The media storm after that incident now appears to be moving into its final stages as the driver involved has apologised.
Without wishing to comment on the individual behaviour on display, it’s fairly obvious that the layout on the road in question is almost a recipe for conflict. A through-route for motor traffic is combined with a busy route for people cycling, into and out of Richmond Park. Add in a truly terrible piece of cycling provision that very few people are going to be prepared to use, and it’s almost inevitable that this kind of confrontation would occur.Above is the end/start of the ‘cycle provision’ towards the southern end of Priory Road. It may not be entirely obvious but this is a two-way path. There is no similar ‘infrastructure’ to speak of further south along Priory Road.
This footway – I won’t even credit it as a cycle path, because it is just paint on a footway – is plainly totally unsuitable for even minimal volumes of cycle traffic. It’s barely wide enough for two people to stand next to each other on two bikes, let alone to pass each other in opposite directions with a combined passing speed of 20-30mph.
Not just that, but it gives up at side roads, notably at the mini roundabout where the confrontation occurred.
This ‘path’ incorporates the dangerously ambiguous ‘everyone gives way to everyone else’ gibberish that results in deaths, and has been so justifiably criticised recently in a new design in Bradford.
This tokenistic crap really has to go, not just because it inflames drivers, but also (and far more importantly) because it is dangerous, and also allows councils to get away with pretending that they’ve ‘provided’ something for cycling on a particular road or street when in reality it will often make a bad situation worse.
So what’s the answer?
Straightforwardly, something has to give. Either the carriageway itself should be made attractive for cycling, for everyone – and by for everyone, I mean reducing motor traffic levels down to around 2-3000 PCU per day, something like 200 vehicles per hour in peak, or a 3-4 a minute.
Alternatively, some high-quality parallel cycling infrastructure, again suitable for everyone (that means young children as well as people in lycra, riding fast to or from Richmond Park) should be provided alongside the carriageway.
Given the width constraints here, it’s hard to see how this latter option could be achieved. The best option might be to convert the whole footway into genuine cycle provision, on which people can walk.
This would be a 3-4m bi-directional path of road standard. The downside of course is that pedestrian comfort would be sacrificed, and it may well be that there are two many pedestrians using this road for this to be a viable option. The width may still not be sufficient, and I suspect this option is unworkable.
Alternatively more space could be gained by converting this road to one-way for motor traffic, allowing a much wider bi-directional path to be constructed, with a separate footway alongside it. Indeed, looking at this view again –
… the entire right-hand lane here (which has few turning conflicts) could become the bi-directional path, separated from the carriageway, with the footway restored to pedestrian use only. This example in Haarlem – perhaps a slightly different urban context – shows what could be achieved. The bi-directional path on the left here was constructed from a vehicle lane.
Restricting the road to one-way would obviously entirely cut-out through (motor) traffic in one-direction, lowering traffic levels, while still allowing access to properties and dwellings on Priory Lane.
If this isn’t workable, for whatever reason, then the only remaining option, as previously described, is to lower motor traffic levels on Priory Lane to around 2-3000 PCU/day. This would have to be achieved with point closures at intervals or with opposing one-way sections that still allowed two-way cycling. Access for residents would be retained, and through motor traffic would have to use slightly longer parallel routes. It could even become a genuine cycle street, still open to motor traffic for access, but with very low motor traffic levels, such that cycle traffic dominates.
More generally this might be tied to the issue of Richmond Park itself being used as a through-route for motor traffic – Priory Lane is an extension of that through-route, and perhaps the two issues could be considered together, with motor traffic diverted onto the A3 and the A306 (and other main roads skirting the park).
These options will require planning and investment, but will have many benefits. They would reduce conflict between motor traffic and cycle traffic – not just the extreme example that has made the headlines – but the more numerous and mundane day-to-day kinds of conflict that makes cycling unattractive, like being followed by motor traffic (even driven well) for several hundred metres. Reducing motor traffic on Priory Lane (and indeed through Richmond Park) would have added multiple benefits for residents, particularly in the form of a calmer, safer, quieter and less-polluted road on their doorstep.
Just as with the recent example of conflict involving a young child and someone cycling on the pavement, this is the kind of discussion the media should now move on to. A reasoned, sensible analysis of how to reduce conflict between cycling and other modes, while making our streets safer and more attractive in the process (we can but hope).
Alternatively our media can just keep sensationalising these incidents every time they occur, as they inevitably will given the built-in conflict engendered by our road and street system. Their choice, I guess.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the compulsory driving test in the UK, there will be some discussion of how there could be modifications of the current driving test. There will be calls for a ”graduated driving test” and possibly even the argument that drivers should retake “the test”.
I take a different approach. I argue that, however much it has been modified or tweaked, the role of the “test” is actually to boost the sense of entitlement of drivers – encouraging the sense of “undue proficiency” that Churchill perceptively noticed. Whatever benefits it may have are thus diminished, and I doubt whether it has a significant – or indeed perhaps any – overall function as a means of controlling road danger.
Saying this is rather taboo, but I think that this taboo needs to be broken. Let’s see how the compulsory driving test for motorists is in many ways part of the problem of danger on the roads. Below I enclose what I wrote about “the test” in 1992 (fully referenced version here)Page 108 – 111, and then I see whether anything has changed since then.Congratulatory cards: What is “the great achievement”? From: “Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety” Safety and “the test”
The driving test which British motorists must pass in order to possess a valid driving licence was brought in only after prolonged campaigning, against bitter opposition. As early as 1903, debate in Parliament and elsewhere had mentioned the need for a means of testing people before they could be entrusted with a motorcar.’° Along with associated demands from a public increasingly concerned about a rising total of road deaths for measures such as speed limits, compulsory insurance, law enforcement, licensing and the registration and numbering of vehicles, its introduction was fought with tenacity by the motoring organisations. As one account of this battle, which is not unsympathetic to the motorists’ cause, states: “What they had to overcome in order to get the necessary legislation on the statute books was the determined, articulate and well-financed opposition of the powerful car lobby.” Considering the road and vehicle conditions of the 1930s, the campaigners’ case for a test seems irrefutable, and the opposition to it an example of how ruthless the motorists’ lobby could be.
