Post-election blues

Other than the election result, there are two things keeping me awake at night. One, my horse’s saddle doesn’t fit and two, I’ve been given notice to leave the home that I rent. The saddle very much comes under first world problems. It bothers me because I’m responsible for my horse’s welfare and have been working him in a saddle that is restrictive, although his previous owner spent a lot of money on it and had it professionally fitted. Despite my concerns, I can see that in the grand scheme of things it’s not a bad problem to have. The problem with my home is much more serious and something you might hope would be encountered only in the developing world not the first world. Sadly this is not the case. Even in supposedly developed countries those who rent are second-class citizens and security of tenure is a distant dream.

Trying to find out my rights as a tenant, I came across this little gem. In case the page gets edited, here’s a screen shot of the text I find particularly worrying:

Renting_cropped

So according to this advice “renting is always temporary anyways” , I should feel sorry for my landlady/ landlord, and knowing that at any time you might be given two months notice to get out is not a huge problem because “I guarantee the stress of having to sell to kill debt is a lot greater than having to find a new place to rent”. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, but I’ll go through point by point.

I relocated for my job. I have a two-year contract. I had hoped that I would be able to live in one place for those two years. It doesn’t on the face of it seem like a big thing to ask. Instead, one year into the contract I find I have to move. This means paying another agency fee; paying removal expenses; using up annual leave to pack and move; going through that awkward time between one deposit going out and another coming back and all in the knowledge that wherever I move, I will have at most 12 months security.

As someone who rents, I find myself on the hunt for cardboard boxes. Not just now. I mean every time I think there’s an opportunity to get hold of a strong, fairly large cardboard box I take it, both the opportunity and the box. I stash cardboard. I am particularly fond of boxes just the right size to be crammed full of books but still lift-able. I thought this weird but other people I know who rent also live in a perpetual cardboard box hunt. This should not be a normal way to live your life, but it is. Insecurity does this to you, you are always thinking that at some point, another move is on its way and not necessarily at your instigation.

As to me feeling sorry for my landlady, well to a degree I do. I don’t want to go into her circumstances here as they are just that, hers. I have some idea of why she’s selling and I know she doesn’t want to. To that extent I feel sorry for her. Where I have a problem however is that the sale was actually quite predictable. House owners get to check out tenants but the reverse is not true. Had I been able to check out my landlady, and charge her for the pleasure, I would have decided she was not financially secure enough for me to want to rent from her.

Regarding the stress of finding somewhere to rent, well perhaps if you’re always assuming that renting is a quick fix, or something you do until such time as you can buy a place, maybe. However, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll never have the cash to buy. Even if I saved every penny and sold the horse, the sums don’t add up. The house I currently rent is for sale at more than 8x my salary meaning I would not be able to get a mortgage on it. Within a 5-mile radius of where I live the only property for sale within my price range is land with no housing on it. Average property price in my county is around 13x the average salary. On an average salary for this county, if you shopped around in the poorer areas you could get something for around 6x your salary. These figures mean that for many people, renting is something they will need to do in the long term, not something they do in the interim until they have the wherewithal to buy. And it’s not just the stress of finding a new home, it’s the stress of knowing you can get booted out because someone else has a problem that really isn’t of your making.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lived with people being shown around my home. Initially I was not given notice to move, as the landlady didn’t know how long the sale would take and she depends on my rent, meaning she hedged her bets. This meant that legally I didn’t have to let any prospective buyers around but I did, although I insisted on 24 hours’ notice. On one occasion I flat out refused access because the estate agents attempted to give me two hours’ warning before showing someone around. Within 3 days I received a phonecall from my landlady saying she would have to give me my official notice to end the tenancy. Strange timing, that, and according to her, the estate agents had told her to give me notice, it was not her decision. If you think it isn’t stressful having strangers tramp around your home loudly discussing how many bedrooms it has and how quickly they can get you out, try it for yourself.

I’ve heard the argument that landlords would not want to rent if they had to offer more security to which I say Good. Perhaps if fewer people wanted to get rich quick on BTL, house prices wouldn’t be so ridiculously out of line with wages. And if they’re worried their houses will be trashed by bad tenants again fine, don’t do it. We now have a situation in which the new Housing Minister is a landlord thus it seems unlikely that tenants’ rights will be increased. The Tories, having sold off council housing in the 1980s are busy planning the sell-off of housing association stock. And yet it seems to me that a good way to avoid risks for both tenants and landlords is to have common ownership. If houses for rent were owned by councils or housing associations we wouldn’t be in a situation in which landlords suddenly have to sell up, leaving stressed tenants in fear of being homeless. The current situation doesn’t work and yet this government is bent on pushing us further into it. Unsurprising really, as it helps those who have gain more, whilst those who have not lose out to an ever greater extent.

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The reclaiming of the shrew

Recently, in their efforts to educate me, my cats have been bringing me dead shrews. I’m curious about shrews because of Shakespeare’s play. Finding a live shrew shrieking in my living room, I started to ask questions about the comparison between a small, feisty, loud-mouthed insectivore and women who are insulted for apparently having similar characteristics.

When someone says that a woman is “shrewish” they make a statement about both the woman and the shrew. Often we only question one side of a metaphor but take the other for granted. Thus we think we know about shrews, and think we are only influencing our view of women in comparing the two. However, in truth each side of the metaphor informs the other. Not only do we start to see women as shrews – we start to see shrews as women. And the metaphor acts as a filter. We see only the characteristics we think the two have in common and ignore all the others. Hear a woman shriek and liken her to a shrew, hear a shrew shriek and decide it’s like a woman and ignore whatever other features the two may have. But why is the behaviour of either mocked? Why is it that women and shrews “shriek” whereas men “shout”?

