Monthly Archives: January 2014

And don’t overtake there, either

I was going downhill at around 18-20 mph in a 20 zone. As I do in these situations, I took primary position. I do this because when I am going at or near the speed limit, drivers should not need or want to overtake me. Putting myself in the middle of the lane forces them to make a proper overtaking manoeuvre if they are going to get past, makes them think about whether it’s necessary, and makes it safer for me because if they do overtake, I can move over. If you’re already in the gutter, the kind of person who will overtake you in a 20 zone is unlikely to give you any room, and you won’t have any margin for safety.

It was hammering with rain and to be honest I would have felt safer going more slowly given the amount of water currently on Devon’s roads, but doing 15mph in a 20 zone gives even more opportunity for aggressive, unnecessary and dangerous overtaking. Sure enough, I heard a driver behind me and from the engine sound it was evident that he was going to try passing me despite the fact that it would involve breaking the speed limit, the road was wet and dangerous and visibility was poor. Not only that but we were approaching a traffic island. I moved further out into the lane to discourage him, he drove past anyway, forcing me over to the gutter and causing me to brake.

I almost caught him at the next roundabout. I did catch up with him at the next set of traffic lights, ¼ mile down the road. From there for the next 3 miles it was basically nose-to-tail traffic into Exeter. Nothing to do with cyclists, you understand, just drivers trying to get into an already crowded city. I stopped my bike in front of him, blocking him in.

Now I am fully aware that this is risky behaviour. There’s a personal risk in what the driver might attempt and a wider risk in that by annoying a driver, you might make their behaviour to the next person on a bike worse. You risk confirming their prejudices. However, I was dealing with somebody who was already driving recklessly, breaking traffic laws and also, basically, being a bullying unpleasant excuse for a human being. I see no particular reason to be polite to somebody who has just risked my life and I don’t see why I should let bullying pass unnoticed.

He wound his window down and shouted ‘you should be on the bike path’. There is no bike path where he overtook me. The one that is available near those lights is on the wrong side of the road and only goes somewhere I didn’t need to be. I pointed this out. I pointed out his manifest failings as a driver and the various laws and parts of the Highway Code he had broken. He and his passenger sat there grinning smugly. I’m not really sure why overtaking a cyclist dangerously on the way to the back of a 3 mile tailback would give anybody cause to feel smug but apparently it did. I upped the swearing quotient. Suddenly he looked a lot less smug and started trying to outswear me. Bad move. It’s not just my vocabulary, which after years hanging out on the wrong websites is colourful to say the least. It’s the sheer bloody-minded inventiveness and volume with which I will cheerfully project expressions of which nice, middle-class women really should not be aware.

I pedalled off, after pointing out to him that since he was stuck in a queue, there was no way he could catch me up. And, lest you fear that I will never be an ambassador for cycling and that I have angered a driver unnecessarily, do bear in mind that he angered me unnecessarily. And as I left, the last thing I heard was another driver shouting “Shut up, baldy” at him. It’s not nice, but the comic timing has had me giggling to myself ever since.

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Overtaking on a zebra crossing

Don’t do it kids.

Two days ago, Jeremy Clarkson tweeted this:

Twathead

Amongst the various responses, many people called for Clarkson to run the cyclist over  and someone referred to cyclists as the ‘cholesterol’ of the road.

Last Thursday morning when I cycled to work I noticed how snarled up Exeter’s traffic was. Just before 7am there had been an accident at the end of the M5, just as it splits into the A38 heading into Plymouth and the A380 into Newton Abbot. Although I was across the other side of town, even at 9.30 traffic was nose to tail and at a crawl. Pretty much the only people going anywhere were those on foot or cycling.

It’s not unusual either. Search on “Splatford split crash” and you’ll see what I mean. At the beginning of December a woman crashed on the M5 near Exeter and on that occasion too, traffic came to a standstill. Devon’s capital was gridlocked, the M5 was jammed, and no-one was getting in or out of Cullompton either. That morning I left the yard where I keep my horse about 15 minutes after someone else left in a horse box. I trundled off, noticed how bad the traffic was, and just kept going past it. After about 6 miles I went under the motorway. Looking up to the road, sure enough there was the horsebox (it’s quite distinctive). You would think, having given it a 15 minute head start, a push bike wouldn’t beat it over that distance, but I did. I didn’t feel like cholesterol. If anything, on these mornings, people on bikes are the aspirin, preventing absolute gridlock and ensuring that at least some of us get to work on time.

So let’s look again at Clarkson’s photograph. He may or may not have taken the photo illegally. Look at where the cyclist is. He is in primary position, as recommended by the Department for Transport. He is also on a zebra crossing, and overtaking is banned on zebra crossings and within the warning markings before them (see Highway Code rule 191). Just ahead of the crossing is a junction with give way signs so even without the crossing, had Clarkson overtaken he would have had to brake at the junction. You should not overtake at or near junctions (HWC rule 167) or when your way forward is not clear (HWC rule 162), or indeed if you are following a cyclist near a roundabout or junction (167 again).