Yet there was a good deal of humility in the approach of the campaigners, whether in organisations such as the Pedestrians’ Association for Road Safety or leader writers reflecting public horror at a road toll which had reached an all-time high in 1934, the year before the introduction of “the test”. There was no basic opposition to mass motoring as such from the campaigners. Despite the fact that a minority of road users had completely transformed the road environment in less than two decades, their demands were moderate, to say the least. The call for a 30 mph speed limit, for example, has to be seen in the context of poor and unreliable braking capacity, less reliable road surfaces and road layouts far more difficult to negotiate than now.
Private motoring was exclusively a middle- and upper-class pursuit, cycling a predominantly working class one; but the issue was rarely seen as one of class politics) The campaign for “the test” was, then, a request for motorists to become a little more responsible, rather than a serious attempt at control. Part of a humble and placid approach, it was typified by those campaigners who tried to achieve their ends, like cycling and pedestrian safety campaigners today, by friendly persuasion using their own driving behaviour as an example.
If they could drive with care and respect for other road users, why couldn’t other motorists? Like other approaches skirting the fundamental problems of road danger, the campaign was always going to have limited or even negative results. The dangers of the driving test – so accurately perceived by Churchill were not (and are still not) appreciated. Instead the RAC complained that it would be wrong to demand a test for a driving licence when one was not required for a dog licence. In the event, driving tests became compulsory for new licence holders from June 1935. It was a double-edged victory. Benefits are not only inadequate in terms of screening out incompetent drivers or providing proper training, but are absorbed by encouraging feelings of pride and supposed fulfilment of responsibility.2. The nature of “the test”
After a period of instruction, learner drivers are required to drive for about half an hour showing knowledge of the Highway Code and the ability to carry out basic manoeuvres. This is probably the last time that many drivers seriously attempt to obey the Highway Code. Roadside observation indicates frequent and regular rule breaking by many, if not most, motorists. And spot checks reveal that most motorists are ignorant of basic elements of knowledge of driving that they may be examined on in “the test”, such as ability to recognise basic road signs.’
The chances of being caught for behaviour which flouts the Highway Code is, as shown in Chapter 7 of this book, minimal, even for those potentially dangerous behaviours which can be seen. if there is no attempt to ensure that people obey the laws they are supposed to follow, why get them to display knowledge of them? Also, as the existence of so-called advance driver training indicates, why test at such a low level? And why the implicit assumption that unlike for any other semi-skilled task people’s ability will not decrease over time (with ‘the test’ occurring once in a lifetime if driving)
There is a defence of “the test” against these charges. It is that about half of those taking it fail, and that therefore it must be a stringent examination of driving skills. The Department of Transport does not bother to compile figures dealing with long term chances of passing. My impression is that those who are determined to gain a driving licence find it quite easy to pass “the test” by taking it again and again, without necessarily acquiring more skills. I would argue that a real indicator of chances of passing for those prepared to take a test, for example, five times, would be nearer 80 to 95 per cent. These are not new criticisms. It should be obvious that taking “the test” is of little value in preventing motorists from being dangerous. Despite this it is still thought of as an important commitment, or even concession, made by motorists which cyclists (or even pedestrians) get away with not making.’
Even a difficult, regularly repeated test would not close the gap in the potential to break regulations or inflict damage that exists between motorists and the benign road user groups. Not only is “the test” a weak control, then, its social function is largely to provide a defence against accusations of antisocial behaviour, whether it actually minimises the likelihood of antisocial behaviour or not. The reason for putting inverted commas around the phrase “the test” is partly to cast doubt on its supposed function as a genuine restriction of dangerous behaviour. It also needs to be seen as an element in the successful completion of a rite of passage. Its role is to confer on the person who passes the idea that they have become a responsible road user, superior to others who have not. In this sense “the test” is dangerous anybody seriously committed to a career of careful driving needs a sense of humility, rather than the pride associated with passing. It is arguable that its existence does more harm than good.
Nearly 60 years after its introduction, initial results were published of research on whether drivers who had passed “the test” would be able to pass it within the following two years. In a survey of 400 such motorists, just under half were unable to pass it. The main reason given for their failure was overconfidence.’3. A proper test?
To meet the criticisms of inadequate training and testing, and that testing should occur after the driver has some experience of driving alone, various forms of advanced driver training have been introduced. They are also open to criticism. First, there is doubt about the levels of effectiveness of the various tests for those who take them. Particularly at the level of the less sophisticated defensive driver training, there may be no benefit in terms of reduced tendency to become involved in accidents.’
There is, however, evidence that people who pass an advanced driver test will have better accident records afterwards than those who fail it. The most frequently quoted is a 1972 TRRL study of the difference between successful and unsuccessful Institute of Advanced Motorists (JAM) test candidates. Those passing had 25 per cent fewer accidents over a three-year period after the test than those failing. The JAM claims a conviction rate among its motorists of 1.9 per cent as against a national average of 10.4 per cent, although this is not corrected for age and other variables – those who want to take the lAM test may in the first place already be less likely to have accidents than a national average. For this reason the possibility of making such a test compulsory has been raised since at least the late 1960s. It has been opposed successfully on the grounds that “the cost of introducing and maintaining such a test is… unacceptably high.
But this is only part of the story. Training which would teach people how to drive carefully is time-consuming, particularly if regularly repeated. Besides, a substantial proportion of the current licence holders at present on the road would lose their licences if regular testing at a proficient level were required. It is estimated that if the RoSPA advanced drivers test were to be compulsory for licence holders, some 30 to 40 per cent of current drivers would lose their licences, even after being offered appropriate training. The motoring organisations are unlikely to support a measure which would sizeably reduce their membership, revenue and power.
More demanding training and testing are limited for the same reasons that limit all attempts to control the dangers which motorists present to others – namely the unwillingness of motorists to accept them. At present the membership of the 1AM constitutes some 90,000, or about 0.45 per cent of all licensed motorists, with a smaller number of motorists having passed other similar tests. This tiny minority are a self-selected group prepared to admit that their skills might possibly be deficient. Central to the ideology of the motorist is the idea that driving is a personal, private matter. When added to notions of prestige and pride, this is hardly likely to lead to the kind of humility and self-criticism required to accept repeated rigorous training and testing.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++So what has happened since I wrote the above over twenty years ago?