Insults are often gendered – women are criticised for behaviour which is accepted in men. How often have you heard a man criticised for being “bossy”? Men are expected to be the boss, women are not, therefore for men to be the boss is a compliment whereas women are construed as “bossy”. Likewise how often have you heard a man described as: strident; hysterical; outspoken; emotional; a fishwife (is there a male equivalent?); catty; an attention seeker; forthright; histrionic; feisty. Is aggression criticised in men or is it more likely to be seen as normal, possibly just assertive behaviour? When women express themselves, perhaps forcefully, the behaviour is criticised and social norms are used to help prevent that expression. Female expression can be hysterical or emotional. It can be catty, bitchy, made nasty and trivial. Or it is strident and bossy, i.e. the woman is overstepping the mark by being, in some way, too loud, too dominant, too opinionated. If a man is ever described as opinionated I can guarantee he’ll either be working class, young, non-white or a combination of the three. White men, particularly those of more mature years, are expected to have opinions and are free to express them.

Witness this exchange between Caroline Criado-Perez and a Twitter follower. After CCP was the victim of harassment on Twitter, a Twitter silence was organised for her. Whilst she was grateful, she didn’t agree with it. CCP I really cannot imagine one man telling another man he was adopting a bold tone, or that he had earned the right to disappoint someone. Women are expected to behave in rather different ways.

I often hear the expression “boys will be boys”. Yet when growing up I was told “girls are more difficult”. Consider the difference in these two expressions. When boys misbehave, it’s written off as an inevitable part of their gender. When girls misbehave, they are “difficult”. I found the idea that somehow by being a girl I was more problematic very odd. I didn’t think I was doing anything more difficult to deal with than my brother was. As a teenager I decided it wasn’t that girls were more troublesome, it was that society often didn’t like the way they behaved and so labelled them as such. My parents were beside themselves if I was 10 minutes late back home, even if I told them where I was, who I was with and what the problems were with getting back. My brother could not return all night and they were unconcerned. Yet objectively, my brother was far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than I was. Girls are no more difficult, people are just less accepting of what they get up to.

The more I consider the gendered insults intended to curb women’s behaviour, the more I think they are connected to attempts to keep women out of fully occupying the public sphere. Certainly the abuse women get on Twitter is intended to keep them away or just shut them up (and women are often told that they could just shut up and the abuse would go away, as if silencing a woman is ever the answer to the problem). Women are often told not to go out alone. If I go into a pub on my own it’s OK for a man to try to chat me up, and if I’m not interested just saying so won’t work. The best way to get rid of him would be to say I was with someone else. If that someone else then turns up, the man will apologise to my partner, not to me, despite the fact that it is me who feels insulted and told him to go away in the first place. Men occupy public space unhindered yet is acceptable to hinder women if they are in public. The argument that women should stay at home to avoid being attacked, rather than men stay at home to avoid attacking them, reinforces this notion that public space is not for all. Public space is male space and women are only allowed into it if they abide by certain rules.

This curbing of women’s behaviour is not healthy for them. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Health, argues that there are implications for both physical and mental health if women are unable to express themselves. Personally I think that aggression is often discouraged in women and portrayed as unfeminine. Thus women will frequently resort to indirect aggression —behaviour not overtly aggressive but with an aggressive intent. That can take the form of sulking, refusing to talk and learned helplessness amongst others. This behaviour seems quite childish because when women are criticised for expressing themselves in certain ways, they are not being allowed to grow up. Which brings us back to the shrew. It’s small, it’s comical, its level of outspokenness is worthy of laughter because it’s so preposterous.

Moving away from the metaphor, what else do we know about shrews? My cats were bringing in both common shrews and the more unusual water shrew. They weren’t eating them because shrews have glands on their skin from which they exude a foul-tasting liquid. Shrews need to eat very frequently to live but in winter the common shrew actually shrinks in size so that it requires less food. I don’t mean it loses weight, apparently even its skull gets smaller, which is a neat way of getting through the winter.

The water shrew apparently immobilises its prey with toxic saliva. If disturbed, litters of shrews will move in a caravan, each shrew grasping the tail of the one in front. The fact that I found most odd was probably this one:

A bizarre and unexplained specialization is shown by the African Scutisorex somereni. It has additional and enlarged lumbar vertebrae interlocked by numerous bony spines, forming a flexible and very strong backbone. This shrew can support the weight of a person (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/542010/shrew)

Not bad for a small shouty animal. Shrews evolved over 40 million years ago, so they are survivors. Indeed shrews resemble the earliest mammals so in terms of body plans, it’s highly successful. Shrews are apparently the fourth most successful family of mammals. And, after my encounter with a live shrew in my living room, I’m impressed by them. I’m impressed by any animal that small that refuses to accept its weakness but instead raises its voice in protest. Neither shrews nor women should be mocked for expressing themselves. For their own health, women should feel able to express opinions without the implicit criticism of being told they are bossy, opinionated, outspoken or bold. But for myself, if anyone ever calls me a shrew, I shall agree. They are intriguing, fascinating, unafraid to shout and they are survivors.

