Thursday, 28 April 2016

Cambridgeshire Cops - Disappointing

So this happened the other day.

Obviously not the worst event ever - but the overtake was far too close, and I'd say no one should be getting out of a car to yell profanities. 

So I tried to tell the cops about it - the combination of these events. You'd think it a simple enough matter, send them a link to the video and ask them if this is worth reporting. But even getting the right email address is hard, as you'll see in that link.

I got a call this evening, asking me to go in and make a statement. No one had looked at the video. I explained that the point of emailing it was that someone could view the vid and tell me if a report is worthwhile - not the first time I'd explained that, I'd had to go into that to get the email address in the first place. The lady hadn't seen it, couldn't see it, couldn't get a link to it and wasn't certain she could get someone to look at it. I waited for someone to call back.

And call back they did, but I think it took three calls this evening to get someone to actually look at it. The view of the duty sergeant is that the overtake isn't something they want to take action on but the swearing thing is. Whoopee do. 

The point of sending this to our local police service was to ascertain whether it was worth reporting - I'm happy to make a statement that someone drove way too close and their passenger then got for 'afters'. But you want me to go and make a statement about someone swearing at me? You want me, a grown adult, to go and report that someone used nasty words? You, our Police service, will police bad language but not bad driving? Nope. Its not worth my time reporting that. And frankly I'm offended that you consider public sensibilities more important than my safety.

But there's a bigger problem here than that - the problem of just how useless our reporting system is in this county. Its slow, cumbersome, not joined up, basically not operative. And if you want to complain about it in writing, I kid you not, you've got to do it in the form of a written letter, the complaints procedure here doesn't work by email. Electronic communications are meant to make our lives easier - I shouldn't be asked (as I was this evening) to give the details of a Youtube video over the phone when I've already emailed it and, besides, reading a link over the phone is never going to work.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary need a root and branch review of all aspects of incidents like this. 

Firstly, close overtakes of cyclists are a problem - if someone brings you footage of such an event you should, at the very least, have a word in the ear of the driver. Its not much to ask. If you want to gain the confidence of cyclists on the road then take reports of such overtakes seriously always agree to talk to the driver about it if there's any video evidence or any witness to a close overtake. I assume you'd like to visit fewer families to give them the bad news that someone they love has died on the road? Then police the behaviour that leads to it before drivers who take such risks with the lives of others kill.

Secondly, publicise an email address for reporting incidents. Seriously, stop telling us to phone 101 and hand over a web address with evidence of a crime that you've been sent information about on twitter. You're being silly. You genuinely had someone this evening who thought asking me about a youtube video over the phone a useful way to use her and my time. As an organisation you simply cannot be that stupid.

Thirdly, if someone is trying to make your life easier by sending an email with an informal request to determine if something is worth reporting, just reply to the flipping email and don't demand that someone comes in to make a statement and don't take four or more phone calls to be persuaded that I'm trying to make your life easier and use up as little police time as possible - don't waste your own time, don't waste my time.

Fourthly, its 2016. Get an email address for complaints. Whats the first thing you'd do with a letter of complaint anyway - scan it? Come on guys, take a bold plunge into the 1990's and embrace this new interwebs thing.

It is my belief that our police service here in Cambridgeshire intentionally makes reporting incidents time consuming, slow, difficult and, bluntly, irritating. Whether that is to keep numbers down or just because there are some categories of crime they're not interested in I don't know, but I can't find a way of interpreting how they respond any differently. I am, again, very disappointed with a police service that has no interest in the safety or welfare of cyclists, and no understanding of the role of dangerous or aggressive driving in making the lives of cyclists terrifying. That they're willing to consider someone swearing at me and not someone endangering me? Thats a messed up set of priorities there.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Dear Cambridgeshire Constabulary - IT IS 2016!

Here's the text of an email I just sent to our local coppers. Its pretty self explanatory - their twitter team told me to phone 101 to share a youtube link, which I wouldn't personally call constructive.

Come on Cambridgeshire Constabulary - just put a simple contact page to facilitate easy, fast, sensible sharing of incidents with you. Honestly, are you trying to dissuade us from making reports?

Anyway, email below. Enjoy.

I'm trying to find out if its worth reporting this incident to you, recorded by helmet camera as I was riding to work. I've uploaded it here:

Briefly, at about ten to nine yesterday morning, while riding along Chesterton Road towards Chesterton Lane, I was cycling outside the coach-parking area towards two parked cars ahead. Obviously its important to give parked cars some space while cycling, a car door opening into your path can be deadly if it pushes you off into other traffic - I didn't deviate from my line to do so, I maintained pretty much the same road position I'd used when passing the coach parking zone.

