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Boris must stop ducking responsibility for action to save lives

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CTC's Campaigns Director Roger Geffen argues that Boris's "finger-pointing" is pointed in the wrong direction, and calls for real solutions to the dangers faced by pedestrians as well as cyclists.
Boris is accused of mis-representing how cyclists die. Photo: Yurri (CC licence)
Boris is accused of mis-representing how cyclists die. Photo: Yurri (CC licence)

There has been a truly appalling death-toll on London’s roads in the past 13 days.  Prior to November 5th, there had been 8 cyclist fatalities in 10 months this year.  Since then, we have 6 cyclists’ and 3 pedestrians’ deaths within 13 days, all killed by lorries, coaches or buses.  In total, 9 of the 14 fatalities this year have involved lorries.

Boris Johnson hasn’t helped in the slightest, with his sickeningly insensitive comments in a radio interview.  He said “There's no question of blame or finger-pointing”, yet he then went straight on to do just that.  "Unless people obey the laws of the road and people actively take account of the signals that we put in, there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives."

Boris has form when it comes to this kind of victim-blaming.  He once produced a made-up statistic, claiming that 62% of cyclists suffering fatal and serious injuries in London had been breaching the rules of the road at the time.  It took 4 months for him to admit that this statement was incorrect.

CTC supports safe and responsible road use by drivers and cyclists alike, and does not defend irresponsible or illegal cycling. [But] even if one or more of those cyclists were breaking the law, they still didn't deserve to die.

Figures from a Transport for London analysis covering the years 2007, 2008 and 2010 (n.b. TfL didn't analyse 2009, and don't appear to have published these data) suggest that 5% of cyclists' serious and fatal injuries involved red-light jumping or disobedience of junction controls by the cyclists themselves, compared with 15% by drivers or motorcyclists. Westminster City Council found that drivers were solely to blame for 68% of collisions with cyclists in Westminster, whereas cyclists were solely at fault in just 20% of cases. National figures show a similar picture.

There are media reports suggesting that one of the cyclists killed last week had been riding the wrong way down a one way street, just before a bus hit him.  However, there is no suggestion so far that any of the other cyclists were jumping red lights or acting illegally or irresponsibly in any way.  We obviously cannot be certain, and one shouldn’t rush to judgement in these situations.  But nor should Boris Johnson.

In any case, even if one or more of those cyclists were breaking the law, they still didn't deserve to die.

CTC supports safe and responsible road use by drivers and cyclists alike, and does not defend irresponsible or illegal cycling, any more than you'd expect the AA or RAC to defend irresponsible driving.  On the contrary, we are fully in favour of increased roads policing - that is a key aim of CTC's Road Justice campaign.  We fully recognise that pedestrians (including those who are frail or who have sensory or mobility impairments) have the same right to get around free of intimidation from cyclists that cyclists themselves want from drivers.

But intimidation and occasional danger to pedestrians is a very different issue.  For Boris to talk about cyclists' behaviour when 6 cyclists themselves have been killed is simply not justified by the evidence. Boris is finger-pointing in completely the wrong direction.

Real solutions

A basic health and safety principle of risk management is that you start by aiming to eliminate or minimise the source of risks.  Only when you’ve pursued that course as far as practicable do you then think about training people to minimise the remaining risks, or handing out protective equipment.

The primary focus of attention should be on redesigning our roads and junctions to be both cycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly, on redesigning lorries, and reducing their numbers on the busiest roads at the busiest times.

In this case, that means he should start by tackling the hostile environment on our major roads and junctions, and addressing the serious threat posed by lorries. These solutions would benefit pedestrians' safety as well as that of cyclists. There are 5 times as many pedestrians killed in London each year as cyclists. Their fate is all too often overlooked.

