Wednesday 30 June 2010

Crime and Punishment

Our new Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, is today calling for a reduction in prison numbers with a greater concentration on alternatives to custodial sentences.  I am no criminologist and have no special insight into whether, in general, we are locking up unnecessarily large numbers of criminals for unnceceasarily long periods when perhaps the risks of reoffending can be addressed in other, less expensive, ways.

Readers of my blog will perhaps think me vindictive about motorists who kill cyclists, and it is true that my experiences on the road combined with my horror on finding far worse that has happened to others, does lead me to a firm conclusion that those who commit serious motoring crimes should be dealt with harshly.  I believe that, neither because I am vindictive nor because I lack compassion for people who have sullied otherwise blameless lives with an isolated period of stupidity nor even because I think stern punishment will prevent the individual from committing another offence.  It is purely because there needs to be a strong deterrent to bad driving so as to influence the behaviour of all motorists.

I am no anthropologist but I suspect as a species we have evolved to take very great care for our own preservation.  The pain mechanism and, as we gained higher levels of consciousness, a disinclination to die have, I am sure, bestowed a huge evolutionary advantage.  Likewise the urge, just as strong, to safeguard our children and with descending degrees of strength, our other relatives; those we know; members of our tribe and so on.  However there has not been much of an evolutionary advantage to giving thought to the preservation or well being of complete strangers, and especially those of another tribe (with whom we appear to have evolved to be quite warlike).  We have only in very modern times been more sensitive to, say, the bombing of enemy cities and have set up International War Crimes Tribunals and the like to deter the worst excesses of war.

You may, by now, feel that I have gone completely off the point.  However my experience on the roads leads me to feel that to some motorists, because I am on a bicycle, I am not just a complete stranger but worse am a member of a different tribe.   Even if there is no active hostility (and sometimes there is!) I just do not matter.

If in a motor/bicycle collision the motorist were at significant risk of suffering severe trauma I have no doubt there would be fewer such collisions.  Why?  Because the brain has been fine tuned by millions of years of evolution to take extreme care for self-preservation.  However the motorist is virtually immune from death or other trauma when his car runs down a bicycle.  If only one person could survive a motor/bicycle collision it would in many ways be fairer if that were the innocent party, but that cannot be arranged.  The best our imperfect legal system can do is to impose a tough sanction.  Once the brain thinks 'If I do not notice or pass this cyclist with care and run him down, I may end up in prison' then, at least, we kick start something in the brain which chimes with powerful instincts of self-preservation.

Tough sentencing in these circumstances is, in my view, likely to save lives and is therefore required.  Whilst looking at non-custodial penalties though, periods of disqualification need to be looked at again.  Parliament has authorised Courts to ban drivers for life but they shy away from long driving bans for fear that they may lead to non-observance of the ban.

The Road Lobby in action again

Lord Dubs, chairman of the Road Safety Foundation this morning hosted a reception in the House of Lords for MPs and road safety practitioners unveiling a report 'Saving Lives for Less' which maps the relative safety of motorway and 'A' roads and recommends the improvement of major roads for safety reasons.  It all sounds highly laudatory and I am sure the sponsors of the event, the Refined Bitumen Association, are motivated by philanthropy.

There are two problems though; first the Transport Budget is under severe presure and any money devoted to improving Motorway and 'A' roads will necessarily diminish even further the money available to maintain local roads, fill potholes, improve cycling facilites, improve the attractiveness of trains and other public transport and the many other demands on the transport budget.

Second, the problem of risk compensation.  If you improve the roads people will drive faster or otherwise modify their behaviour to restore the risk/convenience balance.  You may achieve a reduction in accidents by making such roads so fast that they are a complete 'no-go' area for cyclists and pedestrians in effect turning all such roads into motorways.

Improvement in major roads for motorists to try and overcome, rather than tackle at source, poor motoring skills seems to me to be a questionable use of limited resources.

I would rather a little bit of money and care was put into roads like this (The Causeway, Staines) where a skinny cycle lane far too narrow to satisfy natioanl road planning guidelines has now been turned by recent road resurfacing (concentrating it seems on the part of the road used by cars and ignoring that used by bicycles) into an unattractive gutter.

