Sunday 10 April 2011

Road rage on Dutch roads

The same spot two days later. Not the same cars or drivers.
This Thursday I had my first "road rage" incident since we moved here nearly four years ago. It's taken that many years, and about 40000 km of riding for one slightly unpleasant thing to happen to me. I used to expect it far more frequently in the UK.

On my commute, there is only one place where this could happen. Haren. This small town, just south of Groningen, is famous for its Shared Space, and I've also written before about how drivers ignore the speed limit on the very road where the incident occurred.

Many people I know, and myself too, avoid cycling through the Shared Space area because it's unpleasant to cycle through. I always take the back streets through Haren, avoiding the area with the shops in it (which also of course means that I've never bought anything from those shops). Many drivers also avoid it because it's horrible to drive through. The result is that Haren is the only place I've found so far in the Netherlands which has a problem with rat-running - drivers trying to avoid the Shared Space area instead drive aggressively through these back streets. Shared Space creates problems even outside its own boundaries due to these extra cars in the back-roads which ought to be properly be the preserve of cyclists and residents

The back roads have 30 km/h speed limits, but they are not arranged so that they are especially inconvenient for drivers to use as through routes. As a result of this, they have become de-facto main routes for drivers avoiding the Shared Space. Almost no drivers adhere to the speed limit.

Having given some background, here's what happened:

I was riding along Nieuwlandsweg at 36 km/h. This is well above the 30 km/h speed limit, but I've become accustomed to being overtaken by almost all cars here whatever speed I ride. As I approached the junction with Hertenlaan and Onnenweg, I could see a car in my mirror which was rapidly approaching from behind. When I got to the junction, there was traffic coming from the right which I had to give way to (that's the law - everyone gives way to the right). The first of these vehicles was a tractor pulling a trailer, and it was was followed by two cars. Due to having stopped, the car behind me caught up with me and stopped right behind me.

When the vehicles from the right had made their turn, I set off and almost immediately was close behind the second car. It turned out that the tractor was doing a maximum of 28 km/h and all of us were following it at this low speed. This didn't stop the driver behind me from becoming impatient and trying to overtake, but it was impossible so instead he/she went into the middle of the road, got 3/4 of the way past me and then started tooting the horn. I got in front and rode as close as possible to the centreline at 28 km/h (the speed of the cars and tractors in front of me) until first the car behind turned off to the left and sped down a side-street in the general direction of the shops and offices, and later on the cars and tractor in front turned down other side roads and I could get back up to a normal cruising speed.

As these things go, it was actually very minor. I wasn't crashed into or pushed off the road deliberately, nothing was thrown at me, no-one punched me. After I made it clear that I was staying where I wanted to be, the driver pulled back and didn't follow excessively close behind. However, these things which I've mentioned all happened to me when I lived in Britain, and they all happened a lot more often than once in every 40000 km of cycling. By comparison, cycling here has been miraculously free of hassle from drivers.

However, that's not because Dutch people behave particularly differently when behind the steering wheel of a car. As this incident shows, put people in the same situation and they behave in much the same way. In general, Dutch road designs call for design to be obvious so that correct, safe behaviour becomes the way that people will naturally drive. This incident occurred in a rare place where drivers and cyclists are crushed together, creating conflict.

I've long believed that the main reason why conflict between cyclists and motorists is rare in the Netherlands is that we exist mainly in parallel universes, and rarely have to directly interact. As a cyclist, either you're on a cycle path, or you're on a road which doesn't have cars on it. This rare exception shows how it should not be done.

Grotere kaart weergeven


Anonymous said...

"By comparison, cycling here has been miraculously free of hassle from drivers. However, that's not because Dutch people behave particularly differently when behind the steering wheel of a car. As this incident shows, put people in the same situation and they behave in much the same way."

I am not so sure that Dutch motorists' behaviour around cyclists is entirely due to the layout of the roads (although that is certainly the main reason).

I suspect that Dutch drivers generally behave better than British drivers around cyclists, in a given situation, because they are far more likely to cycle themselves, or know someone who does.

Many, many UK drivers never cycle at all, and consequently they have no idea what it is like to cycle alongside motor vehicles.

