It has become dark all of a sudden: very dark. Since the clock went back on Sunday the great bulk of commuters are now returning home in darkness. Sunset in Dublin is 16:45, and you get five or ten minutes more on the west coast. But driving home in darkness is the norm for the next few months. This makes life dangerous for pedestrians, bikers and especially cyclists.
On a wet winter’s evening in city traffic the car’s glass will be covered with beads of rain, all reflecting the lights of cars and streetlamps. The windows mist up on the inside and bead up on the outside and you can’t see a thing apart from the space cleared by your wipers. Peripheral vision is gone, and if there is an unlit cyclist on your inside it would be a miracle if you saw him.
Some of the everyday habits of driving become important in winter. Drivers need to use their indicators, in good time, every single time they want to change lanes. We need to check mirrors constantly and carefully, and to think in terms of the bike approaching on the inside.
The AA always advises people to get their car serviced regularly especially as we head into winter. But even if your car has been serviced recently, one thing that we should do is give it a quick once-over.
Check that all the indicators and lights are working. Get someone to give you a hand so that you can check that the brake lights come on correctly. Keep the windows clean, inside and out, and visually inspect the tyres to see that they are in good condition. Top up the windscreen wash bottle; ironically you need it more when it is raining to deal with muck and road spray.
Dipped headlights should be in constant use. Even on a bright winter’s day the low angle of the sun makes for huge contrast between shade and sunshine, straining the eyes and making it harder to see. Dipped lights help a lot once you remember that it is not about helping you to see, it is about helping others to see you.
As for cyclists, for God’s sake get proper lights and buy batteries for them. It’s not hard. Give drivers a chance. A driver would be prosecuted for not having a light and rightly so.
In fact a lot of motorists contact us complaining about the behaviour of cyclists in our towns and cities. I’m not a fan of this mind-set. I try to avoid thinking of it as cyclists versus car users as if we were sworn enemies.
I also have a foot in both camps. I drive of course but I also cycle and I understand how exasperating and dangerous it can be when a car acts selfishly or doesn’t see you. But there are a lot of cyclists out there who are letting the side down.
Breaking red lights, mounting footpaths, weaving through traffic. It is all pretty obnoxious behaviour and you would not dream of treating the rules of the road with such contempt in a car.
There are a lot more people cycling these days and this is undoubtedly a good thing. Cyclists are actually very safe in statistical terms. It is a very good way to travel. But they are vulnerable when they share space with cars. They are more prone to erratic behaviour and they are at risk.
I would implore cyclists to do their own pre-winter check. Hi-viz gear and working lights are a basic necessity but you should also check tyres and brakes. Mudguards are important too, and not just to avoid spray-painting your backside with muck. You will be throwing muck at the cyclist behind you as well.
The bottom line is that car drivers have to be more conscious of bikes at this time of year. Even if you feel that the danger is caused principally by the bad behaviour of cyclists, the plain fact is that bikes do not knock down cars and kill people: it happens the other way around.