Zen Motoring is an unlikely TV hit. The show, which started life on YouTube and has been remade by the BBC, consists mainly of dashcam footage from a car driving around London. But it stands out because of the meditative commentary of the driver, Ogmios, as he shrugs off the frustrations of the road.
When two rubbish trucks block his path, he deadpans: “I respect their tactics.” When the lights turn red, he notes, “There’ll be another green light.” Finding a sick pigeon on the road, he picks up the bird and reassures it: “I’m a 99 per cent vegan, and the 1 per cent [pause] is not pigeon.” The joke is that no one would behave like this. If anyone dared to follow Ogmios’s “Zenway Code”, they would be both late and honked at.
Why? Why are we so angry? Do the roads make us into monsters, or are they just where we vent? I contemplated such questions while cycling this week, shortly after gesticulating at a car and shortly before watching an Islington Council mobile enforcement vehicle drive through a red light.
Partly, it’s our hunger for time. But cyclists’ anger also stems from their vulnerability: the roads don’t look out for them, so why should they look out for others? Drivers, meanwhile, often see other road-users’ behaviour as an insult or a sign of inferiority. From inside your vehicle, you can’t see those outside as humans. Empathy splats against the windscreen.
Perhaps the answer is to shift the boundaries. This weekend, changes to the UK’s Highway Code come into effect. They include a “hierarchy of road users”: the biggest and fastest vehicles have the greatest responsibility. So cars must do more than cyclists to avoid accidents, and cyclists must do more than pedestrians. That is surely right. The new code also makes clear that cyclists can sometimes ride two abreast, and that they should ride in the centre of the lane on quiet streets and approaching many junctions. Drivers turning from or into a road should give way to pedestrians who are waiting to cross.
The response from many drivers has been vituperative. But Britain’s major motoring organisations, the RAC and the AA, welcomed the changes, noting that cycling had increased in the pandemic. Even if most drivers remain unaware of the new code, some will act. Gradually Britain’s streets will become more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists.
To reduce anger on the roads, we need to shift the physical boundaries, too. Separate cyclists from cars whenever possible. London can be hell on two wheels, but get on one of the new cycle superhighways (thank you, Boris Johnson) and you’re cruising. The angriest roads that I’ve experienced are in countries where far too many buses, cars, horse and carts, and the occasional cyclists all compete for the same tarmac. Britain has actually come a long way. (What we do about the Uber and delivery drivers who park wherever they want, I’m not sure.)
In theory, self-driving cars could calm road rage further. It’ll be hard to call another driver an idiot, if it’s a supercomputer that made the manoeuvre. This week, the Law Commission of England & Wales, together with its Scottish counterpart, recommended that drivers should not be held responsible for errors by autonomous vehicles. But such cars may never arrive: self-controlled cars are as tricky to create as self-controlled drivers.
Zen Motoring’s Ogmios (real name Ivan Battaliero-Owen) attributes his calm to his past life doing rap battles. “Having to maintain composure in the face of someone systematically insulting you or poetically deconstructing your whole life is good training,” he tells me. But over the series, even his self-control wilts when someone dares to insult his car. Face it: our roads would infuriate even the Dalai Lama. Let’s remodel them, and find our Zen.