Last month I referred in a blog to the Metropolitan Police Task Force in connection with my response to the latest public consultation by the Metropolitan Police Authority to set police priorities. This resulted in an invitation from the Inspector in charge of the Cycle Task Force to see the work that they did. I accepted and as a consequence I pedalled down to
football stadium yesterday morning to meet one of their officers. Chelsea
I was a little early and was surrounded by some special constables so keen to security mark my bicycle that I felt it would be impolite to decline. That done, I had the PC, Michael, pointed out to me. He was a little way down
Fulham Road, standing beside his bicycle staring intently at some pedestrian lights. The plan was to stop the cyclists who jumped the lights and invite them to enter the cab of a lorry to see what it was like ‘Exchanging Places’. I had just missed him forcing one reluctant cyclist to a stop by interlocking arms which had resulted in the cyclist falling from his bike and muttering about a possible complaint. The first lesson is clear enough; if a uniformed police officer requires you to stop, do so voluntarily. It is less hazardous than the other way.
Part 1 – Exchanging Places
Introductions made, I stepped up into the driver’s seat of a Keltbray lorry. In the passenger seat was another police officer who had experience (as it transpires, does Michael) of driving HGVs. Another officer pushed my own bicycle into various positions around the nearside and front of the lorry.
My first impression (possibly contrary to the one intended) was just how good the driver’s visibility was from the cab using the ‘standard’ side mirrors and an angled mirror at the front of the windscreen, revealing what was immediately in front, and a further angled mirror on the offside just above the passenger side window. I asked whether these were the standard required mirrors and was told that they were on new vehicles but there is no requirement for the retro-fitting of older vehicles. Without those two ‘additional’ mirrors there were huge blind spots both to the front and to the nearside of the cab. The officer explained that it would be unacceptable to require retrofitting because of the cost. I have to say that I disagree with that viewpoint. [I am also fairly sure that the position is quite a lot more complicated than that and retrofitting of at least some mirrors on at least some lorries is required. Furthermore Sir Alan Beith’s bill is reaching a critical stage and this merits a whole different post]
In any event, having seen how the simple expedient of carrying two additional mirrors so dramatically improves the ability of the driver to see areas which include the ones that he is directly driving into, if going either straight ahead or turning to the left, I am even more firmly behind the See me, Save me campaign set up in memory of Eilidh Cairns. Responsible companies will install these mirrors (and sensors because as the officer explained to me there will always be drivers who do not look in their mirrors, however good) but it is the less responsible ones about which we should be most concerned and who should certainly be denied any competitive advantage over their more responsible competitors. It is hard to see why having adequate mirrors/sensors should be thought of as anything other than essential equipment to lessen the risk an industry imposes upon other people. With or without mirrors or sensors, I will be continuing my policy of never trusting an HGV unless and until you have eye-balled the driver. (I was one of a tiny disappointing minority who would not be changing their behaviour as a result of the experience).
It was striking that from a lorry cab at the first stop line, anything in the cyclists’ advanced stop box is invisible without the additional mirror at the front. The police officer and I did agree that if you have a lorry behind, you get into a position where you can eyeball the driver even if that takes you over the second stop line. Perhaps advanced stop boxes should be deeper but I was told that was unacceptable because it would interfere with road capacity and therefore traffic flow! Perhaps careful lorry drivers should stop short of the stop line so that they could see the box ahead? No that was not practical either I was told (though the Sergeant I saw later said better trained drivers did do this)..
The officer in the cab was friendly and charming and I am sure police relations with the cycling public features largely on the agenda. He did not though appear to be an experienced cyclist (at one point I was shown how difficult it was to see the officer on the ground wheeling my bike ‘and that is with him standing up, never mind when he is sitting down on his bike’) and any suggested action on the part of lorry drivers and their employers to reduce risk seemed to be excused away with a rapid refocus on the actions of the cyclist.
I am sure this exercise is useful (feedback forms including my own confirm this) but it should not be thought to be tackling bad driving. ‘Exchanging Places’ is really a misnomer, I saw no lorry drivers invited to take the place of cyclists. I remain unconvinced that many of tragic cases we have of lorries running down cyclists are caused by the cyclist’s ignorance of a driver’s blind spots. As I mentioned in the cab, I saw bad driving by lorries around cyclists on a daily basis and had on my way to Chelsea witnessed (but sadly not filmed) a trailer lorry overtake a group of cyclists before turning left forcing them all to a stop. I was going to be interested to learn what action was taken to counter this sort of behaviour. Collision avoidance, it seems to me, requires not just a warning to cyclists about how they pass lorries but also to lorries about how they pass cyclists. The former is perhaps the easier to address.
