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Yesterday evening I had an invitation to visit a friend in York, and decided to ride. I’d borrowed a bike*, and York is one of the UK’s three ‘cycling cities’** that were being trumpeted to rival Amsterdam and Copenhagen as world-class cycling centres, so I figured I’d be okay. And I was, mostly because I started on a fairly minor road and some kind soul reminded me that in the UK people drive on the left before I met any traffic.

I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the bike lanes: certainly I’d have preferred them to have priority over side roads like in Germany, and it would have been even better if the one I was using hadn’t given up after a couple of hundred metres and pitched me into the road, but it wasn’t too bad.

In the other hand, I liked these nifty speed lumps in the roads. I’m sure you’re all used to them by now, but humour me while I ramble on about them like some country cousin discovering electricity: they are just narrow enough for a car to drive over them fairly quickly without spilling the drivers coffee, so cars seem utterly focussed on keeping their wheels either side of the things. I soon noticed that vehicles overtaking would go over (round?) the more distant bump, giving me a reasonable amount of room. Just as well as I was on the road all the way to my friend’s house and back: if I’d followed the designated cycle route I’d most likely still be out there.

Come to think of it, none of the drivers who passed were using their phone either, because they had to concentrate on the road to avoid leaving part of the car on the road. If only we could get them to treat pedestrians with the same respect as their own vehicles…

*Thanks dad…

**The others being Bristol and… where are the others exactly?


This weekend I made a trip to Bad Urach, in the hope of making a metric century.* Bad Urach is the sort of German town you see on calenders, with a medieval centre, winding cobbled streets, timber framed buildings, street cafés and a chemist claiming to have been in business since 1429. The town has been thankfully well looked after too, with a merciful absence of ugly modern buildings, apart from one brutalist concrete monstrosity that the council must have approved during an office party, but even that was tucked down a side street. The council did manage to make most of the old town pedestrianised so that instead of cars in the centre you get scenes like this.

Of course, just after I took this picture a car came trundling furtively down the road towards the café, probably having taken a wrong turn somewhere. I’m not one to criticise drivers for getting stuck on the wrong road, as I’m especially prone to doing exactly that: my dad still hasn’t forgotten the trauma of driving here while trying to follow instructions like “Turn left here… Oops, that’s a cycleway.” But, dear readers, I would ask one question: if you have unfortunately managed to find yourself driving along a pedestrianised street barely wide enough for your car, and come across a café whose furniture makes it even narrower and thus impossible to pass, do you:

A: Drive back the way you came and find one of the perfectly good, fast roads around the town to get to your destination, or…

B: …get your passenger to alight from the vehicle and move the offending furniture so that you can keep going, because obviously, you need to get somewhere and the furniture is In The Way?

I wonder what they would have done if the tables had been occupied…

*106km as you asked, at an average speed of 19km/h, and my legs let me know about it the next day…

As in, “there’s always one” There always is.

In case, spinning wheels ineffectually on a snowy hill for three minutes and moving exactly zero metres forward. The other three cars had turned around and slithered off again in a variety of interesting ways by the time I got the camera.

Well, not a great deal seems to have happened this week, but that would be a false impression. It’s just that not a lot has happened that I can make an interesting blog entry out of.* I can’t even regale you with tales of horrific winter blizzards and drifts up to the windowsills because even the weather is just in a big grey sulk like a teenager being forced to do their homework. When you start blogging about the weather being apathetic then you really are short of blogging subjects.

Still, I suspect it’s the calm before the storm, as next week will be my Praktikum, a trial week with the local carpenter, who fortunately for me is within an easy walk of where we live. If I manage to convince the boss that I can handle a week of eight-hour shifts without tripping over, passing out, crashing the van, or amputating my own thumb, I can hopefully start a full three-year apprenticeship in this company in September. In Germany we still have this quaint notion that training people is a good idea, so a lot of people here do apprenticeships like this in just about everything from social work to engineering, and in many cases it’s seen a sort of ‘job for life’, or near enough: we see it more as a “Skill for life” which will mean we can keep working towards our goals. I’ll go on about those another time.

I have been cycling as well, but as it’s mostly been the “drive to school/kindergarten/supermarket/garden” type of trip it’s hardly exciting stuff, unless you count the early morning “Papa Taxi” ride which occasionally means dealing with commuters in a two tonne weapon who don’t know what ‘Shared Space’ means. Last week we were going uphill on a road just wide enough for one car -so of course there were cars parked all down the side of it- when a VW pulled out and started to come downhill towards us. Lacking the abilities of spiderman to climb buildings** we waited until the driver realised they would have to wait for us to pass them. As we walked by the vehicle the driver leaned across and shouted in a you-are-being-told-off-voice that “Your light is really bright.”

