Why should I stay back?

One of the ubiquitous stickers on the back of a London bus

One of the ubiquitous stickers on the back of a London bus

One morning last week a set of temporary traffic lights had been set up at the junction just past my work, causing a tailback at least half a mile long. This wasn’t a problem for me – though the road is single lane, it’s at least two cars wide in places. Plenty of space for a girl on her bike to whizz through between the traffic and the pavement.

As I pedalled past the virtually stationary line of buses, lorries, vans and cars, the odd flash of yellow on the back of some of them caught my eye. I didn’t need to read them to know what they said.

Cyclists stay back.

First introduced last year by Transport for London for use on the back of buses, the stickers are now spreading like a rash across London. In theory, you might think, this is a good idea. Large vehicles and their equally large blind spots are a particular hazard for cyclists. Despite the number of cyclists who’ve been killed after getting caught in the blind spot of an HGV, and despite countless warnings about cycling up the left-hand side of large vehicles, I still sometimes see cyclists doing exactly that. So anything that helps get the message out there has to be a good thing, right?

Not necessarily – and this is why a number of road safety organisations, including the London Cycling Campaign and RoadPeace, have grouped together to call for them to be removed. Their joint statement, released at the end of last week, outlines exactly why the stickers are a problem, and what they would like to see in their place.

Over the past few months, I’ve grown to resent those little yellow diktats more and more. Whenever I see one – particularly on the back of, say, a small van – my first reaction is to think, Cyclists stay back? Why should I?

There are times when I really do need to stay back – such as when there’s an HGV ahead of me, or a vehicle has its left indicator flashing, or there’s no room.

But there are other times when I don’t have to. If there’s a line of traffic waiting for the lights to turn green, I’ll often head down the left-hand side to get to the front – as long as there’s space. If the lights change before I get to the front I slot myself into the line of traffic and move forward with it.

If the traffic is moving, albeit slowly or in fits and starts, the left-hand side is often the best place to be. I don’t want to get caught on the right of the traffic when it moves forward, nor do I want to weave in and out of it.

If the traffic is really not moving at all – as was the case on my ride into work last week – then I’ll go where there’s space.

If I’m confident I can get ahead of the traffic before it moves, and I won’t be cycling headlong into oncoming traffic nor getting caught up with motorbikes, then I might head down the right-hand side of the traffic.

What I won’t do – unless I decide I have to – is stay back.

Being told to stay back implies I have to defer to other road users. It implies I’m doing something wrong simply by being there, as I should, on the left of the traffic. And it implies that drivers don’t have to watch out for me.

If I want to stay safe on the roads of London, there’s only so much I can do myself. I need other road users to look out for me, and to respect my right to be there – and for that reason alone I sincerely hope these stickers are removed.

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11 thoughts on “Why should I stay back?

  1. I knew I liked you! Exactly! We are entitled to the road as much as they are, and as long as we are smart, we are safe. Many of the fatalities are the faults of the cyclist as much as the vehicle.

    If we ride smart, and observant there is no more need to stay back on a bike than there is in a car!

    • Weeelllll….actually, stats from the Department for Transport over here show that around two thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and motorists are solely the fault of the motorist. Obviously I don’t know the details of all these collisions, but I’d hazard a guess that a lot of them happened because the driver wasn’t looking. So yes, there is a lot we can do to stay safe – by riding smart, by paying attention – but ultimately there’s a limit and it’s up to drivers to watch out for us. And that’s what bothers me about these stickers – they suggest that drivers don’t need to check their near side mirrors because we shouldn’t be on their left-hand side. Which is wrong.

  2. Actually – watching cyclists every morning out of the window on the bus – being on the insideleft side when the lights turn green is probably the most dangeorus spot to be! I can see many cyclists that nearly get squashed between the bus and the pavement or a bollard/bin on the side. If you get past the bus before the lights turn, fair enough, but if you are about half way and the bus starts to move, you have no where to go, the driver can’t see you and he may have to swerve to avoid other cyclists and bikes up front, or may have to pull slightly to the left as London roads are not actually meant to fit 2 cars side by side even though road markings suggest otherwise. There is a reason why undertaking (passing cars on the left hand side) is not allowed. This is one of them.

    • Thanks for commenting. The situation you describe is one in which I would normally stay back, particularly if there wasn’t enough space to cycle freely between the bus and the pavement. But it’s not true that undertaking on the left-hand side isn’t allowed. As the article on the LCC website points out, it is allowed provided the traffic is slow-moving or stopped. Buses are also fitted with mirrors that mean drivers should be able to see if there’s a cyclist heading up their left-hand side. Whether or not they actually look in them is another matter entirely. I make a point of looking at a bus’s mirrors when I’m overtaking (on the right) and the number of drivers that pull out without checking their mirrors is really quite frightening.

  3. I’m most aware of those stickers when a bus starts overtaking me while indicating that he’s about to pull over to a bus stop. Perhaps we should have matching stickers that say “Drivers: stop needlessly overtaking”.

    • Yes! Those would be brilliant. I once got into an argument with a bus driver after he repeatedly overtook me then pulled into a bus stop just in front of me. He didn’t seem to think it was a problem. Grr!!

  4. “Being told to stay back implies I have to defer to other road users. It implies I’m doing something wrong simply by being there, as I should, on the left of the traffic. And it implies that drivers don’t have to watch out for me.”

    Exactly. It implies that we are pests, or something to be disdained for we are the ones causing trouble, instead of the overweight guy burning fossil fuels, in a rush to get another donut before the store closes.

    Yeah, I’m a bit angry….

  5. I was delighted when the London Cycling Campaign released a statement about these stickers. How dare white vans in particular stick them on and then think it gives them a right to ignore us on the road. Maybe we should be carrying signs saying ‘traffic make space for cyclists’ or ‘HGV and Buses look for cyclists (and stop knocking them down)’?

  6. So TfL come with signs advising cyclists to stay back and at the same time paint lines inches from the kerb, call them cycle lanes, and encourage folk on bikes to think it’s safe to ride up the inside. It’s a mixed message. I like the idea of advice notices for buses and vans though, except I’m not sure I want to ride around with a billboard on my back…

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