A current subject for “road safety” practitioners is “graduated licensing” for new drivers, as “those drivers who have most recently passed their test are still the riskiest group on the road, prompting concern that the current testing system is outdated and irrelevant”.
Of course, part of the reason for recent graduates being “still the riskiest group” is precisely the fact that they have passed the driving test and taken on the pride and over-confidence that this means – something which won’t be addressed by graduated licensing. Probably the main reason this group is “still the riskiest group” is that it is composed of young – generally higher risk-taking – people. That would only be changed by restricting to driving to people over the age of 21 (or perhaps higher), but that isn’t on the cards.
Another perennial issue is that of drivers in their old age. The transport planner John Dales has suggested that it is a mark of “how low we have sunk” that people only have to take a driving test once, and can then drive for decades without being re-tested. During that time highway and car environments have changed, and reaction times and psycho-motor reflexes slow. So it would make sense to have another driving test for elderly people, or one every five years or so, to weed out those who become incompetent.
However, a “road safety” organisation advocating this stresses that it “would be voluntary and ‘non-threatening’. Last year I gave an example of a collision I witnessed (Case 4 here) where a “driver education course” was an alternative to the trivial “punishment” likely to follow a careless driving prosecution, with the elderly driver who had injured somebody ending up paying less (from an increased insurance premium following conviction) as well as avoiding a fine and a few penalty points.
Even a mandatory test for elderly drivers would be unlikely to address problems of fatigue and physical decline, as the test could be carefully prepared for. Anything which acted to control danger from drivers, elderly or otherwise, is, again, not on the cards.
Or there is the question of pass rates. The authorities proudly show how many fail the different parts of the test on each try. But how many people have you ever come across who were genuinely committed to getting a driving license who simply found the business of “passing the test” too arduous? Leaving aside some people with learning difficulties and a few outliers, I would say very few at all. Any weeding out which occurs is quite minimal, and more than outweighed by the sense of pride and entitlement – the great achievement shown in the congratulatory card above – resulting from passing. Of course the test could be repeated, but that might involve disqualifying some drivers – so it is not on the cards. The best of all would be to examine drivers without them being aware of scrutiny (through on-board cameras etc). No, that too is not on the cards – how many people would be able to avoid being banned from driving if their everyday driving failed to follow the standards of their behaviour on the one occasion where they have to drive properly?
The social function of the test
All this points towards asking why the test is there in the first place. I find I have to restate the conclusions I arrived at a couple of decades ago: the compulsory driving test is there as part of the structure of a society organised around a culture which is not just characterised by dependence on car usage, but by dependence on more dependence on car usage, and uncritical rejection of any real attempt to address the disbenefits of such a society. It is in thrall to a belief system where motorists can aspire to drive where, when and how they want, for whatever reason, with minimal restriction. Then there is the built-in sense of entitlement and wounded victimhood.
One particularly unpleasant aspect of this is the rampant prejudice against cyclists. Today (26/05/2015) BBC Radio 4 ran a programme asking listeners to submit problems they had had as pedestrians where their safety had been compromised. This referred not to the vast majority of such incidents, where motor vehicles are involved, but instead to the tiny minority where cyclists are. Despite evidence showing the relative lack of threat to pedestrians or others, such mystification myth-creation proceeds apace, while road danger created by motor vehicle users is apparently accepted. And one of the ways it has come to be accepted is by the mistaken notion that drivers have fulfilled their responsibilities by “taking a test”.
This has important implications for those concerned about displays of bigotry from the official national broadcasting organisation. And professionals and campaigners concerned with safety on the road should be concerned – not least since we are told that drivers need all sorts of highway and vehicle engineering because of their propensity to crash, and negative views towards other road users who are their potential victims are the last thing needed and a very real problem. A basic reaction is to argue that it is motorists who need proper regulation and accountability, rather than cyclists.
But this, as with much “road safety” ideology, is a case of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, not once, but twice over. What is required apart from pointing in the right direction (towards the motorised) is a realisation that “passing a test” – one of the supposed solutions to the supposed problem of mass danger from errant cyclists – is that the driving test is itself part of the problem.
A transcript of a BBC Radio 4 programme, today.
Continuity announcer: Now it’s time for Call You and Yours, with Winifred Robinson.
Robinson: Hello, and welcome to the programme. Today, we’re asking a very important question –
is it time to change the rules for people who wear shoes with little wheels?
Should they have to take a road test, and get insurance, like everyone else? Call us now please, on 0800 A-N-E-C-D-O-T-E. You can also email and text us.
We’re talking about this after those video pictures were published showing a little girl being hit on the pavement by someone wheeling along on little wheels in their shoes, prompting headlines like THE MOST CALLOUS HEELYIST IN BRITAIN, and a report on road safety yesterday revealed that the number of heelyists hurt on the roads has risen sharply in recent years.
Nick Unctuous – one of the founders of the London Heely Challenge back in the seventies – rang us earlier. He thinks the behaviour of wheeled shoeists has deteriorated over the years.
Unctuous: Most heelyists haven’t got a clue. They don’t know how to roll efficiently. They can’t even change their little heely wheels. They don’t look where they’re going. An erratic heelyist is a bad heelyist, a heelyist who is heading for trouble. You get lycra-clad lunatic heelyists whizzing down pavements because they think they’re gods, because they think they can get away with it.
Robinson: Conclusive evidence. Now let’s hear from Chris Sensible, who won Olympic Wheel Shoe gold back in 1992, and is a policy adviser for British Heelying. Chris, do you think we should make heelyists pass tests and have insurance before they venture out on heelies?
Sensible: Firstly let’s put things in context. 34 pedestrians are killed every year when motor vehicles mount the pavement. Only one person has been killed by someone wearing wheeled shoes in the last decade.
Robinson: Yes, but you can prove anything with statistics. Statistics are often at odds. I’ve got statistics here that say that it’s actually two people who have been killed in accidents involving wheeled shoes.
