Monday, 25 November 2013

City Cycling - Legalised Killing

Legalised Killing
Over the last month six cyclists have been killed on the streets of London (5 of them in 2 weeks). And London is not alone. Many cities are experiencing the same phenomenon. Most of the recent deaths have been as a result of trucks or buses turning left (in countries where we drive on the left) and crushing any cyclist who happens to be on the inside of them as they cut the corner right up to or even over the curb. Only a couple of weekends ago, Daniel Duane wrote an article in The New York Times entitled "Is it OK to Kill Cyclists." Here he highlighted the fact that motorists who kill cyclists usually get away with saying simply that they didn't see the cyclist. Often the driver is treated as an unfortunate victim, treated for shock at the scene due to the horror of realising what they had just done. In court, as Daniel Duane points out, the judge and jury will be made up of people who drive cars and who have often experienced the shock of their failing to notice a cyclist as they go to turn - braking abruptly and sitting there dumbfounded as a cyclist shouts, "watch where you're bloody going mate!" at them. In court they will be sympathetic to the driver who has killed the cyclist – after all it could have happened to any of us! In such cases the driver usually walks free with a small fine or perhaps a course of safer driving instruction if they had been driving aggressively. As Duane points out, if you want to kill someone and get away with it, then running them down on a bike with your 4x4 is probably your best bet.

Another cycle death in London. Picture courtesy of

Danger - It Goes With The Territory
As a long-term and frequent cyclist, I am wholeheartedly with the idea that we need major changes in road layout, driver training and the law, to deal with this problem. It is no good simply putting the responsibility on the cyclist – The "Cycling in cities is dangerous, so expect to be run down," argument. What drivers – many of whom berate cyclists loudly from the safety of their driving seats – forget in their animosity towards cyclists sharing THEIR roads, is that traffic congestion is getting to the point of daily gridlock. If it were not for some brave souls opting to travel by bicycle, the road they are driving on would be gridlocked. Working in the safety profession for many years, I have seen attitudes to danger change. In the oil and construction industries, people used to say "This industry is dangerous. If you don't like it, get a safer job." People died on a daily basis as a result, until the Health & Safety Executive said enough is enough. People are now jailed for breaches of Health & Safety at Work legislation. Nobody in those industries would now say that deaths are unavoidable. Deaths and serious incidents have dramatically reduced as a result. The problem then, was attitude. Acceptance that the risk went with the territory. Until we start educating drivers better about how to drive safely with cyclists on the road, and punishing them fairly if they drive negligently and injure a cyclist, nothing will change. Cyclists need better training as well of course, although statistics show that in most cases, it is the driver who is in the wrong. Congestion and population increase tells us that the numbers of cyclists is only going to increase so we have to do something.

Picture courtesy of The Guardian

Survival Tactics
Keeping in mind the example of safety in the oil and construction industries, I do want to point out that there is much that cyclists can do to reduce their chances of death or serious injury on the roads. I know it is not right that cyclists should be at such great risk from negligent car, truck and bus drivers, but it is a current reality – we should protect ourselves. For myself, there some major things I have noticed that seem to make a difference:

I am a car driver a cyclist and a motorcyclist. I first noticed how much safer I was as a car driver having ridden a motorcycle for years. I see more. I look for things. I anticipate things. As a motorcyclist it becomes subliminal. If a car is parked at the side of a road or in a driveway, you notice if someone is sitting in the driver's seat. You notice the angle of the front wheels – is the driver about to pull out? You notice their body position – are they about to open their door and get out? And you also notice their eyes. You would be amazed how attuned to eye-contact you become as a motorcyclist. You have to if you want to continue to ride. It is life and death. Eye contact tells you they have seen you. It also tells you, even at some great distance, whether they are calm or agitated. Whether they hate motorcyclists even. These things will save your life. Some cyclists develop these skills. Others, including those less experienced, are more passive. All cyclists would do well to learn them. As I said above, I believe that riding a motorcycle and cycling have made me a better car driver. Not only me. I see the same with other cyclists who drive.

Compulsory Cycling?
Of course, it therefore follows that if all drivers of motorised vehicles had experience of riding a bicycle in heavy traffic – perhaps regular experience – they would be better drivers. I'll leave it to your imagination how that might be achieved.

