Why is “dyke on a bike” jibe worse than “behead cyclists” joke?

The Press Complaints Commission has just ruled in favour of Clare Balding after she claimed the Sunday Times columnist AA Gill had breached the discrimination clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice. In reviewing Balding’s TV programme Britain by Bike, AA Gill said Balding was a “dyke on a bike.”

The PCC’s adjudication reads:

“The right to legitimate freedom of expression is a key part of an open and democratic society and something which the Commission has sought to defend in the past. In this case, the columnist was clearly entitled to his opinion about both the programme and the complainant. As the paper had pointed out, the Commission has previously upheld his right to offer such opinions in his columns. Of course, freedom of expression is – and should be – appropriately restricted by the Editors’ Code of Practice. Clause 12 of the Code is clear: newspapers must avoid prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to (amongst other things) an individual’s sexual orientation.”

All fine and good but this is the same PCC which decided that a “joke” about decapitating cyclists in the same newspaper was perfectly acceptable. Columnist Matthew Parris wrote his hilarious column in December 2007, claiming that cyclists were the main cause of countryside litter and should be killed.

His column started:

“A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists.”

Now, should another columnist have written “A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate homosexuals,” it’s clear the PCC would have clamped down hard with its gummy mouth but calling for the death of cyclists was fair game.

In 2008, the PCC wrote:

“584 people complained about a comment piece article in The Times by Matthew Parris, published on 27 December 2007, headlined “What’s smug and deserves to be decapitated?”. The complainants were mostly cycling enthusiasts objecting to the suggestion that piano wire be strung across country lanes to decapitate cyclists, as a punishment for littering the countryside. The Commission said that the Code of Practice had not been breached, although it was pleased that Mr Parris had apologised for his comments.”

Out of the mouths of babes & cabbies

Axa, the car insurance company, doesn’t just have an iPhone app that stores insurance details and proffers crash info, it has commissioned a whole bunch of videos to promote its ‘Respect on the Road’campaign.

As well as a video showing typical ‘road rage’ language and behaviour acted out by tots, there’s a whole series featuring a cab driver. Yes, that paragon of road safety, a cab driver. Funnily enough, he hates speed bumps.

The AXA Respect On The Road campaign has a growing number of ‘Cab Cam’ videos featuring a taxi driver eliciting views from his passengers. At least two of the videos feature views about cyclists.

Michael likes bikes, but only in good weather:

Tony reckons cyclists cause accidents:

David is “not a big fan of cyclists”:

AXA Car Insurance is going big into the social media space. It has a Facebook presence as well as the YouTube microsite.

This is a sponsored post: clearly Axa wants its campaign to spread virally, including on blogs aimed at cyclists.

AXA said its campaign is to…

“…try and bring courtesy and respect back to British roads. All too often inexperienced drivers give themselves away behind the wheel of a car; they lose their manners and sometimes their marbles too. Respect on the road is an issue people genuinely care about; with your help AXA want to highlight the state of disrespectful and sometimes dangerous driving practices in the UK through debate and discussion which will be largely hosted on Facebook.”

And top marks to that cabbie: unbelieveably, he never once said “cyclists don’t pay road tax.”

Fancy clubbing together to buy a Caterpillar 797 monster mining truck?

It bugs me when drivers buzz me with their cars, buses and trucks. But when these unthinking (or deliberately malicious) motorists buzz my little kids when they’re riding I wonder what turns a motorist into something so uncaring. How can a fellow human aim a heavy, fast projectile at a child, knowing they will be just inches from them if they manage to pass safely?

Drivers of modern vehicles have efficient brakes and powerful motors. They could easily slow for a few seconds when passing cyclists, or when approaching them on narrow roads, and then accelerate away. Instead, an amazing number simply keep to the same speed, almost wholly ignoring the fact there’s a soft, squishy human in front of them.

What is it about the internal combustion engine that turns Disney’s Mr Walker into Mr Wheeler?

Of course, it’s not just the type of engine. Electric cars also terrorise cyclists, pedestrians and anybody else slower and smaller than them.

The reason motorists of all stripes terrorise other road users is because they can. It’s down to size and power. Ever noticed how a Mini treats an HGV with more respect than a cyclist?