Friday 25 June 2010

Legal Update - Summer 2010

In the criminal courts the treatment of those who have killed cyclists has remained patchy.  We all experience irrational road rage from time to time from motorists.  The unfortunate cyclist, Paul Webb, was deliberately run down by a motorist, Sean Fitzgerald, apparently in retaliation for a damaged wing mirror.  Mr Webb died of his injuries.  Fitzgerald claimed this was an accident.  Unhappily for Fitzgerald, but happily for justice, two workmen in a nearby driveway heard the engine noise followed by the collision and the jury rejected Fitzgerald's defence.  Fitzgerald was convicted of murder, sentenced to life and will serve a minimum of 13 years.  This is a first, so far as I am aware, of a murder conviction for a motorist who has run down a cyclist.  I have an uneasy feeling that Fitzgerald is far from the first, or last, motorist to attack a cyclist in this way but if the cyclist is dead, it is often difficult to challenge the motorist's version of events.

In my last update I described the fate of Katie Hart (who ran down and killed Major Gareth Rhys-Evans) and described her prison sentence as 'inevitable'.  It appears I need to revise my idea of what is inevitable.  Yesterday Georgina Mills walked free from Exeter Crown Court following her conviction of causing death by dangerous driving.  Last September she had run down two cyclists on the A30 in Tedburn St Mary.  The cyclists were on a long distance ride for charity and one of them, Simon Evans, died from his injuries.  Mills admitted the charge of causing death by dangerous driving (a factor that differentiates her case from Hart) and expressed remorse.  She was ordered to do unpaid community work and was (like Hart) disqualified from driving for just two years.  
Mills had apparently been distracted for two seconds by a spider.  Presumably if you take your eyes off the road to deal with a spider you slow down, but even if Mills continued at 60 mph and hit the cyclists at the very end of the two seconds, she would have been only 53 metres from the pair when she first took her eyes off the road.  I do not know the precise location of the collision but Google Earth reveals this to be a straight wide dual carriageway.
53 metres is certainly less distance than the nearest car is away in this Google Streetview.  It is not, in my view, very helpful to characterise this type of accident as 'momentary inattention' since that can be applied almost universally to road traffic collisions.  I strongly suspect that the cyclists must have been there to be seen before the motorist was distracted by the spider.  The underlying problem is that she did not take in, or react appropriately, to the presence of cyclists on the road.  The brain ought to have already started to process the achievement of the task ahead, namely to overtake two cyclists in a safe way.  Slowing and planning a move to the offside should already have been happening.  To add to the horror, the surviving cyclist was able to give evidence that both bicycles had been to the nearside of the rumble strip which, at least superficially, may appear to be the safest place to be.  This is wholly understandable and obviously no scintilla of blame could possibly be ascribed to the cyclists.  I have many times stated on these pages how I deal with dual carriageways

and sometimes those I am with (and certainly some motorists) think me mad - but I would rather the motorist's brain processed "What is that nutter doing in the middle of my lane?" than processed nothing at all.  Ultimately if the driver kept coming I would have been onto the grass verge.  There is no safety at the side of the road; some motorists will act as though you are not there and you cannot tell at the edge whether they are going to hit you or pass you until it is too late.

Of course this strategy requires looking behind almost more than looking ahead and is incompatible with Time Trialing.  It pains me to report that there has been yet another death of a Time Trialist, this time on the A419 dual carriageway near Swindon.  At about 7.45 pm on June 12th Alex Anderson was struck by a car and later that night died in hospital.  Traffic is reported to have been exceptionally light, perhaps due to a football match that England was playing at the time in South Africa.  I will be keeping an eye out for any proceedings that come out of this but make no further comment now.

