The Wrong Side of The Lens

27 November 2013

The recent spate of deaths of people on bikes and on foot in London has triggered a number of reactions. Whilst many of these involve people vomiting ill-informed opinion into newspapers and onto the Internet, one of the more interesting reactions – in that it’s action rather than words – is the apparently heavy deployment of traffic police in London. But what effect will this have? And could their time be better spent?

Weak at the knees

Despite Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and Leon Daniels all having uttered something along the lines of guarding strongly against “knee-jerk reactions” after recent deaths, we do seem to be getting one: namely, a mass presence of the Met on street corners across London.

The first question here is whether the actions they’re taking are going to be effective. Whilst the police have been stopping lorries and finding numerous violations and also collaring cyclists for jumping reds or riding at night without lights, reports abound of the usual red herrings of headphones (oh, was that another knee-jerk reaction, Boris?), hi-viz and helmets; and it seems there’s also a bit of a crackdown on pavement cycling:

Legality is not the same as safety; enforcement is not the same as protection

If anyone thinks this sort of thing is going to improve cycle safety, they should think again: it does anything but. What this is going to do is apply the letter of the law equally.

Now, that’s fine, you may say, and to a fair degree you’d be right. Laws exist and breaking them means you may face some form of punishment; I’m not going to dispute that principle. But don’t let anyone try to convince you this is a measure to address safety. Consider a texting driver who mounts the pavement and a texting cyclist who mounts the pavement; the likelihood of causing serious injury or death to a person on the pavement is vastly greater in the former case. To apply the law equally is not to prioritise safety. It is a public relations exercise.

Moreover, whilst certain laws appear to exist primarily (at least in this context) to protect the individuals who break them – such as jumping red lights – it’s not necessarily so simple. Less than 2% of serious injuries to people on bikes were even “likely” to have been partly or fully caused by jumping a light, whilst it’s possible to point to cases such as that of Mary Bowers, where jumping a red light would have protected her. Clearly, it’s impossible to know how many collisions are avoided each year by people deliberately disobeying a rule that holds them in direct conflict with large vehicles, but – whilst no-one will deny that a number of people do so selfishly – there are at least some cases where people do disobey the law to try and protect themselves.

Standing still

Regardless of whether you think indiscriminately applying the law with a fairly firm hand is – in terms of safety – (a) wise, (b) necessary and appropriate but ultimately not useful or (c) counter-productive, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to figure out that standing on street corners isn’t the best way to apply the law.

Now, I generally avoid delving into cyclists’ YouTube videos because, whilst some are commendably matter-of-fact, more often than not I wince at the antagonism that they often contain. Nonetheless, a couple of videos posted today very neatly illustrate a point. There’s one by Cyclegaz and another by Veloevol, which I include below.

You’ll notice a couple of street corners with several police standing around. Now, I don’t know about you but there’s not much I’ve ever really observed in terms of actual illegal driving by standing in one place. Even if you do see something (chances are it’s a red light jump if you’re at a junction – but let’s face it, there’s much less chance of seeing that if you’re stood there in full view in a police uniform) how are you going to chase the offender down? Even if there’s another group of police to radio to, that’s only any good if the offender hasn’t turned off the road by that point, and even then you’re not gathering evidence other than at two isolated points.

Yet anyone who rides a bicycle knows that when you’re on a bike you can very, very easily spot dangerous and/or illegal road users, whether they’re in cars or vans, on bikes or on foot. What’s more, you can keep up with them. In an urban environment like London, even if they’re faster than you the chances are you can catch them at a subsequent set of lights. The video above is a prime example of being able to record, at length and in some detail, someone texting whilst driving around vulnerable road users. Deploying police on street corners neither spots this nor records it.

What’s more, mingling with the traffic lets you observe a whole different category of things. Instead of simply being able to point at the facile, obvious things like headphones, helmets and hi-viz – all of which have been shown by research to be at best barely relevant to safety – you can observe the things which really matter but which are otherwise difficult to see. Namely, behaviours. You can spot bad filtering, left hooking, people cycling into HGV blind spots, tailgating, phone use… all those things which are absolutely critical to safety but which are very difficult for the bystander – whether literal or metaphorical – to point at and identify.