Heck, even meaty 4×4’s treat HGVs with respect. It’s because HGVs can do them damage. The issue of SMIDSY – ‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you’ – isn’t because cyclists (and motorcyclists) are so small they’re almost invisible it’s because a two-wheeler is light and inconsequential. A cyclist can’t crush a car so a cyclist is ignored. If cyclists detonated on impact, motorists would no longer have any trouble spotting them up ahead and would give them the sort of road space they deserve.

Because motorists won’t come out second-best in any car-v-bike collision (roll on the UK adoption of the EU Fifth Motoring Directive, where motorists are deemed to be at fault in collisions with cyclists and pedestrians; and, it can’t be escaped, where cyclists are deemed to be fault in collisions with pedestrians) we’re not likely to see any improvement in the road bullying problem any time soon.

So, I have an eye-for-an-eye solution. Let’s club together and buy a Caterpillar 797 mining truck. Take the registration plates of all those motorists who buzz us and then let’s go do the same to them. On narrow country lanes, barrel on towards previously uncaring motorists with the Cyclists’ Caterpillar Mining Truck (CCMT) and see how they like it.

In town, squeeze past them at speed with our huge CCMT, giving just an inch or two leeway. See their faces drop as they realise there’s something a lot bigger than them, with more right to the road than them (might is right, after all).

Now, most of the time we’ll just buzz the motorists “for a laugh” (if we even think about our actions at all) but now and then some poor motorist will come a cropper under our giant, car-crushing wheels. Such ‘accidents’ will no doubt be quickly brushed under constabulary carpets because we’ll only be using our Caterpillar 797 for getting around, we won’t mean to hurt anybody. Prosecutions for dangerous CCMT driving will be as rare as hens’ teeth.

Mining Truck

NOTE: no SUV drivers were hurt in the making of this blog posting.

Car-as-a-weapon metaphor lost on boy (and girl) racers?

You don't need a gun to be a killer

I spotted this ad on a bus the other day. It’s from a North East England road safety campaign called RoadRespect.org. The website has lots of other graphics, but I couldn’t find this one online so the iPhone grab shot will have to do.

The campaign is aimed at young male drivers, especially new teen motorists. While the car-as-a-weapon metaphor is poignant, I can’t help feeling the message won’t get through to young male drivers. In fact, it probably makes fast, aggressive driving “sexier”.

What do you reckon? A good image to educate drivers that they are in charge of machines that can kill, or a metaphor that equates guns with speed and hence is attractive to testosterone-rich young drivers?

NB. Testosterone is a hormone linked with aggression. Women have less of the stuff than men. But I’ve seen a growing number of girl racers recently. Perhaps they have elevated levels of testosterone and that’s what makes them ape the hot-hatch boy racers?

Road-kill is too normal to be news

A nine year old boy was killed by a motorbike on Tyneside last week. I’d read the story on BBC.co.uk. Yesterday I found out who the poor child was. He was a school mate of one of my daughter’s friends.

When I was the same age, a boy in my class was killed in similar circumstances: crossing a road.

One of my aunties was killed in a motorway smash.

Most people can relate similar stories. We all know of people closely connected to such tragedies.

The Campaign for Safe Road Design says:

“In the past 10 years more than 30,000 people have died on Britain’s roads. We all know someone killed or maimed in a brutal road crash.”

Road deaths have been falling year on year since the 1960s. Partly this is due to self-segregation: pedestrians and cyclists steer clear of ‘dangerous roads’. But 2500 annual road deaths is still an amazingly high and shocking number.

In 2008, 124 children were killed on roads. 115 cyclists were killed. 572 pedestrians died. 493 motorcyclists were killed. The rest of the deaths that year were of motorists. Road deaths are relatively static: between 2500 and 3000 a year. Driving is more risky than it seems, both for the driver and for those outside the car.

Driving is seen as a right; it’s not perceived as dangerous. It’s not seen as risky for a human strapped into a fast, heavy object to propel that object along a route shared with slower, softer, lighter humans.

We gloss over road deaths. They’re diffuse, they’re under-reported, they’re random.

