Safety tips for cyclists

Safety advice aimed at cyclists is nothing new, but in my experience it often tends to descend into little more than a motorists’ wish list for cyclist behaviour. Even worse is advice based on the false assumption that law breaking on the part of cyclists is the lead cause of cyclist injuries and fatalities. Instead, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my own experiences in the hope they might be useful to others.

Reading the road

Cycling on UK roads is a baptism of fire and anyone who has been doing it for any length of time will have learned to read the road ahead. The same cannot be said for everyone else. A worrying number of other road users will fail to consider what the road conditions will require of them 100, 50 or even 15 metres ahead of where they currently are. This failure is the root cause of several initially baffling behaviours. It is the reason that motorists will sometimes perform a risky overtake only to have to immediately stop at the end of a queue of traffic which was readily visible when the manoeuvre was started. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you only to immediately make a left turn, or pull into a roadside parking bay. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you on a cramped residential street only to immediately stop block your progress to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass, even though had they waited, there would have been sufficient room for you on a bike and the oncoming vehicle to proceed at the same time.

Roundabouts

Sometimes it almost seems as if roundabouts were left behind by an advanced but long lost civilisation and no-one is sure what they were built for or how their builders intended them to be used. The lack of a small set of standard approaches to roundabouts certainly doesn’t help. The rules of roundabouts are fairly straightforward, but there are several things to look out for.

The general principle of giving way to traffic already on the roundabout may not apply to you when you are on your bike if the other party is driving a luxury German car, such as a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. If you are already on the roundabout and encounter one of these vehicles waiting to get on, you may be expected to give way.

There are some road users who will use the other lane of a multi-lane roundabout regardless of the exit they wish to use. These people pose a risk to you when you are getting on a roundabout, as their road positioning suggests they are intending to leave the roundabout even though this is not the case.

‘Taking the lane’ is an unfortunate necessity on most roundabouts (effectively excluding most people from cycling them) but beware that some motorists will try to bully you to the periphery of the roundabout regardless of which exit you wish to use.

Finally, it is not uncommon to see motorists leave a roundabout whilst still indicating right. The result of this misleading signalling should be that you do not enter the roundabout even though the opportunity was there. However, in areas where this behaviour is particularly prevalent, it is important to beware of this behaviour becoming normalised; you could end up pulling onto a roundabout in front of a car which really is staying on.

Professional drivers

In an ideal world, professional drivers (delivery vans, taxi drivers etc.) and our interactions with them would be exactly that; professional. Sadly, in practice this is often not the case. I can only surmise that when driving becomes a major part of a person’s job they will often become blasé about it and safety suffers as a result. Add to this business models which encourage or even necessitate illegal behaviour and we have a recipe for unpleasant encounters. Thankfully, professional drivers are generally easy to identify by way of their commercial vehicles, so at least you’ll know to expect the worst when you see them. The ease with which commercial vehicles can be identified makes reporting bad driving much easier than with private cars, although typically just as fruitless.

Texting

I have covered this issue before. Thankfully, providing the vehicle is not a pimpmobile with tinted windows, it is at least possible to spot the characteristic position a driver’s head adopts if they are reading from a phone screen whilst driving. Spotting this characteristic tilt a few weeks ago probably prevented a collision between a texting motorist and myself on a roundabout in Wrexham. So engrossed in her texting was this driver that she failed to even register my loud subsequent significant list of graphic expletives.

Indicators

As mentioned above for roundabouts, indicators are not to be trusted. Most common is the  lack of indication by a driver about to attempt a manoeuvre, but it is not uncommon to see a driver indicating the wrong way, leaving an indicator on long, long after a turn has been made or indicating a turn of a particular direction several opportunities to make a turn in that direction prior to the one they wish to take. It is especially useful to be distrustful of turn signals when pulling out of a side road; just because the driver on the road you wish to join is indicating to turn down your road often doesn’t mean they actually will.

If there are any other tips or seemingly bizarre driver behaviours anyone feels I have missed, please share them through the comments.

Driving and (smart)phone use

Earlier this week there were a few news stories being run on phone and smartphone use by drivers, not just telephone calls but texting and smartphone usage. Unusually for articles covering criminal behaviour amongst motorists, the tone of these articles was almost universally one of disapproval. The AA survey on which these news items were based reported that at least 40% of motorist text and drive and whilst motoring organisations’ conclusions drawn from their surveys aren’t always all that reliable, it still represents cause for concern.

