, and I feel a bit guilty. This proves the fundamental law-abidingness of my nature, I think.

Down into Goldsmith's Row, which is a one-way street. There is a cycle path which allows me to go legally against the traffic, but ten yards from the end it veers right and I want to go left. I could stay on the cycle path and come a long way round, but instead I go on to the road, against the one-way. Any car turning the corner has to avoid me. I'm in the wrong there again but, even so, I can get quite annoyed with car drivers who make the turn too quickly and have to brake hard when confronted with me.

I cross over Hackney Road into Warner Place. Loads of parked cars cause hold-ups there. I'm either back on the pavement, or squeezing along the blind side of the traffic. Getting down to the lights at the Bethnal Green Road, I edge forward there, using, like a lot of cyclists, the red light for the cross traffic as my go signal rather than my own green light. I can't defend using the pavement, but I can explain this manoeuvre. A car once cut me up here, turning left without indicating, so I want to be well ahead of trouble if anybody does it again.

I have learnt, in common, I am sure, with most readers of this article, that it is best to be away first, rather than trust drivers' signals, or lack of them. I have also learnt that (because no motorist in London actually observes stop lines but instead pulls forward a yard or two into the road, and because potholes and general surface deterioration gets worse the closer you get to the kerb) it is safest to stay well out into the road.

This can prevent cars behind you overtaking, and they don't like that at all. Slowing cars down is not in itself illegal, but my gestures once they start hooting me probably are.

I approach the lights at the Mile End Road, the A11, two thirds of the distance done, halfway on the clock. From here on in, the traffic is very heavy, the streets narrow. This is the heart of the East End's rag trade. Now, you could designate a cycle lane here, but only if you first dynamited a couple of hundred shops. You could ban vans and lorries too, but several thousand Bengali businessmen would be put out of work.

It's a tough junction, this. Many of you will be familiar with it. The cars behind and in front of me are about to go left, right or take the staggered straight on, which is where I want to go. The safest and quickest thing for me to do is again to go ahead of the green light, giving myself a clear, although rather self-conscious run across the empty junction in front of dozens of stationary cars.

I believe the remainder of my journey is legal. There is an extra transgression on the way home, because I have to go the wrong way up a one-way street. Those 30 yards on the wrong side of the law combine, like most of the other manoeuvres, elements of safety (the long way round involves prolonged exposure to heavy traffic), and of convenience (the short cut is, by definition, quicker) and of system-beating (the street was designated one-way because there are too many cars on the road; I am not in a car, therefore I claim my right to boot the rule into touch).

If a car driver drove the way I ride, I would hope he or she would be stopped and punished in short order. If someone stopped me, I would be outraged.

© Robert Crampton
London Cyclist, June/July 1997

Robert is a lost author who's been found

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