Many of those shot and killed in Cumbria last week were also random. But there’s been mass-media coverage ever since. The Lake District killings were awful but because Derrick Bird killed with guns, his evil is still newsworthy. If he’d killed 12 people by randomly smashing into them at a bus-stop, there would a news mention but not a week of blanket coverage.

This afternoon, Edmund King, president of the AA, tweeted:

“Media coverage of Cumbria killer is way over the top compared to lack of coverage of daily road carnage.”

He’s right. And here’s why (although he likely wouldn’t agree). We’re so in love with the many and glorious benefits of mass motoring (I’m not anti-car) we refuse to see it has a dark underside.

I think it’s relevant here to repeat the short story from ex-Python Terry Jones I’ve run before. This is from ‘Fairy tales and Fantastic Stories’, well worth shelling out for. I’m guilty of breaching copyright if I repeat the full text of Terry Jones’ story so I’ve extracted long excepts instead. You’ll still get the gist of the polemic.


There was once a devil in Hell named Carnifex, who liked to eat small children. Sometimes he would take them alive and crush all the bones in their bodies. Sometimes he would pull their heads off, and sometimes he would hit them so hard that their backs snapped like dry twigs…But one day, Carnifex got out of his bed in Hell to find there was not a single child left. ‘What I need is a regular supply,’ he said to himself. So he went to a country that he knew was ruled by an exceedingly vain king. He found him in his bathroom…and said to him: ‘How would you like to fly?’ ‘Very much indeed,’ said the king, ‘but what do you want in return, Carnifex?’ ‘Oh . . . nothing very much,’ replied Carnifex, ‘and I will enable you to fly as high as you want, as fast as you want, simply by raising your arms like this,’ and he showed the king how he could fly. ‘I should indeed like to be able to do that,’ thought the king to himself. ‘But what is it you want in return, Carnifex?’ he asked aloud. ‘Look! Have a try!’ replied Carnifex. ‘Put out your arms – that’s right, and now off you go!’

The king put out his arms, and immediately floated into the air…He went higher and higher, until he was above the clouds… Then he landed back beside the devil and said: ‘But what is it you want in return, Carnifex?’ ‘Oh, nothing very much,’ replied Carnifex. ‘Just give me one small child every day, and you shall be able to fly – just like that…there are thousands of children in your kingdom…I shall only take one a day – your people will hardly notice.’ The king thought long and hard about this, for he knew it was an evil thing, but the idea of walking anywhere, now he’d tasted the thrill of flying, seemed to him so slow and dull that in the end he agreed. And from that day on he could fly – just like that.

….Every day some poor family would find that one of their children had been taken by Carnifex the devil. Now the king’s youngest daughter had a favourite doll that was so lifelike that she loved it and treated it just as if it were a real live baby. And she was in the habit of stealing into the king’s bathroom (when he wasn’t looking) to bath this doll in one of his baths.Well it so happened that she was doing this on the very day that the king made his pact with Carnifex, and thus she overheard every word that passed between them. Naturally she was terrified by what she had heard, but because girls were not reckoned much of in that country in those days, and because she was the least and most insignificant of all his daughters, she had not dared tell anyone what had happened. One day, however, Carnifex came and took the king’s own favourite son. The king busied himself in his counting-house, and would not say a word. Later that day he went off for a long flight, and did not return until well after dark.

Eventually all the people from all the corners of the realm came to the king to protest. They gathered in the main square, and the king hovered above them looking distinctly uneasy. ‘You are not worthy to be our king!’ the people cried. ‘You have sacrificed our very children just so that you can fly!’ The king fluttered up a little higher, so he was just out of reach, and then he ordered them all to be quiet, and called out: ‘Carnifex! Where are you?’ There was a flash and a singeing smell, and Carnifex the devil appeared, sitting on top of the fountain in the middle of the square. At once a great cry went up from the crowd – something between fear and anger – but Carnifex shouted: ‘Listen! I understand how you feel!’