Sensible: People will be daft, whether they’re travelling around by car, by wheeled shoes, or on foot. Let’s look at the risk posed by each of those modes of transport. You might as well ask whether pedestrians should have to pass a test, or have insurance.
Robinson: In Switzerland heelyists have to have insurance. And wheeled shoes have to be registered.
Sensible: Most European countries don’t require any kind of insurance to use wheeled shoes. And let’s keep this in context.
Robinson: What about the rising casualty rate of heelyists? Do you think part of the problem here is that some people can just step into wheeled shoes, without knowing enough about road safety?
Sensible: It’s much more holistic than that. Countries just across the North Sea have a much better heely safety record. Heelying is prioritised, and made safe.
Robinson: But they have big heely lanes. You would have to tear London up to do that here, which is obviously impossible.
Sensible: Do we want more people heelying, or not? The big picture is, we do, and measures like insurance and testing will put people off.
Robinson: Let’s hear from our callers now. Greg Taximan is in Hampshire. Greg, do you think there should be new rules for wheeled shoe wearers?
Taximan: Yes, there should be new rules for heelyists. I hear what our esteemed heely Olympian has to say, but when drivers break rules, there’s a punitive system to punish them. If heelyists could be punished for their bad behaviour, then that would modify their behaviour.
Robinson: Greg, it sounds to me like you’re speaking from very bitter experience about heelyists! You must have had an incident with one. Please, fill our airtime with a precious anecdote about them. What do you do for a living?
Taximan: I’m a taxi driver. There was incident in a local village near me. There was traffic jam the other way. A heelyist was coming down my left, where there was no traffic jam, and I was passing him, the lane was well wide enough for me to pass him, no problem. But a heelyist came the other way, and he made contact with my taxi. And there’s no way to hold him accountable! There was no identification on him, or his heelies. There needs to be some kind of number plates on wheeled shoes, to stop the kind of bad behaviour you never, ever, see from drivers who have number plates.
And another thing – maybe only one heelyist has killed a pedestrian. But plenty of heelyists are killing themselves by getting themselves run over by motor vehicles.
Robinson: Thank you for that Greg. Here is an email, read out loud by Caroline Atkinson.
Atkinson: Yes, someone has just emailed to say ‘I was knocked over yesterday by a someone wearing wheeled shoes on the South Bank in London.’
Robinson: Thank you Caroline. Now Barry Chutney has called us from London. Barry, what do you think? Is it time for a wheeled shoe test, and insurance?
Chutney: [Emphatically] Yes. Certainly. It should be brought back as compulsory.
Robinson: The National Wheeled Shoe Proficiency Test?
Chutney: AND they should also have a roadworthiness certificate for their shoes. And they should pay insurance. And wear a reflective tabard saying I AM A WHEELED SHOEIST – WATCH OUT. Or something like that.
Robinson: What makes you say that Barry?
Chutney: Because of the amount of wheeled shoes you see out there. I see it constantly. There are some good heelyists out there, I haven’t got any hatred towards the wearers of wheeled shoes. But it’s not a minority. I see it every day, on a daily basis, especially young kids. They’re riding around on these little wheels, and basically their shoes consist of two shoes, usually with laces, or velcro straps, a sole, and wheels in the sole. No lights in the shoes, no bell, no horn, no nothing. And they can’t wheel steadily, they’re all over the place, in gangs, and just, like, jump out on you! It’s crazy!
Robinson: Barry, what about the argument that clamping down on heelyists is out of proportion to the problem?
Chutney: Rule One of health and safety is to take care of yourself. I drive a big lorry; I take care of myself. Shouldn’t wheeled shoe wearers be made to care of themselves around my big lorry? At all times? It’s common courtesy! Manners!
Robinson: Barry Chutney, thank you. Turning to Chris Sensible again, you’ve just come back from the continent, where you say it is much safer to wear wheeled shoes. But surely we just haven’t got the room here in Britain?
Sensible: There is a finite amount of roadspace. And we have to choose who we give priority to.
Robinson: Let’s return to the callers. Jessica Backintheday from Suffolk – do you think it’s time for everyone to have compulsory education before they put on shoes with little wheels in them, and also some insurance?
Backintheday: I do, yes. I took the National Wheeled Shoe Proficiency Test back in the seventies. We learnt how to keep a lookout behind us, how to signal, all sorts of things related to using wheeled shoes.
Sensible: Well actually fifty percent of schools currently run Heelability, the modern form of the Wheeled Shoes Proficiency Test.
Robinson: Jessica, what do you think about heelyists having wheeled shoe identification, and insurance? I’m trying to get some uninformed consensus on this issue.
Backintheday: I’m actually not sure about that. For poor people, wheeled shoes could be their only mode of transport. Also children could be priced out of the legal use of wheeled shoes. So… I’m not sure. Although maybe some identification on the shoes could help get them back if they were stolen…
Robinson: More emails now from Caroline Atkinson.
Atkinson: A lot of people are very very agitated about people heelying two abreast, which local people are saying causes hold ups. Tony also says that he feels very strongly that when people wearing wheeled shoes go the wrong way down a one-way street, and they have a driving licence, they should get points on their licence. Also Geoff has written that a drunk man in wheeled shoes bumped into his car, and simply wheeled away. Finally Gillian says, ‘If I were Mayor of London I would make all heelyists take a proficiency test, they would wear hi-viz vests bearing a registered number, and they would be insured!’
Robinson: That’s it for today. We’ll have another informative phone in soon. Do join us.
This is a follow up to a recent post on being diverted while cycling, during road repairs.
Last week I encountered a similar diversion to the one described in that post – a country lane has been closed for repairs, with users of that lane being sent on a diversion, again on a busy A-road. Instead of the dual-carriageway A24, the diversion this time was on to the A272, which is no more attractive a prospect.
A little less busy than the A24, but probably more dangerous to cycle on, given the restricted width, an absence of a shoulder, and fairly heavy traffic levels. In fact, at this point – 18,000 vehicles a day, including 800 HGVs.
The (closed) country lane in question is Maplehurst/Nuthurst Lane, which connects these two small villages to the A272 to the south, and the A281 to the north.