In the civil courts there have been two recent cases of note.  In Kotula v EDF & others on 6th June 2010 HHJ Simon Brown (sitting as a deputy High Court Judge) gave a Judgment in favour of a cyclist who had suffered catastrophic injuries when he fell into the road under a lorry whilst trying to negotiate some poorly sited barriers erected by the Defendant companies around some roadworks on the pavement.  The Defendants alleged that Mr Kotula was partly to blame and, as part of their argument, asserted that he had been riding his bicycle unlawfully on the pavement.  The Judge found that Mr Kotula (a policeman incidentally) had probably been pushing his bike through the roadworks though he did habitually use the pavements for part of his commute.  However the Judge added:

"43. In my judgment, this piece of road was dangerous for all but the most experienced, traffic fast, confident and dominant of cyclists i.e. the „serious‟ cyclist as Mr Ibbotson [an expert witness] puts it, as opposed to the ordinary prudent cyclist using a cycle to go to work encumbered with his cycle rucksack.

44. In my judgment, although it is illegal for cyclists to use the pavement (unless it is specifically sanctioned by a local authority for shared use), when weighing up the danger to himself (cp danger to pedestrians) it was a reasonable decision by the Claimant to ride on the pavements in this area rather than the road in the context of the duty of care owed to himself to take reasonable care for his own safety whilst cycling. In my judgment, although illegal and potentially negligent in any action vis a vis a pedestrian, it was not “blameworthy” in terms of negligence in contributory negligence."
So there we have it, judicial confirmation that the facilities for cyclists are so poor that they can reasonably decide to travel illegally on the pavement.  I suspect Mr Kotula was wearing a helmet (because the report does not state otherwise) but there is also here further ammunition to use against those who argue that a cyclist is guilty of contributory negligence if he does not wear a helmet:
"50. In any event, even if contributory negligence had been established here, the relative culpability and causative potency of the alleged negligent acts of the Defendants and the Claimant under the principles in Davies v Swan Motor Co. (Swansea) Ltd. [1949] 2KB 291 were such that those of the Defendants were overwhelming: their negligence potentially threw users of the pavement into the path of vehicles on the carriageway; whereas the Claimant was rightly or wrongly using the pavement in the first place to try and avoid uncomfortable proximity with those very vehicles."
In the other civil case, which also came before HHJ Brown, the widow of Ninian Donald, claimed damages against the driver of a skip lorry that crushed Mr Donald as it turned left at traffic lights in Hackney in May 2007.  The Defendant accepted 75% of the blame for the accident and damages were agreed, and approved by the judge, on that basis.  This is a tragically common type of incident especially in London.  Interestingly at the inquest the investigating police had no hesitation in heaping the entirety of the blame on Mr Donald. 
I have commented before on the adequacy of police and coroners' investigations into the deaths of cyclists.  Earlier this week I met up with a lot of lawyers, medics, bereaved and others interested in the legal investigations of death.  It strikes me that there is a hierarchy of deaths; sterling and thorough work (not least by Coroners) goes into the investigation of deaths in custody (including those detained by UK forces abroad), deaths of soldiers, deaths in the workplace.  The public funds, and rightly so, investigation and legal representation of the highest quality to take on such cases.  Typically those involved in the coronial system at this level are favourably impressed.  Relatives of the victims of Road Traffic Collisions are almost universally far less impressed.  My own explanation for this is that our society is car dominant.  Deaths in a factory or building site or an unnatural death whilst detained by the State are a disgrace and should not happen: deaths on the road, well that's the inevitable price we pay for enjoying our motor vehicles.  The unnatural violent death of any individual is equally important.  I wish we could move up the list of priorities at least those vulnerable road users who pay the ultimate price for taking up the Government's exhortations to walk or cycle.

Monday 21 June 2010

What really puts people off cycling

It's motorists who pass too close like this one LC05CBY and AO05GNY both filmed overtaking me today with my Helmetcam on its first outing.  No excuse in either case, there was plenty of room to pass with a safe margin.  With luck the quality of my filming may improve.  Is it ignorance or are some trying to drive us off the roads?