…But the king’s youngest daughter stood up on her stool, and cried out: ‘He’s a devil! Don’t listen to him!’ ‘Quite, quite,’ said Carnifex, licking his lips at the sight of the little girl still clutching her favourite doll. ‘But even I can sympathize with the tragic plight of parents who see their own beloved offspring snatched away in front of their very eyes.’ ‘Don’t listen!’ shouted the king’s youngest daughter. ‘So I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Carnifex, never taking his beady eyes off the little girl clutching what he thought was a small baby. ‘I’ll give you some compensation for your tragic losses. I will let you all fly – just like that!’ And he pointed to the king, who flew up and down a bit and then looped-the loop, just to show them all what it was like. And there was not a single one of those good people who wasn’t filled with an almost unbearable desire to join him in the air. ‘Don’t listen to him!’ shouted the little girl. ‘He’ll want your children!’ ‘All I ask,’ said Carnifex in his most wheedling voice, ‘is for one tiny. . . weeny. . . little child a day. Surely that’s not too much to ask?’ And, you know, perhaps there were one or two there who were so besotted with the desire to fly that they might have agreed, had not a remarkable thing happened. The king’s youngest daughter suddenly stood up on tiptoe! and held up her favourite doll so that all the crowd could see, and she cried out: ‘Look! This is what he’ll do to your children!’ And with that, she hurled the doll, which she loved so dearly, right into Carnifex’s lap. Well, of course, this was too much for the devil. He thought it was a real live baby, and he had its head off and all its limbs torn apart before you could say ‘Rabbits!’ And when the crowd saw Carnifex apparently tearing a small baby to pieces (for none of them knew it was just a doll) they came to their senses at once. They gave an angry cry, and converged on Carnifex where he crouched, with his face all screwed up in disgust, spitting out bits of china and stuffing.

And I don’t know what they would have done if they’d laid hold of him, but before they could, Carnifex had leapt from the fountain right onto the back of the flying king, and with a cry of rage and disappointment, he rode him down to Hell where they both belonged. And, after that, the people gave the youngest daughter a new doll that was just as lifelike as the previous one, and she was allowed to bath it in the king’s bathroom any day she wanted. As for Carnifex, he returned every year to try and induce the people to give up just one child a day to him. But no matter what he offered them, they never forgot what they had seen him do that day, and so they refused, and he had to return empty-handed. And all this happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and Carnifex never did think of anything that could persuade them.

But listen! You may think that Carnifex was a terrible devil, and you may think that the flying king was a terrible man for giving those poor children to Carnifex just so that he could fly. But I shall tell you something even more astonishing, and that is that in this very day, in this very land where you and I live, we allow not one. . . not two. . . not three… but twenty children to have their heads smashed or their backs broken or to be crushed alive every day – and not even so that we can fly, but just so that we can ride about in things we call motor cars. If I’d read that in a fairy tale, I wouldn’t have believed it – would you?

Carnifex is Latin for killer or executioner.

Damned if we do; damned if we don’t

Janus in a bike helmet

Cycle campaigners are constantly torn between extoling the health and other benefits of cycling, but passing on news of yet another road tragedy. It’s a dilemma.

Cycling is safe but there’s a widely-held perception that it’s unsafe. And I’m often guilty of fuelling such a perception.

One moment I can be writing articles for newbies with my rose-tinted spectacles firmly strapped to my head, and the next moment I can be tweeting about some new bike v tipper truck bike death. I’m Janus, the Roman God of doorways who looked both forwards and backwards. (Despite what Bart said, this god’s first name isn’t Hugh).

I used to publish On Your Bike, a magazine for family cyclists. This was a fluffy-white-clouds, birds-tweeting, isn’t-the-world-wonderful publication. It was a polemic, a glossy bit of PR for the happy-clappy side of cycling. Lycra was banned; helmets were kept to a bare minimum; there were only smiles, no grimaces; the folks pictured were strictly normal, batty bicyclists were banned.

This magazine got lots of newbies out on bikes and stressed the overwhelming advantages of cycling. Danger was downplayed.

We all know that the roads will be more pleasant to ride on when there’s more cyclists using them, the safety in numbers argument. But it’s a chicken and egg thing. To encourage more cyclists we need to downplay the danger. We certainly can’t wait until every road has a segregated bike path. That will never happen. It doesn’t even happen in Denmark or the Netherlands. Cars and bikes have to rub along on roads. But too many drivers treat roads as race tracks. Too many motorists drive distracted.