Looking at the junction, the way to the left is restricted by an ambulance. To the right it is unclear (don’t overtake unless you know your way forward is clear). Straight ahead there are cars parked meaning entering into a passing situation with the visible oncoming traffic. The cyclist would be able to fit through those gaps, Clarkson in his car would not. Thus in any scenario that emerges from the photograph, Clarkson should not have been overtaking anyway.

This is something that drivers conveniently forget, or blank out. In crowded situations in towns, cyclists are often quicker. Oh they may not reach the same maximum speed, but their average speed overall will be at least as quick. The crashes in Exeter show how vulnerable our road system is. Just one accident can bring absolute gridlock that lasts for hours. So why do so many drivers ignore this, and resort to threats of physical violence at the very thought of not being able to overtake someone who is only going to saunter past them as they sit fuming at the back of a queue of traffic? Why the fuss about a minor delay that isn’t really a delay, whilst shrugging with acceptance over such horrendous queues?

Well essentially the problem is this: drivers would have to acknowledge a problem with their own behaviour if they were to admit that a car is not really the best way to get around crowded towns and cities. Since they can’t, or won’t, examine their own behaviour, they just pick at random on a group that is consistently portrayed as other by the British media and by people such as Clarkson. Knocking cyclists, literally and figuratively, is socially acceptable. Admitting that cars are a problem would entail a level of self examination which sadly seems lacking amongst many of the British public.

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The helmet debate rears its ugly head. Again

It’s usually bubbling away not far from the service. “They wear silly hats” and “they should wear helmets” are two of the favourite sticks with which to beat cyclists. It kicked off again on Twitter last week as Beverley Turner wrote an article entitled “It’s not just skiers who should wear helmets” and proceeded to berate cyclists for taking “unnecessary “ risks.

Turner is the wife of James Cracknell who, as she says herself in the article, was hit by a truck whilst cycling in America in 2010. Turner’s and Cracknell’s response is to campaign for cyclists to wear helmets which may on the face of it seem like a good and worthy thing. But think about it for a bit longer. Would you rather be hit by a truck whilst wearing a helmet, or just not be hit by a truck in the first place? And if you were charged with preventing injuries, would you provide people with lots of protective clothing, or find the cause of the injuries and try to stop them happening? Because there is a world of difference between saying “wear a helmet in case a truck hits you” and “let’s have separate infrastructure so you don’t get hit by a truck”. The first assumes that cycling is inherently dangerous and it’s entirely the cyclist’s responsibility to mitigate risks. The second examines the root cause of accidents and seeks to produce infrastructure that prevents those accidents.

I write this blog in a personal capacity but my day job entails examining data to improve its quality, and to ensure that it can bear the weight of the argument placed on it. Good quality data means that decisions can be made to help prevent incidents, whether that be by targeting the behaviour of at-risk groups or working out what type of infrastructure is most associated with collisions. I tend to start by asking questions which are deceptively simple but perhaps counterintuitive. Thus when examining the cycling and helmet debate I would actually disassociate head injuries from cycling and ask the following. What is your aim? Do you want to reduce incidents of head injuries? Or do you want to make cycling safer?

If your answer is that you want to reduce head injuries, then think about how and why they most commonly occur. To be fair to Turner, this information isn’t actually that readily available and does take some research to find. There is some data on head injuries here on the gov.uk website. Head injuries account for a little over 2% of A&E admissions in England. However, finding out how many of those are cyclists is more of an issue. There are stats for Canada and the US however. According to these, over the ten years between 1997 to 2007, 15% of deaths from TBI (traumatic brain injury) were motorists, 0.6% were cyclists. Now this does not mean that as an individual you are more or less likely to die of TBI when cycling than when driving, since it gives no indication of the extent to which either activity is carried out. However, it does mean that if you wanted to launch a public health campaign to reduce head injuries, you’d do well to target motorists, since out of every 20 deaths from TBI, 3 are motorists.

The Center for Disease Control in the US has done extensive research on TBI.  As they point out:

Data are critical to understand traumatic brain injury (TBI) as an important public health problem. This data can help inform TBI prevention strategies, identify research and education priorities, and support the need for services among those living with a TBI

If you dig around on the CDC’s website it becomes apparent that falls are one of the major causes of TBI and that it is the over 75s who are most at risk of death from them. However, nobody is suggesting that over 75s routinely wear helmets. Instead, they concentrate on falls prevention. This is because when an activity is seen as routine and normal we do not generally recommend protective clothing whereas when an activity is seen as risky we do recommend protective clothing, regardless of the objective degree of risk involved in either activity.

So, if you want to prevent head injuries, cyclists are not of major concern. But what if you want to keep cyclists safe? As this blog shows, cyclists are safer when separate from motorised traffic. A helmet only really comes into play after you collide with something. If I were trying to make things safer, I would be looking at reducing the collisions. If a truck turns left over the top of you, a piece of polystyrene on your head is not your best friend. Full body armour made out of something tougher than Kevlar might be of some assistance but better still, keep people on bikes separate from trucks.

