In the game of billiards, points can be scored by hitting the red ball and the opponent’s cue ball in the same shot; that is called a cannon. I wonder whether the equivalent on the road involves hitting two cyclists with one manoeuvre?
On the last day of September in 2013, my daughter and I were cycling to work together as we often do. My journey is 12.5 miles from Bolton to Salford; hers is 15 miles as she carries on into Manchester. We were both looking forward to getting together again after work to participate in the first Manchester “Space4Cycling” ride that was organized by the greater Manchester Cycle Campaign that evening, to draw attention to the need to improve road conditions for cyclists. As it turned out, we had to hire some bikes to join that ride because the ones we were riding soon became unusable after someone ran into the back of both of us in a car.
This blog article looks at what happened, and I try to analyse some things about it.
One of the trickier parts of our journey involves riding round a very large roundabout (technically called a “gyratory”, I believe) at a place called “Irlams o’th Heights”. Two and a half years ago, I wrote a blog article, with video, showing how I negotiate this roundabout, which can be found here. Unfortunately, despite all our best efforts to ride in a safe manner, applying all the principles that are taught in Bikeability training, you can’t prevent certain things happening, and one of those things happened on that day. Since I got a new bike and started cycling to work again last week, I have made one small adjustment to the way I approach this roundabout, but more of that later
You can see on this Google map the route that we take across the Irlams o’th Heights roundabout in a morning. The incident in question happened as we were entering the roundabout from the North. Rather than describe what happened, it is probably better to show you:
I’ve been cycling this route for well over three years now and never had any problem, so it could be said to be at least a little disappointing that this happened.
Here is a picture of the aftermath of the incident:
I should say from the start that the driver seemed mortified that this had happened, and became very upset. My daughter was very sympathetic towards her but I find it difficult, myself, to consider something like this as “just an accident”. For my part, I think I was very lucky that my back wheel collapsed as it did, absorbing a lot of the shock and so allowing me to stay on the bike rather than be crushed under the front of the car. My daughter was not quite as lucky; as she was further in towards the kerb, the front wing of the car knocked her off her bike to the ground. But we could say she was very lucky that it was the rear wheel of her bicycle that finished up under the front wheel of the car rather than her legs.
On looking at the video and a couple of stills, I still find myself shocked at the degree of incompetence that was displayed by the driver. This driver was behind us in a queue of traffic for the roundabout, so clearly knew we were there at least up until the moment she started looking right. The following image is a still taken from the video at the moment of initial impact:
Notice the position of my daughter’s bike, somewhat ahead of me. The following picture shows the positions at the point where the car stopped:
You can just see my daughter’s leg at the bottom right of the picture. You can also see the extent to which the front valence of the car is distorted, both in the centre and at the front nearside. As I said earlier, we were lucky this was not far more serious than it was.
There is no doubt in my mind that this was an extremely negligent piece of driving, and it has served to strengthen my belief that the bar is set far too low when it comes to determining whether someone is sufficiently competent to be allowed out on a public road in charge of a tonne or more of powerful, dangerous machinery. However, given that we know there are negligent drivers out there, could more not be done to mitigate such incompetence?
The Road Design
Japanese manufacturing practices, such as those implemented by Toyota, often apply a concept called “poka-yoke“, which is usually translated as “mistake proofing“. This means designing processes and equipment in such a way that mistakes are unlikely to happen, and recognizes that human beings make mistakes. Similar principles are applied to road design in enlightened countries such as The Netherlands, which recognize what seems to me to be a bleeding obvious principle, that safety concerns should always over-ride those of speed and flow of traffic.
The most obvious way to deal with this, where possible, is to restrict much more severely the freedom of motor vehicles, and reserve a much greater proportion of road space for pedestrians, cyclists, and any other vulnerable road users, preferably providing a physical barrier to prevent even the most incompetent of drivers from coming into contact with them. In the United Kingdom, unfortunately, the principle of “safety first” does not seem to apply, and any efforts to provide for cyclists seem half-hearted and often downright dangerous.
At the place where the driver ran into us, there is what is called a mandatory cycle lane, which means a cycle lane that motor vehicles must not enter under any circumstances. Here is an example of a (silly) cyclist making use of this “facility“:
I hope I don’t need to explain why this is an example of crap design. It’s possible to use the cycle lane to get past the queue of motor vehicles, but it’s not worth dying for. Needless to say, I never, ever use this cycle lane, but instead ride in the centre of the inside general traffic lane, taking my place in the queue to enter the roundabout. This is the practice that is recommended by the Bikeability training scheme in cases where there is no other option than to share the road with motor traffic (which is most of the time in the UK).