A red car, registration AE04 HFG, passed me very close while I was going past the parked cars, within around 18 inches - I could see I was getting a pretty grim look from both driver and passenger. I almost caught up with the car at the red light ahead, where the passenger had got out and yelled a stream of ill conceived advice and obscenities.

Clearly the overtake was poor (I'd describe it as dangerous - a close pass while I'm going past parked cars is unacceptable), and clearly yelling at me afterwards was wrong. But I want to know, before making a report, are you guys interested in pursuing this or is it a waste of my time reporting it?

I'd also like to complain that despite years of bothering you about the fact that you just don't publicise an email address, you're still telling people (like me, for this report) to phone 101. With respect its the year 2016, to advise me to phone you with a report better emailed isn't even quaint any more, its outdated and silly. This email address (which you gave me on 101 today) is the same one I was specifically advised not to send messages to by one of your inspectors in October 2014 because its not for public contact - and that was only after kicking up a fuss because it was the address I was originally given back then and you weren't responding on it.

You really should put a simple list of appropriate contact email addresses on your website. Its not hard, its not controversial, and I just can't fathom any good reason why you haven't done so.

Bluntly your current system, whether by design or not, dissuades people from making reports. 

If I could request that in addition to reviewing the footage linked and me if its worth making a report that you also make a point of reviewing your email contact procedure, I'd appreciate that,


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Positive Response from Stagecoach

Not the most world-shattering incident.  But troubling at the time...

I've claimed a good spot on the lane I'm in here - I'm approaching a constriction with a traffic island on the left roughly where the bus and cycle lane ends and the road narrows towards a bridge. And, of course, I've selected that spot on the road well in advance of passing the slower cyclist on my left.

The bus driver didn't agree with my decision.

So I tweeted at Stagecoach East and made them aware - and they called me this morning to tell me the driver will receive re-training and go through their disciplinary process. Thats as good a result as I'd have hoped for from this - I'm surprised it went as well as this, and happy about it.

Now if only the taxi companies were paying attention to this...

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cyclist Training - Conditioning to Accept Hostility?

As an undergraduate I recall various experiments we did in a zoology classes, looking at how animals respond to stimuli. One simple one is surprisingly salient to cycling. You get a bit of glass and some snails. You let the snails start wandering around on the glass, and then you bang on the other side. The snails all quickly retreat into their shells, because obviously there's something dangerous happening. You can time how long it takes each snail to re-emerge and go about its slimy business.

After a time, you knock on the glass again, and time their re-emergence again. After a few cycles, the snails are used to the noise and come back out far faster, some brave gastropods even daring to continue on their paths with little more than a flinch.

Animals, whether its a snail or a stupid monkey like me, can be conditioned into ignoring some danger. Consider, for a moment, someone swinging their fist at you - you'll flinch, back off, and probably put your hands up and defend your face. Its really hard not to. Go on, try and walk face first into the side of a door - you'll stop yourself. But a boxer, by fist-fighting frequently learns now not to flinch, how not to turn away defencively, and continue looking for a way to counter-punch while maintaining a level of defence. We can be conditioned to take a certain amount of risk and to suppress our natural instincts, to fight off the reflex loops that take us away from danger. 

People who still maintain that cyclists must be trained to ride assertively in traffic and that cycling facilities run counter to good cycling practice and breed poor cyclists aren't really arguing for 'training'. They're arguing for 'conditioning'. Snails on a window have not in any meaningful sense been trained, they've been conditioned such that the association of risk is slightly ameliorated. But its not a particularly pleasant process for the snails (or the bored students), in fact its really quite frightening for the snails. A gastropod wouldn't choose to repeatedly face something instinctively life threatening until its instinct to duck back into its shell is repressed.

So you're an advocate of cyclist conditioning? You want to tell those too scared to ride that they've got to ride in a way that is counter to their perceived common sense, further into the road and assertively such that they're closer to the source of risk (i.e. cars and lorries) until they no longer flinch back to the gutter every time one passes? That isn't going to work. Very, very few people choose to be conditioned to accept something instinctively terrifying. Telling people to harden up to fear isn't a route to mass cycling - its why almost no one in the UK cycles. People will retreat back in to cars rather than face terror until it is no longer terrifying.

Do you advocate that vehicular cycling is the route to a cycling utopia in places with low cycling uptake? Then you're ignoring the basic biology of all animals with the ability to get up and move. Including humanity - this isn't just human biology, it is innate behaviour across the animal kingdom. In other words, you're wrong. Fundamentally, biologically, and entirely.

