Moral panic erupts over cycling
City Police help mislead the public

police issuing ticket

With collisions in the City involving those on foot and on cycles soaring, you might expect City Cyclists to welcome the City Police's latest "Safer Cycling" campaign. Unfortunately its name is a misnomer: this is a dressed up anti-cycling operation from the police force with the worst record on road safety in the whole country.

"The two main offences identified around cycle safety are cyclists contravening red traffic signals, and cycling on the footpath"

According to one City of London Police office interviewed on BBC1's Road Rage (broadcast 07.01.08), "Most incidents we get called to involve cyclists who'd jumped red lights", while the safer cycling operation identifies that and cycling on the footpath. Compare this with the City of London's report on Casualties in the City (19.11.2007) which states that in relation to cycling "The main causation factors of the accident data attributes are 'turning right', 'changing lanes', 'opening vehicle doors' and 'undertaking of large vehicles turning left across cyclists path'." Obviously someone's got a rather selective memory.

Cause of collisions involving cyclists (irrespective of road user to blame)

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Road user most responsible for collision involving a cyclist.

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Main cause of collisions for which cyclists were most to blame (i.e. the 28% of collisions from the chart above)

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From the data above (City of London figures from 2001-2005 inclusive, contained in a 2006 report on cycling casualties), it is clear that even if every cyclist complied with Automatic Traffic Signals ('ATS') there would at best be a marginal reduction (less than 4%, which is 28% x 16%) in minor collisions involving cyclists. However most cycling casualties are at junctions, so there may be an increase in collisions involving cyclists pulling off at the same time as other vehicles rather than being able to get safely ahead of them. These collisions are more likely to involve serious injury or death to the cyclist. This is certainly not to say that "jumping lights=safer" but that at some particular junctions it can be safer to proceed ahead carefully when the junction is empty, which is rare during the rush hour in the City. Conclusion: the safer cycling campaign cannot lead to a statistically significant increase in safety for cyclists, let alone road users in general

"Cyclists act like the rules don't apply to them"

So with the safety case relying on shaky grounds, what about the City Police's view that its operation is necessary to "reduce the number of traffic offences committed".

A study by the City of London at the junction of Fleet Street and New Fetter Lane in 2005 recorded one in ten cyclists failing to comply with the Automatic Traffic Signal and about one in 30 riding round the Signal via the pavement (the cycle lanes here are as short as they are narrow). Compare that to the high rate of unlicensed drivers (as many as 1 in 8 in London), speeding, parking contraventions etc. and if anything cyclists are more law abiding than drivers.

The difference is that driving while using a mobile phone, speeding, or hitting the accelerator just as the lights turn red (or indeed not paying for a ticket on a bendy bus) are not visible offences in the way that a cyclist jumping the lights is. So other road users do not seem to challenge "law and order" even if their offences result in far more danger and death on the streets.

The issue goes even deeper though. Much bad driving, such as overtaking or flowing too close, cutting up and turning across another's path, does not constitute a specific offence (unlike failing to obey a traffic sign, speed limit etc) but a general offence such as careless or inconsiderate driving. Police cannot issue Fixed Penalty Notices for such driving or indeed cycling but instead have to write witness statements and take the matter to court. Because of the relative effort of doing so, such prosecutions are extremely rare. The result is that the conduct which contributes the majority of bad driving is never dealt with. In fact

Cycling turns into Moral Panic

City police allege that miscreant cyclists are "trying to dominate the road". In fact assertive positioning (keeping well away from the kerb) is the single most important thing that cyclists can do to avoid the most common collisions - being hit by drivers turning across them or pedestrians stepping out without looking.

"Cyclists need to be licensed and get insurance"

With 1 in 8 drivers in London (almost half a million) uninsured or unlicensed and the rate as much as 1 in 3 for Powered Two Wheelers it's obvious that a campaign to license cycles would be lucky to get 1 in 2 cyclists registered. Of course those who cause problems would be the least likely to register not to mention the fact that introducing such a scheme would take time and money from more useful things. Unfortunately a lot of people like to mouth off about cycling without bothering to think at all. So this idea of licensing is still doing the rounds again.

Creating a problem

The City Police have been encouraging the public to complete ward policing surveys on-line and on paper: City Police survey

Leading question?It's rather telling that the police put cycling down as the first box to tick.

Firstly cycling isn't dangerous: while pedestrian casualties doubled in 2006 alone, these were collisions with drivers not cyclists, with the recorded factor often being "pedestrian inattention". Cycling is as dangerous to others as skate boarding or beggars, incidents do happen but they are rare.

Secondly some people do cycle in an anti-social manner, especially in the heart of London which is so congested. But Home Office surveys on anti-social behaviour have consistently identified bad driving as the public's number one concern. And that's ignoring the fact that more people are killed or injured by drivers than by guns or knives combined. However this is not even put down as an option on the survey.

"Cyclists are a dangerous menace"

Figures from the London Accident Analysis Unit over the five-year period 2001-05, show that there were:

  • 2 cyclists who died while jumping red lights:
  • 7 motorbikers died jumping red lights (one of these collisions also killed a car driver);
  • 3 cyclists were killed by drivers jumping red lights;
  • 7 pedestrians were killed by drivers jumping red lights;
  • 7 people (drivers or passengers) were killed in collisions between two motor vehicles (excluding motorbikes), at least one of which was jumping a red light.

It's true that there have been a few collisions between a person on foot and another on a bike which have resulted in a death. The last one in central London was about 2003 where a man leaving the Whitechapel Mosque without looking stepped into the road, hitting a passing cyclist. The impact from the cyclist's helmet killed the pedestrian. In the City cyclists end up worse off in over 75% of collisions with pedestrians. Seb's Bike

Following complaints from friends, City Police were the remains of a courier's bike which they had been using to highlight the dangers of jumping red lights at a road safety display. Seb far from jumping the lights had been waiting for green when he was crushed by a lorry which had turned without checking its mirrors. A typical example of the City Police ignoring the facts to justify their own simple prejudices.

Keeping everyone safe, deter traffic contraventions?

The Broken Window theory is frequently used as a basis for zero tolerance, however research has failed to back it up. Less well known but more credible research about Why people obey rules suggests a far more complex picture...More to follow

No easy answers

More to follow about how the police should make our streets safer.

Previous City Police stories

Relevant links

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