Friday 18 June 2010

The 'Magnificat' Sunday 13th June

This 127 mile cyclosportive tours the rolling hills of West Berkshire and Hampshire with 2,630m of climbing.  Formerly run out of Highclere Castle it now starts and finishes at Newbury Racecourse and I tackled it for the 5th year in succession.  It started life as a predominantly armed forces and firefighters' event and still raises good money for the Firefighters and other charities.  It is clearly now of more widespread appeal and there were 659 riders for the main event with many more for shorter versions.
I was amongst the first group off at 8am.  We struggled to find our way out of the racecourse but, after a wrong turn, found the open road and settled into a group powered largely by a GS Henley team.  It was a bit like a slow (well comparatively) motion roadrace with an NEG motorcycle escort ahead to alert oncoming traffic.  A few Berkshire hills early in the ride caused one or two to drop off the back but we were essentially together to the first feed stop at Sparsholt which came after 38miles and just over 2 hours (19mph). 
Some riders pressed on; others stopped only briefly with the upshot that I left the feed on my own and had to do a solo effort for some miles circumventing Winchester, though a small group of around 5 coalesced as we headed West to Petersfield.  We were all of varying strength though and by now I was one of the weakest - so, though I did turns at the sharp end, the pace was clearly not fast enough for some who clipped off the front.  Eventually a larger and stronger group came by, so I shamelessly wheel sucked at the back, almost losing contact at one long hill but somehow propelling myself back on before we reached the summit (I can't catch up on the descents, just don't have the nerve).  We reached the next feed at Four Marks some 42 miles and 2h25m (17.4mph) on from Sparsholt.
This time I had refilled a bottle, grabbed a sandwich and was starting in on some biscuits when I realised they were off.  This time I chased after them but it was a bit uphill and through a junction and by the time I had reached them I was too tired to hold on so did my second, and this time longer, solo effort until at Lasham Airfield a large group came by.  I once again tagged onto the back completely incapable of contributing anything at the front.  As we clocked up 100, we skirted Farleigh, territory not explored by me since I was at prep school 35 years ago - since then the urban sprawl of Basingstoke has spread into what I remembered as green fields.
At 110 miles and 6 hours in, at Hannington Hill, I couldn't take any more and dropped unceremoniously off the back.  I thought I had only 16 miles to go (though my bike computer is a tinsy bit out and it was actually more like 19) so I resolved to do that at my own pace and come in under 7 hours.  I expected Newbury Racecourse to appear earlier than it did.  The last few miles were purgatory over Greenham Common into a headwind with a bug swimming in my right eye that I just couldn't shift.  Well if it isn't sometimes painful it would not be so good when it stops...and stop it did some 46 miles and 2h41m (17mph) on from Four Marks.  My overall time for the ride was 7h07m for the 127 miles (17.8 mph).
I am not sure to what extent previous years are comparable as the route has slightly changed.  I was in better shape last year but my puncture problems then meant I had no trouble this year beating last year's time.  Two years ago I missed Gold by about a minute.  So I was pleased this year to have achieved a Gold Standard (my first in any ride this year).
One of the sponsors, Torq, clearly sent in a powerful team with a mission.  Three of them got the honours with pretty impressive times of 6h08m.  Those supermen apart, the group I was originally with appear to have come in at about 06h40m, very strong rides.
As in all previous years a great and superbly organised ride; challenging with the hills and the duration but it's the hills that make the scenery.  A welcome change from my commute.

