Thought for the day: Roadside Detritus and the socially-responsible cyclist

There are many things one can do on a bike that one can't do in a car (though the converse is just as true). For many, the delights of cycling include being closer to the sights, sounds and smells of the world around. If the pace is also slower and the journey less urgent, other opportunities also open up – like helping out other road users.


Roadside Junk

Empty plastic bag, or a dangerous distraction?

I lose count of the number of items of junk I've seen abandoned, escaped or discarded by the side of the road. From that which is clearly merely refuse – flattened cans, fast-food wrappers and newspapers – but whose antipathy extends only to offending the eye, impinging the sensibilities or the clogging of drains or streetsweepers, to parts of vehicles or their loads that seized the chance of their drivers' inattention to bolt for the bushes unseen (bumpers, wheel trims, even wooden pallets), to more obvious flotsam and jetsam which cannot have escaped their operator's notice, and have either been allowed to stay where they fell, or even offloaded on purpose to avoid landfill charges or a lengthy journey to the tip. Some of our roads are blissfully pristine – but sadly we would probably only register or remark on this as in contrast to a previous stretch of tarmac whose record is less than glowing.

Though this in itself would be a worthy topic for debate – what should be done about the state of our roads, what methods we can use to cut down on flytippers, what is the strangest abandoned artefact we've observed on our travels – but my chosen path is that of the philantropist. Aside from being able to choose a stopping place far more readily than the average motorist, and to heed a call to take a photo, explore a path or hillock on foot, stop for food or adjust clothing, we are also far freer in our manoeuvrability on a small, almost 2-D, lightweight velocipede than in a vastly larger, more conspicuous and less parkable motor car or pantechnicon. If I decide to stop and chat to a friend, climb a wall, chain my bike up and dive into a shop, I can do so with far less inconvenience to the following motorist than can the previous motorist.

This gives me two distinct advantages to help my fellow man, aside from any whims of my own – I can far easier communicate eloquently with other drivers, if needs be, by approaching their window and speaking to them, than with the limited vocabulary of inevitable gestures that motorists with several metres and two panes of reinforced glass between them can manage. I can, and have, let drivers know that they are missing a rear light, their skirt is trapped in the door, their exhaust has fallen off. I don't have to do this, of course, and I am sure that the vast majority of my good fellow citizens wouldn't think of doing so if they had the opportunity, but such is my nature that I am pathologically driven to help my fellow man where I can do so at little cost to myself.

Of course, human nature being what it is, far more often an approach by a stranger is seen as being probably unwelcome than potentially philanthropic, and I've had to take care that my approach is not mistaken for criticism, abuse or potential criminal intent. I would only approach a motorist when they were stopped in traffic, and with enough leeway to exchange a couple of helpful sentences before the traffic got underway again; I'm also careful to keep an open expression of mild concern on my face rather than anything that could be considered as a prelude to an argument. I take off sunglasses if I am wearing them, and make eye contact. I never touch a car, but will maybe wave to attract a driver's attention and point to where the problem is.. this usually attracts their curiosity without alarming them. Similarly I choose my words with care; 'Hi, just to let you know that.. ' is all it takes to say that I'm being helpful and no more, and the message can be passed on in seconds without delaying anyone or putting myself or others in danger. You try doing that in a car to another driver, and see what abuse or worse you get back as a result.

Now I don't advocate this for everyone, and it's more common that I don't get the chance to help a passing motorist without a convenient hold-up ahead – too damn fast, most of 'em. Ah well, they'll never know what gems I could have passed on. I can't remember a time when anyone objected to this approach though – a cyclist who delivers a message such as mine and doesn't hang about longer than necessary, is less likely to be seen as trouble or a threat than someone who was markedly more aggressive, assertive, or incautious in their approach. I neither foresee nor would advocate a vigilante cycling community cleaning up our streets by spreading goodwill among drivers, but I'm certainly glad of the chance to do someone a good turn.


And no-one to tell him..

