This is a piece I wrote some time ago on the subject of getting my son to school. In my mind, this is a fundamental illustration of why segregated cycling facilities have to be the future. He is now nearly 6, and the problem remains.
A few weeks ago, I was delighted to be able to tweet a message that my 4 yr old son had successfully negotiated one of life's more memorable milestones - he had made his first solo flight on his little black and yellow bike; stabiliser free and wind in his hair. What a little belter.
He has since practised hard, and has subsequently added "the launch" to his skill set, plus some pretty advanced cornering abilities. I've even raised the seat as he's grown. If he could only master stopping (he keeps forgetting where the brakes are) we'd be sorted. No doubt he'll get it eventually.
This is a brilliant development, and just in time for mum and dad, as he has outgrown the rear bike seat he used to use on his mum's bike. He is also starting to get too big for the IT Chair on my Brompton; or at least he's getting too heavy for my feeble pedalling efforts to actually propel us forward.
But, despite our pride in his achievements, and pleasure at his progress, we do have a problem. What do we do next?
I mean, he's only 4. He lacks any understanding of the rules of the road. He's a bit wobbly too - it's only been a few weeks after all since he got the hang of it. How can he develop and utilise this new ability? Why not ride to school?
Fortunately for us, we thought, his new primary school is accessed via a back lane and is only about 250m from our back gate with only a few side road crossings to negotiate. Excellent, we thought - we could fit a Trail Gator to our bikes, allowing us to tow him to school behind us on his bike and as his confidence grows maybe he could start to do it on his own after a few months. Problem No.1: No cycle parking at the school, preventing us from unhitching him and continuing our journey unencumbered. Not very welcoming, and no special parking place for a little one on a bike.
Ok, so perhaps we could just lock up his bike just off school premises and carry on regardless? Problem No.2: The back lanes we were relying on as a safe route become a mess of traffic, both parking and speeding through, for 30mins before school starts and for 30mins after it finishes thanks to the school run rat-runners. I prefer walking when it's like that, so it's not really a place for a little one on a bike.
Ok, but we are lucky to have a place for the little feller at the breakfast club and the after-hours club, allowing us to get him to school early and pick him up late and thus miss the rush. Sadly, at these times the lanes are used as rat runs by commuters who are able to zoom through when the gridlock of the school run is not present - I've been chased in the past at full tilt by the odd car who has bullied past despite the lack of room. So perhaps not the ideal place for a little one on a bike.
So where exactly is the place for a little one on a bike in this world? After all, acquiring a new and important life skill should be cause for celebration, not dismay.
It shouldn't be "if only".
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Last night I attended a talk given by Ben Hamilton-Baillie in Eastbourne. I didn’t really learn very much, because the talk was very similar to the ‘stock’ talk he has presumably given on numerous occasions before – the one you can find in many places on the internet.
He charmed the audience with amusing anecdotes about silly signs, and the general absurdity of our urban environment, with photographs and snippets that have featured heavily in his previous talks. The same case studies featured heavily too – Seven Dials in London, Ashford, Exhibition Road, Poynton, New Road in Brighton, as well as the same thought experiments, like the ‘ice rink’ example.
It was really interesting to see how the people in the room were swept along with his vision for making our towns and cities better places. The videos and photographs of attractively paved streets contrasted starkly with the guard railing, the excess clutter and deeply ugly British streetscapes we are all so familiar with.
In some cases this involved a little sleight of hand. Pictures of the ‘former’ Exhibition Road, where huge numbers of people were crammed on to tiny pavements, hemmed in by guardrails beside a vast expanse of tarmac, were contrasted with the new Exhibition Road. Or rather, with artist visualisations of the new Exhibition Road, in which pedestrians frolic happily across the entire width of the road, and motor traffic is somewhere in the background.
The reality – a carscape, with pedestrians, err, hemmed in at the sides – was not shown.