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Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

As a schoolchild I was subjected to some horrendous bullying for the crime of being (drrrrumroll) ginger. Explaining this, as an adult, it’s not unusual for other adults to ask why I didn’t just dye my hair, which amazes me because even at the age of 11 I had worked out that the problem wasn’t me being ginger. The problem was other people’s attitudes to me being ginger and those attitudes would have become more entrenched, not less, if I had dyed my hair brown. By the time I was in my teens I had worked out that it was important not to change but to maintain my appearance. If people rejected me because of the colour of my hair they weren’t worth knowing. As a reason for discriminating against someone, this was less than skin deep.

There is no doubt that the bullying scarred me. I attribute much of my later depression to the treatment I received at school. However, I wouldn’t necessarily change what happened because as an adult, it gave me something else. I realised that if I had changed my hair to brown and fitted in, there would have been something else that I or someone else had been picked on for. If my hair had fitted in, something else, probably even more minor, wouldn’t have done. The end result of kowtowing to bullies is that we all end up looking and acting in very similar ways to escape the process of bullying and yet this doesn’t prevent bullying. It encourages it by giving bullies the result that they want.

Whilst as a young teenager I was almost constantly told I was ugly and undesirable, in my late teens something changed. Men began to see me as someone they really, really wanted to shag. I’m under no illusions that their emotions were anything more complex than that but suddenly I was considered something of a trophy because of the very looks which had been mocked a couple of years before. It was confusing, and to be honest meant I didn’t really respect the men who were judging my appearance. I wasn’t pleased that they were judging me positively. They had already judged me so negatively and I was bright enough to realise that the issue wasn’t a positive or negative pronouncement on my appearance. The issue was that they were judging me on my appearance at all. I realised that good looks were a fortunate chance, not an achievement. For this realisation I am grateful. (I know that appearance is often an important part of attraction. It isn’t however a reason to shout at people across the street and loudly announce your verdict on their appearance).

This knowledge of bullying has stood me in good stead when it comes to cycling on English roads. Apart from anything else, it’s given me the confidence to judge what I’m up to based on facts, not on other people’s prejudices. It’s why I so dislike the othering of cyclists – that sense that what one does, they are all responsible for because they are all other and different, and linked together by that difference. Thus when someone argues that cyclists would be more popular if only they obeyed the rules, I don’t just agree. Instead, I looked beyond the surface and analyse what else might be going on.

When new kid on the Twitter block @CyclePledge emerged s/he made what might at first glance seem a reasonable case. That is: ask a few people what they dislike about cyclists. Listen to the response “It’s because they don’t obey the Highway Code” and set out to do two things, first get cyclists to pledge to obey the Highway Code and second try to prove that they already obey it. Cycle Pledge has taken something of a battering and I’d rather not add to it, but I do feel it necessary to explain why I object.

One of the things I learned from being bullied is that if you have an image problem, it’s a distinct possibility that the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not with you. Thus it’s quite likely that if people think cyclists don’t obey traffic regulations, the problem is one of perception rather than reality. And indeed this is the case. In the majority of collisions involving bikes, the fault lies with the driver, not the cyclist. The majority of cyclists stop at red lights despite the fact that road design and generalised fear make it quite tempting not to. Added to this, anecdotally, I find that when I’m told off for doing something wrong on a bike, I’m actually obeying the law and the other person is just wrong (e.g. when you’re cycling on a cycle path and get told off for cycling on the pavement by someone who’s just unobservant). Add into this the whole “road tax” argument and you can see that dislike of cyclists is based on perceptions, not what cyclists are actually doing. People don’t like cyclists and then look for reasons to justify this.

It becomes more obvious that “not obeying the Highway Code” is just an excuse when you look at who actually breaks traffic regulations i.e. motorists. The majority of drivers break laws concerning mobile phones and driving. According to the RAC   83% of drivers admit they speed regularly, whilst 92% say they are law-abiding, a stat that says almost all you need to know about attitudes to breaking traffic regulations. Indeed the notion that motorists are law abiding extends to the argument that speed is safe and the laws are wrong. There are whole websites devoted to giving warnings of the location of speed cameras and drivers complain when cameras are hidden although the obvious way to avoid a speeding fine is just not to speed.

Thus, if law breaking were a genuine reason not to like a group of road users, motorists would be amongst the most hated group in society, but they’re not. Instead, their ways around obeying the law are generally tolerated and sometimes lauded. So if law breakers are OK, you can see that no amount of pledging to obey the Highway Code is going to make anyone like a cyclist – because that’s not the real reason for the dislike. My bullying was less to do with my hair colour, more specifically to do with the fact that I didn’t care that I looked different and so made people feel insecure. Cyclists too are disliked for being part of a minority that challenges entrenched thinking.

There is an instructive asymmetry at play here. The children who bullied me for my hair colour were being obviously and thoroughly unreasonable. Adults expressing dislike for cyclists on the grounds that they disobey rules are on the face of it being reasonable which is why it’s easy to fall for their argument. Add in the fact that out of all cyclists everywhere some of them will break the rules at some point and you give people the perfect opportunity to say “yes, that’s right, yesterday I saw a cyclist on the pavement”. But, being bullied taught me much about human behaviour, principally that people will pick on difference and then rationalise their prejudice, and that is what is happening when people say they dislike cyclists for law breaking. As noted above, if law breaking, particularly dangerous law breaking, were their real problem, it would be drivers they hated.