And yet I let my young kids ride on roads to get to school. I don’t worry about ‘stranger danger’ but I do worry about a madman behind a steering wheel, or a yummy mummy in a monster 4×4 speeding around corners to drop her precious cargo at school in time.

Statistically, my kids are safe. Statistically, I’m safe. Statistically, I could slip in the shower and bang my head. Sadly, there was a case of a Australian semi-pro cyclist who did just that. He died. Had he been wearing his cycle helmet in the shower, he might have survived.

So, why are there so many campaigns to get cyclists to wear helmets – such as the skull one from the Department for Transport – and none to encourage use of head protection in the house or while driving? I don’t want to kick off a helmet debate. Really, I don’t. But I would welcome comments about how cycle advocates square the cycling-is-safe circle. How can we promote cycling as safe yet send so many people out on roads we know can be dangerous. Sometimes.

Of course, it’s not the roads that are dangerous, it’s the idjits that use them, but you get my drift. Can we have our cake and eat it? If some drivers are as mad and as bad as we sometimes complain (and, in reality, it’s just a tiny minority of drivers we need to be worried about) are we not being disingenous to encourage newbies to use those self same roads?

Read it and weep

Share the Road, Ketchum, Idaho 2

What is it about the internet and the internal combustion engine that makes some folks so callous?

A 52-year old woman riding at the back of a group of ten road cyclists from the safety-conscious Spring City Cycling Club was hit and killed by a motorist on Saturday on a country road in Lincoln County, Tennessee. Friends and family have had to chastise forum-posting motorists for victim-blaming.

Sharon Bayler was thrown 166ft by the impact but apologist friends of the driver (who were not in the driver’s truck at the time) have insisted he was driving 37-40mph, a few miles below the posted speed limit of 45mph. This was a road “he was raised on”: but, as numerous studies have shown, ‘knowing a road’ makes many motorists blasé. The blacktop and curves may be familiar but not every journey is the same: there can be fallen trees in the road; slower or stopped vehicles; anything.

The police did not charge the driver with any motoring offences.

“Troopers said the collision was an accident and no charges will be filed against the truck’s driver, 42-year-old Edward Vincent Higgin of Fayetteville.”

Sharon Bayler was said to have been hit near a curve in the road (although incident-scene witnesses said the road was straight at the point of impact). The driver “couldn’t see Bayler riding because of the combination of a shaded area and the sun.”

As cyclists have pointed out on newspaper story postings, if the the driver couldn’t see what was in front of him, he should have slowed to a crawl. But how many drivers ever follow this bit of common sense?

Just a tiny minority of motorists knowingly use their cars as weapons but many of the rest speed around without due care and attention. Crashes are ‘accidents’; texting or calling when driving is not seen as a sin. It’s tough to get prosecutions of motorists because of ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ from law-makers and law-enforcers.

It’s been like this from the very early days of motoring but back then there were less motorists to worry about. Now, cyclists and pedestrians are often put at unnecessary risk because way too many motorists think nothing of speeding: their ABS brakes and airbags fill them with a sense of invulnerability.

They think nothing full-stop. Motoring is not seen as a dangerous activity. In reality, it’s extremely dangerous, both for ‘unprotected’ vulnerable road users but for drivers, too. One slip of the steering wheel when travelling at speed and a motorist can be toast. One glance down at a text message at 60mph and many metres go by, unseen. 99 times out of a hundred there’s no cyclist in the way, no kerb for the motorist to bounce into and be deflected into the HGV in the opposite lane. Drivers get away with inattentive driving and assume they’ll always get away with it.

There are lots of dead cyclists, killed child pedestrians and, of course, squashed motorists, to prove that ‘accidents will happen’. For accidents read inattention or, sometimes, wanton negligence.

Apparently the Tennessee driver who killed Sharon Bayler is full of remorse but not so some of his fellow motorists. How thoughtless do you have to be to post anti-cyclist comments on a news story about a cyclist fatality? Sadly, it’s common. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed. Friends and families of killed cyclists often read online stories about an ‘accident’ as a form of grieving, leaving tributes to the deceased, but are confronted by commenters with a twisted, sickening windscreen-view of the world.