What is curious is that, as these kinds of examples show, Hamilton-Baillie must be acutely aware that motor traffic makes our streets unpleasant, yet reducing or removing motor traffic never seems to appear as a strategy. In an hour-long talk, there was no mention of actually physically reducing the amount of motor traffic travelling along urban streets. He was even asked, at the end of the talk, what his ‘top criteria’ for the success of urban realm schemes were. He replied that you shouldn’t clutter up your streets with guardrail, or with signalling and posts, and you should avoid using one-way streets, before moving onto general principles of design and organisational skill, and political vision. Mention of removing or reducing motor traffic came there none.
The most telling statement of the evening – for me at least – was
We need to reassess what we have to sacrifice in order to accommodate traffic.
Which begged the obvious question – why continue to accommodate traffic in the first place? Because all the most attractive and pleasant urban streetscapes I know are ones where motor traffic is either non-existent, or greatly reduced – be that at a street level, or across a town or city centre.
We can see this in action on Exhibition Road, where – as I have pointed out before – the pleasant bit to the south of the A4, where through traffic has been cut out, stands in stark contrast to the traffic-filled section to the north. Reducing motor traffic is one of the essential components of creating more attractive urban areas, yet as far as I can tell Hamilton-Baillie never discusses it.
I think this is part of the reason why his strategies are so popular with councils up and down the country – they don’t really involve changing the status quo, at least as far as how journeys are being made is concerned. The street will look nicer, and it will be undoubtedly more pleasant for pedestrians (and probably for people driving too), but the thorny issue of how people are actually travelling within towns is not really tackled. Radical change does not appear to be on the agenda – instead the existing situation is prettified, and made less intolerable, but people will continue to drive around within towns, much as they did before.
Another telling pair of slides that Hamilton-Baillie often uses – and indeed used again last night – are the contrast between an ugly streetscape, full of traffic engineering overkill, and his paradise, where the street is uncluttered, with people mingling with motor traffic.
When I look at these illustrations (which are featured on Hamilton-Baillie’s own site) I can’t help but notice that the way people are travelling about hasn’t changed at all, and indeed that the apparently attractive ‘after’ streetscape is still unpleasantly choked with motor traffic.
Surely in this kind of environment – a public square, in the centre of a town – we should be actively discouraging people from driving, and making the alternatives like walking and cycling the attractive and obvious alternatives? Indeed, striving to create public squares that are not full of private motor cars?
I didn’t get a chance to ask Hamilton-Baillie a question at the end of his talk – there were many other hands up in the audience, and I had to catch a train to get home. I suppose I would have asked him why, when all the ugliness, blight, deaths and injuries he rails against in his talks are the direct result of an excess of motor traffic in our towns, he never talks about tackling the problem at source. It seems an extraordinary oversight.
Powerpoint presentation delivered at Imperial College on October 14th 2013.
There was a flurry of discussion at the end of last week about what the emergence of ‘robocars’ – shorthand for cars that automatically drive themselves, without any human input – might mean for how we design for cycling, prompted by Carlton Reid’s piece in the Guardian (and a more lengthy one on his own site).
The debate coalesced around two alternative visions of the future. In one version, eliminating driver error, and making vehicles behave ‘perfectly’, would mean that separating cyclists from motor traffic would no longer be necessary. All that effort being put in to creating safe and inviting conditions for cycling is redundant. In Carlton’s own words -
Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?
If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.
The other version of the future is considerably darker.
A more dystopian [vision] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling
In this dystopia, anyone wishing to ride a bike would be confined to separate routes, unable to use the roads because of the inevitable consequences of vehicles being forced to stop, or slow, as people walking or cycling meander around in their way. If robotic motor vehicles are to make progress anywhere, then cycling will have to be banned on the roads.
It is hard to muster much interest in this speculation, principally because – for reasons that we will come to – it has very little relevance for the kind of policy we should be formulating on cycling. In fact, the only real source of interest in this topic is how revealing it is about the preoccupations of cycle campaigners – their inability to move on from the concerns they have always had, and their blindness to alternative realities.