Thus when Cycle Pledge argues that cyclists should pledge to say they obey the Highway Code, all s/he is really doing is promising that gingers will dye their hair. It’s confirming someone’s prejudice, not tackling it. The seeming reasonableness of the request make it more dangerous, not less. It’s the same prejudice being pandered to, it’s just managed to disguise itself with the semblance of rationality. It’s failing to get at the root cause of the dislike and instead tackling the post hoc justification for it.

The better option would be to campaign for cyclists to have designated spaces. At the moment, when you examine the design of our roads, towns and cities, what you see is space for cars, with a little room for pedestrians and very little specifically for cyclists. Our environment is designed to say “cyclists are not one of us, there is no room for them”. Redesign towns so that cyclists are included and are part of the accepted norm and you should find a shift in social attitudes towards that acceptance. Cyclists will stop being other when they are included within public spaces rather than designed out of them.

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International Men’s Day

But why can’t we have International Men’s Day?

“Pfft, you women, you say you want equality but you have a whole day to yourselves and we men don’t do we”. OK, it was a tweet. But I still saw it.

Well it’s good news, men. You can have International Men’s Day. But first you do have to fulfil the following criteria:

Every time you leave your front door, think about what you’re wearing. Ask yourself, is this likely to spark off a cacophony from passing women, who are physically bigger and stronger and will therefore make me feel vulnerable and threatened just for leaving my own front door in jeans and a jumper

Don’t go out on your own after dark. Well preferably don’t go out on your own. If you do go out on your own, especially after dark, and suffer a criminal act, expect people to ask why you were out on your own. And at that time of night. And what you were doing

You do “x” like a boy is an insult. Also “boyish” is an insult. From here on in, just for being in your own skin, you’ll be told you’re weak and inferior. But don’t worry. 1 day out of every 365 we’ll celebrate you, so it’s OK

4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies will be held by men

At many academic institutions, only 1 in 10 professors will be male, although you’ll be pleased to know that at lower grades, you’re almost on parity, so you know, what’s the fuss

You’ll live with the fear that around 1 in 5 men will be raped in their lifetime and that if that happens to you, someone will say it was your fault for doing something. It doesn’t matter what that was. It could have been being out late, wearing the “wrong” thing, being drunk, trusting someone.  Anything. Because some people fail to realise and acknowledge that rape is the fault of rapists, not that of their victims. Because some people persist in believing myths about rape.

You’ll live with the knowledge that you’ll always earn less than women, whether you choose to have children or not

You’ll read articles about your achievements as an astrophysicist that start “Dave is a father of two, how does he fit it all in?”

Almost every film that you watch will leave you feeling disengaged because 90% of the cast are white and female and the 10% that aren’t will get shot early on or wait on tables. Or get shot whilst waiting on tables

Someone will develop a test asking if at least two men in a work of fiction talk about something other than a woman. At least half of all films will fail this test because they will all be about women doing women things

You’ll be told that an alien with two hearts who time travels, solves the world’s problems with a sonic screwdriver, regenerates, and travels in a box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside can’t be male, because that would be really weird

You’ll be told you’re shrewish, bold, hysterical, rude or bossy just for doing your job and expressing an opinion. You’ll have a nagging feeling that women don’t get treated like that

Women will explain things to you. Even when you have a PhD in the topic and a wealth of work experience and they have neither of these things and are clearly wrong, they will explain your own job to you. They will call you a boy whilst they do this, even though you’re 38. Then when you object, they’ll say you’re being hysterical

When we give people two equal CVs, one with a male name and one with a female name, people will judge the one with the man’s name on more harshly

Famous male authors will be told to publish as women or just use initials instead of a full first name because a book by Joe Rowling wouldn’t sell

We’ll give you one day to celebrate you and someone will manage to ruin even that by saying “but it’s not fair, why do you get a whole day to yourself?”

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White Hat, hunting, and a very stupid tweet

White hat exercises are those in which someone who is on your side tries to undermine you, in order to test your defences. The general idea is that as a result of these white hat forays, you will be able to fix any faults in your system so that when a black hat comes along, you will be able to fight them. This week White Hat Media, a company who claim that it’s vital that social media is integrated with online intelligence, may have to argue that one of their own employees was just on an exercise to test their skills. Or they may just have to admit that one of their employees is not, or at least was not, particularly media savvy.

It started out like so many Twitter spats with a comment that, whilst undoubtedly stupid and cruel, would have gone by and large unnoticed before the advent of social media.

Anon

It is a cruel statement and as anyone who’s been pushed around by drivers will know, which is basically anyone’s who’s cycled more than a mile on UK roads, it’s an attitude that costs lives. There are a substantial number of drivers who use punishment passes to try to drive cyclists off the road and comments like this, even if meant jokingly, help them to justify their actions. There are enough drivers out there who treat people as less than human because they happen to be on a bike and this young woman felt perfectly able to voice such sentiment in public.

At this point the hounding started. The 23rd was a working day and I missed it but as this picture shows it had reached at least 85 retweets before it became necessary for the woman in question to close her account. Now however nasty her comment bear in mind that this is someone tweeting from her personal account, a private individual, not someone seeking the public eye although she ended up firmly in its sights. There are a lot of interest groups on Twitter and they use retweeting as a call to arms. Cyclists as a group can be very intelligent and very articulate. However, like any other fairly random grouping (and the fact that they all happen to have cycled somewhere is fairly random) there are quite a few who can be cruel in their own right. Thus she was on the receiving end of some very cogent and quite fair criticism and a torrent of rather nastier stuff.

