Taking Liberties

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

As road space is reduced and the driving experience made more complex due to “Modernisation” schemes, we’re increasingly tempted to break the rules. Taking liberties used to be the speciality of cyclists, but now everyone’s at it.
Take Keep Left signs. These used to be sacrosanct to motorists, but you see motorcycles, cars, vans – yes, and taxis – all going around them to escape a queue of traffic. I’ve noticed it the most on the Cycle Superhighway on Victoria Embankment, but it also happens a lot on Eastcheap and Great Tower Street – where vehicles queue after trying to escape the congestion of the aforementioned superhighway.
A wag writing in a recent issue of Taxi suggested a dedicated Uber lane in order to segregate traffic in the name of safety. An excellent idea, but why not go further and remove the superfluous double white lines in the centre of the road and create a motorcycle lane for those who are in too much of a hurry to respect the rules of safety? If I remember the Highway Code correctly, you’re not allowed to cross or straddle double white lines; yet I often see vehicles doing U-turns or going around Keep Left bollards.
If this dangerous practice isn’t clamped down on, it’ll become as accepted as overtaking on the inside has become. Cyclists have always done it, though in fairness there isn’t always the space to do anything else, and they’re encouraged to do it because of cycle lanes. Now motorcyclists, those once proud knights of the road, are not only coming up your inside, but are then cutting in front of you to sit in the advance cycle space. Often they use cycle lanes too. As do buses on roads such as Fleet Street. It’s amazing the way these big red monsters manage to make faster progress than you in your cab, but watch how they manage to get from the junction of New Fetter Lane to Ludgate Circus by pushing their way into the cycle lane when the bus lane ends.
I don’t know when cyclists first adopted a militant attitude and opted out of the Highway Code. It was certainly going on when I was on the Knowledge in the mid-1980s. The police ignored it and the situation got worse. Where lawlessness by cyclists becomes common it becomes normalised: look at them turning right from Southampton Row into Theobalds Road and The Strand on to Waterloo Bridge. When things become normalised, the authorities often legitimise the practice. Contraflow cycle lanes have been set up on many roads where cyclists habitually ignored one-way workings. If a practice is legitimised no-one has to tell anyone off.
There are situations where the motorist is pressurised into doing something illegal. it’s illegal to drive in cycle lanes during the hours of their operation, but at many places it’s difficult not to. For instance if you’re waiting to turn into Fitzjohns Avenue from Arkwright Road you have to wait in the cycle lane or vehicles won’t be able to turn into your road.
With thousands of mini-cabs being licensed, many have set up unofficial ranks with impunity. When taxi drivers see nothing done about it, some decide to take liberties of their own. A minority decide to hang it up, or create their own ranks and feeders. Some anti-social cab drivers think it’s fine to obstruct a whole lane of Harrow Road to get into Paddington Station. Others obstruct Praed Street, Cavendish Square, and Great Russell Street. It’s bad enough swerving around ice cream vans without being obstructed by cabs queuing to get onto the British Museum rank.
The subject of moving out of the way for emergency vehicles has recently been covered in Taxi, and time to time it features on radio phone-ins. You’d have a heart of stone if you didn’t feel anxious when an ambulance comes screaming behind you, blues and twos blaring. You’re at the stop line with a red light in front of you, what do you do? Cross the line and risk a hefty fine and points on your licence? Resolutely stay put? Not moving will add to the anxiety: this could be a life or death situation where seconds count. You might also upset other motorists around you who are wondering how you could be so selfish and heartless. It’s a difficult one. The consensus on the last radio phone-in I listened to was that you should stay where you are and let the emergency vehicle find a way around. The NHS aren’t going to pay your fine and get your points restored. It might be different with the police as they can order you to move, but I wouldn’t bet on getting your fine paid and getting your points back.
Sometimes the authorities don’t play fair. The stretch of Waterloo Road alongside the station is virtually all bus stops and zigzags. It’s a big risk setting down or picking up there (I usually set down in Sandall Street). In the City, have you noticed the size of the zebra crossing on Sun Street? I thought all crossings would have to conform to a uniform size, but this one looks twice as big as all the others.
Many of us are wise to speed limits, but a 20mph limit is absurd in many cases. It’s hard to drive faster than 20mph in Islington because of the speed bumps.
Sometimes we’re under pressure to break the rules, and sometimes drivers take matters into their own hands. The authorities are not making it easy, and seem to encourage law-breaking with their road systems. True, I’ve been known to occasionally pull a right turn at the top of Poland or Spring Street, but I wouldn’t go around a Keep Left bollard for anybody. I think all we can do is act as safely as possible and keep the infringements to a minimum.

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