The only game in town is good, safe, segregated infrastructure. Just get with the program. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Advice for local council candidates regarding the cycling survey...

I don't know if its something that candidates to become councillors here look forward to or dread, but a bit of a local tradition is that Cambridge Cycling Campaign come up with a list of questions that they forward to all of the candidates, and a little birdie (well, Al, in a tweet) hinted that the questions for the forthcoming council elections are almost ready.

The responses make great fodder for the rest of us, and I've covered them before in blog posts such as those linked to here. But this time round, before the questions go out, I've a few things to suggest to those who might be about to fill out their responses.

1. Actually answer the questions
You would think this is obvious, but there have been plenty of 'no comments' or words to that effect sent back. And many more where the answers are every be as uninformative as that - such as telling us that its a leading question without ever explaining why.

Look, either answer the questions or don't, but stop assuming that the very act of responding to the survey is validation.

2. Don't give stock answers
This is something Labour have been particularly guilty of - its like the answers are variants of a theme, like they're reading from a guidance document. Its not clever, its not interesting, its just a well organised way of not really telling us what you think. By all means give the party line, but most of the questions won't be about what the party line is because they're about very, very local issues - please, answer specifically and honestly.

3. Don't treat the questions as a threat
Seriously, some of the answers in the past have been ridiculously defensive, even evasive. Stop for a moment and ask yourself what this is for - if you treat a set of questions from cyclists as hostile, are we likely to believe you won't treat cyclists as hostile?

4. Give us detail
Don't say you're positive towards cyclists. Don't say you support cycling. Tell us what you'll do and how you'll do it - tell us where and how you'll do stuff to make cycling better. In many wards ALL candidates will say they support cycling - the one who stands out is the one who tells us how.

5. Know your ward
If a question is about a specific location in your ward, go look at it, maybe even go ride it a couple of times. THEN answer. If you answer that you don't know the location and don't use this as a chance to get informed then what are you doing in local politics anyway?

So thanks for reading this - and please, if you're responding to the survey from the Cycling Campaign then follow these 5 bits of advice and you'll not go far wrong. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

'Cyclists Beware' Stickers - A Condition of Use?

They come in various sorts, but they're all essentially giving the same message - don't try to pass this vehicle in the blind spot on the left (or occasionally at all), the driver can't see in that space so you're putting yourself at risk in doing so. And it sounds like eminently good advice if its an articulated lorry, but since this sticker appeared its finding its way onto smaller and smaller delivery vehicles which really oughtn't have sucky visibility.

Most would agree with the advice of not slipping down the side of large vehicles in that way, but I'm sure many of us would question the presence of such an advisory note on, say, a transit van. And while these things are getting ever more common it doesn't look like cyclists opinions are being sought over what this means for our safety - which is allegedly what they're for.

I'm not opposed to this advice - but I think it has to be two-way. If you put one of these signs on your vehicle you're admitting that such a vehicle isn't really very good for safe use in a multi-mode environment. I would argue that for a city such as Cambridge the presence of such a sticker tells us straight away that your vehicle needs to stay the hell out of the city centre, and I would urge our City and County Councils to discuss implementing this as a simple measure to make cycling safer. Urgently. These companies are telling us flat out that their vehicles are not safe in the presence of the majority vehicle type in the centre of Cambridge - what possible excuse can there be for bringing unsafe vehicles into the city centre?

Health and safety is more than how the hazards we pose should affect the behaviour of others around us - its more important, and more responsible, to limit to the hazards we ourselves pose by modifying our own behaviour. Does your vehicle have a massive blind spot, presenting such a hazard to others that you cannot safely be passed on the left (or the right)? Is that space so dangerous that a cyclist needs to be warned? And you coexist in city traffic with cyclists and may often end up slowly passing them, putting them in that (invisible) space for such an extended period of time that other road hazards may distract you from them? That isn't okay.

I propose that such a warning sign is primarily about the hazards posed by that vehicle, not the behaviour of others not in that vehicle. You want such a sign on your lorry? Great, thanks for the advice, but it means you can't overtake cyclists on any road where any congestion may lead to stoppages. I propose that such a sign is useful, but it is absurd to suggest that if putting a cyclist in your blind spot is dangerous that any driver of such a vehicle can reasonably choose to do so. Want a cyclists stay back sticker? Fine - the price is your vehicle isn't allowed to overtake cyclists in any non-national speed limit road. In a 20, 30 or 40mph zone especially you cannot overtake cyclists if your vehicle has this sticker - and if the purpose of such a warning is the safety of the cyclist, there is no arguable case against this proposal.