Several people referred to this woman as an “oxygen thief”. Somebody tracked down her employers and informed them of her misdeed. And yes, it is quite true that someone who works for a media company really should know something about the power of social media and really should be aware of the need to watch what you say in public. She has freedom of speech but with that freedom comes consequences. And yet I cannot say that the punishment fitted the crime. Is calling her an oxygen thief really that much better than what she said? She wanted cyclists dead – I can’t see that in effect saying that her life is worthless will make the situation any better.

Her employer’s Facebook page was inundated with one star reviews from people saying that the company was untrustworthy because of this employee. Many said she was psychopathic. I doubt very much that any psychologist or psychiatrist would make a diagnosis of psychopathy from one tweet, however bad. It takes quite prolonged study to come up with such a diagnosis and who knows what the intent behind the tweet was. Oh she may well be vapid, she may be ignorant and misguided, or just thoughtless, who knows. But psychopathic, really? Why bandy that particular diagnosis around? She felt that within modern UK culture it was quite acceptable to castigate cyclists and I take issue with that but I don’t feel qualified to comment on her mental state. And I am very glad that my teens and early twenties were lived out in the days before social media on the internet because I’m quite sure I said some very stupid things that are better lost in the mists of time.

Essentially, the pack smelled blood and they were off. And yes, I know what she said was nasty and yes I know that people with that attitude have killed others. However, as far as we know, she’s just someone who said a very foolish thing not someone who really, if she thought about it for a while, advocates murder. I’m not comfortable in situations in which what amounts to bullying is justified on the grounds  that someone else started it. The fact that this woman tweeted something incredibly stupid and spiteful does not actually mean she deserves to lose her job, as many people were demanding. Humans, like it or not, are predators with a very evolved hunting instinct. Once someone slips up in some way, somehow it seems to become OK to pursue them without mercy. I’m pretty sure that in cold blood, and without the back up of a crowd, many of the people name calling and asking for her to be sacked would have had a more considered response. But once people’s blood is up and once the crowd have called for something more bloody and violent, a pack mentality takes over.

These situations have arisen before. In the case of Emma Way, she actually had hit a cyclist and upon boasting about it, she lost her job. Thus when a Twitter storm like this starts someone will say something along the lines of “There seems to be a common factor in this string of young women, car owners and drivers with this outlook and foolish enough to tell the world of their prejudice in this way”. (That’s a quote from someone on White Hat’s Facebook page). I can guarantee you that there are many young men on Twitter saying equally facile and cruel things. I also know that women are judged far more harshly, by both men and women, when it comes to assessing their achievements. She said something idiotic, but let’s not pretend that it is just young women doing this. Unless you’ve surveyed Twitter comprehensively and worked out whether the demographics on Twitter are the same as those in the general population, it seems better to me not to claim that this is a largely female problem.

This young woman thought it was OK to threaten cyclists because anyone riding a bike is labelled as being part of an out group, they are dehumanised to a degree that makes it OK (in some circles) to make jokes about killing them.  Then as an individual she became an outsider, someone who could in turn be bullied and it was OK to do so, as if the original comment had given people permission to behave in a way that otherwise they would think is unacceptable. If somebody starts by doing something bad to us first, it’s as if anything we do after that is justified by their original sin. Well I’m sorry but I don’t buy that, it’s why the world is in the state it’s in. Half the world’s problems could be solved here and now if someone just worked out that retaliating in kind is a shit idea.

If I’ve learned anything from Twitter it’s that taking on the world one idiot at a time uses an awful lot of energy to very little end. True in the case of Emma Way Twitter helped to get some kind of justice but Ms Way had actually hit somebody. I can think of other cases in which someone in the public eye has said something they really shouldn’t and they have ended up by resigning. Sometimes this is fair enough. In general I think it’s good to ask yourself what you want out of a situation, if it’s achievable, and if so how you’re going to achieve it. In this case ideally I would like the young woman to realise that threats of such violence, whether or not made in jest, are hurtful and unacceptable. I’d like her to realise that people on bikes are just getting from A to B, that they are human beings and that any human, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, deserves a certain amount of respect and care. I might be able to achieve this simply by saying as much. I doubt very much that calling her an oxygen thief and demanding that she be sacked is going to help the situation or make her think carefully about road safety.

So fine, tell her what she said is stupid (which is different from saying she is stupid). Explain to her the number or deaths on the road caused by drivers devoid of empathy. Explain why cycling facilities are so often not used. Consider pointing out to her employers that they have someone completely unversed in the power of social media working for them. But if you castigate her personally and call for her sacking just ask yourself, have I never, at any point in my life, done something stupid and thoughtless that I really regret?

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A Tale of Three Overtakes

I’m very fortunate with my current commute. It’s short, it’s on fairly quiet country roads and there’s so little congestion that there are no traffic lights. However, as any reasonably experienced person who travels by bike will know, there will always be flashpoints. The main two to watch for are risky overtaking and junctions (and that lovely overlapping set, risky overtaking at junctions).

Overtaking seems to spark vociferous debate as there is a clash between cyclists’ need to remain safe versus drivers’ need to get somewhere in a hurry. You would hope that, for the sake of basic humanity, safety would win but generally it doesn’t. As justification for their impatience, many non-cycling drivers just resort to a “why are you on the road” attitude as justification for their own, at best reckless, behaviour. But the other morning I encountered, in quick succession, three different types of overtaking behaviour that clearly showed what the problems are and why it is often so unnecessary for drivers to act in the way that they do.