Part 2 – The Patrol
I next followed Michael through the crowded streets of west London up to High Holborn then across the infamous Blackfriars Bridge to the Taskforce’s HQ at Palestra. We had only gone a few hundred metres before at a red light, Michael took the opportunity to warn a cyclist who had stopped way past the stop line. I waited in the advance stop box alongside a police motorcyclist (I really do not know the state of the lights when he got into that box; it was stop/go traffic) to whom the sight of a colleague on a bicycle seemed to be quite a novelty ‘Whatever next?’
Further on Michael stopped, said he was turning round and headed back towards a skip lorry. I was beginning to learn that Michael had extraordinarily keen vision. I see a lot of mobile ‘phone use by drivers; what I see must be the tip of an iceberg because Michael spotted many examples all of which I missed. This was the first. The lorry driver was instantly apologetic with a sob story so convincing it could almost have been rehearsed. Michael is kind hearted almost, in my view, to a fault. He warned the driver in relation to his use of a hand held mobile ‘phone and for failure to wear a seat belt. Once the driver had gone on his way promising never to do it again, I queried how an officer decides whether or not to issue a penalty notice. In this case the driver had picked up his ‘phone only for a moment before seeing Michael. Of course I had not seen it at all, but still the concept of a lorry driver in crowded
streets looking at his phone screen and deciding to take the call scares me. Michael did not, it seems, have any option of ‘encouraging’ him to attend a course in exchange for such leniency (I would happily help devise one which would probably involve lorry drivers on bicycles riding up and down the A30 from East Bedfont to Staines; though there would probably be some health and safety objection on the grounds that there were too many lorries about!) Chelsea
We carried on up to Hyde Park Corner and to Piccadilly, where Michael again spotted a driver creeping forward and looking down at his mobile ‘phone either texting or dialling. He was pulled over and the intent was to issue the driver with a paperless ticket. This involved Michael using his own hand held electronic device during the course of which the system hung so it remained a matter of conjecture as to whether the Fixed Penalty had gone through or not. It is to Michael’s credit that he and the driver left on evidently friendly terms.
A little further on, a courier on a fixed wheel emerged from a side street through a red light without so much as a glance in our direction as we went through our light on green. Michael put on a burst of speed and forced the cyclist against the kerb to stop him. This one was definitely going to get a ticket but it was reduced in amount if the cyclist logged onto the Taskforce’s cycling safety website for some online training within the next couple of weeks.
We carried on up to Holborn. I had let a girl on a Boris Bike through a tight gap in traffic ahead of me and so she passed Michael as he waited for me to catch up. She therefore knew a police officer was right behind her but that did not stop her from going through the next red light (slowly it has to be said and without any sign of a pedestrian nearby, so rather different in quality from the courier’s offence). Michael had no difficulty stopping her and with, I thought, impeccable judgment, did not issue a fixed penalty. Instead he took the bike number of her Boris bike, as requested by TfL, so that they could write to her and ask her kindly to obey the law whilst riding one of their bikes.
It was then a first for me going over
on a bicycle. I would have liked to have been there to protest but have never quite managed and my sense was that Michael shared my puzzlement that the speed limit on that bridge has just been raised (‘to ease traffic flow’). Blackfriars Bridge
Finally after we had parked up our bikes and were walking over to the Palestra entrance, Michael again spotted a white van driver on a handheld mobile. He indicated to him to put it down.
Part 3 – In Palestra with the Police Sergeant
Michael escorted me to the desk of his Sergeant, Simon, who was off his bike as a consequence of a nasty motorcycle accident. He had been asked by his Inspector to discuss tactics and performance with me and to answer my questions.
I was interested in the lorry side of ‘Exchanging Places’ and Simon did assure me that they ran some very successful courses for lorry drivers. It was stressed that a lorry driver’s time is money (rather like mine is, I thought) and they (or their employers) were incentivised to attend by receiving necessary continuing training points. When Simon told me that they terrify some of them, I at first thought he meant by putting them on bicycles in traffic, but it transpired what he meant was by stressing the consequences to them (financial, loss of liberty and psychological) of being involved in a collision.
On police discretion, he was very sure that we were far better policed by officers than by automatons and he had no time for ‘zero tolerance’. I moved on to ‘total tolerance’ which is how I see enforcement of advanced stop lines. The statistics on Simon’s computer did not break down how may traffic light offences were advanced stop line (only) but he did agree that the figure would be ‘zero or close to zero’. He felt that since this was an endorseable offence the penalty was disproportionate to the ‘inconvenience’ caused. I felt that these boxes potentially were there not just for convenience but for safety and were being ignored as a matter of routine by many drivers who knew there was no risk of enforcement action. Simon did think it was rather unpleasant for a motorist to have an officer give him a warning in the presence of other ‘intimidating’ cyclists. His knockout point was to ask me how I would feel if I was given a ticket for entering such a box on my bicycle other than through the designated feeder lane. I said that were that to happen I looked forward to challenging the penalty in the Magistrates’ Court (the hard part would be deciding whether to defend the case on the grounds of necessity or to plead guilty and ask for an absolute discharge but either way to ask for my costs). Apparently enforcement of advanced stop lines might happen in the future, particularly if it became a separate non-endorseable offence.