When reading their comments it makes you want to give up cycling on anything other than traffic-free trails because thoughtless drivers are everywhere. This might be one of the reasons for the dripping vitriol: get off our roads, go ride on a velodrome, take your Spandex ‘costumes’ someplace else. Naturally, there are always comments about ‘road tax’ and why cyclists shouldn’t be on roads paid for by motorists.


“I’m sorry that she was killed, but this should be expected. Bicycles don’t belong on the road. Once I was driving my truck and came around a curve and there was a cyclist, arrogantly (and stupidly) refusing to move over. There was no way I could’ve stopped. (And no, I wasn’t speeding). Luckily there was no oncoming traffic and I was able to swerve around him. If there had been a car coming I would have had 3 choices: 1-hit the cyclist, kill him. 2-hit the oncoming car, kill them. 3-run off the road (tall steep bank), kill myself. There is no reason for a bicycle to be on the road. You can go find a bike trail, or stay out of the way…I hope they do the right and sensible thing and ban bicycles from roads before someone else dies.”
Lake Worth, FL

“If you want to cycle on the road then you take your chances. Just like swimming in the ocean. You take your chances that you might get eaten or drown. You cannot police everyone or prevent every accident. Things are just going to happen. You agree to take that chance when you get on the road…This is a sad accident but shows that accidents will occur and you cannot stop them. If you don’t want to get hit then stay off the road.”
Chattanooga, TN

“Did you ever wonder why small planes and large planes don’t use the same airports? Figure it out.”
Athens, AL

“I am sorry for any loss of life but slow moving bicycles do not belong on the same road as cars. They are accidents just waiting to happen. Another sore point for me is these bicycles pay no taxes for using the road like my car or motorcycle. I pay taxes by way of a tag and through gas for the upkeep of roads also I am required to carry insurance on my car and motorcycle that bicycles don’t. I say if they want to share the road then require them to buy a tag and insurance just as i have to do and restrict them to secondary roads where they are not causing traffic problems.”
Huntsville, AL

“Please remember what your mother taught you years ago, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This post is being viewed by Sharon’s family and friends too. Again, please post with repect.”
Teresa sister-in-law
Belle Rive, IL

“Please, whether you’re a motorist or cyclist, show respect for each other and follow the rules of the road. Avoid distractions… don’t text EVER while driving, and put down the cell phone. The call is not that important, it can wait until you pull off and answer it. Your full attention should be ON THE ROAD. If you’re a cyclist, be aware of vehicular traffic, obey the rules and regulations, and cycle politely.”
Rocket City Cyclist
Huntsville, AL

AA founded as ‘speed trap’ foiler; spotters were cyclists


Today we tend to think of the Automobile Association as a roadside rescue organisation with a penchant for pro-car PR. However, for much of its early history it was a radical campaigning organisation, a thorn in the side of the Government. It was founded with the express aim of defeating police speed traps and used cyclists as the ‘scouts’.


A glimpse into the early history of the AA is shown in the wonderfully evocative video below from the AA’s archives. The video is fronted by Sir Stenson Cooke who was the AA’s Secretary from 1905 until his death in 1942. He was knighted in 1933 but by this time the AA was embedded into society – now a car-owning society – and the AA was nowhere near as radical as when it was founded.

Cycling shares some history with the AA. In effect, the organisation was helped into existence by cyclists. In March 1905 a motorist called Walter Gibbons wrote to Autocar magazine suggesting a Motorists’ Protection Association for the Prevention of Police Traps. Two other motorists replied saying arrangements had been made to patrol the Brighton road to warn motorists of said police traps. The first patrols went out in April 1905. Guess what they used as patrol vehicles? Yep, bicycles.


Within months, this informal arrangement of a “special staff of cyclists” was formalised into an organisation and it appointed a full-time secretary, Stenson Cooke. This organisation was called the Automobile Association.

The AA relied on cycle scouts for some years. According to the AA, the organisation’s famous badge was “introduced simply to help the scouts identify AA members.”

Early AA cycle scouts used their own bicycles, for which they were paid an allowance. Before the introduction of uniforms in 1909, the scouts had to provide their own clothing too.