I suspect that many people reading will hope that smartphone use whilst driving will become the new drink-driving; still a problem but at least now something seen as unacceptable by most people. However, there is a second possibility, it might become the new speeding, which sees almost universal participation amongst motorists who, fed by a motoring lobby keen to convince its members they are victims, often rationalise enforcement against offenders as a somehow-unavoidable and cynical revenue generating activity.

I noticed that the usually far from publicity-shy Association of British Nutters Drivers were quiet on this one, neither wading in to condemn or defend texting drivers. Even the crazy one-man satellite operation, East Midlands “Drivers” (who sadly usually has a lot to say) was oddly quiet on this one.

If the quoted ‘at least 40%’ figure were to become at least 50%, would texting or tweeting whilst driving become as acceptable amongst the motorist community as speeding is now? Suppose in a few years time that there was a feasible way to automatically detect  motorists’ unlawful smartphone use at the wheel, and fine them. If by this point a majority of drivers engaged in this unlawful activity (as is currently the case with speeding) would drivers cease to generally condem this activity and instead act like bleat and moan and act like victims as is often the case at present with speeding enforcement? After all, many of the ways drivers currently rationalise their own speeding or complain about enforcement against their law-breaking can be recycled for texting and driving.

It’ll be interesting to see how attitudes to texting (and general smartphone use) whilst driving develop over the coming years. My own experience suggests that it is on the increase; as smartphones use is growing rapidly, so too are the near misses where van drivers nearly kill me whilst refreshing their Twitter feed.

For now, I shall be on the lookout for a press release from the ABD suggesting that restricting smartphone use amongst drivers actually causes *more* crashes, as poor anxious motorists are coerced into ever more dangerous manoeuvres in order to get home as fast as possible to legally hit the ‘Like’ button. Perhaps they are fabricating gathering their evidence at this very moment.

The Times’ Campaign – Where Next?

I was impressed to see 77 MPs turn up to the cycle safety EDM yesterday, brought about by The Times’ Cities fit for Cycling campaign. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the debate through the parliament website. Whilst the debate lacked strong focus, it was pleasing to see cycling discussed seriously in parliament, with red-light jumping being mentioned only once, and the MP who brought it up quickly chastised by the chair of the debate, Dr Julian Huppert MP.

Since watching the debate, I’ve been thinking about where I’d personally like to see this sudden momentum directed. Obviously, our elected representatives cannot be experts on every subject, and so it is my hope that they will be looking to the right groups for guidance. There were a lot of ideas floating around the debate and I think it would be beneficial to propose a few basic principles and a few short and long-term objectives which would help get us to the point where cycling is safer for existing cyclists and safe enough for the rest of the population to want to cycle.

Principles:

  1. “Cycling” should not be treated as a single entity; transport cycling should one of the core responsibilities of the Department for Transport and the equivalent local institutions, sport and leisure cycling should be overseen by the relevant government departments which oversee sports, leisure and tourism.
  2. Measures to increase the safety of cyclists should be primarily external to cycling and the cyclist. Make cycling truly safe for all and helmets, high-visibility apparel and Bikeability become an irrelevance. The single largest change needed is the design of our roads.
  3. Measures to increase the safety of cycling should not make cycling less convenient; cycle infrastructure needs to be convenient and safe for children and fast, experienced commuter cyclists alike. The dual network approach is confusing and causes more problems that it solves.
  4. Measures to increase the safety and convenience of cycling should not come at the expense of safety (including subjective safety) or convenience for pedestrians.
  5. The Netherlands model for road design should be the basis for the changes needed to our road network in order to make cycling safe and attractive for all.‡

Short-term objectives:

  1. Commit to integrating cycling into all stages of road design, planning, construction and maintenance
  2. Overhaul LTN 2/08 in order to reduce the beurocracy involved in producing reasonable-quality cycle infrastructure such as the Camden cycle tracks and to prevent it being misinterpreted and used to justify facilities such as these.
  3. Replace the current hierarchy of provision with a much more specific set of separation principles.
  4. Continue with driver awareness programmes and Bikeability whilst road designs remain in place which put cyclists in danger.