Unfortunately, the design of the road layout makes even this approach dangerous. The use of flared entrances and exits to the roundabout make it almost inevitable that collisions will occur here because they encourage drivers to look in one direction whilst accelerating in another:
I am in no doubt that this is what happened in our incident and this, coupled with her having the memory of a goldfish, resulted in her accelerating into us from a standing start. One of the principles that I understand is applied to the design of roundabouts, as well as other roads, in the Netherlands is to ensure that junctions like this are arranged at right-angles, with a fairly small radius of curvature on the kerb at the shoulder of the junction. This would result in the two arrows in the diagram above being much closer together so that the driver’s field of view includes the direction they are travelling in, as well as forcing drivers to take the turn more slowly than they would otherwise need to. Whilst this in no way excuses the negligence of the driver in this case, I think the failure of British road designers to apply such principles is bordering on criminal negligence.
Road Justice and The Police
Whilst I hold no particular malice for the driver that ran into us, I did feel that she ought, at the very least, to be required to take some additional training. Some other poor soul might not be quite so lucky as we were should this driver continue to drive without due care and attention. I have reported incidents of poor driving in the past, which have usually involved either rather scary near misses, or deliberate aggression, and am sorry to say I have found the police in these cases to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot. I have written before about what I believe is an ingrained prejudice towards cyclists among the police, and I believe there is also a cavalier attitude in the whole justice system towards dangerous behaviour when it involves motor vehicles.
It was approximately 24 hours before I was able to talk again to the driver on the phone and, whilst she did seem quite contrite, I still felt I ought to follow up with the police, if only to ensure there weren’t any “gotchas” when it came to insurance claims. I actually spoke to the police about 25 hours after the incident. The police line was that because it was more than 24 hours after the incident, they were not able to deal with it other than noting it for statistical purposes. I believe this is not true. I am well aware that a driver who is involved in a collision that involves injury to a person is obliged to report the incident to the police within 24 hours, but it is a long stretch from that to saying that they will not accept reports of incidents outside that 24 hour period and I can find no statement anywhere to suggest that is the case. After all, if there had not actually been a collision, I would certainly expect to be able to report an incidence of careless driving after more than 24 hours.
The other line that the police took was to say that, as there was no actual personal injury (as it turned out, there was, though only minor) it was simply a matter for insurance companies to sort out. This, in my view, is a disgraceful abdication of duty by the police and involves the use of a range of mythical excuses to try to fob off a member of the public. I know this is rather a strong view, but it is born of some experience. After all, this could have turned out very differently, and the driver has displayed quite serious failure to exercise due care and attention in operating a motor vehicle on the public highway. I am sure that an incident of this magnitude on a building site would have resulted in a full health and safety investigation, and some people might be found guilty of criminal negligence. Unfortunately, if it happens on a road, then it just considered “one of those things” – a cost of doing business.
Update: When the STATS19 statistical data for 2013 were released, it became apparent that the incident had not even been recorded for statistical purposes.
How can I reduce the risk here myself?
One of the benefits of cycling with video cameras running is that there is a possibility to learn from things that happen. In this case, there is one thing that I have now started to do differently at this junction, which is to ride even further out than I did before to improve my safety. To people who have not studied the subject, this may seem counter-intuitive but, referring back to the section on the road design, it means that I, and my 95 lumen flashing rear light, are more likely to be in a driver’s field of view, even when they are looking right.
Unfortunately, that can result in some idiotic driver driving illegally in the mandatory cycle lane to try to squeeze past on the inside, such as this driver:
After I signalled this driver to hold back (i.e. to stop acting like a dick-head), he blasted his horn – a clear contravention of the Section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, but I’m sure the police wouldn’t gave a fig about it. This driver is a pathetic excuse for a human being.
As it happens, there is currently a consultation being conducted about options to improve this roundabout for cyclists. I am not really keen on any of the proposals as they stand, but it is quite clear that only total separation of motor traffic from humans such as pedestrians and cyclists will stop this roundabout being a barrier to mass cycling. If we are really serious about it, then whatever happens needs to ensure that the solution is convenient for cyclists as well as safe for all concerned. One of the proposed solutions appears to involve a cyclist crossing 5 different toucan crossings to get between some of the exits, which would be just plain stupid.
Please read some of the other articles for views on related topics.