I ignored these signs, because I didn’t want to cycle for around 5 miles on single-carriageway A-roads.
Sure enough, as I came around the corner, I found that, while this road is not usable by motor traffic during the repairs, there was no real justification for closing this road for people walking and cycling.
So this is partly a plea to West Sussex County Council to think a little more about their diversion signs – if people on foot and on bike can easily get through a road closure, then that should made explicit on the temporary signs. Otherwise you will be sending a good number of people cycling onto dangerous roads, needlessly exposing them to heavy traffic.
And, of course, just as in the previous ‘diversion’ post, closures like this show how we should be thinking more clearly about the function of these country lanes, which should be closed to through traffic permanently, and not just for the period of roadworks. Residents should still be able to access their properties, but in this case there are, again, parallel A-roads which should be carrying any through traffic.
A Porsche has been driven over the footway and into the Gerrards Cross branch of Cafe Nero, temporarily trapping two customers. No charge has been made by Thames Valley police, who are quoted as saying that the incident is “not thought to be suspicious”.
In this essay I examine this and a few similar incidents to see how the authorities accept and tolerate obvious rule and law breaking by motorists. As well as the Police services involved, the official “road safety” authorities in highway engineering collude and connive with this sort of violent behaviour. There is little comment on these incidents to challenge what appears to be the dominant narrative of tolerance of this behaviour, not least the type of language involved.
I challenge that narrative below, and argue against the dominant approach to these incidents, as well as the tolerance of them by the authorities. I think it indicates that in a crucial respect – the apparent acceptance of rule and law breaking by people simply because they have chosen to drive – this society is fundamentally uncivilised.
I am choosing seven different incidents which I have picked up in the last few months to illustrate my case. I am used to reading of similar cases on a regular basis: nothing about them is, in my view, exceptional or atypical.Incident 1: Sheffield, reported 21st January 2015
According to the Guardian: “In Sheffield, a car careered through the front window of a house after losing control in the treacherous conditions. It was pictured by passers-by after it mounted the kerb, drove through the garden wall and into the property.”
The issue here is apparently one of an inanimate object which manages to “lose(s) control” (presumably this is a loss of self-control), and power itself (“mount”, “drive”) with no human agency involved.
If I may continue to examine the language used: the one occasion where pejorative words are employed again relates to the inanimate, this time the weather conditions. These are said to be nothing less than “treacherous”. The implication is that unsuspecting drivers have been betrayed by what many of us have assumed to be a normal occurrence, namely snow falling in Yorkshire in the winter.
The Yorkshire Post uses the same language regarding the inanimate object: “The red Ford lost control and mounted the curb, before ploughing into the front window of the property on the residential street”.
I contacted the local police through Twitter to find:
I don’t want to get pompous about this, but it fascinates me that everything other than the driver is blamed. I’m sure that car-dependent Sheffield residents have all sorts of problems to contend with, but surely they should be aware that (a) Sheffield is hilly and (b) when it has been snowing the road surface is likely to be icy?Incident 2: Whittlesey, A605, reported 21st February 2015.
The account on the Facebook page of Policing Whittlesey describes the incident:Policing Whittlesey
Officers on patrol in Whittlesey witnessed a vehicle roll several times on the A605, landing upside down in a water filled ditch, a lone female was trapped inside the car full of icy water, the quick thinking officers put themselves at risk to rescue the the lady working tirelessly to prise the door open and pull her to safety, the lady is currently in hospital and on the road to recovery! If it wasn’t for these officers being in the right place at the right time it could of been a very different story. The roads are going to be icy of the next few days, please drive safely
I should make one point very clear: along with the commenters on the Facebook page, I applaud the police officers for their selflessness and commitment to assisting any member of the public in distress; however they came to be in the situation described.
I do have a problem though. In fact, I think the story as described by Police officers (and those commenting) is fascinating for what it leaves out. In fact, I think the Police and others commenting have the problem.
As indicated in my exchange on Twitter with Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Roads Police:
At no point in the accounts and Facebook comments is there the suggestion that the driver who overturned her car had committed any kind of offence or done anything wrong. Indeed, the driver is only seen as a victim, for example in one comment that the Council may have not put enough grit on the roads. Another comment argues that the task of rescuing errant drivers is what the Police are for, and not just catching criminals. Or charging any careless driver?Incident 3: Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: 16th May 2015.
According to the local newspaper :Porsche Smashes Through Coffee Shop Window
A Thames Valley Police spokesman said: “The incident involved one vehicle and resulted in minor injuries to a woman who was the only person in the car. Two people, a man and a woman, were also temporarily trapped inside the building but were released. The road has since been reopened.”
Police said the incident was not thought to be suspicious.(My emphasis)
As in other cases, there were some comments to the effect that the inanimate object – a car – was assumed to be the problem, rather than the person legally in charge of it. The other comment is the one I use in the heading of this piece, namely that there is “nothing suspicious” about driving a high-powered car across the footway of a busy street and into a coffee shop, in a Home Counties town on a Saturday afternoon.
The Fire Brigade (who attended the scene) tweeted :
Bucks and MK Fire @Bucksfire · May 16 . So glad it wasn’t worse. Must have been terrifying for everyone.
Note the equivalence between the suffering of people sitting in the coffee shop and the driver. Neutralising the difference between those endangering others and those who are endangered by motor vehicles is a staple feature of “road safety” ideologyIncident 4 Elephant and Castle , London 30 July 2014
In this case where the two car occupants had minor injuries, police said they were investigating and that no arrests had been made. (It may be the case that the vehicle was forced off the road by a third party, but this possibility could be easily investigated through use of the CCTV cameras at the roundabout). Elephant and Castle is known as a site where the Metropolitan Police Service regularly stop and issue fines to cyclists who have gone over the stop line when signals are on red, an infraction rather less likely to hurt or kill other road users than whatever happened in this incident.Incident 5 Blackheath, London 17th March 2015
The lorry “overturned”. One minor injury. No reports of any arrests made.Incident 6 28 October 2014 Wandsworth Road, London.