Major roads and junctions

A lot has been said about the need for comprehensive networks of safe, direct and well-connected routes for cycling, using a combination of traffic-free facilities, streets with low traffic volumes and speeds, or - in the case of the direct but busy main roads - some form of dedicated space for cycling, preferably involving physical separation, but also avoiding pedestrian conflict and retaining cyclists' priority at junctions. The lack of protection on Boris’s notorious “Cycle Superhighway 2” has rightly been a particular focus for attention, especially at the Bow Roundabout.  CS2 has seen 5 cyclist deaths since it opened, 3 of them this year. The Bow roundabout has been the scene of 3 of those deaths.  The case for a serious rethink is now overwhelming.

Fewer and safer lorries

Less has been said though about lorries themselves.  For all that 3 of the recent deaths have involved buses or coaches, these vehicles are still a lot less likely to cause cyclists’ deaths than lorries.  This fact alone should be enough to undermine any suggestion that cyclists' deaths are their own fault.

Yes, there are some irresponsible cyclists. And yes, we can name lorry drivers who have been convicted following cyclists’ deaths and serious injuries.  Dennis Putz was found to have had a “god-awful hangover” when he killed Cat Patel at the Oval.  David Cox was convicted of causing Brian Dorling’s death at Bow roundabout.  Petre Beiu was convicted of careless driving that has left Times journalist still minimally conscious 2 years later, having been using his mobile phone before running into her.  Joao Lopes’s lorry killed Eilidh Cairns, but he was only prosecuted and convicted for driving with uncorrected defective eyesight.  Two years later, he went on to kill again.

Cyclists have meanwhile been posting video footage of lorry drivers jumping red lights at the Bow roundabout, here, here and here.

It would be unfair on the overwhelming majority of lorry drivers to characterise them as dangerous maniacs, just as it is for the overwhelming majority of cyclists.  The problem, fundamentally, is the lorry.

Around 80% of London lorry-related cyclists’ deaths involve construction vehicles, e.g. skip lorries, tipper trucks or cement mixers.  They are generally a lot less well driven than large artics. So better lorry-driver training for this sector, backed up by better law enforcement (by the Health & Safety Executive and Traffic Commissioners, as well as the police), is certainly relevant.

Still, it would be unfair on the overwhelming majority of lorry drivers to characterise them as dangerous maniacs, just as it is for the overwhelming majority of cyclists.  The problem, fundamentally, is the lorry.  By thinking about that hierarchy of health and safety measures, it becomes clear that the solutions not only need to include redesigning our major roads and junctions, but also redesigning the lorry. Or – better still – getting rid of as many as we can of them from our busiest roads at the busiest times.

It is perfectly easy to design construction lorries so that the driver is sat lower down, and surrounded mainly by window, rather than by metal.  Ministers and Transport for London should work together on lobbying for EU-wide changes to the construction and use regulations, so the freight industry renews its fleets with these safer lorries as quickly as humanly possible.

We also need to look at what lessons can be learnt from other European cities, which have found ways to simply restrict lorries on busy streets at busy times.  Here too, there is a vital role for DfT and TfL to jointly investigate the solutions, and then implement whatever is applicable to London and other UK urban areas.

Approach training and awareness on a "no-fault" basis

Only then do we come to the question of whether it’s lorry drivers or cyclists who most need training.

Training does have a role to play - after all, we're not going to get lorries redesigned overnight, let alone eliminated from London's streets. So it does make sense to alert cyclists to the risks of riding up the inside of lorries.  And it does make sense to ensure that lorry drivers understand how easy it is not to realise this.

However, the authorities, the freight industry and we as cycling advocates need to agree to approach this issue on a “no finger-pointing basis”. After all, we've already seen that training is only a secondary solution to a more fundamental problem.

Don't forget the fundamentals

In a letter last week (15.11.13) to road safety minister Robert Goodwill MP, CTC Chief Executive Gordon Seabright argued that the primary focus of attention should be on redesigning our roads and junctions to be both cycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly, on redesigning lorries, and reducing their numbers on the busiest roads at the busiest times.

And let's not forget, these solutions are good for pedestrians’ safety too.

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