It started out gently, with drivers coming past leaving me enough room, overtaking in reasonable places and indeed managing to hang back until we’d reached a reasonable place (hint, that’s not on a blind bend). However, I then realised I was approaching the back of a queue of traffic, an unusual situation at that point of the commute. Taking a deep breath of country air and looking at the state of the road, I realised that someone was moving sheep. Now I accept that you cannot stay behind a cyclist travelling at 15mph on the basis that there might be someone moving a flock of sheep half a mile ahead of you. I don’t mind people overtaking carefully and reasonably and don’t expect them to know the exact road conditions for the next 5 miles. However, it does show that no matter how impatient you are to get past a cyclist, doesn’t mean the rest of your commute is all going to be sweetness and light.

Think about your commute in totality. Is it all one long smooth ride, apart from a couple of cyclists travelling at 12 mph that you feel you need to get past? In that case, congratulations and what are you worried about? You’re lucky, it’s a nice journey, give them room, admire the view. Or is it messy and snarled up? Are you often queuing behind other cars, cars which like your own are carrying around 25% of their capacity? Are you in the queue at lights behind lorries and vans? Are there cars parked along the route that mean that passing oncoming traffic is difficult? In which case why are you blaming the entire situation on a couple of cyclists, whose vehicles are carrying 100% of their possible capacity and who are doing around the same average speed as you? Is it possible that you’re actually just a bit frustrated and have decided to take it out on them because they’re a bit different, they represent an alternative that you find unsettling and when you whinge on Facebook all your mates press “Like” and talk about road tax and red lights?

The sheep reached their field, the cars and vans sped up and I kept going. I went through a village with a 30 limit. After this the road carries on into open countryside and the limit is the national one i.e. 60mph. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to travel at 60 since it is a limit and not a target. It doesn’t even mean it would ever be safe to do 60 on that stretch. It just means that no-one’s really got around to working out what an appropriate limit would be and they’ve stuck to the default option. So a driver decided to squeeze past me just as two cars were coming the opposite way. I’ve had worse but it was too close and too fast. And unnecessary as within a few seconds there was no oncoming traffic at all so they could have had the whole of the other lane. And then it became doubly unnecessary as within 50 yards the driver turned right into a side road.

It does seem that many drivers are unaware of basic physics. Accelerating and decelerating wastes energy. Thus accelerating to overtake and then braking to make a turn will increase your fuel bill. If you know that you are going to turn off within the next few yards, just wait. Don’t take a risk with someone else’s safety, think ahead, drop down a gear, stay behind, make your turning, save fuel, make the road feel a bit safer for everyone. And you know what, if it does take up more of your time, it will only be about 30 seconds. Trust me, I know, I went past the side road just as the impatient Herbert  was parking up. I muttered under my breath. As someone who likes to think several steps ahead, I get confused by people who don’t, especially when they’re (nominally) in control of a ton of metal.

Nearing my destination, the road narrows considerably. I work in a small town that can be something of a bottleneck, particularly since people park on the road. The streets are narrow and there are often large vehicles on them meaning that anyone driving is likely to end up in a passing situation. On a bike you can generally slip through, provided of course that some numpty hasn’t just overtaken you and then plonked their car somewhere in the oh-so-surprising realisation that their way forward isn’t clear. To try to prevent these unnecessary overtakes, I tend to take primary position. That is, as recommended by the Department for Transport, I move into the centre of the lane. This makes it harder for people to overtake and in general makes it clear that there’s no need to bother. It doesn’t stop everyone of course and I have had people overtake when I’m in primary and the vehicle in front has its brake lights on (here’s the thing, you can see it, it’s a vehicle, it’s not a surprise, it’s quite big, its brake lights are on, that means it’s braking. That means it’s fucking pointless overtaking me only to end up behind it, numbnuts).

The road heads downhill into a 30 zone. Since I’m generally doing about 25mph by this time, overtaking me means breaking the speed limit, another reason to take primary. I could hear a vehicle behind me and from the engine noise thought that the driver might overtake but I was very close to a narrow bridge with a blind summit. Since I can pass cars on the bridge, but they can’t pass each other, I didn’t see any point in moving over. It would in all probability have resulted in the driver having to brake on the bridge, whereas I was confident I could just keep going over it. On a bike, you are the engine, so you are aware of the extra energy it takes to keep braking and if you can maintain rhythm, you do. The driver however had other ideas and as soon as I was over the bridge, and despite the narrow roads, he barged passed. It was a classic punishment overtake: I don’t care, I’m in charge, it’s my road, I’m in a car, I pay road tax, I want to be in front, and I’m bigger so I’m going anyway.

Inevitably I caught up with him. And this is the bit so many drivers find so difficult to accept. I’m using a nippy form of transport that can fit through small spaces. It isn’t allowed on motorways because on large open roads it’s comparatively slow.  However, in the crowded conditions you find in towns and cities, although bikes may have a lower top speed than cars, their average speed will be at least as fast, if not faster. Since I wasn’t impressed by the driver’s behaviour and didn’t see why he should get away with bullying unchecked, I told him what I thought of his lack of road awareness. His response was “it was a mistake, there’s no need for that”. Well I would venture to suggest that it’s a “mistake” that could be avoided in future by A. not bullying people and B. not assuming that you have the right to the road and that you will be faster. If that’s too much to cope with, go for C. obey the Highway Code, in particular rules 162 to 169.