Thus you can see that an argument that concentrates on head injuries in cyclists is not objectively the best way either to tackle head injuries, or to make cycling safer. Instead, it is based on subjective assumptions about risk. The problem with subjective risk is that it is by its nature based on society’s prejudices rather than facts. And where cyclists are concerned this is a particular problem because in the UK, so many people are determined to portray cyclists as a bit weird, different, awkward and, on the whole, determined law breakers and risk takers. Turner has (inadvertently?) picked up on this and unfortunately reinforced it. If cycling requires safety equipment then it isn’t a normal, everyday activity. If it isn’t a normal, everyday activity, then it requires safety equipment.

Cycling then is something other than the norm. It is a feature of othering that the out group are seen as a homogenous mass, defined and linked by one particular feature or activity, in this case riding a bike. In order to see the problem here, ask yourself the following question. Do all these activities carry the same degree of risk:

A Sunday cycle at 8mph along a towpath with no motorised traffic
A commute along the same towpath, plus some minor roads and cycle paths, at an average of 15mph
Blasting downhill in the pitch black on an MTB at speeds of up to 25mph on purely off-road tracks riddled with rocks, tree roots, ditches and rabbit burrows
Training for a road race at an average speed of 20mph on fast, busy rural roads

If your answer to this is “yes” then I would politely suggest that you don’t embark on a career as an actuary. It’s rather like saying that popping out to the supermarket in the family estate car carries the same risks as off-road rallying or training to be a formula 1 driver.

Insisting that all cyclists, no matter what they are up to, wear a helmet makes all cycling seem equally dangerous when in fact, cycling is a hugely varied activity with varying risks. If I were riding a sportive in large groups with other riders I would wear a helmet. If I cycle in icy conditions I wear a helmet. If I’m nipping to the corner shop via a segregated bike path, I reserve the right to leave my helmet at home. People on bikes need to be humanised, not presented with a polystyrene lid as if it is a cure all.

The weakness of Turner’s argument carried through into her supporters’ tweets. Amongst others, we have this gem:

Cycling tweet

As a rhetorical device it is interesting. Take a successful, transport-related safety campaign, in this case seat belts. Seat belts used not to be popular, the government made them compulsory and enforced the law on this point. Now the majority of the population simply belt up and accept that seat belts save lives. Then link this with a much more contentious argument and claim that the two are the same in the hope that anyone arguing against the compulsory wearing of helmets feels like a numpty and suddenly agrees that yes, a helmet is just like a seat belt. Ignore the fact that seat belts are designed to stop you being propelled through a sheet of glass when the metal box you are travelling in is suddenly brought to a complete and sudden stop as it slams into something else, whereas helmets are designed to take a bit of impact as you skid along the ground having come off your bike.

Faced with arguments against the compulsory wearing of helmets, Turner and her allies opted for wilful misunderstanding, lumping their opponents together as ‘anti-helmet’. They didn’t acknowledge that very few people are anti-helmet whereas quite a few are against making it mandatory to wear a helmet whilst cycling. I’m not sure if this was just a lack of ability to grasp the difference between the two positions or a wilful attempt to discredit those who are against compulsion by making it appear as if they are also against helmets.

Turner then made personal comments about those who didn’t agree with her articles:

BevTurner2

The fact that Turner thinks people on bikes are genuinely worried about messing up their hair says rather more about her than about any cyclist. It’s not an argument I’ve ever heard against helmet use. Personally I’ve only ever seen it used as an imaginary argument against helmet use by those in favour of compulsion. The ‘were you bullied’ argument is a little more worrying. It smacks of high school. It’s almost as if Turner is displaying her own credentials thus: “I was popular at school, I believe this, I believe I’m right, and popular. I think you’re wrong, and you were bullied, and I’m going to remind you of this, and play on your insecurities because essentially I’m still at school, and I’m still a bit of a bully.” Turner needs to get her head around the fact that in the adult world, producing evidence counts for rather more than being the popular one.

This comment about having no pictures of loved ones is more of the same:

BevTurner

It’s as if Turner thinks those who are in favour of evidence and who use graphs are unpopular and unloved, in contrast with herself, with her happy family, as evidenced by her photograph with a smiling cherub. Another interpretation is that some people just prefer to keep their loved ones away from Twitter. There are rather unpleasant stalkers around so I’d rather keep personal photos off Twitter and stick to the facts. Play the ball, not the person. Otherwise people will rather assume you can’t play the ball.

Finally, Turner ended her article with a rather telling statement. She imagines what Schumacher’s wife is going through and remarks:

Even if she is angered by the fact that he may have ignored resort warnings to avoid off-piste runs due to obscured rocks, she can, for now, take heart in the fact that he wore a helmet.

Turner is nothing if not heteronormative. She doesn’t question Schumacher’s risky, off-piste skiing but says that instead ‘A good man does that for his family as much as for himself.’ Thus because a former racing car driver decides to go for an off-piste ski, Turner argues that good male cyclists will wear helmets, or they don’t love their families. And if they argue against this, oh look, they have graphs, not babies. Really, even Telegraph readers deserve better.

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