Justice for cyclists

I was delighted, overjoyed to see what seemed like immediate action after the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s report, ‘Get Britain Cycling’.  In the wake of the report’s publication, the Roads Minister appeared to signal national government’s willingness to tackle the HGV problem saying that the government could not let lorries continue to run over cyclists.

The action was a sweep of HGVs by the Met Police’s lorry unit, checking for vehicle defects and illegal driving, as reported by the Standard, which also published an editorial calling for more action to protect cyclist from lorries.

Keen students of the HGV / cyclist issue will remember that Jenny Jones MLA and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London had the following exchange in October 2009:

Jenny Jones: Could you confirm the number of HGVs stopped by police in London for each year since 2000, the proportion that were found to be driving illegally, any breakdown of offences and the proportion that were stopped by specialist traffic police?

Answer from the Mayor: The MPS did not, until 2008, keep a record of the number of HGVs that were stopped. In 2008/09 3,000 vehicles were stopped (all types including lightweight vans). Of these 1329 were ‘trucks’ over 7.5 tonnes [note: vehicles over 7.5 tonnes are defined as HGVs]. Proportion found to be driving illegally: Offences were found in an average 80% of these vehicles.

At the time Boris suggested that the high proportion of offences found was down to diligent police-work, but however you dice the numbers, that is a lot of illegal lorries.  As was pointed out by nearly everyone with access to the numbers, lorries are 5% of traffic, and yet are responsible for over 50% of cycle fatalities in London, and in some years, closer to 100%.  Lorry drivers that have run over cyclists have been driving vehicles subsequently  found to have illegal defects, such as the Hanson HGV driver than ran over Lisa Pontecorvo, who had removed the mirror that might have, had he been looking in it, allowed him to see her.

And, by the way, despite the EU directive requiring that all HGVs / lorries registered since 2000 retro-fit the so-called ‘blind-spot’ mirror, there are still a lot of tipper trucks driving around without the mirrors fitted.  Whether this is because they were registered before 2000 or because they are simply breaching the law, I don’t know, but I saw 6 out of 8 tippers without the other morning.  I know that isn’t a sufficiently rigorous study, but they were all around Old Street and Clerkenwell Road in the morning, i.e. likely to be using one of London’s busiest cycling streets in the morning peak.  If the Mayor brings in a modified lorry ban, these vehicles would no longer be permitted.

I say all this to demonstrate how important it is that the law is enforced on the roads.  Manifest failures to enforce the law on the roads lead to public outrage, such as in the case of Stephen Perrin.  As has been widely reported all over the cycling web, the CPS and police failed to take any action after being presented with Mr Perrin’s video, which clearly shows an unprovoked and violent assault by a driver.

Almost every cyclist I know has either been subject to an identical or worse assault, or has witnessed one.  It is this wide-spread experience of violent behaviour on the roads, and the total failure to use legal remedies on this driver,  that lead to the hounding of the driver and his family.  I have to say that I have little sympathy for the driver, even if resorting to illegal and violent threats is inexcusable.   He should have been subject to exemplary punishment for his behaviour, precisely because it is so common, so that all road users were reminded that being on the road does not mean that the normal rules of common decency and behaviour are not totally abrogated, as many people appear to believe.

As I said elsewhere, the current penalty for running over a cyclist, either killing or inflicting what the police chillingly call ‘life-changing injuries’, is currently very slight.  Even where the police are able to prove negligence by the driver, the driver often receives a trivial administrative penalty and small fine.  The police are often hampered in these cases because the key witness is frequently deceased.  Generally the only person who sees what happens is the cyclist.  The driver wasn’t looking, (not didn’t see didn’t look) and by-standers only turn to look after the noise of the collision draws their attention.  But even so, the sentences seem extremely light.

To me, and to most cyclists, the sentences, often contextualised by the magistrate with the words ‘momentary inattention’ or some similar formulation, are a manifest failure of justice.

To tie red-light jumping by cyclists to lorries running over cyclists compounds that sense of injustice. This is what a policeman did at an operation to catch RLJing cyclists on City Road last week.  I totally accept that some members of the public view RLJing as a major problem requiring the urgent attention of the police.  I also totally accept that if you break the law, you should be prepared for the consequences.  I am not seeking to excuse cyclists that jump red lights, or argue that they should be shown leniency.  But I am saying that issuing a fixed penalty notice to a cyclist for jumping a red light with the words “we’re doing this because a cyclist got run over by a lorry last week” is grossly stupid and displays a near total ignorance of the reality of collisions between cyclists and lorries.

In numerous cases, too many to list (if you’re looking for examples, surf the contents page of Moving Target, and click on the ‘HGV’ section), the collision happened as both vehicles pulled away from a green light, i.e. the cyclist had waited for a red light to turn green, as required by law.  Reports suggest that this is exactly what Dr Giles did, to quote the most recent example.  Sebastian Lukomski definitely did.  They rarely, so rarely that it has happened perhaps once or twice in the last 20 years in London, are the result of the cyclist having run a light.

And don’t think that this ignorant policeman is an isolated example.  Policemen and women have often said something like ‘we have to scrape you off the road’ to me when chastising me for running a light, or riding the wrong way up a one way. (I used to be a bicycle messenger.  I got paid to get there quickly; obeying the law was discouraged by economic imperative).  I have the greatest respect for traffic police, who really do know what they are talking about, but no traffic cop has ever said this to me. It was always the police equivalent of white van man.

This ignorant behaviour extends to the higher reaches of the police force, as evidenced by the incredibly stupid use of Sebastian Lukomski’s crushed bicycle by the City Police in ‘education’ lectures given to RLJing cyclists instead of a fixed penalty.

I support the police.  I wrote to the Mayor when he tried to cut funding for lorry police. I support their initiatives to educate road users.  But when police make statements like this, they undermine respect for the badge, respect for the law and confound our already low expectations that justice will be done on the roads.

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