By 1912 there were 950 AA cycle scouts across the UK. The motorcycle patrols, known as Road Service Outfits or ‘RSOs’, weren’t created until 1919. By 1923 there were 274 AA motorbike patrols but still 376 cyclists.

bike patrols

The video above shows how cyclists were paid to be speed-trap spotters. It also shows how, before motoring became mainstream, it was a loathed activity: rich motorists were guilty of raising dust and damaging roads. I’m currently researching the history of British road improvements, especially in the years 1910-1937. This was the span of the Road Fund, the pot of cash raised from motorists from when a ‘road tax’ existed. Only a small fraction of this fund helped pay for Britain’s roads, something I explore on my campaigning website iPayRoadTax.com.

It’s worth pointing out that Professor Edmund King, today’s president of the AA, is an active cyclist.

And the AA has a team of cycle-based breakdown patrols to tackle traffic chaos at big events such as Wimbledon or Glastonbury.


Ray LaHood, John the Scorcher, some bloomers and a bunch of brigands

When US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood promised “we are holding Toyota’s feet to the fire” over the recent accelerator-pedal car recall I’m pretty sure he didn’t know there was a back-story to this fiery phrase, and that – via the word chauffeur and some feet-toasting bad ‘uns – it relates to motoring, and can even be linked to cycling.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word chauffeur means stoker, from chauffer ‘to heat’, which in turn is from Old French, chaufer ‘to heat, rub with the hands to make warm’ whence we get a word familiar to cyclists: chafe. Its meaning “to make sore by rubbing” was current by the 1500s.

Both the Online Etymology Dictionary and Wikipedia link the word chauffeur to stoker:

“The earliest automobiles, like their railroad and sea vessel counterparts, were steam-powered and required the driver to pre-heat the engine to produce energy, thus, the French term for stoker was adapted.”

But, as with many words, there can be other derivations and there’s perhaps a good case for an earlier definition to be used. The online archive of Popular Science magazine is a fascinating time-sink. And this morning I found the following definition of the word chauffeur, from the June 1918 issue of PopSci:

“It seems that the word chauffeur means ‘scorcher’. Over a century ago, some particularly brigandish brigands lived on the borderland between France and Germany. To force ransoms from their captives, these desperadoes grilled the soles of their victims’ feet before a fierce fire. So the countryfolk referred to the band as scorchers or, in French, chauffeurs.

“Not so many years back, when these same imaginative French were in need of a descriptive name for motor-car drivers, they hit upon the word chauffeur. Just how much ‘scorching’ of a more modern kind these up-to-date brigands of the road indulge in is best divulged by police records of fines for speeding.”

So, an early word for ‘motorist’ – before it morphed into its current servile meaning – was chauffeur, and this was linked to a word for speeding.

As with many things motoring, bicycle riders got there first. Scorching might have been used of speeding motorists by 1918 but it was used earlier than this for bicycle boom riders of the 1880s-1890s. Scorchers were riders who wanted to go fast, and bicycles were advertised by manufacturers as ‘scorchers’.

In an American book on ‘how to bicycle’ from 1892, L. F. Korns wrote:

“As a means of pleasure, cycling stands in the foremost rank, but in common with all the great pleasures, it may easily stand in the foremost in abuse. The desire to ride at an unreasonably high speed may become morbid…The ever lasting scorcher, bent like a hoop, and with sunken cheeks, ought to be quite sufficient warning against this abuse.”

scorcher 5

Naturally, ‘scorching’ was not seen by cyclists as an abuse. It was a badge of pride, an athletic accomplishment.

19th-century author Louis Baudry de Saunier thought the speed-crazed bicyclist was a blend of man-and-machine: “The cyclist is a man half made of flesh and half of steel that only our century of science and iron could have spawned.”

But, as famously described by American women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony in 1896, cycling was also one of the key tools of female emancipation:

“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Anthony, like her friend and fellow feminist Amelia Bloomer, advocated universal suffrage but also called for ‘rational dress’, the fashion for less restricting women’s garments. Bloomer didn’t invent the leggings named for her, but she popularised them. ‘Athletic bloomers’ allowed women to cycle more easily.