Anyone on the road needs to realise there might be anything ahead. Whatever it is, it has a right to be there. There’s no need to assume that somehow you and your journey are more important, for whatever spurious reason you feel like making up. If your journey is shit, it’s unlikely to be because of one thing. Be honest with yourself. Is it really that cyclist? Or is it actually all the other stuff, other stuff that you accept, because it’s easier just to scapegoat a minority group. Plan ahead. If you are going to turn off shortly, is it really necessary to overtake? How much time will it actually save? And how much fuel will it use up if you have to accelerate and then brake, rather than maintain a steady speed. Don’t assume that because you’re in a car, and because it can go faster than a bike, it will actually be faster in the conditions in which you’re driving. And remember, don’t overtake if you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. In a small town with narrow windy roads where visibility is restricted to around 50 yards, if that, you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. So don’t overtake, it’s in the Highway Code. If you don’t like that, then just accept that you’re using a vehicle that makes less than optimum use of the available space. And the reason that cyclist is in the middle of the lane? It’s a warning that it’s not safe or appropriate to overtake. If they’re wrong, it won’t cost you much. If you’re wrong, you put your life and theirs in danger. Is it really worth it?

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Wear a helmet: It’s common sense

Arguments over helmet wearing keep coming up and are fairly well rehearsed. There’s the “common sense” pro-helmet argument which runs roughly: wear a helmet as it will help if you hit your head. This is questioned in various ways: am I more likely to hit my head cycling than walking or driving? By wearing a helmet am I making cycling seem more dangerous than it is? Will wearing a helmet change my behaviour such that I take more risks? Will it change driver behaviour so that they take more risks around me? And is it really going to do anything if a tipper truck driver fails to notice me and drives over the top of me.

These are sometimes countered with testimony from surgeons saying that helmet use saved various patients’ lives. With some frequency those who are insistent on helmet use will just return to the original “it’s common sense” followed by “are you afraid you’ll mess your hair up?” Then the argument can deteriorate somewhat. I should add at this stage that the argument is rarely pro-helmet vs anti-helmet. It’s usually pro-helmet vs pro the choice not to wear one if I’m nipping to the shops via the back roads.

In following these discussions it seems to me that the phrase “common sense” is often used when someone hasn’t sought out any facts to back their argument up. They don’t feel a need to go looking for facts because to them the case they’re stating seems obvious, it’s commonly known, it’s “common sense”. However, when you examine these common sense arguments they often seem to be a gut, unexamined reaction that isn’t actually backed up by all the data available. In response to a challenge someone may go and find some evidence to back up a common sense argument but often that data suffers from confirmation bias. It’s data chosen with a particular end in mind, it’s partial and there may well be other data that presents a very different picture.

A few weeks ago I got into a brief discussion with someone on Twitter from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a charity which states that it “is committed to saving young people’s lives by promoting safer cycling and, in particular, the use of cycle helmets”. Someone from the trust tweeted that:

BHI tweet

To which I pointed out that teaching the children about the difference between objective and subjective risk might have been more useful. The BHI Trust replied that they were happy to debate the issue but admonished “Let’s be sensible”. So I started to wonder about what we mean by being sensible and the ways in which we use claims of sensibleness as a rhetorical device in an attempt to shut down argument. And if you don’t teach children properly but just repeat something that’s “common sense”, what you get is tweets like these from full grown adults:

Traffic WMP1

Traffic WMP2

It’s news to me that personal protective clothing (PPE) is essential when cycling. Oh I might want to wear it if I’m going fast down hills, but arguing that it’s essential means that cycling is inherently dangerous and puts the onus on the cyclist to make it less so, rather than examining the wider reasons why cycling might seem or actually be dangerous.

It is commonly recognised amongst those who investigate health and safety that PPE should be a last resort, not a first one, hence this advice from NHS Scotland. PPE only protects the person wearing it whereas the hazard can be removed from everyone if it’s tackled at source. Thus the organisation argues, “PPE must always be regarded as a ‘last resort’ to protect against risks to safety and health. Engineering controls and safe systems of work must always be considered first”. In countries where cycling is viewed as normal and cyclists have clearly separate space very few of them wear helmets, because the hazardous element to cycling has been greatly reduced.

However, since the UK does have hopelessly inadequate cycling facilities, should I wear a helmet? Will it help? Well as counter-intuitive as it might sound, the jury is out on that one. And yes, I know A&E doctors will often say that someone’s life was saved by a helmet. But do they actually know that? Much as I respect the ability of those who work in such departments, there is a difference between treating an injury, and carrying out scientific tests on the best way to prevent that injury. There is evidence that in some falls helmets actually increase the chance of rotational injury.  (You can read more about rotational head injuries here and here although I warn you, it isn’t fun. Or search on “Diffuse Axonal Injury”. Such injuries are apparently very common in motor vehicle accidents). In a very detailed paper here Bruce Barcott argues that whilst helmets do a great job in a major crash, they don’t really help prevent concussion. (Unfortunately due to the ingrained belief that bike helmets work, there has been little done to improve them. In contrast, helmets for horse riders are continually researched and developed).

