This morning I attended the Road Safety Forum organised by the City of London police, at their Snow Hill police station, near Smithfield Market. It was a good meeting, well attended by a range of officers, including at a senior level, plus those responsible for implementation on the streets. There were also representation from Corporation of London and Transport for London. Among the most interesting things I learned was that during a single day of random spot checks of lorries (HGVs) by City of London Police on 30 September this year, every lorry stopped was found to be breaking at least one road safety law.
The meeting began with five presentations covering a lot of ground including the latest trends in statistics for cyclist deaths and injuries, which have shown an increase from 2000 to 2006 (although this year and last the trend so far looks to be slightly down). Overall, two issues dominated the meeting and both have their own acronyms: HGVs and ASLs. Lorries killing cyclists has been in the news lately following a spate of fatalities on London’s streets. City Police were clearly concerned about this. Sergeant Alan Rickwood, dubbed ‘statto’ by one of his colleagues, gave a presentation of the latest figures on collisions involving cyclists and other vulnerable road users. He said he’d share his powerpoint with me and I’ll post it up here as soon as I get it. Two trends struck me from the numbers:
– injuries and fatalities to cyclists peak in the morning rush hour (around 8am) and, to a lesser extent, the evening rush hour (around 5pm). It’s not clear why the morning is worse than the late afternoon/evening.
– the rising numbers of cyclist fatalities and injuries is in contrast with motorcyclists, for whom deaths and injuries have been on on a falling trend since 2000. Again, it was not clear why this is the case, though the Police did mention Ride Safe, a campaign of safety education for motorcyclists that was launched in 2000.
– though the point was never made explicitly, I got the impression that the statistics supported the notion that cyclists are much more often the innocent victim in collisions rather than the guilty party. Motor vehicles changing lanes, opening doors and turning left appeared to be the most common causes of fatalities and injuries to cyclists.
During the Q&A I raised the question of underreporting of minor collisions involving cyclists. I said that while a minor collision involving two motor vehicles would usually end up being recorded by the police, for insurance purposes at the very least, this was not the case for collisions involving cyclists. I recounted my own experience and that of friends of mine that there is a road culture of checking that the cyclist isn’t dead or very seriously injured and then just driving off without any swapping of names, insurance companies or reporting to the police. Inspector Dave Aspinall suggested that unless it is an extremely minor collision it is always a good idea to call the police. In the City of London he said that a police officer could be expected to arrive very rapidly at the scene but said that this was less likely elsewhere in London. As a cyclist involved in a collision it can be very confusing and upsetting. You often get a rush of adrenalin, its not always apparent whether you’ve been injured (especially any concussion) or if the bicycle has been damaged. Inspector Aspinall stressed that any collision in which a motor vehicle causes damage to property or injury to a person is a police matter and that cyclists should not hesitate to call the police to the scene of all but the most innocuous of incidents, even if it isn’t clear what happened or who – if anyone – was to blame.
Turning to the issues of lorries, Inspector Aspinall told the meeting about a day of City of London spot checks on HGVs, carried out on 30 September 2008 as part of the Europe-wide Operation Mermaid, which is intended to step up levels of enforcement of road safety laws in relation to lorries. On this one day, 12 lorries were stopped randomly by City Police. Five of those lorries were involved in the construction work for the 2012 Olympics. All of the twelve lorries were breaking the law in at least one way. Repeat: a 100 per cent criminality rate among small random sample of HGVs on the streets of central London. The offences range included overweight loads (2 cases), mechanical breaches (5 cases), driver hours breaches (5 cases), mobile phone use while driving (2 cases), driving without insurance (2 cases) and no operator license (1 case). In some cases the drivers were given a warning and in other cases there was a more formal police follow up. No information was given on convictions following this operation. Inspector Aspinall said that the London construction vehicle market (skips, cement mixers, construction materials haulage) was very tight and competitive. Shady operators with dubious standards and legality exerted a downward pressure on market prices and that was forcing even the more responsible companies to cut corners in order to win tenders. Some companies were even factoring into their costs the inevitability of a certain number of fines for breaches of the law. I found this revelation shocking.
On Advance Stop Lines (the green boxes at junctions), the police were calling for a change in the law to allow for these to be enforced by camera. As things stand, the City of London police is the only police force that is actually enforcing the law on ASLs (no explanation was given for why the Metropolitan Police was not). The fine is £60 plus 3 points on the driver’s license. Rose Ades from Transport for London said that in many cases it was difficult to enforce ASLs because there is nowhere for police to pull over vehicles that have broken the law – stopping them in the ASL itself would cause congestion and unacceptable delays to other road users, she explained. The use of cameras would allow ASL offenders to be caught and fined in the same way as cameras are used to enforce speed limits and bus lane rules.
City Police and TFL were also calling for a change to the law on ASLs that would allow cyclists to enter ASLs in any way they choose. As things stand, if a cyclist enters an ASL other than via a feeder lane on the left, they are officially breaking the law. As we know, feeder lanes on the left are terribly dangerous in that they lure cyclists along the inside of stationery traffic, and filtering in this way is a major contributory factor towards collisions involving motor vehicles turning left into the path of cyclists. Most of the recent lorry-cyclist fatalities have been caused by a lorry turning left and crushing the cyclist.
One of the Corporation of London’s officials noted that at peak hours cyclists represent as much as 20 per cent of traffic in the City of London. It followed from this that cyclists were important – there is strength in numbers, after all. Mention was made of the ‘annoyance factor’ of cyclists riding on pavements, coming into conflict with pedestrians and running red lights. No statistics were given on whether this was more of perceived danger than a real cause of risk. The usual arguments that cyclists are ‘scoring own goals’ by breaking traffic laws were rehearsed. One member of the audience picked up on a recent Police consultation with local people about various forms of anti-social behaviour, which appeared to be encouraging respondents to complain about reckless cyclists. The Police fully admitted the flaws in the consultation and expressed regret for what they said was a sloppy piece of work. The impression was given that a handful of ‘important people’ in the upper echelons of the City of London were very hostile to cyclists and that this may account for some erratic decisions by the City.
The Road Safety Forum was attended by around 20 members of the public, several of whom appeared to be involved in road safety and cycling in a professional capacity. While this relatively thin attendance did contribute to a friendly and intimate meeting, there is no doubt that many London cyclists were not represented and – being a public forum – it would be a good thing if more of us were there. Perhaps the 8am time was not convenient – but there was coffee and (warm) croissants served, and the police did seem genuinely keen on developing a constructive and long term dialogue with London’s cyclists. For many of us, our only interaction with the police is at a moment of heightened tension (e.g. at the scene of a collision, being pulled over for a minor road traffic law infraction). This event gave an opportunity for a more civilized exchange of views and I have no doubt that despite a handful of slips in the past the City of London police are well ahead of the Met on taking the right action to reduce the number of cyclists killed or injured on the roads, while encouraging cycling as a solution to London’s chronic transport problems.