The rise of mass motoring in this country pushed cycle campaigning into two specific areas of concern. The first was to resist the impudent, newly-arrived motorist, who was quickly taking over the pleasant routes cyclists had previously enjoyed (the road network that was formerly free of motor traffic). This meant objecting to calls for cyclists to be placed on a separate network, in an (as it turned out, futile) attempt to keep the existing road network suitable for anyone who might wish to ride a bike.
The second area of concern – closely tied to the first – was about getting motorists to behave; to drive slowly and carefully, everywhere, and especially around people cycling and walking. Indeed, it was strongly believed at the time that a separate network for cycling would not be necessary if the increasing numbers of motorists appearing on British roads could just be forced to comply with the existing laws. This letter, written by the Secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, G.H. Stancer, to the Times in 1935 captures both these attitudes quite succinctly.
The obviously fair solution to the problem of the roads is to take effective steps for the removal of the dangerous conduct that leads to the accidents rather than to try to remove potential victims while allowing the danger to remain. If the existing laws were rigidly enforced and dangerous conduct by any class of road user eradicated, it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will.
I have covered this period of history in some depth in a previous piece, an article which argued that British cycle campaigning has struggled to separate itself from these historic attitudes about retaining the road network, and about getting motorists to behave, so that separation would not be required.
And, lo and behold, it is precisely these same two attitudes that have emerged in the recent debate about ‘robocars’.
At long last, decades after that initial 1930s dream, the motor vehicles on British roads could actually be driven perfectly. Might it be the case that, in Stancer’s words, ‘it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will’, now that driver misbehaviour could be eliminated? Or, alternatively, could these ‘robocars’ be the winning justification for the motoring lobby’s sinister plot to push cyclists from the road, ’for their own safety’?
It’s almost comical how cycle campaigning has failed to move on from these twin preoccupations, to the extent that, in 2013, discussion about ‘robocars’ continues to be framed in precisely the same terms that it would have been by cycling enthusiasts with large moustaches, way back in the 1930s.
To ram home the irrelevance, you only need to consider how people who cycle in the Netherlands might view the arrival of robotically-driven motor vehicles, given that the question of whether Dutch cars are driven by robots, or by fallible humans, has very little bearing on the quality of the Dutch cycling experience.
Interactions with motor vehicles are rare indeed when you make journeys by bicycle in the Netherlands, a point that David Hembrow has repeatedly made, and I have in a recent post. I cannot imagine Dutch bike riders getting particularly exercised about who is driving motor vehicles, when direct encounters with motor vehicles during a particular day can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There’s an even more recent example in the form of this excellent Streetfilms report from Groningen.
The film shows hundreds of people cycling in different locations – in the city centre, on residential streets, along cycle paths and tracks. Yet in the entire fifteen minute film, there are only five or six direct interactions with motor vehicles. What difference would ‘robocars’ make to the quality of cycling in Groningen? A barely perceptible difference, if any difference at all.
This is why the debate about ‘robocars’ and what they might mean is completely irrelevant, at least in the way it is currently being presented. For it is being argued that if motor vehicles are perfectly driven, then there is no need for separation. But this betrays the long failure of British cycle campaigning to consider the importance of subjective safety, as well as objective safety. What keeps people from cycling on the roads is not bad driving, but the sheer volume of interactions with motor traffic.
This was brought home to me on Saturday in Leicester, where – by and large – the motor traffic around us was driven pretty well (with the inevitable odd exception). It was, however, still unpleasant cycling in it, even for ‘hardened’ cyclists, even if none of the vehicles were being driven in a substandard fashion, let alone outright badly. It is fear of motor traffic in general – not fear of bad driving – that is is the major barrier to cycling in Britain, a point that appears to have been missed, again, in the ‘robocars’ debate.
The Dutch have cracked this problem, by creating a subjectively safe and pleasant environment for cycling, away from motor traffic. It doesn’t really matter who is behind the wheel.
I have a confession to make. Since I got interested in all things related to cycling infrastructure and road design, I find myself all excited when my monthly email update arrives from SWOV, the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research. This is why the bloody Internet does to you and it is a disgrace. Anyway...this particular paper caught my attention for being a bit chameleon like. It is both interesting and informative, whilst also having a whiff of The Daily Mash about it.