I wanted to raise the question of the reporting of driving offences, which in my view is a great deal more difficult than it ought to be, and about which I have blogged in the past. Simon indicated that in the event of a collision the requirement of the Road Traffic Act to report it to the police required the formality of attending a police station. We each tried to remind the other and ourselves of the precise reporting requirements of the Act and agreed that it did not apply to a report made by a cyclist. Simon’s point then was that clearly it would not be right to have cyclists in some privileged position compared to, say, motorcyclists. However what is clear to some is not to others, and I cannot see any principled objection to making cyclists’ lives easier than motorists; we are after all as a state or society trying to encourage cycling at the expense of motoring for an embarrassment of good reasons. Of course, Simon is not in a position to do anything to affect this (nor probably is his Inspector whom I did not meet). It is something that I think the Police Authority could look at when determining their priorities. During my waits in queues in Charing Cross Police Station I have had plenty of time to study the lists of dedicated numbers for the reporting of offences such as domestic violence or homophobic abuse to which some priority has plainly (and rightly) been given.
Looking at the feedback forms from ‘Exchanging Places’ the question of cycle training came up and I took the opportunity to ask Simon about what he thought of bikeability training and whether his officers were bikeability trained. Simon indicated he was enthusiastic about bikeability and his officers were trained to the same principles. He well understood the primary riding position and why cyclists took it. I mentioned that my own (limited) observations of officers riding was that they were not a shining beacon to enlighten the motoring public that occupation of a lane by a bicycle was acceptable and not provocative behaviour. Further I had heard second hand that some of the letters written by Roadsafe were said to have reinforced the perception that cyclists should be at the edge of the road. I am certainly not going to attempt to teach experienced police officers how they should ride but I nonetheless wonder whether an experienced outside bikeability instructor might be able to give them some insights.
My perception of the patrol was that is a very useful way of dealing with mobile phone users and traffic light offences. However nobody is going to act aggressively or close pass a uniformed police officer and I wondered if they ever went out undercover. The problem with that is that unless unformed they cannot require someone to stop. They have very good HD cameras on their helmets and so could usefully be gathering evidence but I suppose, on reflection, they have a steadily rising group of people doing that for them for free. This moved us on to the Roadsafe initiative (which is separate from Simon’s group). Simon thought prosecuting close passing motor vehicles was not sensible because it was all very subjective. I disagree, in many cases a vehicle is much too close in clear contravention of the Highway Code and driving at the very least without due consideration. It further represents a powerful disincentive to cycling (if it make me think twice it must make countless others never take to their bikes again). We discussed the effectiveness of writing letters and were able to agree that it was better than nothing. I mentioned that the Surrey Police had taken the view that one of my shots of a close pass was sufficient for a prosecution and I will let Simon know the outcome of that in due course.
Finally I slightly abused my invitation by raising my own personal disappointment that a motorist who attacked me had been given a police caution, and how I thought that violence against cyclists was a pernicious evil that ought to excite a determined response. I had just read about yet another case of a motorist taking the trouble to stop and get out of his vehicle to assault a cyclist, this time in
. Simon had heard of the Bexley case but had not heard the suggestion that the police had required a bit of encouragement to track down and pursue that yob. Simon’s take was that the caution in my case had nothing to do with the victim being a cyclist and illustrated a more general problem. Cambridge
It would certainly not be fair to suggest that the police are doing nothing to counter poor driving on our roads (and I make clear I have never suggested this). It was amply demonstrated to me that the Cycling Taskforce is in a very good position to spot and deal with mobile phone and traffic light offences. The statistics Simon showed me demonstrate they do even more with, for example, a handful of drunk drivers apprehended (they do have breathalysers in their substantial panniers). I mentioned that I felt some greater emphasis of this part of their work on their website could be useful. Certainly I do not see it as my role to promulgate this information for them. The observational powers of Michael were truly impressive and this is unquestionably a good use of hard pressed police funds. Indeed out of patrol cars and off motorbikes and onto bicycles is a good way to go in
As I mentioned to Simon on the lift downward, I am more likely to be harmed by a bad driver than by a terrorist and the status and resources of traffic officers ought to reflect that. I maintain the view, which I have represented to the Police Authority, that greater priority could be given to the easy reporting and serious enforcement action, against those whose poor driving endangers vulnerable road users.