Taliesin said...

Actually, from experience I’d say it is pretty easy to experience some level of “road rage” in NL. All you would need to do is ignore a side path and ride on the road. I was honked at last time I was there when I overlooked a leaf covered path in a minor road in The Hague, and observed another cyclist being similarly treated for a similar transgression.

I think there is a tendency to think of "road rage" against cyclists as some indication of a decline of civility or a lack of understanding of the needs of cyclists.

However, I suspect that frustration is actually the natural human response when driving a fast vehicle that is held up by a slower vehicle. Of course, most people suppress this frustration and wait for the right time to overtake, but a minority will display some form of aggression. The more assertively you ride, the more likely you are to cause a motorist to perceive that they have been held up, and hence why helmet camera cyclists, who I think tend to be of the assertive/Cycle Craft type, in the UK find it so easy to film instances of aggression from motorists.

Because most people have an innate desire to avoid causing frustration to others and trying to weed out the “road rage” prone drivers would be very politically difficult, this is just another nail in the coffin of mass vehicular cycling as a path to mass cycling.

Ground Round Jim said...

This isn't a road rage incident.

More like everyday driving.

Frits B said...

@Taliesin: Being honked at when you are in a place you shouldn't be in needn't be caused by frustration. If you were a pedestrian walking in the road you might receive the same treatment: a warning that you should use the path provided for you. Most "side paths" are mandatory cycle paths.

Riccardo said...

I'm Italian, but in Sweden now. I think it's a question about ... as to say "civilization".
Here people are more quiet and respect cyclist.
In Italy if you obstacle a car...ahhh they kill you...
And yes I also think that frustration and unhappiness is growing up...

Paul Martin said...

Sounds like something that happens to me at least every week in Australia, without provocation...

...the difference being that the overtaking car would have just pushed me into the gutter so I'd have no choice.

This notion that bicycles and cars should be treated equally as 'vehicles' (aka Vehicular Cycling) is total nonsense if we expect anyone other than the 'brave' or 'young males' to cycling in great numbers. The techniques taught are useful, no doubt, but too much VC is a symptom of a diseased bicycle culture.

Those that think it is a good idea need to ask themselves this: If, as a pedestrian, there was no safe provision to walk next to a road, would you walk on the road, 'taking the lane', 'vehicular walking' style.

There is little difference between a slow bicycle and a pedestrian but an enormous one between a car and a bicycle.

Regarding aggressive car drivers: I'd like to do a little experiment. If everyone drove convertibles (so you could see the driver's face) would this sort of behaviour would decrease? Does being slightly anonymous allow seemingly normal, rational people turn into sociopaths?

Anonymous said...

I witnessed some road rage when walking along one of the canals in Amsterdam (my hometown). The narrow roads along the canals are shared by cyclists and cars and that doesn't always work well. In this case a discussion between a older man on a bicycle and a young guy in a car looking for a place to park ended with the cyclist screaming abuse at the car driver who, thankfully, kept his mouth shut and drove on. This is what usually happens around here. An expat from New-Zealand (see even made a cartoon about it called 'Amsterdam sin' :-)


Anonymous said...

Unrelated but for those interested, you can find all of Xtotle's cartoons about his observations of life in Amsterdam in his blogarchive 2009.
Here a few about cyclists:

My favourite. You see this a lot :-)


David Hembrow said...

The cartoons that Norma has provided links to are all very amusing indeed.

Kevin Steinhardt said...

I had an 'incident' with a young Dutch motorist pfft... an hour after docking in NL. It was a rural single-carriageway, no centre line, no cycle lanes, 60 km/u kind of road; I was apparently cycling too far out. I cycle 1.5 m out from the kerb for a good reason in the UK, but I also cycle 1.5 m when the road I'm on is flanked by 5 m drops into dijken. Anyway: shook me no more than it would have done in the UK, but I guess it's just young motorists' arrogance---something which is international.

Unknown said...

I somewhat doubt the road rage was directed at you. Getting stuck behind a tractor is very annoying for car drivers (difficult to pass on many small back roads). My take is that you were just stuck in the middle. I wasnt there tough.

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

That cartoon looks as if the motorists are the "victims" of road rage.