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Police should tackle real danger, not fine cyclists just to meet targets

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CTC has condemned a Metropolitan Police memo setting police officers a target to fine 40 cyclists in 4 months, or 10 per month.
Police officers stop cyclist (photo by Manic Street Preacher, CC licence)
Police officers stop cyclist (photo by Manic Street Preacher, CC licence)

The memo, issued by Inspector Colin Davies and revealed in the Times, says “Officers have four months to do 40 cycle tickets. Ten per month… This will give them a renewed focus for a while.”  The memo was issued on 18 November, the day on which charity worker Richard Muzira was killed by a lorry in Camberwell, the sixth cyclist to die in 13 days on London’s roads.

The news comes as the Crown dropped its prosecution of cyclist Alex Paxton for allegedly stopping in front of an Advance Stop Line (ASL), or 'cycle box'.  The officer who had issued the fine had not seen the incident (he was further down the road, and was only advised to stop the cyclist by another police officer), so he had not seen that the ASL was blocked by a car at the time, making it more dangerous for Alex to comply with the letter of the law, than to stop in front of the line.  CTC and its associated charity, the Cyclists' Defence Fund, took up the case, and joined with several cycling organisations in urging the CPS to drop the case.

Road safety campaigner Rhia Weston co-ordinates CTC’s ‘Road Justice’ campaign, which calls for a stronger response to bad driving from the legal system, and specifically supports greater priority for roads policing.  She said:

"Roads policing is hugely important and deserves far greater priority and investment, not least because cyclists' safety depends on everyone using the roads in a safe and responsible manner.  However, if the police want to encourage respect for the law, they need to focus their resources on tackling the real sources of road danger, rather than simply issuing fines to meet targets."

If the police want to encourage respect for the law, they need to focus their resources on tackling the real sources of road danger, rather than simply issuing fines to meet targets."

Rhia Weston, CTC road safety campaigner

Around 2,500 police officers were deployed at 166 junctions around London, and have been handing out fines to offending drivers and cyclists alike. However, they have also been stopping cyclists and advising them of the supposed benefits of wearing helmets and hi-viz.  This is despite calls from Mayor Boris Johnson, and his ‘Cycling Commissioner’ Andrew Gilligan, to “de-lycrafy” cycling in London.

CTC fully supports their aspiration to make cycling a normal activity, as it is in safe and cycle-friendly countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where people of any age and background can feel safe and comfortable cycling for day-to-day journeys in normal clothes.

Hi-viz and helmets - the evidence

There is in any case real doubts about the scale of any benefits from both hi-viz and helmets. New research from Bath University published this week has shown that cyclists’ choice of clothing makes no difference to the distances left by drivers when overtaking cyclists.  It adds to research from the Transport Research Laboratory, and two studies from Australia (one from 2010, the other published in September), casting real doubts over the effectiveness of hi-viz clothing.  There is better evidence for the value of reflective (not hi-viz) clothing at night, particularly ankle bands, whose up-and-down movement catches drivers’ eyes and indicates that there is a cyclist ahead.  Similar evidence has also been found for motorcyclists’ conspicuity.

There is also plenty of evidence casting doubts over the effectiveness of helmets.  They are (and can only be) designed to withstand minor knocks and falls, not being hit by lorries.  Helmet wearers having been found to be 14% more likely per mile cycled to have an injury, with evidence suggesting that they may cause people to act less cautiously – including children and drivers as well as male adult cyclists – and that a reduction in the likelihood of head injuries may be offset by an increased likelihood of neck or rotational force brain injuries, either of which could be extremely serious.

CTC’s biggest concern though is that the police are effectively singling out cycling as being so ‘dangerous’ that they are stopping people to advise on the use of hi-viz and helmets. A similar ‘crack-down’ on pedestrians in normal clothes would be obviously absurd.  Yet you are actually less likely to be killed in a mile of cycling than a mile of walking (see chart 5b on p25 of hyperlink). 

The police’s ‘dangerising’ of cycling risks undermining efforts to promote it as a safe, normal and enjoyable activity, thereby undermining its health and other benefits.  There is very good evidence that it would only need a tiny reduction in cycle use for the resulting increase in physical inactivity to cause far more early deaths than any conceivable live-saving benefit from helmets or hi-viz, however effective they might be.

Headphones

In response to Mayor Boris Johnson’s portrayal of headphone-wearing cyclists as a “scourge”, CTC has identified 4 cyclists deaths out of the 440 which have occurred in the past 4 years where it is suspected that the cyclist was wearing headphones.  One was hit by one of two drivers racing at 80 mph (more than twice the local speed limit), another was killed on a bridleway crossing of a railway line, and it’s by no means clear what role (if any) the use of headphones played in the other two (although it appears likely that headphone use played a part in at least one of them).

There is some Dutch evidence suggesting that cyclists are more at risk when wearing headphones, by c40% (although another source suggests that the safety disbenefits of distraction due to music, mobile phone use etc are only detectable among younger cyclists).  Still, what this doesn’t tell us is whether cyclists are any more at risk from wearing headphones than pedestrians are, and therefore whether headphone-wearing is any more problematic for cycling than for crossing the road.

In the absence of better evidence, CTC’s view is that headphone wearing is inadvisable, particularly if listening at high volumes and/or headphones that completely shut out external sound.  However, the idea that headphone-wearing cyclists are any more of a "scourge" than headphone-wearing pedestrians is not borne out by any evidence we know of.

Roads policing

CTC continues to support increased roads policing, but we also believe that limited police resources need to be targeted at the real sources of danger, rather than pandering to populist or politically opportunist views that cyclists themselves are largely at fault for their own deaths. Apart from being deeply insensitive to bereaved families, this is not borne out by the available evidence.

Met police response

Since this article was published, Detective Chief Superintendent Glyn Jones of the Metropolitan Police Traffic Unit has written to CTC explaining that the original instruction cascaded down to police officers as part of Operation Safeway did not include targets to fine cyclists, but that the instruction was misinterpreted by one inspector who added targets. 

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