1. Rules of the Road – There is no law that says cyclists have to know the highway code, but it makes sense to learn it anyway. Pay particular attention to the laws surrounding box junctions, traffic lights and roundabouts. Many cyclists (urban cyclists in particular) flout the law by jumping red lights etc feeling it does not apply to them. They know they do not get points on a license for jumping a red light. This antagonises pedestrians and other road users - and it can cause accidents. Having said that, I do it sometimes, but only when there is no traffic. I make a common sense judgement.

2. Be Seen – Do not berate motor-vehicle drivers for not seeing you if you are dressed in dark colours (especially in poor light) or have no lights. Most drivers do not want to run you down :)

3. Body Language – You can learn to read what drivers are thinking and what they are about to do. Even a small turn of the steering wheel is perceptible once you become attuned to it. Learn to spot a front wheel turned outwards on a stationary car. Driver and passenger heads turning inwards indicate they are chatting and not alert to the road. Headphones. Sunglasses. Fiddling with a sat-nav a radio or a phone. Someone chewing may well have a sandwich in one hand. Spotting these things can save your life.

4. Eye Contact – In North Africa, more that in other countries I have noticed, eye-contact is a major means of communication. At some great distance someone will see you glance at a leather bag on a market stall. Making his way through a crowd, he will cross the street and stop you as you are about to enter a cafe. "You want to buy leather bag sir? Come with me, I can get you a good price." You are dumbfounded. How did he know? People's eyes can tell you a lot. We have all experienced this. Someone's eyes tell you they are not telling the truth or that they are in a hurry to leave etc. On the road, eye-contact can save your life. And don't think you have to be close. Eye-contact can be made at great distance. You can even spot eye-contact in a rear-view mirror. Watch for it. At the very least, making eye-contact with another driver tells you they have seen you. On a bicycle in heavy traffic, I am constantly trying to make eye contact with drivers. I will NEVER pull out onto a busy roundabout or make a turn across other traffic until I have made eye-contact with the approaching vehicle(s).

5. Escape Route – Despite all of the above, dangerous circumstances still occur. Cyclists and pedestrians can still do something to save themselves, however. If I get a sense that I am entering a danger zone, I implement the above observational methods, trying to make sure I'm seen. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where that's not possible. A truck pulls up alongside you. You see it is indicating to turn left. The driver is on the opposite side. You look in his wing mirrors but you can't see the driver's face. If it were a van you could be ready to bang the side of it but this is no good with a truck. Even a bus driver might not hear it. The huge wheels loom above shoulder height. Rolling backwards might see you fall off under the wheels. At this point I would get onto the pavement quickly. Often, however, there is a metal crash barrier. In this case I would either climb over it (okay if you are not elderly or unfit) or dismount, leave the bike against the barrier and quickly walk back out of harms way. Some haulage companies are fitting special mirrors so their drivers can see cyclists or pedestrians in this situation but it is not law. IT SHOULD BE.

Our problem in the UK is similar to that of countries like the USA. We are not used to having so many cyclists on our roads. In Holland, for example, they have had this for a long time and as a consequence have less cyclist fatalities. Scandinavian countries have far better road layouts giving cyclists their own protected lanes. Germany does the same. For some reason we think painting lines on the road is enough. Motor-vehicle drivers (especially large vehicles) think nothing of driving over lines. But we are better off than those some other cities, believe me. A few years ago I cycled from Ireland to Japan with my son and experienced this. It was frightening at times. In Tehran we encountered something akin to Mad Max and The Thunderdome. Nobody cycled there. Motorcyclists mounted pavements to avoid jams and everyone ignored red lights. It was like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. How more people weren't killed as we watched I couldn't understand. We survived it, but only just. In Dubai the highways authority consider neither pedestrians nor cyclists. "Who on earth would cycle or walk here?" they seem to ask. People travel in their air-conditioned cars or taxis. There are hardly any pavements, let alone cycle lanes. In India and China the roads are also crazy, but bicycles are everywhere. Drivers expect them and consequently they seem to survive. We in Britain and in the USA have yet to get used to the situation. I hold out some hope that familiarity will make things safer, yet how many cyclists must die in the meantime? Would you be happy for someone you loved to become a death statistic on the way to improvement through greater familiarity of seeing cyclists on our roads?

Next Friday (29th November 2013) sees another MASS DIE-IN PROTEST. This time in London at 5pm outside Transport For London's HQ at Palastra House, Blackfriars Street. If you feel strongly about this issue, please turn up and be part of a peaceful protest involving cyclists lying down in the road for a mass photo-session.