By simply moving with and among the traffic, you make a sea change in what you perceive to be the real issues. And the bicycle is the perfect tool with which to do this: you have a great vantage point, you can often keep up with urban traffic, and you can filter through queues.

Poacher turned game

It all begs the question: Why are the police standing still, in groups? Why aren’t they on bicycles?

The people on bicycles, the people who arguably are most at risk (actually, in terms of fatalities nationally, it’s pedestrians by a nose) and who are most disillusioned with their protection by law, have devised an approach to gather evidence. They’re out there doing it, with cameras, logging registration details and capturing faces on camera.

How hard would it be for the police to do this? Simply put officers on bicycles, with helmet cameras. Evidence would be rolling in. It would be a tidal wave.

But, wait. There’s something else.

The effects of sending out plain clothes officers (or at least non-obvious policemen; perhaps a badge worn on the chest?) on bikes could be phenomenal. Anyone who’s seen even a few of these sorts of videos will be familiar with the abuse – normally verbal but sometimes physical – that is dished out. Those who’ve gestured or spoken to drivers to admonish them for using a phone will be familiar with the same abuse.

Now, if the people of London – whether in a car or on a bike – were aware that there were plain clothes officers out on bikes, maybe they’d think twice about passing dangerously, about left hooking them or opening their door into them. Maybe they’d think twice about texting or phoning or reading a book whilst driving. Maybe they’d think twice about reacting with verbal or physical assaults when challenged.

Personally, I think they’re pretty strong maybes.

Do that, and you’re preventing crime even where you don’t have an officer deployed. You’re not just pointing at the obvious. You’re affecting behaviour. You’re making the roads safer.

Make a change

You want to improve safety without having to wait for the roads to be re-engineered? Then you need to change people’s behaviour.

You want to change people’s behaviour? Then you need to make people understand they could be properly in trouble if they don’t behave well.

You want to make people understand that? Then you need to make people think that any one of the vulnerable road users to whom they need to give margin for error could be the one that ends up feeling their collar, dragging them to court and taking their licence away.

You want to protect the vulnerable? Then you need to become the vulnerable.

Standing on a street corner saying “well, you’ve already got lights and a helmet” and shrugging is going to protect no-one. Putting the power of the law into the clothing of those who need its protection will.

But then, is this about protection? Or is it about votes?


  1. platinum 27 November 2013 1:03am #

    It’s entirely an arse-saving exercise for Boris et al. They know that they were warned beforehand about the dangers of the superhighways and they did nothing. The coroner of two cyclist deaths said it was an “accident waiting to happen”. Still they did nothing. More cyclists and pedestrians have died since then. Still they have done nothing.

    They are quaking in their boots. They are afraid of being sued, So what can you do about that – easy, victim-blame. If it’s the victim’s fault, then it can’t possibly be the fault of the road design. Simples. The first thing that came out of Boris’s mouth when he commented about these horrible deaths, before they’d even been investigated by police, victim-blaming. Ever since then, victim-blaming. Now all we’ve got is newspapers full of headlines about the usual, helmets, hi-vis, headphones. It’s a complete misdirection. Boris has already won this round.

    If they were serious about safety, they’d have crews down at Bow roundabout and other dangerous junctions two weeks ago setting up temporary lighting systems and coning off proper segregated lanes, but no, that would have been a “knee-jerk reaction”.

  2. thecivilengineer 27 November 2013 6:04am #

    Brilliantly put! Remember everyone there’s the protest outside TfL HQ this Friday 29th Nov from 5pm to 6.30pm.

  3. Rangjan 27 November 2013 9:33am #

    It’s a PR vote-saving exercise.

  4. Ian Walker 27 November 2013 9:59am #

    I believe criminal law theory says that the number one thing to do if you want to deter people from committing offences is not to have harsher punishments – it’s to have a higher probability of being caught. If people felt there was a strong chance of being caught and held to account for their misdeeds, even if that were just being forced to reflect publicly on how appropriate it is to have a tantrum at a complete stranger, I suspect a lot of problems would disappear.