The basic premise seems to be a bit radical for these shores, so I'm glad no self respecting UK highway engineers would be caught dead reading it. Those Dutch traffic boffins claim that the speed vehicles travel at along a section of road directly affects both the number of accidents that will happen there AND their severity. After that mind altering revelation, they go on to make the heroic suggestion that in order to achieve a desired speed limit on a road, you need to design the road environment accordingly. I presume, in my typically naive and unqualified way, that means going little bit further that just sticking up a speed limit sign and hoping that the moral fibre of passing drivers is sufficiently robust.
I like the SWOV papers not just for their earnest (and thus faintly amusing) air. More importantly, they demonstrate an enthusiasm for modern, updated and continuous research into road safety measures. They are not afraid to test ideas they themselves once promoted and to note where they fall short in practice. They cover all road users. This body of knowledge helps policy makers take decisions on the basis of study, and does not simply rely on the endlessly regurgitated, and hopelessly outdated, publications of yesteryear which seem to underpin the equivalent in this country.
I do hope that something similar exists here.
Note that this has been in my pending tray for almost a year, such is the lack of blogging I now manage to indulge in. Oops.
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We take a break from today’s debates to look at the response to motorisation and its attendant danger from some commentators at the time. Britain tends not have a group of people described as “intellectuals”: however celebrated and articulate people who would pass as such in any other European country existed and gave their views on road danger. Some of this work comes out in ordinary journalism – see the reports on Carlton Reid’s web site such as this others elsewhere. Here I give extracts from AP Herbert , Max Beerbohm and W.S. Gilbert (the Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan).
All were considerable – that word again – intellectuals and had commitments towards addressing social problems. Herbert was an MP and campaigner for causes such as Albanian independence, but above all for law reform. Gilbert was a magistrate. Beerbohm’s satires were gentle attempts to correct the excesses of contemporary life. None of their work can be seen as extreme radicalism: indeed their satire in other areas of life can often be seen as affectionate, and all were knighted. In that sense, the critique of elements of motorisation was capable of appealing to the thinking middle ground of British society.
One point which emerges for me is that while these people were delivering views based on a serious and carefully thought through analysis of motoring and road danger, their views were often expressed with a degree of humour, irony or sarcasm. This was partly because their work involved a degree of lampooning and humour – Beerbohm was described as a parodist, Herbert as a humourist and Gilbert’s work involved lampooning of establishment figures. But maybe it was also because of their isolation from any kind of political movement with which they could ally themselves.
W.S. Gilbert became a Justice of the Peace in Harrow had a reputation for toughness with errant motorists who came up before him.
He wrote this to The Times on 3 June 1903:
Sir,–I am delighted with the suggestion made by your spirited correspondent Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey that all pedestrians shall be legally empowered to discharge shotguns (the size of the shot to be humanely restricted to No. 8 or No. 9) at all motorists who may appear to them to be driving to the common danger. Not only would this provide a speedy and effective punishment for the erring motorist, but it would also supply the dwellers on popular highroads with a comfortable increase of income. “Motor shooting for a single gun” would appeal strongly to the sporting instincts of the true Briton, and would provide ample compensation to the proprietors of eligible road-side properties for the intolerable annoyance caused by the enemies of mankind.
The only difficulty that occurs to me is as to who shall undertake the rather delicate job of stopping the motor (tearing along at perhaps 35 or 40 miles an hour) after the motorist has been killed or disabled. But, without doubt, Sir R. Payne-Gallwey has considered this point, and will supply a practical suggestion as to how it is to be dealt with.
Your obedient servant,
Harrow Weald, June 2.
A. P. Herbert here satirises (with the reference to telling a grandmother to suck eggs being the key) the London Passenger Transport Board with its invocation to pedestrians to avoid making unnecessary journeys. (This was based on the wartime campaign to reduce journeys by motor vehicle in order to save petrol with the slogan “Is Your Journey Really Necessary” – a slogan which some environmentalists have considered revisiting).Crossing The Road by A. P. Herbert
(With mild apologies to the L.P.T.B.)