The other way where a nimble cyclist can perform a service to other fellow road users, comes where a chance presents itself to tidy up the road and remove a foreign body that might otherwise impede a vehicle's safe progress, or worse. Again, where the coast is clear (and I am not in a hurry), and I have the chance to shift a rock, plank of wood, even a savage knife from the verge, I will often do so. I don't have to, and many cyclists would scoff at the idea; still others may even say that if anything helps remove a motorist from the road, then it gives more space to cyclists, so it might just as well stay there.. I of course, do not think this way, and would rather that neither cyclist nor motorist came a cropper due to a foreign object left in the road when I had had the chance to remove it. I have picked up fallen barriers and roadsigns, kicked or dragged branches or stones out of harm's way, even alerted other motorists to animals in the road. If we've been made aware of what damage a pothole can do to a car and its suspension, then what damage could a 3lb boulder do, either to a tyre, or to an oncoming vehicle if a car had suddenly to swerve to avoid it? Just this week I stopped facing the traffic on a busy A-road to remove the blue plastic bag pictured; though it was empty, it was drifting around in vehicles' slipstream and therefore was very likely to end up under someone's wheels had I not stopped to remove it, if not cause something to swerve to avoid it. Yesterday I came home towards the latest sunset of the year (at least, visible sunset) and kicked a rubber belt off the road; on Friday, after sweeping past a square of carpet abandoned on the road on each of my five journeys to work that week, I stopped on my less-hurried journey back home and shifted it to the verge.


Only you can prevent this..

So here is my question: would you, fellow cyclist, motorist or footsoldier, go out of your way to help clear the road and help other motorists and road users out? Can you happily walk by on the other side and rightly conclude that our taxes pay for people to keep our roads clean for us? Are you, like the seeds that fell on thorny ground, willing to help but worldly troubles and haste prevent you from stopping to clear the ground for others? Or are you sensible enough to decide that your safety is your overriding responsibility and it would be foolhardy to risk yours for the sake of easing someone else's passage? My rule – and a personal one only – is that if I see a hazard on the road and I am not in a hurry, and it is safe to do so, I will stop and move it. I don't think I'd try the same in a car though. Would you?


NB. The above image comes courtesy of Caroline DeVore's similarly-themed blog on and was the result of a google search for a suitable image of roadside debris for use in this article. After visiting Caroline's blog (which I am glad to say shares much of my viewpoint on the subject), I contacted her to request permission to reproduce her picture here. She was good enough to give her blessing in return for a link to her own website, So, if anyone fancies a stay in a well-appointed lodge amid beautiful Vermont mountain scenery, you'll find a similarly-minded soul here. Thank you, Caroline.

Stowe Meadows

2 comments on “Thought for the day: Roadside Detritus and the socially-responsible cyclist”

  1. Patrick wrote:

    Dan, you might appreciate this:


    View in all most of its glory (cos that's not all of it!)

    Seen last year when I was out cycling one evening. The papers visible on the right have someone's address all over them, with personal bank statements, unpaid bills, letters threatening legal action for debt recovery, Argos receipts, etc. Being socially-responsible (or more likely just indignant) I mentioned it to the local Council (not mine) and they said they would clear it (they did) and take legal action against the 'perpetrator' (I don't know if they did that). This is one incident BTW, not an accumulation.

    I didn't exactly 'walk by on the other side' but not much else I could do. If I see a branch on the road or a young bird or a frog on a country lane I will normally stop and move it, even in my car when it's safe to, but I think natural detritus is a bit different from other people's rubbish. I sometimes see 3-piece suites and bedsteads and mattresses left on the verge and the other day a pile of broken asbestos cement mixed up with the same person's household refuse (the local Council had put a sticker on it asking for witnesses). Builder's rubbish dumped at the side is commonplace but there are fewer burnt out cars than a decade ago. There is not much anyone can do to prevent fly tipping at night.

  2. Kern wrote:

    Well, I confess: if I'm in motion I will usually ride around an object and carry on my way. On the other hand, when stopped at an intersection I will dismount to clear away screws, nails, broken bolts and other offending items.

    My personal pet peeve is broken glass on the shoulder in front of someone's property – I would be much happier if someone else took out a broom and dustpan to sweep it up 🙂 .

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