    Mind you, I’m also conflicted, as I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that the solution to antisocial behaviour is that we all video each other all the time – or that the State does that for us. We need also to think about how we can win hearts and minds so that people behave appropriately even when not being observed. After all, the reason I don’t burgle houses is not so much that I fear being caught (the chances are I’d get away with it), as because I strongly believe it’s not a good thing to do and so wouldn’t do it even if it were, for some reason, permitted.

    • Bez 27 November 2013 10:07am #

      Indeed. I see cameras as a double edged sword. No-one likes to be on camera (in this context). But the reason we have cameras is because we have no police operating in this manner.

      Perhaps the police wouldn’t need cameras, perhaps they would be able to convict without. In which case, great. But maybe they’d need the evidence. I don’t know, I’m no expert on the technicalities.

      But the existence and proliferation of private videos from people on bikes, and pretty much exclusively people on bikes, is clear evidence of two things: firstly that people on bikes feel completely unprotected by the law, and secondly that a bike is by far the best vantage point from which to gather evidence of the scale and severity of offending by road users of all types in an urban environment.

      It’s just a crying shame that the police haven’t seized this opportunity to make a sea change in their effectiveness in enforcing road laws and encouraging safe behaviours.

      • Noom 29 November 2013 5:27pm #

        I completely agree! Thanks for your excellent post!

        Cycling gives you the perfect view to observe drivers (or cyclists) texting, endangering others in various ways, dangerous holes in the street etc. A view you dont get standing around a junction or sitting in a car. The video ahead just speaks volumes!!

        I’m afraid more & more people playing with their phones while driving will force those who try to ride reasonable to look out even more, to a unrealistic point, unless the police tries to finally genuinely detect & punish that behaviour.

    • Simon George 27 November 2013 10:28am #

      Many motorists have been caught on cycle cameras but it is clear that the police are extremely reluctant to take action as they obviously empathise with the motorist rather than the victim. If the police did their duty there would be a huge change in driver behaviour but plainly they are not going to take effective action until they are directed to by the politicians.
      To win hearts and minds we probably have to stop talking about cyclists and refer to vulnerable children and adults on foot or bicycle.

  5. Sarah 27 November 2013 10:54am #

    Ideally I think you need teams of three or four: a plain-clothes officer on a bike with front and rear-facing cameras in radio contact with two or three officers in a car just up the road. The latter can flag people down, direct them to park in a coned-off area in a side-street, show them the video footage, process the attendant paperwork – and, in the more extreme cases, make arrests or secure vehicles.

  6. Kalyn86 28 November 2013 12:20am #

    Good work. Gratz.

  7. Lucie 28 November 2013 11:09pm #

    We’ve had the same reaction in Bristol since someone died the other week, only the police were on foot to to advise drivers to stay out of cycle boxes and also on cycles to catch cyclists jumping reds.. so still not really doing anything for cycle safety, but at least they had bobbys on bikes..

  8. Padder 29 November 2013 8:47am #

    I cannot tell you how many cyclists on a daily basis simply fly through red lights with people crossing, bellowing foul language and abuse at those who have waited ages for a green crossing light in the city I live in. The cyclists who fly down the pavement no regard for you moving around on the pavement, going to the edge to cross or moving towards a shop – again the abusive and unpleasant behaviour. This is a majority – at the crossing near my work, 80% of cyclists go through the reds. It is not good enough to say well it probably doesn’t hurt anyone. it probably won’t hurt anyone if I stamp about the pavement screaming at passerbys, but it is offensive and intimidating., As far as I am concerned, cyclists are in the main, self serving, moaning, excuse making menaces. This is built on my experience of their behaviour.

    • Bez 29 November 2013 11:28am #

      You noted the bit where I said that putting policemen on bikes would be a better way to catch offending cyclists, right?

      I’m not defending riding in a way that endangers others. Not in the slightest. Nor am I defending behaviour that’s aggressive or intimidating – even though I think it is, broadly speaking, less of a priority than keeping people alive.

      I’ve always maintained that people on bikes should treat people on foot as they want to be treated by people in cars. And I don’t believe anything in this post should cause anyone to infer otherwise.

      All I’m saying is two things:

      Firstly, that if the objective here is to improve cyclist safety then this is not an effective means of achieving it.

      And secondly, that if the objective here is to identify, prosecute and – most importantly – prevent illegal behaviour, then there is an obvious and far, far, better way to do it.

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