Long-term objectives:

  1. Cycling needs to be integral to the design of new roads. Existing roads are refreshed periodically based on wear & tear and their importance; this work must include bringing the road up to the new standard for safe, convenient cycling.†
  2. In urban areas, basic functional cycle networks should be built as a matter of priority. These should be along main roads and informed by existing desire lines of those using all modes of road transport.
  3. Central government needs to set a final compliance date by which time all relevant Highways Agency and local authority roads must comply with the new standards.
  4. As the cycle networks become fleshed out, phase out Bikeability in schools in favour of Dutch cycle training which will be more appropriate for the redesigned roads.
‡ The Netherlands model of road design also offers advantages pedestrians in the areas of safety (including subjective safety) and convenience.

† Whilst admittedly an incredibly blunt instrument, rolling out safe, convenient cycle infrastructure as a part of the existing process of refreshing roads should help construct basic cycle networks along existing desire lines, as these are generally the roads with the most wear & tear and importance.

Cities fit for Cycling

I am extremely pleased to see that a national newspaper has given the safety of cyclists (and the inherent hostility of our present road network to them) the attention it so sorely deserves. I was even more amazed that it was none other than The Times who were behind this movement. The Cities fit for Cyclists campaign shows an understanding of the underlying issues, where it could have been all too easy to start talking about helmets or other such easy but ineffective measures. Needless to say, I encourage you all to sign up.

However, my joy at the issue of cyclist safety and the importance of infrastructure receiving such attention was dampened somewhat when I tried to encourage friends outside of cycling circles to sign up too. Surprisingly to me, the issue of 20 mph in residential areas appeared to be a bit of contentious one. The issue of children’s freedom to play outside without motor traffic being a threat did not seem to be a significant persuader either, with the long history of children playing on the streets seeming to have been quickly forgotten by some. Inevitably, the issue that cycling, walking or public transport are not viable for every journey made by every person came up. Whilst true, it is my experience that this argument is often used to justify car use which, at least in the right road environment, could easily be made through walking or cycling. Walking, cycling and public transport are unlikely to be viable for every single journey made by every single person in the UK. This does not change the fact that they could be made viable for the vast majority of journeys made by the vast majority of people. To me, raising the limitations of our current public transport system is merely an acknowledgement of the need to invest in the expansion of our rail and bus services.

It didn’t take long for the issue of the law-breaking behaviour of some cyclists to come up, despite its dubious relevance to the topic at hand. As a member of a vilified minority group, I am often expected to justify the behaviour of others within the same minority group, despite the fact that I have nothing to do with them. I acknowledged the bad behaviour of a minority of cyclists and gently pointed out the bad behaviour of (what I generously described as) a minority of motorists, including the red light jumping and pavement driving (both of which are regarded as reprehensible behaviour when cyclists do it but largely tolerated when motorists do it). The issue of motorist behaviour was mostly ignored.

The Times’ Cities fit for Cyclists campaign is an enormous and welcome step in the right direction. However, the responses to my attempts at promoting of the campaign show that we need to keep plugging away at this issue to bring in further into the mainstream.

To its Logical Conclusion

I was stunned this week by some quotes from the Association of British Drivers which were featured in a post from As Easy As Riding A Bike. Whilst the criminal behaviour of motorists being rationalised by a motoring organisation is far from new, I found the sheer unashamed stupidity of what was being said really quite shocking.


“Because speed limits are set below the level at which the majority of drivers consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of speeds – you get more frustration, [...] that will result in a large queue of drivers behind, who simply want to drive at what they consider to be normal speeds, and that leads to frustration, dangerous overtaking… “


A responsible drivers’ organisation might suggest that a driver who gets so frustrated by having to drive within the law that they might attempt a manoeuvre which not only puts themselves in danger, but endangers the lives of innocent people might be better off not being allowed to drive at all, this is the ABD, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the ABD literally don’t know the meaning of the word ‘responsibility.’ It is interesting to try to apply the ABD’s logic to other areas:


Theft:


“Because the definition of theft is are set below the level at which thieves consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of theft – you get more frustration, [...] as thieves try not to steal, and that leads to frustration, and when it gets released, events such as the August riots happen… “


Domestic Abuse:


“Because the definition of domestic abuse is are set below the level at which abusive partners consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of beating – you get more frustration, [...] as abusive partners try not to beat their partners, and that leads to frustration, and when it gets released, it leads to serious injuries and even deaths… “


Road Safety:


“No, not lower speeds – lower speed limits. Because speed limits are set below the level at which the majority of drivers consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of speeds – you get more frustration, because a small minority of drivers will obey the speed limit, even if they think it’s really silly, and that will result in a large queue of drivers behind, who simply want to drive at what they consider to be normal speeds, and that leads to frustration, dangerous overtaking… It also can lead to long queues of traffic, which prevent side road traffic from entering, or crossing, a main road. So you get these additional conflicts, even road rage, as a result. So if you have sensibly-set speed limits, which means set at the 85th percentile, which is the level that 85% of drivers wouldn’t exceed anyway, experience has shown – this goes back, certainly in the United States, to the late 1930s – that is the safest level at which to set speeds, speed limits, and you get the lowest casualty rates.”


Oh wait, that one was real. The ABD goes on to use that brilliant debating tactic of pretending that something which is bullshit is actually backed by science (brilliantly debunked later in the original post). Their website actually displays this crap proudly on their homepage, but they have made it even more entertaining to read: 


The ABD calls for the use of sensible speed limits that are based upon well established scientific road safety principles, not political correctness, emotive hysteria, or vociferous local activists.”


Ahh yes, that well established scientific principle of ‘Be safe: drive as fast as you want, wherever you want.’ I really admire the balls they show by calling their made-up science ‘well-established.’ In fact is it so well established that it goes against everything that every bit of real road safety research and every road safety organisation in the whole world is saying. If that’s not well established, I don’t know what is! To make this statement of idiocy even more delicious, they included the Daily Mail’s favourite phrase, ‘political correctness’ 
(They cleverly use the original meaning of the phrase, which is, ‘Stuff what I done don’t like’).



Cycling is Safe

This one has been languishing in my drafts for quite some time, with both Vole O’Speed and As Easy As Riding A Bike sharing their own views on the issue in the meantime. Statistically speaking, cycling here in the UK appears to be surprisingly safe. Indeed, in the past I have focussed on this when talking to new and potential cyclists about their experiences of poor subjective safety. These statistics are also readily utilised by a vocal minority who  are ideologically opposed to the use of separation by mode for the prioritisation and protection of cyclists. As is often the case with statistics they only tell part of the story; whilst it appears at first that they show cycling to be a ‘low-risk activity,’ what they literally show is that the current sub-section of the population who choose to cycle are doing so relatively safely.
Like most other people who choose to cycle in the UK, when I cycle I do so in a hyper-aware state; I always expect the worst from other road users, I pre-emptively hover over the brakes when I see a car approaching a give-way line where I have clear priority and I plan my escape route for when that BMW makes a sudden turn without indicating. I am relatively fit, fast, I cycle in the optimal gear and I know precisely how much force I can put into the brakes before the wheel locks up. Put simply, the bar it set much higher for cyclists than it is for other road users because the road environment is inherently hostile for cycling. Most people who drive motorised vehicles, which are significantly wider, faster and heavier than bicycles, do not do so in a similar state of hyper-awareness. This is because there is simply no need; the vehicles and road environment have been designed in such a way that their operators are largely protected from the limitations of their own ability. The bar has been set rather too low for such inherently dangerous machines.
I have often thought that if some of the greatest minds of the 1950s were put together in a room and given  and nearly unlimited budget and the specific task of designing a road network to minimise the number of people choosing to cycle, without being permitted to explicitly make cycling illegal, the result would not be far off the current UK road network. The exceptional hostility for cycling which is designed into the UK road network is enough to prevent the vast majority of people from every wanting to cycle on it. The result is that those few who are willing to cycle on it are not at all representative of the general population; it is because this minority can cope with the road network as it currently exists that cycling appears to be a statistically safe activity.
In The Netherlands, cycling is statistically slightly safer than the UK. The difference is not as much as might be expected, which is often used as an excuse for opposing the construction of Netherlands-style dedicated cycle infrastructure in the UK. However, with a little context the safety statistics from The Netherlands start to appear much more impressive. By implementing road designs which are not inherently hostile to cycling, the section of the population choosing to cycle is much more representative of society as a whole. The majority of ordinary people, cycling without being in a hyper-aware state typical of UK cyclists manage to get around by bike and are still statistically more safe than the tiny minority of physically and mentally exceptional UK citizens who choose the bicycle. Next time there is a discussion about how safe cycling is, remember that in places such as the UK where cyclists are a tiny minority, the statistics don’t tell you a great deal about how safe cycling is, only how safe cyclists are.

