Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Criminal Justice System - Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

Back in September 2012 I experienced this when cycling from my home to the circuit at Hillingdon for my last race in the Wednesday evening Masters' Series
video

The driver's first misfortune is that he chose to try this incredibly dangerous overtake just on the Surrey side of the Surrey/London border (the Metropolitan Police have a very strange but strong disinclination to prosecute based on video evidence as confirmed in their evidence to the APPCG last month).  His second misfortune was that I had my camera attached to my handlebars.  I reported promptly to Surrey Police.  They investigated carefully and decided it was appropriate to charge the driver with dangerous driving.  I was told they anticipated a guilty plea.
However after the Court case was over, I was informed the driver had attended a preliminary hearing and that his plea of guilty to driving without due care was accepted and the dangerous driving charge dropped.  He was fined £265 with 4 penalty points.
I do not think it good enough that in those incredibly rare cases where the police choose to prosecute, the CPS respond by reducing the charge without even a reference back to the police or complainant.  I also think the CPS were just plainly and obviously wrong in deciding that this was not dangerous driving.
So I complained.  I just got back a letter (here and here) rejecting my complaint, to which I have just responded here.
Unless and until the CPS take this kind of offence much more seriously than they do then the broad masses of potential cyclists are going to remain terrified to use the road.  It terrified me and I am fairly hardened.  My full description of the incident is set out in the statement I made for the police here.
I intend to pursue this further.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Metropolitan Police Letter to Cyclists

A Metropolitan Police Roadsafe officer has written to me and, presumably, others with 'Advice to Cyclists' which relates to Advanced Stop Lines.  I have been asked to share it on my 'forum' and that I now do though I must confess after some hesitation.
The letter makes a point that filming a motor vehicle in an advanced stop box with the light red is not the same as filming it being driven past the first stop line at red.  It is theoretically possible, though I have to say in my many miles of commuting experience it does not happen, that a motor vehicle passes the first line at green, or at yellow when it is not safe to stop, but they do manage to stop before the second line.
A reminder of the Highway Code:

175

You MUST stop behind the white ‘Stop’ line across your side of the road unless the light is green. If the amber light appears you may go on only if you have already crossed the stop line or are so close to it that to stop might cause a collision.
Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10 & 36
Or, conceivably you were in a queue of traffic waiting to turn right and chose not to keep the cycle box clear.
Highway Code:

176

You MUST NOT move forward over the white line when the red light is showing. Only go forward when the traffic lights are green if there is room for you to clear the junction safely or you are taking up a position to turn right.
Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10 & 36


178

Advanced stop lines. Some signal-controlled junctions have advanced stop lines to allow cycles to be positioned ahead of other traffic. Motorists, including motorcyclists,MUST stop at the first white line reached if the lights are amber or red and should avoid blocking the way or encroaching on the marked area at other times, e.g. if the junction ahead is blocked. If your vehicle has proceeded over the first white line at the time that the signal goes red, you MUST stop at the second white line, even if your vehicle is in the marked area. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows.
Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10, 36(1) & 43(2)
In fairness, in the absence of yellow cross hatchings, the instruction only to go forward on green if there is room to clear the junction safely is advice rather than mandatory so a further get out for the motorist is that he was in congested traffic and, contrary to the Highway Code but not to the criminal law, got over the first line on green but could not make it over the second due to congestion.  This will hardly wash if the traffic is light.
The vast overwhelming majority of motor vehicles waiting in cycle boxes have got there in contravention of a traffic light but I would not quibble with a police decision not to issue a ticket to such motorists because of the possibility that they might challenge the ticket and a Court is then persuaded that there is reasonable doubt whether they have broken the law.  However a letter of advice if, as I believe, that is the most draconian step that the police would consider anyway would be justified in those circumstances where there is a reasonable suspicion of a breach of the law.
So what the police want, I suppose, is something like this, filmed last night but there are plenty of examples on every one of my commutes:



So the car on the left has clearly committed an offence and the one on the right even more clearly.  I cut the film where I did so that you can speculate on whether I stopped at the first line.  The police have taken the trouble to remind me that I would be committing an offence if I cross the first line at red other than through a lead in cycle lane (or 'cycle entry').  If there is such a lead in lane (or entry) at all it is in the gutter a quite hopeless approach to the Hammersmith gyratory if, like me, you are going all the way around to continue west on King Street.
So I have to tell you I am not going to waste my time sending this footage and others like it to Roadsafe.  I do not believe there is a ghost of a chance that they would prosecute.  They might send a letter to the registered keeper reasoning that education is all that is required.  However motorists do not breach ASLs when there is a police car behind them which indicates to me that they understand the law only too well.  Getting a letter reinforces the quite accurate perception that it is a breach of the law they can get away with.  Another reason not to send in such material is that the APPCG enquiry was told by the Metropolitan Police that they had assigned one officer to viewing these videos with a view to prosecution.  After one initial response when that officer was first appointed I have heard nothing in respect of the various films I have sent in where I have been endangered by incontrovertibly bad driving.  Enforcing ASLs is one thing the police could very easily do without any assistance from me and I will not depart from my practice which is to send them only the really bad (would clearly sustain a prosecution for careless driving) stuff.
Raising the issue of cyclists' contravention of the law in the way in which I have described is clearly a stock answer.  It is the one I was given when I spent a morning with the Cycle Task Force.  It is a revealing reflection of how trivial the police consider ASL offences by motorists that they intermingle it with the issue of cyclists crossing a first solid line.  Perhaps they think the absence of a feeder lane for cyclists means that no offence can be proved against the motorist but this would obviously not be so since the motorist is still crossing the line at red.  Perhaps this is the "it would not be fair to crack down on motorists unless we crack down even harder on cyclists" mentality.

In frustration,  I am resorting with increasing frequency to dismounting and pushing my bike over white lines in order to stay within the law but that is only an option if you know that the lights are not about to turn green.
So I shall not be acting on the police letter but I draw it to your attention so that you can do as you see fit.
Two very obvious improvements in the law though would be:
(a) Cyclists may pass the first stop line regardless of the colour of the light;
(b) It is illegal for a motorist to enter a cycle box unless his/her exit is clear (i.e. treat them as yellow boxes and without the right turn exception).

One from Tescos



Contributory Negligence - A worrying case

I recently stumbled across a case decided two years ago in the High Court in Birmingham which causes me some concern.  The case is Thomas v Warwickshire County Council.  Judgment was delivered by Mr Justice Wilkie on 31st March 2011.  The case was about the liability of the Highway Authority for injuries sustained by John Thomas on 16th April 2006 when he fell hard after his bike hit a lump of concrete that was stuck to the road.
Mr Thomas was on a Sunday Club run with Solihull CC.  His group of 18 riders went down Gospel Oak Lane towards Stratford-on-Avon.  The concrete was on a downhill stretch with a bend.  The Highway Authority argued it was a defect that they were not required to deal with urgently because it was between the expected wheeltracks of motorists.  Had it been one metre over to either left or right it would (or should) have been picked up on the regular highway's inspection.  To the extent that thought was given to cyclists it was assumed (demonstrating a shocking ignorance of cycling practice) that cyclists would be confined to the part of the road where the nearside wheels of motor vehicles run.  The case does not reveal what, if any, thought was given to motorcyclists.
The Judge found that the concrete should have been removed by the Highway Authority prior to Mr Thomas's accident and therefore found it liable for his injuries.  He went on to consider contributory negligence on the part of Mr Thomas.
The Judge could not help himself from observing that Mr Thomas "was not wearing any form of protective headgear" though happily contributory negligence on this ground was not something that was argued.
Instead, however, the Judge found Mr Thomas to have been contributorily negligence to the extent of 60% for riding too close to the rider in front.
This is a massive deduction and it arose because the Judge found Mr Thomas's evidence to be "startling."
"The claimant’s evidence was in some respects startling. He was riding in a group of 19 or so. They were riding in rows of two, which is normal and which in itself cannot be said to be negligent. However, insofar as he can remember, prior to the incident he was riding his racing bike with very narrow tyres and no tread. In his first statement he remembered he was travelling about 25-30 mph. In his second he says he was told it was 20-25 mph. There were cyclists in front of him and cyclists behind him. His normal position would be on the outside lane. His normal position when in a group was 5 to 6 inches of the back wheel of the bike in front and he was in the middle of the group with cyclists to his front and cyclists to his rear."
As a matter of fairly elementary physics having narrow tyres and no tread would have had absolutely nothing to do with the accident or even with the amount of grip available (air pressure in the tyres might affect grip in wet conditions but there is no suggestion that it was wet or that his wheels slid).  Speeds of the order of 25 mph are entirely consistent with careful riding down hill.  Usually even I average more than 25 mph in a race on the flat.  Equally a normal position 5 to 6 inches off the back wheel of the rider in front is something to strive for (or closer if you can manage it).
I am left with the disarming suspicion that the lawyers and 'experts' at this trial had no understanding of the basics of the sport of cycling.  It is not surprising - when I joined my Club it took months/years for me to build up the trust required to ride on the wheel ahead.  I have said elsewhere on this blog that I believe everybody should hone their riding skills with a club before taking up racing, yet apparently we are at 'fault' if we ride on the roads holding the wheel ahead at anything approaching race pace.
The evidence that the Judge used in making this finding of contributory negligence was that a clubmate who witnessed the fall had said that his 'normal cycling distance within a group' was  half a metre.  I do not have a transcript of the evidence so do not know whether this witness was asked whether he thought others riding closer than that were at fault or whether the Claimant (who had a head injury so could not remember the accident itself) was asked whether he opened up his normal distance somewhat when travelling downhill as most riders instinctively do.
There might, I suppose, have been reasoned and informed argument about whether a rider accepts the risk that something will happen to the rider in front or that hazards will not be observed and called out by riders ahead or whether he should have followed the line of the wheel ahead more accurately (since he was the first to hit the concrete).  However to condemn Mr Thomas on the grounds that he was following too close demonstrates an unfortunate lack of understanding of what he was doing.
I have said this before:  If you are unfortunate enough to come off your bike and need legal advice please make quite sure you go to lawyers who understand cycling.  The Judge very likely will not.without suitable guidance from your lawyer.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Mayor of London's Cycling Vision