In the interests of covering all possibilities, let’s assume for a minute that actually, PPE is the first port of call and that helmets work. This being the case, are there other times when I should wear one? Is there anything else I do that is as likely as cycling is to cause me a head injury? The Center for Disease control gives the US stats. Cycling doesn’t appear. Falls dominate but “motor vehicle crashes were the third overall leading cause of TBI [traumatic brain injury] (14%). When looking at just TBI-related deaths, motor vehicle crashes were the second leading cause of TBI-related deaths (26%) for 2006–2010”. This would suggest to me that, if helmets do work, I really ought to be wearing one in a car. In fact, it would help whilst I’m out and about as another 10% are due to assaults. In the US, cycling doesn’t seem to register as a single cause.

But what about children? In the majority of cycling—driving accidents it is the driver at fault but the stats are different for the under 12s. So is cycling high on the list of things that cause head injuries in children? Wolters Kluwer, a company which provides information internationally to health organisations, gives stats that show that falls are the most common cause of head injury followed by motor vehicle crashes, pedestrian and cycle accidents, sports and, rather sadly, abuse. It advocates helmet use for cycling and some sports, but despite stating that high speed motor vehicle accidents are more likely to cause severe brain injuries, does not argue that children should wear helmets in cars.

If I drill down into the stats, I reach the conclusion that I at least ought to wear a reinforced hat after a glass of wine and once I’m over 65 I’m going to glue a motorcycle helmet to my head. So how have we arrived at this situation in which helmet use for cycling is “common sense” but it isn’t advocated in situations in which head injuries are most common? Well I would suggest it’s to do with who we think is actually responsible for causing accidents.

Reports of motoring accidents almost universally blame the car, making it the subject of the verb rather than the object. When I put “car accident news” into a search engine one of the first hits I get is “Dad’s fears after a car crashes into his garden”. To read the article I would have had to click on several adverts, so I didn’t. From the headline I get the impression of a wildly roaming car bounding around the countryside and terrorising suburbia by wilfully rampaging around gardens. I suspect the truth is that someone drove the car into the garden, since cars are not in fact wild animals. Changing tack and searching instead on “car crash” I get this from the BBC in which a car “left the road”. This article worries about older drivers but nonetheless says a “car slammed into” a person not that it was “driven into” a person. This article despite discussing speeding and driver behaviour, still quotes someone saying “cars go to [sic] fast on the road” rather than arguing that “cars are driven too fast on the road”. Back when we had carriages pulled by horses, this grammar might have been correct. Now that cars are purely mechanical and not drawn by animals with a mind of their own, it’s about time we took responsibility for the way in which we drive them.

In these situations, in which the car is an active agent and the subject of the verb, anyone injured becomes the hapless victim of chance. In this news story the driver injured her head, but there’s no mention of a helmet. This driver suffered a serious head injury, no mention of a helmet. I don’t doubt that sometimes the drivers are innocent victims, either of other drivers, or of some unforeseeable mechanical failure. However, news stories repeatedly make the car the active agent, as if the driver were some innocent bystander, whether or not the driver was at fault (and make no bones about it, if you were driving too fast for the conditions, you were at fault).

Contrast those accounts with this account of a cyclist suffering serious head injuries and the way in which the reporter felt the need to comment that he was wearing a helmet. By making PPE the focus of stories about cyclists, the cycling itself becomes a dangerous activity in which the cyclist is at least in part to blame, simply by engaging in that activity. And the neat trick here is that if cycling is dangerous and the cyclist is at fault, by extension the driver in any car/ bike collision isn’t. Thus Women Writers can quote someone saying “I find that mundane tasks, like driving, allow me to pour new ideas into my head”, and driving becomes something everyday, safe and innocuous that can be undertaken whilst thinking about other things.

So it isn’t necessarily common sense to wear a helmet whilst cycling. Or at least, if you apply the same standards of risk assessment, it is common sense to wear a helmet whilst engaged in many other activities. Look beyond the obvious and it makes even more sense to engineer environments such that you’re less likely to have the accident in the first place. For cyclists, this means separation from motorised traffic. For drivers it means better training, retesting and a realisation that controlling a ton of metal at three times the speed at which humans have evolved to travel is anything but mundane.

On edit:

As AT OM pointed out in the comments below, to assess whether cycling is more or less dangerous than other activities, one needs to make comparisons based on how often these activities are carried out. This is something I have discussed before, in a previous post about helmet wearing and you can read a report by staff at University College London here.

If you want to see just how truly bizarre arguments over helmet use can become, see this article in the Dorset Echo (HT to @gazza_d) in which a mother argues that cycle helmets should be compulsory after her son hit a pedestrian, knocking the pedestrian unconscious and causing her a head injury. Yes, let’s go over that one more time. Cyclist hits pedestrian. Cyclist has cuts and bruises, pedestrian has head injury and the logical response is for the cyclist to wear a helmet, apparently. Well actually, no. The logical response would be to examine how the accident came about and then try to prevent something similar happening in future. Is the infrastructure such that at that point cyclists and pedestrians are brought into conflict? Is the child aware that pedestrians often step out without looking and so you need to leave them plenty of room? Is the child aware of appropriate speeds on a bike? Is he aware that you need to be able to stop in the distance that you can see and that you save valuable seconds by covering your brakes? And yes, Dorset Echo, he is a child, not “Cyclist Jordan Moore”. He’s fifteen, he’s not about to do the TdF. And since he is 15, if his mum wants him to wear a helmet she should make him wear one. For crying out loud.

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