Sat, 12 December 2020
We have the right of way - It›s the law! Perhaps that’s what the epitaph on the tombstone of every pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist tragically cut down on our roads should read. Or as I like to put it - you can tell the driver of the car that after they’ve run you over. Thoughtless, callous words? Are you ready to come find me and present me with a haymaker? (Perhaps I deserve it). In any case, you should know that as an avid cyclist, I’ve been cycling on these very roads since I was 10 years old.
Technically I never stopped cycling on road - and this was way before Iron Man thrust the glamour of carbon fiber bicycles that cost more than a compact car into the cognizance of folks here in Bahrain. So, in a manner of speaking - I think I’ve earned the right to voice my opinion on this subject. Even more so because I’ve been on all sides of the motoring realm; behind the wheel of every type of land (and water) going automobile invented - whether it has two, three, four, six, and even ten wheels attached to it. And at the risk of incriminating myself, I am going to admit that I was never a law-abiding comb-over expat motorist either. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and yes, I was an idiot - I’ll be the first to admit. But I’d like to meet a man who hasn’t - either here in Bahrain or elsewhere. It happens - people aren’t perfect.
The result of those actions can be disastrous and tragic - sometimes the damage is limited to the person perpetrating the crime and sometimes there are perfectly innocent victims as well. I am one of the lucky few who’ve managed to wise-up without accruing such untoward incidents and I probably have used up all guardian-angel credits to date. Make no mistake though - I do not condone any of those actions, and because I’ve been down those roads, I know enough today to champion every road-safety cause there is.
Speaking of safety; every time I get on my bicycle and head out towards Belaj Al-Jazayer and take the familiar loop down past the roundabout at the end and turn up towards Al-Areen, my mind is filled with the same sense of law-based hubris as the majority of every cyclist (and motorcyclist) out there. “The guy driving the car should see me” goes the thought process, and “I’m well inside the yellow-line so there’s no way I’m in any danger”; or perhaps the worst one - “I’m in a group of forty cyclists and I’ve got a safety car covering us - what could possibly touch me now?” The next time you start getting those thoughts, I urge you to think about the scenarios I mentioned earlier.
You may very well be spot-on as far as the law is concerned, but the guy driving that ten-year-old Mitsubishi Canter with wooden brakes going 120kph on an 80kph road, late to the job site because he just got off a 14-hour shift isn’t. Or more likely - his sleep deprived brain doesn’t have the capacity to process the consequences of his actions at that given moment in time. Or how about a lorry driving cross-country that loses a tire just as it comes past your cycling group? I’m pretty sure that I can come up with a thousand different scenarios where your safety as a pedestrian (out for a walk / jog / 10K run), cyclist - training for 70.3 or otherwise, and of course as a motorcyclist can and will be severely and gravely compromised.
Close the roads off to motorized vehicles on Fridays? Sure, let’s do it… because imposing the will of a privileged few is more important than acceptance of the larger problem at hand. Cycling lanes? Infrastructure development to expand existing streets, clean and maintain them for those dedicated lanes - let’s have at it; and what will we say when a cyclist is mowed-down whilst in the apparent safety of the cycling lane?
What we are essentially trying to change with haste is a near century of motoring culture. Is it the wrong culture? Not at all - Bahrain has never been the place where major highways were ever shared with anything possessing less than four wheels. If you think about it, we’ve even never had these many delivery bikes around till 2018. Bicycles? Forget about it. If you’ve been in Bahrain for over twenty years, you’ll remember a time when pedestrian crossings were the topic of concern.
Why? Simply because for 10 months in a year, it’s too damn hot and when it isn’t hot, it’s raining - so outdoor activities didn’t exactly gain traction among most locals or expats. “So where do we safely cycle / run / jog / train?!” I hear you yell approaching near-whiteout rage. I’m not here to big-brother you and tell you what you can and cannot do; all I can do is advise. As far as I am concerned, any major highway or street that sees a regular amount of traffic is a no-go safety wise. There are tons of roads to the south of the island that are fairly deserted on early weekend mornings. Are they safe? Not exactly - but manageable in terms of outright risk. Is it worth the drive? If it means being able to drive back home at the end of the day and not to a hospital, then, yes absolutely.