O silly Brown, O silly Brown,
Be careful, do, in London Town.
Do not attempt to cross the square
If motor-cars are moving there.
For vehicles, at any speed,
May hurt you very much indeed;
And, I’m afraid, the chances are
You will not hurt the motor-car.
Think, too, before you leave this side:
‘Is such a journey justified?
Would it relieve the nation’s load
If I were now to cross the road?
Does it much matter where I am?
Does anybody care a damn?’
An act that does not aid the war
Is wasted effort. What is more,
Who knows if you may not delay
A Civil Servant on his way,
Or make some Minister of State
A priceless half a second late?
Besides, its generally best
For people to remain at rest.
All motion must be friction too
And wears away the strongest shoe.
Shoe-leather is extremely rare,
And so is stuff to pave the Square.
In short, ignore the itch to roam;
Stay where you are, or stay at home.
And if in some remote retreat
Your Grandmama you chance to meet
Absorbing raw old-fashioned food
By methods primitive and crude,
Do not, however hard she begs,
Instruct her how to suck her eggs;
For she, in my considered view,
Can suck her eggs as well as you.
Written September 13, 1942 this verse first appeared in the Sunday Graphic, This version taken from A. P. Herbert’s book “Less Nonsense” published by Methuen & Co in 1944. Page 6-7
In Misleading Cases, a regular column he wrote for Punch on the idiocies of the legal system, he imagined the case of a pedestrian knocked over by a car and accused of being the culprit for having been in the way.
The pedestrian’s contention was that the motor car should be regarded in law as a wild beast — not least because of ‘the boast of its makers that it contains the concentrated power of 45 horses’.
The pedestrian had to be the innocent party, he argued, ‘because if a man were to gallop 45 horses tethered together at their full speed past a cross-roads, no lack of agility, judgement or presence of mind in the pedestrian would be counted such negligence as to excuse his injury. ‘The fact that the 45 horses are enclosed in a steel case and can approach without sound or warning, does not diminish, but augment, their power to do injury.’
The extract below is from Max Beerbohm’s “Speed”, broadcast in 1936, then printed in the Listener and reprinted in “Mainly on the Air” published by Heinemann in 1946. Parts of this article were reprinted in a pamphlet by the Pedestrians Association.
I find the comments on third party insurance a classic case of how reason contradicts the received views of the “road safety” lobby.
(if you can’t read this scan – click on image – it will be here in normal font shortly)
From the Wimbledon Local Guardian -
A motorist has suffered life-changing injuries after he was crashed into by an HGV. The man, believed to be in his 30s, was severely burnt when he became trapped inside his Nissan Qashqai shortly before 7pm Friday, October 11, in the car park of Sainsbury’s in Merton.The London Fire Brigade (LFB) were called to help rescue the man, who had been burnt, and had major breathing difficulties. Aided by the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, they were able to free the man in about 60 seconds.
An LFB spokesman said: “Due to the nature of his injuries, which are going to be life-changing, we had to quickly extricate the casualty from the vehicle.It took about 60 seconds. It was a really quick, really important extrication.”
Staff from Wimbledon Fire Station said motorist safety has become an increasing problem. The spokesman said: “There is a big problem with motorists at the moment generally.
“There are so many motorists on the roads that we have had a number of incidents ourselves with fire engines and recent months. What they do is drive alongside lorries and really get themselves into places they just should not be. They are not respecting the road are getting themselves into dangerous positions. If there is a lorry there just stay back.”
The spokesman then added
“But obviously that’s completely irrelevant to the case you have asked me to comment on, in which a man has been injured through no fault of his own. I have absolutely no idea why I decided to start wittering on about motorists in general, leaping to conclusions, blaming them for the injuries they are suffering. Maybe I have some kind of problem.”
Firefighters from Wimbledon, along with representatives from Halfords, will hold a safety workshop for motorists in December outside Morrison’s in Wimbledon. Motorists will be able to sit in the fire engine to see what the view is like from the driver’s seat in an exercise aimed at reducing injuries caused to them on the roads.