Pedestrian danger from cars versus cycles

Whenever cycling is discussed in the mainstream press, a common theme which often emerges in the comment thread following the story is the perceived danger cyclists pose to pedestrians. A good example of this is the comment thread under any of the stories published in The Grauniad Bike Blog. It is a truly impressive feat that the motoring lobby has managed to pull off; persuading pedestrians that it is cyclists, not motorists who pose the biggest threat to their safety.
These comments are usually countered by comments from cyclists themselves, who are quick to point out the much, much greater risk posed to pedestrians by motorists. Usually, these comments consist of a series of suppositions which, whilst often perfectly plausible, are difficult to back up with actual documented evidence. These suppositions often include the following: Cyclists are less likely to be distracted on the road compared to motorists due to being aware of their increased vulnerability in the event of a collision, cyclists are more likely to notice pedestrians in their vicinity because their visibility is less impaired than that of someone sat in a car, cyclists are exposed to fewer distractions on a bike than motorists are in a car (generally bikes don’t have radios/heaters/fans or passengers), the nature of cycling makes it less feasible to try to text/shave/apply make-up whilst cycling when compared to a motorist sat in a car. Please feel free to leave any other reasonable-sounding suppositions in the comments below.
Another argument given is that cyclists generally travel at lower speeds than motorists and that a bike & cyclist together are smaller and lighter than a car. Unlike the suppositions above, these things are either demonstrably true, or obviously self-evident. The figure at the top of the post shows a diagram of 70 metres of a 6 metre wide road with 1 metre pavements either side. The left lane shows a blue bar, graded in increasingly dark shades. The lightest section of this bar represents the space a 2 metre wide motor vehicle (such as those models favoured by pimps) travelling at 30 mph would travel through during a 3 second “Distraction period,” during which its operator is not devoting their full attention to the road. The vehicle travels approximately 40 metres during the 3 second window where the driver is not paying attention, meaning the vehicle will cover an area of approximately 80 square metres. Any pedestrian (or other road user) present in this area at the time the driver takes their eyes off the road is at risk from the motor vehicle. At 40 mph (darker blue), the car will travel approximately 53 metres during this distraction period, covering an area of approximately 106 square metres. At 50 mph (darkest blue), the car will travel approximately 66 metres during the distraction period, covering an area of approximately 132 square metres. Speeds of up to 50 mph are still relatively common on urban roads, these speeds even being officially sanctioned on some roads.
The right lane shows a pink bar, graded in two shades of pink, representing the area which would be covered by a typical 0.6 metre wide utility bicycle travelling at 12 mph and 20 mph (light pink and darker pink respectively), during the same 3 second distraction window. At 12 mph (a fairly typical cycling speed for a utility cyclist) the cycle will travel approximately 15.8 metres during the same 3-second distraction period, covering an area of approximately 9.5 square metres. At 20 mph (the sprint speed recommended in Cyclecraft to enable cyclists to reasonably deal with our fundamentally cycling-hostile road network), the cycle will travel approximately 26.4 metres during the distraction period, covering an area of approximately 15.8 square metres. For a sense of scale, the black rectangle in the lower left corner is 1.7 metres by 0.6, representing the height and width of a relatively large human.
So there we have it, at a fairly common urban speed of 30 mph, a car will travel over an area more than five times greater than the area a cycle would cover at the relatively high speed of 20 mph during a three second period of operator distraction. At a typical cycling speed of 12 mph, a cycle will travel over an area which is over 8 times smaller than the car would at 30 mph. This representation is a bit of blunt instrument, It’d be great to see some research which takes into account the effects of vehicle mass, vehicle profile and some of the suppositions listed above too. As it is, I think it helps to hammer home the fact that it is of course the private motor vehicle which represents the greatest risk to the safety of pedestrians (and cyclists, and even other motorists). The reason people focus on the (much, much lower) risks posed to pedestrians by cyclists, is that the private motor vehicle is the sacred bull in society’s china shop.