With hindsight, “Good” probably wasn’t the most diplomatic answer…

*Not that this usually stops me, of course.
**And I’ll bet even he wouldn’t attempt that with a Bakfiets.

To the driver going through the old town yesterday morning at about ten past seven, in the dark.

You see those soft, squishy things on two legs? The ones about the height of your wing mirrors? Those are children, and we’d appreciate it if you don’t run them over. We understand that anything or anyone in your way is In The Wrong Place, but -and I know this is a trifling detail that is often ignored by very important motorists- as you came up the road you passed a sign saying this is a Spielstrasse, which means that they, and indeed that person walking their dog, the two people on bicycles and even the even the Nordic walkers, have every right to be there, and that you, despite your big flashy car, are required to drive at seven (7) kilometres an hour, even if the town council can’t be bothered to repaint the sign on the road to remind you.

You may have been on the way to a Very Important Meeting. You were still going too fast.
You may be a very experienced and ‘careful’ driver; you were still going too fast.
Your sat-nav may have told you this was a nifty way through; you were still going too fast.
You may have a big white flashy 4×4 with a metallic paint job, racing tyres on shiny wheels that don’t look like they’ve heard of mud, and four exhausts the size of drainpipes; you were still going too fast.
I know that seen from a car this road looks like a nice quick short cut to the bakery for you to pick up some lunch, but you were still going far. Too. Fast.
Especially for someone talking on a mobile phone.

If you want to go fast you can use the main road through the village, which the mere inhabitants of this village all avoid because of all the traffic. The only vehicles which have a right to drive the speed you were driving have blue lights and sirens. And no, your horn doesn’t count even if you were using it most of the way down the road.

That is why the person on the very long bicycle didn’t just squeeze to the side of the road in the manner of a submissive peasant so that you could continue on your way, but instead rode along the middle of the road. Because I’d rather you are delayed for a few seconds than you drive into/over any of the little squishy things in your two-tonne car.

Especially as two of them are mine.

Thank you for your time, and -I really mean this- have a safe journey.

A long-term friend in the UK is getting married next year, which means I have to find out a way to get to Newcastle via my parents house in York. Normally we go to the UK via the channel tunnel, but this time there’s a small complication because he’s getting married in August, when there will be some kind of sports event in London, so the city will be full to bursting point and beyond.
Fortunately my destination is Newcastle, far up in the frozen north where trolls live, so there are alternatives. Most likely is a train journey to Rotterdam, a peaceful nights sleep (optimism springs eternal) as we cross the North Sea by ferry and next morning, catch the train to my parents hom in York. Simple.

Except that the railway stations of both cities are some distance from the ferry terminals.

Okay, so take a bike: cycle from Rotterdam Centraal to the ferry, and from the ferry to Hull station, and while I’m at it, from York station to my parents house.
Look Rotterdam up on Google Earth. Can’t find a bike lane anywhere. Mutter dark mutterings about the claims of these blogs then realise the ‘road’ I’m looking at is a cycle lane. With a white line down the centre. Follow same from station to ferry port. Hooray for Dutch cycling infrastructure, and apologies to the above named bloggers.

Check Hull.

Oh, dear.

There’s only a few kilometres between port and railway station, but it looks as navigable as a set from ‘The Matrix’ and slightly more dangerous. The roads are a mess of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts with enough space in the centre for a small farm, built when city planners knew cars were going to be the only way to travel*. There’s the occasional cycle lane for a couple of hundred metres, usually ending at road islands and dual carriageways.

Obviously the chief trolls don’t use bicycles very much.

I could give up and use a taxi through Hull, but that would mean I don’t have transport for the week or two that I’ll be in the UK, which would seem a bit silly for the sake of six kilometres, and nor would I be able to ride in Rotterdam.

The other alternative would seem to be finding a native guide, or at least a map.

So, if there are any cyclists in Hull who are versed in the secret ways of the Matrix, I’d be glad of any tips, decent maps, or better still, a local cyclist willing to guide me through hostile territory between ferry and railway station and back again a couple of weeks later.

Please get in touch through the comments or contact box. Many thanks.

*This was ensured by making lots of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts so it was impossible to travel without a car.

To the German car drivers club:

May I record my gratitude to you for the lurid ill-fitting plastic jacket you sent Middle Son through our local school last month. I’m not sure how large you think children are when they start school, or what you think they’ll be called upon to do: the reflective ‘Traffic detective’ written on the back is somewhat cryptic to say the least.