It’s interesting that in this sheet-music cover for a popular tune of 1897, the publisher has started off with the ‘scorcher’ heroine in a dress…


…but she was later shown wearing bloomers, also known as ‘rationals’, relatively radical attire for the day:


But enough about bloomers, let’s get back to those Franco-German brigands. A quick tappity-tap into a popular search engine and out pops the name John the Scorcher; in German, Schinderhannes. He’s the German equivalent of Robin Hood, although, unlike Nottingham’s favourite son, he’s a genuine historical figure. The Robber of the Rhine was executed in 1803.

According to The Book of Days:

[The brigands] were often called Chauffeurs or Scorchers; because they were accustomed to hold the soles of their victims’ feet in front of a fierce fire, to extort a revelation of the place where their property was concealed…Each band had a camp or rendezvous, with lines of communication throughout a particular district. The posts on these lines were generally poor country taverns, the landlords of which were in league with the band. And not only was this the case, but from Holland to the Danube, the chauffeurs could always obtain friendly shelter at these houses, with means for exchanging intelligence with others of the fraternity.

Schinderhannes, or ‘John the Scorcher,’ was the most famous of all the leaders of these robbers. His real name was Johann Buckler; but his practice of chauffage, or scorching the feet of his victims, earned for him the appellation of Schinderhannes. Born in 1779, near the Rhine, he from early years loved the society of those who habitually braved all law and control.”

If PopSci is right, and Merriam Webster is incomplete, via the word chauffeur we can link together Ray LaHood, the Robber of the Rhine, speeding motorists, and ‘scorcher’ cyclists.

Speeding motorists and cyclists have never mixed. Evylyn Thomas of New York could attest to that. On May 30th 1896 she became the first cyclist to be run over and injured by a motorist (or at least first to be so reported). The New-York Daily Tribune of the time recounted the incident thus:

“The wagon [automobile] operated by Henry Wells, of Springfield, Mass., wobbled furiously, going in a zig-zag fashion, until it seemed that the driver had lost control of it. Evylyn Thomas, of No. 459 West Ninetieth-st., was approaching on her bicycle, when suddenly the wheel and horseless carriage met, and there was a crash. A crowd gathered, and the woman was picked up unconscious, her leg fractured. An ambulance took her to the Manhattan Hospital, where last night it was reported that she would recover soon. Wells was taken to the West One-hundred-and-twenty-fifth-st. station, and held pending the result of the injuries to Miss Thomas. The wagon went on in charge of another operator.”

The newspaper didn’t state whether it was Miss Thomas or Mr Wells who was guilty of “scorching”.

Phew, all of this history and etymology came from research I’ve been doing for an 82-page iPhone/iPad/Android version of the Bike to Work Book. I posted this online yesterday. It’s the 95 percent finished proof only for the moment, a revised version will be placed on Issuu.com next week. For now, it’s clicky-flicky right here (hit full-screen to let the extra flavour flood out):

Was this Britain’s earliest SMIDSY?

SMIDSY is clearly nothing new. Drivers have been saying ‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you,’ from the earliest days of motoring. Although as the first drivers were all toffs, they probably never said sorry when they ran over the rural poor.

In September, 1902, the Chief Constable of Huntingdonshire wrote to the Home Office:

“It is a significant fact that two gentlemen of education and position…when exceededing 20mph passed horses and carts…which they subsequently declared they never saw. It being impossible to doubt their word, the question arises as to whether great mischief may not de done, by want of attention on the part of drivers, or their inability to see what is on the road.”


Glancing back, they saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed, while from out the dust a faint ‘Poop-poop!’ wailed like an uneasy animal in pain…they had a moment’s glimpse of…the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back into a droning bee once more.

‘Glorious, stirring sight!’ murmured Toad, never offering to move. ‘The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here to-day— in next week to-morrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped— always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!’

‘O what a flowery track lies spread before me, henceforth! What dust-clouds shall spring up behind me as I speed on my reckless way! What carts I shall fling carelessly into the ditch in the wake of my magnificent onset!”


[Mr Toad] increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was…Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.

Mr Toad later got 20 years in the clink. Not for his reckless driving, but for stealing a car.

SMIDSY from carltonreid on Vimeo.

Even with this many LEDs, there will still be the driver that knocks you down and says: “Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you.”

Please Mr Motorist Watch Out For Me