In one account: “A Waitrose truck flips over”. In another “A driver has escaped uninjured but is ‘shaken’ after his lorry overturned”. As in the previous incident the drivers seem to have had nothing to do with the inanimate objects’ behaviour. No arrests mentioned.Incident 7 Staffordshire, 26th October 2014
This time the driver does seem to have done something wrong – he “overturned his vehicle”, and then shortly after it crashes into a house, apparently as it was left on a slope without the hand brake on. He is, however, described sympathetically as “Britain’s unluckiest HGV driver” No mention of an arrest.
I stated above that there is nothing atypical about these crashes – both in the way they are reported and the way police respond to them. The only reason why some of them reach the national media is because they feature dramatic images: they involve large vehicles and roads being closed, or something peculiar (a car in a coffee shop). Indeed, we should look at what is going on with all the normal car crashes which occur on the roads of Britain.
To get a rough idea of these “normal” incidents: approximately 4 million insurance claims are made by British motorists annually. The majority of crashes (between 75 – 90%) involving motor vehicles do not involve personal injury, and thus do not even require reporting to the Police. Ultimately this normality leads to Police and the media thinking that “nothing suspicious” has occurred, even when a high-powered car ends up in a coffee shop.
Normal crashes and the “road safety” industry
It isn’t just the Police who are implicated in tolerating and accepting this. Despite persistent anodyne requests from the publicity wing of the “road safety” movement for drivers to try to be careful, the main thrust of “road safety” has in fact been to accommodate rule and law breaking driving. Indeed, I argue that “road safety” has colluded and connived with careless, negligent, dangerous driving.
After all, billions of pounds has been spent by highway engineers on creating a road environment designed around the needs of careless, dangerous etc. driving. Cutting down and removing road side trees ; installing crash proof barriers and central reservations; placing shock absorbing structures around bridge supports and other solid structures; making lamp posts which break, so occupants of vehicles which crash into them are protected; laying anti-skid where drivers have crashed after going too fast; placing rumble strips to assist inattentive drivers etc. All of these and similar measures have been staples of highway engineering for decades.
On top of this, straightening sight lines and similar measures are based on implicitly ignoring the age-old requirement for drivers to “always drive in such a way that you can stop within visible distance”. Of course, sometimes engineers have defended these practices to me on the basis that innocent motorists may be protected from dangerous drivers (for example, those driving across the centre–line by a crash barrier). That’s true – not all these measures are to directly protect the rule or law breaking driver, as they may be protecting their victims. Nevertheless, many of them (the typical roadside tree removal) are, and all are based on accommodating rule/law-breaking driving.…and vehicle engineering
Similarly most motor vehicle “road safety” engineering is about producing more crashworthy cars to accommodate behaviour which threatens other road users. Collapsible steering wheels, seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, side impact protection systems, roll bars etc.: all are based on an assumption that motorists are inherently likely to crash and/or be crashed into by their fellow motorists.
So where does this take us?
I am suggesting that there is a widespread evasion of responsibility throughout our culture in general, and among those authorities supposedly responsible for safety on the road in particular. We are up against a belief system based on a sense of entitlement among motorists, which impedes both moves towards sustainable transport policy implementation in general, and reduction in road danger in particular – and the institutions and practices of official “road safety” are part of this.
That doesn’t mean we should despair. Some of us stress the low risks of travel by the benign modes, and the ways we might move forward. But what it does mean is that if this society has accepted “normal” crashes in the ways illustrated, we can and should base our demands accordingly.
For a start, although the level and extent of motorist incompetence and unwillingness to obey rules and laws may be exaggerated, it is organisations representing motorists – and those of the “road safety” industry – that are claiming that driving is inherently dangerous. Why else do drivers need the plethora of safety aids (seat belts, air bags etc.) in cars, and the enormous sums spent of engineering the highway (cutting down roadside trees, installing crash barriers and anti-skid etc.) . That means we can demand forms of driver liability in collisions where cyclists or pedestrians are involved, at least in civil law, accordingly.
It means we can argue that enforcement exercises like Operation Safeway should stop being biased towards the rule/law-breaking which is less dangerous to others, namely that by cyclists .
(At our conference on law enforcement last year an officer in the MPS’ Cycle Task Force stated that he saw no problem in arresting law-breaking cyclists if the law is enforced for errant motorists. The point is that it isn’t).
It means that highway engineers (as well as individual drivers) should accept the likelihood of pedestrians and cyclists making mistakes: Accommodating this is less anti-social than accommodating driver rule and law breaking..
It means that vehicle engineering should be based on controls on the potential of drivers to hurt or kill others. At the very least “black box” systems to monitor crash causation should be on the agenda.Interventions and the dominant culture
As a general rule we need to recognise that any specific intervention occurs within the culture which is car-centred and discriminatory against the non-car modes in general, and against non-motorised modes in particular.
Consider two commonly discussed areas of intervention: calls for forceful changes in law enforcement and sentencing policy, or the re-organisation of the highway to take space away from general traffic and re-allocate it specifically to cycling, are fine in themselves, but have to be assessed in the context of the surrounding dominant culture. As theorists of risk compensation have argued, unless there is an underlying change in the extent and kind of risk taking in society, official interventions can simply press down on the problem in one area while it pops up somewhere else. In these cases, unless the reasons for cracking down on forms of driver behaviour are carefully explained in terms of the obligations and duties of care owed by the motorised towards others, in the case of law enforcement and sentencing changes we may get resentment and a lack of willingness to support other forms of road danger reduction. Re-allocation of road space to cyclists may increase the unwillingness of drivers to behave properly in highway environments where drivers will have to be in close proximity to, and sharing space with, cyclists.
Now, this does not mean that we never engage in any kind of programme of danger reduction measures, such as those above, 20 mph areas, motor traffic reduction measures, etc. But it does mean that we have to be aware of the knock-on effects of these moves, and how they are affected by – and also affect – widely held beliefs about the kind of risk taking that is acceptable in the highway environment. Whatever the success of a specific intervention, it always has to be seen in the context of the car-centred (I have elsewhere called it “car supremacist”) culture we live in. And, regrettably, despite the best efforts of many individual professionals, the institutions of “road safety” are very much part of this culture.