On one of my recent posts Chris left the following comment, principally about the inconvenience of riding a bike for short trips.
What I don’t understand is why people would actually want to cycle for journeys under 2 miles?
By the time you’ve got your bike out of wherever you keep it locked up, cycled to wherever you’re going, found somewhere to lock it up and removed your pump, spare tube and other bits and pieces (I wouldn’t expect to find them still on the bike when I got back in London if I didn’t), it’s probably just as quick to walk, and you don’t have the hassle of a bike to worry about.
I can see the benefit when you’re going shopping and will be carrying heavy bags back, but other than that there seems to be lots of asking how we get people to cycle these short journeys, but very little asking why they would want to in the first place?
I love my commute – and at 18 stone and 5’10″, I’m not your stereotypical weekend racer Mamil – because it gives me an opportunity to exercise on at least a couple of days a week which I wouldn’t otherwise get, but once I’m at work (in Central London), if I’m going to visit a customer within a couple of miles of the office, it would never occur to me to take my bike. If it’s raining, I’ll get a taxi, but if it’s not, then I’ll walk. The last thing I want is the hassle of not knowing if I’ll be able to find a secure place to lock my bike when I get there, or the worry during the meeting of whether the saddle (or potentially the bike itself) will still be there when I get out!
Chris will probably be a bit horrified, but I often use my bike to travel very short distances indeed – less than a hundred metres.
I’m not stupid, or wasting my time. The reason I cycle for these short distances is because it’s simply ridiculously easy for me to do so. I can make the transition from walking to cycling – and vice versa – in a matter of seconds.
I was going to try and explain how with words, but decided to make a short video instead. Because it makes it a bit more obvious.
My bike doesn’t really require anything of me, beyond a key. I don’t need to wear any special clothing, or equipment, that needs to be taken on or off. I just ride it in whatever I happen to be wearing, which will be ordinary clothing, appropriate for the time of year. I don’t need to take anything on or off the bike either – beyond unplugging the chain when it is locked with it – because everything that’s needed is a permanent part of the bike, like the lighting, and any storage. I don’t carry spares, or tools, because I don’t need to. There’s nothing to go wrong – the bike is built to be as tough and as indestructible as possible.
If I’m just popping into a shop, I can park it right outside, which is obviously very convenient – I can step straight onto the bike as I come out of the shop. Anyone trying to steal it will have to carry it away. If I’m away from the bike for longer periods (like work, or an evening out) or if it is out of sight, I will obviously lock it to something. The chain is wonderful for allowing you to improvise with street furniture that is close to hand, unlike a D-lock, which requires a degree of faffing and an appropriate object to lock to.
So – that’s why I ride a bike for very short trips. I’m definitely not the only one…
Reading Beyond the Kerb’s open letter to the legal system got me thinking about the mass delusion we suffer from in the UK when it comes to driving a car.
Musical ability is something which some people are blessed with. Some people are extremely accomplished musicians. Some people are competent singers. Some choose not to participate, but within them lies potential which could one day be nurtured. Some people are tone deaf.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being musical. Other than not being able to join a choir or an orchestra (or at least, not a good one) being tone deaf will not significantly diminish your life, bar you from a significant number of jobs or cause exceptional hardship to you, or your family.
Our collective delusion is thinking that driving a car in a public space is different.
Some people are extremely proficient and enthusiastic drivers. Plenty more are competent. Some do not drive, but would be able to do so safely with sufficient training. Some people will are not capable of driving in a consistently safe manner.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with falling into the latter category. What is wrong is a system which allows people who are incompetent to drive to gain a licence. A system which allows people who have demonstrated their inability to drive, to continue driving. A system which places the convenience of an individual driver above the safety of innocent third parties. A system which gives no justice to this whose lives are ended, or irrevocably changed, typically through no fault of their own.
It is understandable that when confronted with a list of injustices like those described on Beyond the Kerb, we feel incredibly angry about the sheer injustice of it. I know I do.