Friday 4 June 2010

A Broken Transport Policy

We have a new Transport Minister in Philip Hammond and the motorcentric press are excited.  He has been reported in The Guardian as saying that he will 'end the war on motorists'.  Who though is waging war on whom?  It is not motorists who pay the full price financially, legally or in terms of casualties for the damage they inflict.  On holiday this week I saw an angry windscreen sticker proclaiming 'Back off the motorist'.  Where can I get a bumper sticker proclaiming 'Tax me properly when I drive' or 'Enforce the law against me whn I transgress'  or 'Deter me properly from killing or maiming when I am behind a wheel'?
Mr Hammond does not cycle (he drives a Jaguar), nor does he understand that care needs to be taken around and room given to vulnerable roadusers.  He apparently believes it is for cyclists to make cycling safer.  Oh and speed cameras are just not sporting, so no more funding for local authorities for those (especially not those devious average speed cameras which make it harder to evade detection by slamming on the brakes when you see the flourescent yellow camera and tell-tale road markings).
The latest decision of Mr Hammond is to order a review of the exisiting plans to order more train carriages (ones which were to have had more space for cycles).  Apparently a decline in rail passengers is predicted due to the recession so funding for railways is to be cut.  Causes for a decline in rail passengers are not hard to find in economically straitened times.  We have the most expensive trains in Europe.  To give an example, I need to attend a meeting in Exeter on Monday morning; I do not know how long it will last so cannot pre-book the train.  The fare is £150 2nd class (50p/mile).  The running cost to drive would be around £60 at 20p/mile.  Driving would take around the same time but with no time spent waiting for a train or connection   No wonder people are abandoning trains for their cars.  There needs to be an incentive to choose the less damaging mode of transport.
Equally a commute from where I live into Central London costs around £20 by train (33p/mile) so cheaper to drive even with the congestion charge.  The reason many people take the train is because it is marginally faster and because parking is scarce/expensive.  In the event that people are persuaded to adopt a more sustainable form of transport, others will see the freed up roadspace and freed up parking and make choices based on simple economics.
For those reasons it is essential first that roadspace is reallocated from the motorist so that success in discouraging car use does not result in temptingly freed up roads, and second that taxes on motoring are increased and/or road charging introduced with more sustainable methods of transport subsidised so that the economics are not quite so powerfully in favour of the car.
In relation to the reallocation of roadspace, I pay for the roads through my taxes and so do you.  They are not financed by the motorist.  Often, particularly in densely populated areas but also in rural areas where by-passes have been built, a number of roads lead broadly the same way.  Why not erect barriers that only cyclists and pedestrians can pass every few miles on some routes so that motoring is only for access and is restricted in speed to 15 or 20 mph?  Or look at exisiting dual carriageways with a view to devoting one side only to motor traffic?  Some roads designed for motorists, some for cyclists, removing the dominance of the car on at least some roads for the first time for 100 years.  The roads are already there, so this could be no more expensive than the hopelessly impracticable cycle facilities now provided at such expense.
We need imaginative solutions to our transport problems, not a harking back to the era when the car was even more clearly king than it is today.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Etape preparation 2 months to go

I have at last been able to crank up the mileage in May with around 850 miles in about 55 hours.   A couple of roadraces (in which I was dropped late on, rather than humiliatingly early), one Surrey League Handicap Race; two tough cyclosportives; a few races at Hillingdon a few commutes, a club run and a ride from Dorset to Berkshire have meant a fairly active month.  I am building up endurance now rather than strength and will try to keep up the mileage in June (though sadly without the ultra-challenging Gran Fondo Sportful this year) before easing back in July.
Still no entry number.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Marie Vesco Memorial "Share the Road" Ride 3rd and 4th June 2010

Marie Vesco was a young (19 year old) French woman with high ideals, priniciples and integrity.  She was an environmentalist and so chose to cycle to Brighton on 4th June 2008 to participate in a peaceful demonstration.  She never made it because she was struck by two fast moving overtaking vehicles on the A23 and was killed.  My experience representing her family at the Inquest in early 2009 brought home to me the quite awful consequences of complacancy amongst many motorists and amongst some police, CPS and Courts.  It prompted me to write about the car culture here where I included reference to Marie's case.
Two years on, Marie's family and friends are riding from London to Brighton along the National Cycle Routes which run parallel to the A23 and which Marie may well have been using if they had been better signed.  The coroner was very interested in this at the Inquest.  The interest is welcome provided that it does not lead to an inference that cyclists are not entitled to use major (non-Motorway) roads should they choose to do so.  Marie's family and friends have campaigned hard for improvements to the National Cycle Route Network and I believe they have the right balance in indicating that cyclists should have the information and facilities necessary to make a choice given the fact that the lack of consideration shown by some drivers is both commonplace and unpunished.
I wish them well on their ride,  Details are as follows:


Bike ride in memory of Marie Vesco: 3rd and 4th June 2010

Marie Vesco was killed on the A23 by two car drivers on 4th June 2008. At the inquest into her death, the Coroner requested immediate improvements to the signage available to cyclists on this route. The Highways Agency completed their works this spring on and around the A23 with an additional 145 signs drawing cyclists’ attention to National Cycle Routes 20 and 21.