Motor danger has been nornalised in the car-centred society we live in, not least by the agencies who should be dealing with it. But understanding this can allow us to move towards an alternative based on reducing danger at source and making those responsible for it accountable. This can come about by specific programmes being implemented as part of an overall cultural change towards a society where car usage – and specifically, the ways in which cars are driven – is seen in a more critical way. If we don’t achieve this, we will indeed be living in a fundamentally uncivilised society.
5:12 pm – 22 Feb 2015 · Details
Inclusive cycling infrastructure is often described as being suitable for ‘8-80′ – for the young as well as the old. It’s a good philosophy. However, it is not quite adequate, in and of itself, to capture what’s required for infrastructure to be of a suitably high standard.
For instance, a good deal of substandard infrastructure could reasonably be described as 8-80. Wibbly-wobbly crap on pavements, for instance, can be negotiated by eight year olds, as well as eighty year olds.
This isn’t, however, this kind of infrastructure that many people would actually choose to use. Nonsense like this gets avoided by people who are able (although not necessarily willing) to cycle with motor traffic.
So ‘8-80′ isn’t quite sufficient, in and of itself. What’s required is infrastructure that is suitable for the young and the old, as well as the fast, the confident and the experienced. Infrastructure, for instance, that’s suitable for 8-80, as well as for a team time trial.
The cycle path in the picture above is one that can obviously accommodate high speed cycling, but at the same time it is also suitable for a full range of other cycling types, the slow; the young; the old.
A similar version of this test was proposed by Joe Dunckley – a ‘Boris test’.
Need an addition to the 8yo kid test of cycling schemes. The Boris test: would Boris just keep his wits about him + continue using the road?
— Joe Dunckley (@steinsky) July 9, 2014
That is, infrastructure has to be good enough for someone like Boris Johnson – who habitually disparages substandard off-carriageway infrastructure, while voicing his preference for mixing it with motor traffic on busy roads – to choose to use it, rather than opting for the motor traffic alternative.
Cycling infrastructure should accommodate all these people, on the same singular design. It should offer comfort, safety and attractiveness, as well as being direct and convenient. This is uniformity of provision, well explained by David Arditti –
We know from looking at the systems of cycling infrastructure in the most successful cycling nations and cities that they design one network for cyclists, and only one, to one set of standards. They treat cycling as we treat motoring and walking, that is, as an essentially homogeneous activity facilitated on one network, built to one set of standards, for all those who do it. They recognise that cyclists, whether they be young or old, fast or slow, able-bodied or disabled, all need essentially the same things, in terms of a quality network that gives priority, directness, and both actual and subjective safety.
There is no question of us having a network of roads for “less confident drivers” and a different one for “fast and advanced motorists”, and this is how the places that get cycling right also treat cycling. They build cycle lanes, paths and tracks that work of all types of cyclists and all abilities at the same time, and have sufficient capacity to cope with all, taking the attitude that if it’s not safe enough for young children, it won’t be safe enough for anyone, and if it’s not convenient enough for commuters in a hurry, it won’t be an attractive option to anyone. They build up to a common standard that works for all, and don’t say “If you don’t like it, there’s always the busy, dangerous main road”.
Uniformity of provision is tremendously important, because its alternative – dual provision – essentially involves designing for failure. Dual provision means building something that, at the design stage, it is already accepted that people will not use. It involves building, for instance, shared use pavements that the designer knows will be avoided by people who prefer to cycle on the carriageway, because the shared use pavement is too inconvenient, awkward, or slow. Equally, it involves catering for people on the carriageway while acknowledging that many people simply won’t want to use that same carriageway because it is too intimidating, or hostile. We still continue to build infrastructure according to this failed philosophy, at tremendous cost.
Accommodating fast cycling doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of the slow, or the less confident, or the nervous. In fact, quite the opposite – cycling infrastructure designed for speed means more convenience for everyone. It means an absence of sharp corners, of barriers, of ‘shared use’ in appropriate circumstances, of pedestrian-specific design in general. If it’s good enough to ride a bicycle fast on it, then it will undoubtedly carry benefits for slower users, even those who are not on bicycles.
That’s why aiming for 8-80, although admirable, isn’t good enough by itself. It needs to be good enough for everyone to want to use it.
I don’t know what percentage of bikes in the Netherlands operate with coaster brakes, but it must certainly be a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority. The tell-tale sign is handlebars free from brake levers (or those with just one brake lever, for the front wheel), and in Dutch towns and cities, these kinds of bikes are ubiquitous.
I’d never ridden a bicycle with a coaster before, so I was quite nervous about how it would work out for me, and hesitated about whether I should opt for a more familiar lever-operated brake. But having lived with it for a few years, there’s absolutely no way I would have a different kind of brake for my rear wheel. It’s brilliant.
The front (drum) brake is lever operated, so I am UK-legal, in that I have two independent braking systems, one for each wheel. But in all honesty it’s not really necessary – the vast majority of the stopping power comes from the coaster at the rear. It’s an effective brake, particularly because on this kind of bike, your body weight is almost entirely over the rear wheel. The front brake is merely a nice extra.
The coaster brake is a back pedal brake – to slow down, you merely apply downward pressure on the pedals, in precisely the same way you apply downward pressure on a brake pedal in a car. In fact, that’s the closest analogy to the action of a coaster brake – slight downward pressure, slight braking; more downward pressure, stronger braking; stamping down on the pedal, well, your wheel is going to lock up.
I think it’s that association with braking in a car that makes a coaster brake actually quite intuitive. Braking with your feet quickly becomes natural – it took only a week or so for a complete novice like me to become accustomed to it. I now often find myself absentmindedly pushing down on the pedals to brake on my other (coaster-free) bikes, simply because that’s now a natural movement for me. (Meeting no resistance whatsoever, my brain instantly transfers the message to my hands instead!)
That ‘naturalness’ is just one advantage of the coaster brake. An important other advantage is that it leaves your hands free for other things, particularly signalling. As signalling with your hands is often needed when you are simultaneously slowing down, to turn off of, or onto, a road at junction, it’s so much more convenient and easy to have your feet doing the braking, rather than having to transfer your hands from the brake levers to a ‘signal’ position, and then back again, or compromising by braking with just one brake, while signalling with the other hand.
