I’ve often groped for a phrase that accurately sums up what it is like to be strafed by a passing car or motorbike while on a bike: the sudden onrush of terror as a vehicle slices past mere centimetres from your body, engine revving, driver gesticulating and/or yelling abuse, followed by the sense of outrage, heightened by the fact that you literally have no recourse in such situations, and (maybe this is just me) a feeling of hurt. You are powerless. But not only that, someone has just expressed their utter contempt for your continued existence. As McNulty would put it: What the fuck did I do?
The vehicle accelerates away or, as often happens, almost immediately brakes and stops at the approaching intersection. Once, hands shaking, I knocked on the driver’s window and asked him why he’d chosen to run the risk of killing me for the sake of arriving at a red traffic light a couple of seconds earlier. He glanced at me with mild bemusement, as if the answer was obvious. A young girl was sitting in the passenger seat. His daughter, maybe. I wanted to say, I’ve got a daughter too, man. And a son. Think about that, YOU CUNT. But, of course, I didn’t say that.
Here’s how it can happen. You’re on your bike cycling down a narrow road. To avoid being doored and to prevent vehicles from passing too closely, you move into what is called ‘the primary position’ in cycling proficiency classes, i.e. the centre of the road. I do this very rarely and only when the road is so narrow that there isn’t room for a car to pass me safely. Knocking me off my bike would cause a massive deal of hassle for all concerned, so it’s kind of a favour. Unsurprisingly, most drivers don’t see it like that.
Instead, you hear them accelerating behind you, itching to get past. They are being delayed by mere seconds. The road widens or there’s a gap in the parked cars and you pull over, then the strafing commences. In the incident’s aftermath, you cycle onwards, emotions whirring and clacking like a poorly adjusted dérailleur.
I’ve always been at a loss to label this event. It was just one of those daily or weekly things. Until today, that is, because I read a blog post where it was described as a ‘punishment pass’:
I made it home, and the following is a copy of the text message exchange I had with J:
“And I’m home. Only the two punishment passes and the one obscene suggestion from a stranger, so we’ll class that as ‘home safely.’”
“What’s a punishment pass?”
“If a cyclist is riding to prevent you overtaking, because it’s not safe, when you can overtake you drive as close as you can whilst shouting abuse.”
“How do you put up with it?”
“I have no idea.”
That’s it, that’s exactly it.
Now, whenever I’m almost killed on my way to work/the nursery/the supermarket by a car or motorbike deliberately passing as close as possible, I’ll call it a punishment pass. As a term, punishment pass needs to become a familiar expression. Driving to instil fear in cyclists, at greatly increased risk to their personal safety, needs to become a recognised thing in the same way drinking and driving has become a recognised thing. By remaining largely silent, you could argue, society tacitly condones such behaviour. This needs to change, which might just encourage more drivers to think twice about doing it.
Or am I being too wildly optimistic/negative?