On 3rd and 4th June 2010, two years after her tragic death, Marie’s Vesco’s family and friends will be cycling from London to Brighton via the National Cycle Routes 20 and 21, to celebrate the improvements in signage on the these routes and to campaign for improvements to them where needed.

The cyclists will be available to meet the press anywhere en route by arrangement. They will be cycling from Brixton to Crawley on Thursday and Crawley to Brighton on Friday.

Please call any of the numbers below if you wish to meet us.

It is doubly tragic that it took the death of a vibrant young person and almost two years of hard campaigning for these road signs to finally be put in place.

Similar improvements need to be made throughout the UK, particularly on and around busy A roads to ensure that cyclists can share the roads safely with other road users.

It is their firm belief that if all road users respected the Highway Code there would be no need for special facilities for cyclists. Until the roads are properly policed bad habits will continue to be commonplace. Given that there are inconsiderate drivers on the roads, it is appropriate that cyclists have a choice of less frightening routes especially when A roads have been converted into motor-way like facilities. Facilities for cyclists should be considered at the beginning of such developments and not be inadequate add-ons after the motor facilities are completed.

The group will publicise the improvements needed to the above NCR routes in consultation with the charity Roadpeace and the Cyclist Touring Club.

[now removed since the event is over; if you wish to contact the organisers let me know]

Tour of Wessex Cyclosportive Sunday 30th May 2010

A dry but breezy day, I was ready in good time and was one of the first at Somerton onto the start line at 0820 and so in the first 50 off at 0830. The north westerly wind blew the front group of around a dozen smartly into Dorset and with a great squealing of brakes at an unexpected sharp left down the hill to skirt around Sherborne. The pace was brisk rather than fast and I seemed to hit the front as the road pitched upward past Lyons Hill but then found the back on the descent down to Cerne Abbas. To my surprise after only 30 miles and 1h35m the group stopped for a feed and I was with just one local rider who wanted the next hill out the way. I followed him down Piddle Lane towards Piddletrenthide but then, when he lost his chain as the lane steepened, I found myself alone the ‘tete de la course’ causing awaiting photographers to spring into action as I crested the hill.

There is no point to riding a cyclosportive on your own so I paused for a nature break behind a hedge, but not before the group now down to around 8 clattered past followed by one individual Gillingham rider. I set off with only the one rider in view and we were both passed on the descent by an Agisko Viner rider. Mr Gillingham and I two upped through Piddlehinton catching Mr Agisko as we crossed the A35 at Puddletown. We then 3 upped through Moreton and Lulworth catching glimpses of the lead group whenever the road straightened.

It was brightening but still very breezy as we hit the picturesque Dorset coast at Lulworth, though after the left turn to head inland it was back to our 2 up until we were passed by a breezy ‘hello’ from a rider in Sky kit with legs to match and pulling a score of riders. They passed us on the climb with sea on the right and tanks on the left up to Steeple. It was challenging to hang onto this group especially when they descended but I managed to hang on in there at the back until we got to the breathtaking view of Corfe Castle.

Along the lanes of Purbeck the group stopped for a drink and I thought I would head on. Before long I caught the lead group and settled into their more comfortable pace as we headed to and through Wareham. Mr Sky’s faster group soon caught up and we had a large efficient (new lead) group going on towards Milton Abbas; the closest point the ride passes to my roots so I had family at the pub waving me on.

As with last year, though, the hill out of Milton Abbas up to Bulborrow was where I cracked. I carried on with a couple of other stragglers up the hill and on into an unrelenting headwind. It was a long way back to Somerton and I suffered, unable to grab the wheel of those who passed. Close to the end back in Somerset I was passed by the rump of the group I had first set out with who had not caught on when Mr Sky’s group passed; but I could not even hang onto them.

Got back to record a time of 06:37 for the 119 miles and a Silver standard.

I have enormous respect for those who do all 3 days of this event; clearly I am not yet up to that.