Another major advantage is maintenance. Because a coaster brake is effectively operated by the chain, which is already part of the bike, that means there’s no need for ‘extra’ cabling or levers. The bike is neater, and tidier, with no braking system to maintain in addition to the transmission (which in any case is protected from the elements).
On the downside (for me at least), with a coaster brake your pedals can’t be rotated backwards – at least only for a little bit, before the brake fully applies. That means when you stop, it’s helpful to ensure that your pedals are in a position ready for you to go again. You can’t ‘kick’ them backwards to get them back into position.
In practice, this quickly becomes very natural; my technique is shown in the video below.
The most powerful braking position is with the pedals at 3 o’clock/9 o’clock; and that’s pretty much an easy position for you to start off again.
If, by chance, your pedals aren’t in a great position to set off again, the best thing to do is to roll your bike back a foot or so, returning the pedal to a position where force can be applied. Or (as I sometimes do) just push off and use your momentum to start pedalling again. It’s no big deal.
It also helps to have your saddle low enough so your feet (or at least your standing foot) can reach the ground with you sat on it, as in the picture above. That means you are not forced to apply weight to the pedals when you come to a stop, which is tricky when that’s your braking system.
With this kind of bike, a low saddle just feels comfortable and natural in any case – just look at the relaxed chap in the first picture in this post – so any notion of raising it to an allegedly ‘optimal’ height for power transfer doesn’t really fit. Bikes like these are for comfortable cruising, not hard acceleration, or performance.
The only other downside to a coaster that I’m aware of is that – in the event of an emergency – your pedals may not be instantaneously in the right position to apply the best available braking power (unlike brake levers on your handlebars). They may be at the top, or the bottom, of the pedal stroke, where not much backwards force can be applied.
Whether this is a major factor or not, I don’t know – I have always been able to stop fairly sharply on the few occasions I’ve had to. Perhaps this is because (by risk compensation) I ride more slowly, and more carefully, more aware of what idiots might do, simply because I have to react in a slightly different way. Typically if I pick up speed, or I approach a situation where I may have stop, my pedals ‘rest’ in the best position for stopping, parallel to the ground. I rarely find myself pedalling hard into a situation where there is uncertainty. Maybe I’m just older and wiser!
But overall I find that the braking system just fits with this type of bike – it’s easy, painless, instinctive, and it works effectively. If I had to get another omafiets I would choose a coaster brake without hesitation.
You don’t have look too hard on social media to find the ravings of drivers muttering about being delayed, impeded or obstructed by someone cycling ahead of them. Usually it’s a rant about someone being ‘in the middle of the road’, or people riding two abreast, or not using a ‘perfectly good cycle path’ – often accompanied by a photograph uploaded to the internet by the driver.
The general background impression of all this noise is that delay and inconvenience on the road network is exclusively bike on motor vehicle; that it’s the slower, two-wheeled vehicles that cause the hold ups. That’s intuitively understandable – cars are fast, bikes are slow, slow things hold fast things up.
But there is, of course, a different perspective – one from behind the handlebars. This week – in a poor attempt at a parody of social media moaning – I tweeted a picture of terrible congestion on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Why is it motorists think they can drive three abreast, holding up hardworking cyclists? STAY TO THE LEFT! pic.twitter.com/kBixG9pJzr
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) May 6, 2015
I was being held up; this very wide road was completely clogged by a large number of drivers, travelling three abreast. If they weren’t there, or if they were to stay over to the left, I would have been able to make stately progress.
A little further on, and I was still unable to cycle at the speed I wanted to. In fact I was stationary.
And again, later that same day, in the evening, streets in Westminster were completely clogged. I gave up, and walked on the pavement.
This is all so commonplace it’s background – I suspect even many people cycling will not reflect on the fact they are being held up and impeded by motor traffic. It’s so normal it’s not worth commenting on. Queues of traffic that are often difficult to filter past are everywhere in urban areas.
And it’s not just the traffic that is moving – or attempting to move. The car on the right of the picture above is parked. Without that parking occupying valuable road space, again, I would have been able to have made progress. Parking is often tremendously obstructive, yet this passes without comment. It’s a subtle way in which other modes of transport are impeded, yet unnoticed. And of course having parking on both sides of narrower streets means that roads have to be made one-way, causing needless delay (in the form of diversions) for people on bikes who would otherwise be able to take direct routes.
If all that parking wasn’t there, this road wouldn’t be one way, and I wouldn’t have to cycle around three streets, instead of just taking the direct route down this one. I’m directly, or indirectly, impeded up by motoring.
I’m also held up by traffic lights, pretty much everywhere I go by bike, in urban areas.
Traffic lights are so ubiquitous it is very easy to forget that they essentially only exist to facilitate the passage of motor traffic – and to allow people to cross roads dominated by motor traffic. Where motor traffic levels are low, or non-existent, there is of course no need for traffic signals, even where human beings are moving about in tremendous numbers.
And of course the width of motor vehicles means I am unnecessarily held up, where otherwise I would be able to pass by oncoming traffic without difficulty.
There are probably countless other ways in which motoring is obstructive and causes delays – feel free to point them out in the comments. The problem is that this delay is a result of street design and layouts that seem to be ‘natural’. Nobody questions parking on both sides of the street, and how that might affect flow or capacity. Nobody questions the existence of traffic lights, or one-way systems – both subtle ways in which motoring is privileged at the expense of delay and inconvenience to non-motorised users. Nobody questions the effects of motor traffic congestion itself on the free movement of non-motorised users.
This isn’t to say that people cycling won’t ever hold up people driving; just to say that there is a very large flip side to that coin. The solution to these difficulties, for both people cycling, and for people driving, is to place these two modes onto different systems – to separate the two modes of transport as much as possible, creating parallel routes for cycling on main roads, and removing through motor traffic from access roads, in line with the principles of sustainable safety.
If you’re a motorist complaining about being held up – firstly, the person who is cycling in front of you will almost certainly be held up by motoring just as much, if not more, than you, and secondly… there’s an answer out there.