He will not, however be wearing the jacket unless we have an urgent need to be spotted by a helicopter rescue team. Middle Son’s backpack has a much more subtle design, yet still manages to have enough reflective material to be visible from space and frankly if your members can’t see it, then they really shouldn’t be storming about the village in their big cars. Mind you, as they seem to be incapable of seeing the big reflective sign with the black ’30km/h’ on our street, or the or the 2 metre (6 foot) long ‘7km/h’ painted on the roads nearby, I’d suggest a large minority could do with getting their eyes tested anyway.

Your claim that you “want children to be safe” is a great way to make parents feel guilty unless they force their children into these coats, but it hardly adds up as we know that the best way to keep children safe is to keep cars well away from them or have stringent speed limits, and yet the mighty Google shows that your organisation is often quoted as opposing such measures.

This is hardly a surprise: you are after all a car owners club, not a child protection society, and as such your main concern is to promote the ‘rights’ of your members. They in turn seem to feel that anything on the road that is not a motor vehicle is trespassing on their territory.

Call me mister cynical if you will but the jackets you hand out look like another attempt to reinforce the message that pedestrians are only really allowed on roads -or pavements- under protest, and that anyone venturing out into the Sacred Space For Cars* must be dressed like a radioactive teletubby, and stay out of the way of the Very Important Drivers. If children are injured by a Very Important Driver it’s their own fault; in fact, they should really stay indoors, well of the way, or go to school in their parents car.

So the jacket will stay in the cupboard, but thanks anyway.

*Which apparently includes pavements/sidewalks.

“How lovely to be home” I thought as I rode along a narrow one way street with the traffic.
“Brrrmmm, Brrrrm” Said the car behind.
“Funny, why are they doing that?” I thought. “They can’t be trying to overtake because there isn’t any space, and anyway, I’m riding as fast as the vehicle ten metres in front”
“Brrrmmm Brrrrrmmmmm” Said the car behind.
“I guess there’s something wrong with the clutch, or something” I decided.
“Brrmmmm Brrmmmmmmmm, Beeeeeep” said the car behind. It was almost alongside me now, somehow squeezing into a gap between the parked cars. The driver was waving at me, which was nice.
I waved back.*
The driver noticed they were about to drive into a parked car and stopped suddenly.
At the end of the one way system we entered a wider road and the white van pulled off. Car behind pulled past. The driver waved quite a lot this time.
I waved back again.
The driver seemed to be happy to stay with me and drove  v e r y s l o w l y  in front of me for several metres before pulling off and stopping at a house.
I would have stopped to further our aquaintance but I had an appointment to get to.

* Because they couldn’t have possibly been trying to push me to the side of the road to get past as this is a highly illegal and dangerous manoeuvre, which would only have enabled them to get a few metres further.

I finally managed to find someone with a 3-speed bike who is kind (or naive) enough to let me loose on the thing and then didn’t use it for ages.

This was because of a lack of time, or rather excuses. With the Xtracycle I can ‘go shopping’, ‘pick the boys up’, ‘run errands’ or ‘deliver a letter’, but I can’t pretend I’m carrying a weeks shopping in a handlebar basket. Then last night Beautiful Wife mentioned that we have a little more than a week before we fly home, so this morning I decided stuffit, I was going for an early ride.

I followed the river to the sea. And back again. I used back roads because on major roads cyclists are expected to use the pavement which makes life unnecessarily difficult. Back roads are usually narrow and never straight which slows cars down. And they’re more interesting.

I got lost stuck the wrong side of the river a couple of times, but I saw some interesting stuff like cormorants and herons, which considering that the rivers are encased in concrete and lined by boat yards is quite surprising. I was shadowed by a pretty big bird of prey as well, which I couldn’t identify, and flushed a stork. I also disturbed a flock of what looked like brown herons in the undergrowth when I was well out of the town.

In addition to recent discoveries, I also learned that apparently, stop signs are considered advisory, and when three cars meet on a four way junction, the one with the most aggressive driver goes first. Even if there’s a bike in front of them.

I discovered today that even in Japan, no matter how narrow a road is, how obviously it is not designed for through traffic, there’s always some drivers possessed by an urge to use it as a short cut and go barrelling along at inappropriate speeds.
I also discovered that no matter how much traffic is coming the other way and how unsafe it would be to overtake, some drivers will honk their horn to demand cyclists somehow become one with the concrete wall alongside the road and let their vehicle pass.
Isn’t it good to know that whatever our cultural differences, there are some things which unite us?

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