The recent spate of deaths of people on bikes and on foot in London has triggered a number of reactions. Whilst many of these involve people vomiting ill-informed opinion into newspapers and onto the Internet, one of the more interesting reactions – in that it’s action rather than words – is the apparently heavy deployment of traffic police in London. But what effect will this have? And could their time be better spent?
Weak at the knees
Despite Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and Leon Daniels all having uttered something along the lines of guarding strongly against “knee-jerk reactions” after recent deaths, we do seem to be getting one: namely, a mass presence of the Met on street corners across London.
The first question here is whether the actions they’re taking are going to be effective. Whilst the police have been stopping lorries and finding numerous violations and also collaring cyclists for jumping reds or riding at night without lights, reports abound of the usual red herrings of headphones (oh, was that another knee-jerk reaction, Boris?), hi-viz and helmets; and it seems there’s also a bit of a crackdown on pavement cycling:
Legality is not the same as safety; enforcement is not the same as protection
If anyone thinks this sort of thing is going to improve cycle safety, they should think again: it does anything but. What this is going to do is apply the letter of the law equally.
Now, that’s fine, you may say, and to a fair degree you’d be right. Laws exist and breaking them means you may face some form of punishment; I’m not going to dispute that principle. But don’t let anyone try to convince you this is a measure to address safety. Consider a texting driver who mounts the pavement and a texting cyclist who mounts the pavement; the likelihood of causing serious injury or death to a person on the pavement is vastly greater in the former case. To apply the law equally is not to prioritise safety. It is a public relations exercise.
Moreover, whilst certain laws appear to exist primarily (at least in this context) to protect the individuals who break them – such as jumping red lights – it’s not necessarily so simple. Less than 2% of serious injuries to people on bikes were even “likely” to have been partly or fully caused by jumping a light, whilst it’s possible to point to cases such as that of Mary Bowers, where jumping a red light would have protected her. Clearly, it’s impossible to know how many accidents are avoided each year by people deliberately disobeying a rule that holds them in direct conflict with large vehicles, but – whilst no-one will deny that a number of people do so selfishly – there are at least some cases where people do disobey the law to try and protect themselves.
Regardless of whether you think indiscriminately applying the law with a fairly firm hand is (a) wise, (b) necessary and appropriate but ultimately not useful or (c) counter-productive (at least in terms of safety), it shouldn’t take too much imagination to figure out that standing on street corners isn’t the best way to apply the law.
Now, I generally avoid delving into cyclists’ YouTube videos because, whilst some are commendably sanguine, more often than not I wince at the antagonism that many contain. Nonetheless, a couple of videos posted today very neatly illustrate a point. There’s one by Cyclegaz and another by Veloevol, which I include below.
You’ll notice a couple of street corners with several police standing around. Now, I don’t know about you but there’s not much I’ve ever really observed in terms of actual illegal driving by standing in one place. Even if you do see something (chances are it’s a red light jump if you’re at a junction – but let’s face it, there’s much less chance of seeing that if you’re stood there in full view in a police uniform) how are you going to chase the offender down? Even if there’s another group of police to radio to, that’s only any good if the offender hasn’t turned off the road by that point, and even then you’re not gathering evidence other than at two isolated points.
Yet anyone who rides a bicycle knows that when you’re on a bike you can very, very easily spot dangerous and/or illegal road users, whether they’re in cars or vans, on bikes or on foot. What’s more, you can keep up with them. In an urban environment like London, even if they’re faster than you the chances are you can catch them at a subsequent set of lights. The video above is a prime example of being able to record, at length and in some detail, someone texting whilst driving around vulnerable road users. Deploying police on street corners neither spots this nor records it.
What’s more, mingling with the traffic lets you observe a whole different category of things. Instead of simply being able to point at the facile, obvious things like headphones, helmets and hi-viz – all of which have been shown by research to be at best barely relevant to safety – you can observe the things which really matter but which are otherwise difficult to see. Namely, behaviours. You can spot bad filtering, left hooking, people cycling into HGV blind spots, tailgating, phone use… all those things which are absolutely critical to safety but which are very difficult for the bystander – whether literal or metaphorical – to point at and identify.
By simply moving with and among the traffic, you make a sea change in what you perceive to be the real issues. And the bicycle is the perfect tool with which to do this: you have a great vantage point, you can often keep up with urban traffic, and you can filter through queues.
Poacher turned game
It all begs the question: Why are the police standing still, in groups? Why aren’t they on bicycles?
The people on bicycles, the people who arguably are most at risk (actually, in terms of fatalities nationally, it’s pedestrians by a nose) and who are most disillusioned with their protection by law, have devised an approach to gather evidence. They’re out there doing it, with cameras, logging registration details and capturing faces on camera.
How hard would it be for the police to do this? Simply put officers on bicycles, with helmet cameras. Evidence would be rolling in. It would be a tidal wave.
But, wait. There’s something else.
The effects of sending out plain clothes officers (or at least non-obvious policemen; perhaps a badge worn on the chest?) on bikes could be phenomenal. Anyone who’s seen even a few of these sorts of videos will be familiar with the abuse – normally verbal but sometimes physical – that is dished out. Those who’ve gestured or spoken to drivers to admonish them for using a phone will be familiar with the same abuse.
Now, if the people of London – whether in a car or on a bike – were aware that there were plain clothes officers out on bikes, maybe they’d think twice about passing dangerously, about left hooking them or opening their door into them. Maybe they’d think twice about texting or phoning or reading a book whilst driving. Maybe they’d think twice about reacting with verbal or physical assaults when challenged.
Personally, I think they’re pretty strong maybes.
Do that, and you’re preventing crime even where you don’t have an officer deployed. You’re not just pointing at the obvious. You’re affecting behaviour. You’re making the roads safer.
Make a change
You want to improve safety without having to wait for the roads to be re-engineered? Then you need to change people’s behaviour.
You want to change people’s behaviour? Then you need to make people understand they could be properly in trouble if they don’t behave well.
You want to make people understand that? Then you need to make people think that any one of the vulnerable road users to whom they need to give margin for error could be the one that ends up feeling their collar, dragging them to court and taking their licence away.
You want to protect the vulnerable? Then you need to become the vulnerable.
Standing on a street corner saying “well, you’ve already got lights and a helmet” and shrugging is going to protect no-one. Putting the power of the law into the clothing of those who need its protection will.
But then, is this about protection? Or is it about votes?