184 killed during last year’s wave of violence in London

From the 30th of July, London’s streets will be strewn with new cyclists as The Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is launched. More people than ever will get to experience first hand the elegance and convenience of navigating London by velocipede. And, like all London cyclists, they will get to experience first hand the thrill of almost being annihilated under the wheels of an HGV. But with a Liberal Democrat as a Minister in the Department for Transport, do we have a chance to make the roads safe for cyclists at last?

I’m seriously delighted that Norman Baker is now a minister in the Department of Transport, and with specific responsibility for walking and cycling. It’s the job I’d choose if I were given the pick of Whitehall. I hope he takes his responsibility seriously and lives up to the coalition agreement to “support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking” and longstanding Liberal Democrat policy objectives to Promote “Liveable Cities”.

My main hope for the the Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is that simply having more people on bikes on the roads will create a more benign cycling environment. London drivers will be more used to seeing cyclists, en masse, in central London. And as these new people will be green, rather than battle-hardened veterans of London’s roads, drivers will get used to treating cyclists with due caution.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that London’s drivers will become more tolerant. The life of the London motorist is one of savage fury. They are, as a species, given to shriek out of windows at any pedestrian or cyclist who slows even for one second their 20 yard dash to the next red light or traffic jam. I once saw a car driver nudge an elderly lady with his front bumper because she had the temerity to still be crossing the road when the amber light began to flash – and that’s not atypical from the London driver.

Bus and taxi drivers are among the most hostile to cyclists. Transport for London seems to have little handle on making these registered, professional drivers behave responsibly. A bus driver once tried to murder me on the Old Street Roundabout by flying across two lanes, one of which I was occupying at the time. Only yesterday evening I had words with the driver of a 55 bus who tried to edge over the Advance Stop Line into the cycle reservoir where I was waiting at a red. For some reason he didn’t take my polite, constructive criticism very well, and used some very unprofessional language. With a lot of wobbly new cyclists in the city centre, this behaviour is going to to have to change.

But that hostility is ingrained and institutionalised.

The Metropolitan Police has a policy of not enforcing Advance Stop Lines – the space for cyclists created at stop lights to give them a safe space. It is illegal for cars to enter these spaces on red or amber lights – but in London obeying this law is a minority activity.

Breaking the speed limit is normal.

It’s also frighteningly usual to see drivers on mobile phones, paying scant attention to the road. The head of road safety at the AA, has said that there are probably 100,000 people driving around using their phone on the roads at any moment. Even on the rare occasion that they are stopped, the punishment is risible, for saying that they are essentially behind the wheel of a tonne of metal killing machine. Ed Balls got a slap on the wrist and a minor fine and Harriet Harman, despite actually crashing while on the phone, escaped even a short driving suspension.

The Met have a website for reporting bad and illegal driving – but with the caveat that “we will not initiate a prosecution other than in exceptional cases”.

Last year in London alone 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died – 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

On the roads, it is taken as natural that people in their metal machines will sometimes slam into passers-by. But it’s not natural: often it’s the result of poor law enforcement, and failing to make drivers obey the law.

An article in the New Law Journal by cycling lawyer Martin Porter (here at his blog) demonstrates that even when careless drivers actually do kill, the punishment is disproportionately low, and the tendency is to blame the victim and let the murderer off the hook. A driver on the wrong side of the road who could not see where he was going hit and killed an oncoming cyclist:

“Rice had been driving home along a narrow country lane near Fenstanton on a November evening. He was third in a line of three vehicles headed by a car travelling at 40 to 45mph. Rice pulled out to overtake both the cars ahead of him but the driver of the second car, Miss Buckingham, then also pulled out to overtake. Rice could no longer see what lay ahead but remained behind Miss Buckingham to overtake the lead car. A cyclist, Mark Robinson, was riding in the opposite direction. His “quite brightly lit” front light was seen by the driver of the lead car. Miss Buckingham saw him just in time and was able to regain her correct side of the carriageway without a collision. Rice did not see Mr Robinson until it was too late. The road was not wide enough for two cars and a bicycle and there was a head on collision, at a closing speed of about 70 mph, in which Mr Robinson was killed. Rice was driving fast on the wrong side of the road in circumstances where he could not see what was coming towards him.”

He recently received just a suspended 20 weeks sentence and a 12 month driving ban. For killing a man.

Making our roads safe and welcoming will require cross-departmental working with the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to ensure that the police make motor drivers obey traffic regulations, and the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that dangerous drivers are prosecuted.

The question for Norman Baker MP, our man in the Department of Transport, is, then: what conversations has the minister had with his colleagues in the Home Office and Ministry of Justice?

When the inevitable happens and the first tourist using the Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is killed, the media, the driving lobby, and many politicians will instinctively blame the victim. But it will be the fault of the police and the machinery of justice for letting the roads become lawless, and for setting a precedent of letting car drivers literally get away with murder.

Published in: on July 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post – but I’m surprised you didn’t touch on the role of speed cameras – or, indeed, the potential for CCTV – in enforcing traffic regulations.

  2. Bravo. As a scarred veteran of the Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, Cromwell Road, the Tooting High Street, and other Gallipolis of Greater London I share your skepticism that cycling can be safely expanded as a mode of urban transport without addressing the culture of remorseless manslaughter which currently prevails.

    On another note, do I recognize an allusion to a certain famous work of natural history in your characterization fo the life of the London motorist as “one of savage fury?”

  3. […] The Coalition Agreement included pledges to both “stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras” and to “support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking”. I’m not sure are compatible, given that the main bar to the promotion of cycling and walking is the lawlessness of the roads. […]

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