Indemnify yourselves against all risk” is the motto I like to apply to most everything I do in everyday life. So, does this mean that I side with the errant motorist? That I’m indirectly saying that if a cyclist or a pedestrian uses the highway then they deserve what fate befalls them? No - not at all. However, based on any number of scenarios similar to what I’ve mentioned, does it appear that any of those motorists are out to intentionally hurt any pedestrian or cyclist or other road-user? Of course, there will always be the few impatient nut jobs who are a genuine risk to society, but what about your average Joe who’s distracted because he or she has just had a bad day or otherwise? Their intentions were never malicious and they never set out to hurt anyone.
And when they do, their lives are just as equally destroyed as the ones whom they’ve hurt. It is important for us as pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists to understand what it is like from the point of view of a motorist who has never ridden a bicycle, a motorcycle or even jogged alongside a major highway (yes, they do exist and more so in this region).
You put me behind the wheel of a car, and as distracted as I may be, I know what to watch out for and the kind of precautions I need to take as I approach a motorcycle, a cyclist or a pedestrian since I’ve been one of them. I know that a cyclist who’s squeezed into a narrow hard-shoulder could hit debris and instinctively fork left into traffic as a reflex action - so I’d plan for that. But that›s not the case for a motorist who has no comprehension of these facts. For that matter, most motorists are unable to comprehend the consequences of actually colliding with a pedestrian or a cyclist until long after it actually happens. Do you want to blame mobile phones? Consider this first - Does your car have an infotainment screen? Yes. Are there shops that actively retrofit infotainment screens into older vehicles that even bypass motion-based safety protocols such as disabling video functionality? Yes. Are there mobile-phone holders that affix themselves to the dashboard or windshield and provides an eye-line cinema experience? Yes. So how does one enforce active driver-attention? The simple answer is that you cannot - try as anybody might, short of having infrared eye-scanning lasers at every lamppost actively scanning the eyes of every motorist as they drive by, it is a near impossible task.
So, we’ve covered the problem at length - what are the solutions? Cycling lanes? Perhaps… yes. Car-free zones or days? Questionable plausibility but let’s say we can make it happen. Harsher fines and jail time? Sure, let’s do that as well. Is any of this going to prevent another mishap? Absolutely not. Do motorists need to be educated better? Yes, absolutely - situational awareness and readiness around pedestrians and cyclists must be inculcated into every new learner at the driving school. However, the only way we can ensure that another cyclist, or pedestrian doesn’t get injured or killed, is to change the way we think when we are out on the roads. Cyclists and pedestrians need to understand that regardless of what the law says, they will be the ultimate losers in a tug of war between them and a two-ton missile. Once you understand this, take active action to indemnify yourself; if you must cycle or run, do a bit of reconnaissance first - check out the roads around Zallaq, the highways and roads around Durrah, and Al-Areen. Compared to near any road around the kingdom, these places have relatively decent shoulder-space and perhaps more importantly - sparse traffic on Friday mornings. Cycle or jog on the left side (your vision should be towards oncoming traffic) - this allows you to see what’s coming at you and may allow you to take evasive action should something seem out of the ordinary.
Always assume that the driver of the car or truck is distracted and does not see you - regardless of how many you are in number or the kind of lights or high-visibility jackets you have on. And finally, it goes without saying that if you’re cycling, having on proper gear is an added layer of insurance you ought to have.
If we want safer roads for everybody, we need to start with a change in our own thought processes; and that starts with a situational awareness of how things have been shaped over the years. Both sides need to stop denigrating the other and learn the constraints that are attached to the situation and adapt accordingly. This is the only way forward. Safe Motoring!
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