Lat week's publication of the Mayor of London's new Vision for Cycling in London has got to be welcome.  The foreward (which has all the hallmarks of Johnson's writing) in particular expresses very welcome sentiments.  I highlight a few:

- "Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role.
- "The Westway, the ultimate symbol of how the urban motorway tore up our cities, will become the ultimate symbol of how we are claiming central London for the bike.
- "I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life. I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about.
- "There will be greatly-improved fast routes on busy roads for cyclists in a hurry. And there will be direct, continuous, quieter routes on side streets for new cyclists, cautious cyclists and all sorts of other people who would rather take it more slowly. But nothing I do will affect cyclists’ freedom to use any road they choose."



The Mayor and Chris Boardman on the embankment arriving for last week's press launch of his Vision.  Note 'normal' clothing,  Chris suitably distanced from the kerb, presence of HGVs and is that a car behind in the cycle lane? (not I trust a Mayoral following car).
Contrast this impression of what the Embankment might look like.  Free flowing cycles and cars in their separated facilities with no HGV in sight.
I ride up and down the Embankment on my commute to/from work and know it well.  A very major advantage of the depicted segregated cycle track is that it would take away the need to wait at numerous traffic lights.  A lot of cyclists of varying speeds already use the Embankment so I am hoping these lanes are going to be suitably wide.  I would hope 2.5metres in each direction (5 metres) in total.  This depiction does show the low hanging fruit in the sense that alongside the river it is easy to avoid junctions save at bridges (where there is no artist's depiction) .  Further, I may be surprising motorists by being on the road rather than cycleway for at least part of the Embankment in order to make my turn into and out of The Temple.  
The most remarkable part of this Vision is the preparedness both on the Embankment and the Westway for an elected politician to take space from motorists.  Even the very sensible pro-cycling President of the AA, Edmund King, has questioned the use of the Westway reasoning that street level cycle provision is to be preferred.  However both speed and safety are improved for cyclists if junctions are minimised.  Motorists have long had the benefits of limited access roads whilst cyclists have had to negotiate frequent junctions.  If I were mad enough to drive to work I would get all the way from Egham to West Kensington encountering one traffic light.  Extending this in a small way to bicycles is an excellent idea.  Of course there must be alternative provision for more local traffic, just as there is for motorists.  The Mayor is to be commended for a Vision that would make cycling more attractive for the fast and the less fast.  That and his specific assurance that nothing he does will remove the freedom of the cyclist to use any road she chooses confirms he sees no need to 'tame' the cyclist.
Hooray for Boris, now I wait with expectant interest to see what gets constructed and when.