However, I do not feel that imprisoning drivers who kill through incompetence rather than malice achieves a great deal. Drivers who are imprisoned seldom receive permanent driving bans. In fact, driving bans shorter than the term of the prison sentence are depressingly common. When a driver’s incompetence results in a death or maiming, the only just outcome is to stop them from driving, permanently. Naturally it follows that the testing and monitoring of drivers needs to be made fit for purpose as well, to prevent these tragedies before they happen.
Having said this, being banned from driving, or being unable to pass the test in the first place shouldn’t diminish your life. Other than being prevented from working in driving jobs, not being permitted to drive should not bar you from a significant number of jobs or cause exceptional hardship to you or your family.
The difficulty is that with a transport system in which the odds are so heavily stacked in favour of the private motorist, it seems exceptionally easy to weasel out of a driving ban on the grounds of ’‘exceptional hardship.’ Subsidised car use, bicycle infrastructure which is non-existent and public transport has been left to decay for decades before the remainder was converted to dividend mines for private shareholders means it is easier to pretend that driving is something that all adults can and eventually will do to an adequate standard.
Until we tackle the systemic disadvantage which non-car travel has been placed at for decades in the UK, the delusion will continue and innocent third parties will continue to pay.
James Cracknell was struck by a petrol tanker travelling at high speed in July 2010, while he was cycling in Arizona. This incident has converted Cracknell into one of the most prominent advocates of cycle helmets in Britain, apparently on the basis that the helmet he was wearing at the time ‘saved his life’.
The following extract is from Cracknell’ autobiography, Touching Distance, recounting a ‘piece to camera’ he did for the Headway brain injury charity. The words are those he used in the video.
‘Last year when I was cycling across America, a truck’s wing mirror smashed into the back of my head at seventy miles an hour, knocking me off my bike and on to the road. My brain swung against the front of my skull as it hit, causing severe damage to the frontal lobes of my brain.
‘When I came out of intensive care, I wasn’t me any more. All of my friends and family told me that my entire personality had changed. My short-term memory was gone. I couldn’t make decisions. Had no motivation.
‘But I was lucky. I was wearing a helmet. If I hadn’t been, I’d be dead. Doctors say in time I should hopefully make a good recovery. I’m already back on my bike. Some cyclists will never ride again. I make the choice to wear a helmet. If you do too, please send this one to a friend.
‘I’m nearly James Cracknell. Use your head. Use your helmet.’
I hope it was a powerful message. I wanted to do everything I could to support such a worthwhile charity. It was designed to educate people into protecting their heads or influence others to persuade their friends and family to cycle with a helmet. I also wanted to do something positive to mark the anniversary of the accident.
From this account – his own – it is clear that the injury to Cracknell’s brain was the result of it rapidly accelerating within his skull, and hitting it.
What effect did the helmet he was wearing have in lessening the effects of this injury, and indeed preventing death? Well, we have information from Cracknell himself that the helmet he was wearing at the time he was struck by the wing mirror ‘was shorn in two’. (This description of what happened to the helmet is consistent with the many other accounts given by Cracknell and his wife). So it split on impact, and did not deform.
This means it did next to nothing to lessen the acceleration his brain received within his skull – which we have been told, again by Cracknell himself, caused his brain injury. Cycle helmets are designed to deform, and so lengthen the period over which deceleration occurs – much like the crumple zone of a car.
Polystyrene-based helmets protect by absorbing the energy of the impact through compressing the polystyrene. If the polystyrene has broken into pieces but not compressed, it has failed. Yet ironically we mistakenly believe that the broken helmet saved us.
So given the nature and cause of Cracknell’s injury, there does not appear to be any reasonable basis for his claim that his helmet ‘saved his life’. His helmet split, and failed, and did not protect his brain from the acceleration that damaged it. This is not the fault of the helmet. They are – quite reasonably – not designed to protect a human head from these kinds of impacts.
The question is why Cracknell is choosing to argue that it did – and indeed using his incident as a basis for arguing that we should persuade our friends and family to always ‘protect their heads’, rather than campaigning to keep fast heavy objects away from those heads.