Motoring needs role models

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

The shocking death of 9 year old James Quackenbush has reopened the debate on whether flame-retardant motoring overalls should be compulsory. Stars from the world of motoring should stand up and take a lead on the issue.

James Quackenbush is, of course, just one of several people to have died on Britain’s roads in recent weeks while not wearing a full fireproof motoring bodysuit. Margaret Blanshard we now know died of a cardiac arrest after her Ford Fiesta collided with a lorry on the A90 in Fife; the 72 year old was too old fashioned to update her wardrobe to include a simple set of motorist’s aromatic polyamide fibre coveralls. Meanwhile, charges of causing death by dangerous driving have been dropped against 24 year old Wayne Acocks of Essex after it emerged that the driver of the Skoda Octavia that was hit by the stolen Audi R8 Acocks was driving had not been wearing motoring overalls — the Skoda driver died in hospital from multiple major trauma hours after being airlifted from the scene of the horrific high-speed smash.

But it is the case of James Quackenbush that has renewed the urgency of calls for a change in the law. It is one thing for a grown adult motorist to choose to throw away their life by not taking the simple step of donning a set of motoring overalls, but to allow a child passenger motorist to go without is quite another. AWWTM phoned grieving mother Kate Quackenbush — who left Queen Elizabeth Hospital in a wheelchair this morning — to ask how she felt as the woman responsible for the death of her own son, but the child killer declined to comment. As has been widely reported, the boy was not wearing motoring overalls when he died instantly from serious crushing injuries as the single mother’s 1998 Peugeot 205 was impacted on the passenger side by a construction waste lorry whose over-hours driver had momentarily lost concentration at the busy crossroads.

As a motorist myself, I can’t see any reason why you would not wear a flame-retardant motoring suit. I can tell you, I was very grateful I was wearing mine when I got into trouble recently. Luckily it only turned out to be a minor prang — a smashed light and a scraped panel — but I dread to think how differently it could have turned out had I not been wearing my lifesaving overalls.

Naysayers point out that most car crashes do not involve a fire, and that those which do are usually of such a severity that a flame-retardant outfit is unlikely to be of much use. To those critics we say: you’re free to make that irrational choice to go and kill yourselves if you like. For now.

And yet still many of the youngsters newly attracted to the pastime are not making the right choice. Until such a time as the law is updated, there is undoubtedly a role here for top stars from the world of motoring to set an example. Fireproof overalls have, of course, been compulsory in the professional sport for many years now. But amateur motorists need leaders to look up to. It was gratifying to hear Lewis Hamilton state his support for a change in the law in a recent press conference, but why isn’t Hamilton doing more to encourage youngsters and to help show that flame-retardant boilersuits are not just cool, they’re an essential part of any motor to school or weekly drive to the supermarket.

Our sporting heroes have a simple duty: to set an example. They must do the right things, and let people copy those right things. And one of those oh so simple little things is wearing full body flame-retardant overalls at all times behind the wheel.

Not hard, is it?

The tragedy around The Commons

I did a video, because I was too lazy to think about and research and write up a topic properly, and because I needed something for testing editing software. It’s about shared use foot/cycle paths in parks. I know! Super exciting, right?

This means that I now not only hate the sound of my voice, I hate my mannerisms generally. I was not entirely unaware that smiling/grinning/laughing doesn’t look good on me, but, damn, I do all those other things as well?

But in a fit of reckless impulsiveness I thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.

It starts with an apology, but I’m really not sure that one is ever enough.

For more on the topic, see Jon’s post at Traffik In Tooting. The London Cycling Campaign discussion referenced is here.

Railway safety doesn’t need scare quotes: it works

Do you get annoyed, when it rains or there are autumn leaves on the ground, that your railway station becomes polluted by so many posters and announcements advising you to watch your step, and warning you about the “event of weather”?

I imagine Simon Jenkins must get very irritated. In his latest drivel for the Guardian, Jenkins tells us that it’s impossible to make travel “safe”, and we shouldn’t try. He cites the example of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, in which 79 people died last month. An accident, which nobody intended to happen, and for which it would “not be sensible” to “seek fault”.

We must accept that accidents will happen, Jenkins tells us. Slips, trips and falls and catastrophic high-speed train crashes are inevitable, and if we try to stop them, we might merely make the problem worse. The same is true on the roads, he says, where reducing regulation, sharing space, and replacing instruction signs with ambiguity empowers road users to take more care.

But, as seems to be a habit, Jenkins rather picked the wrong example to prove his point. There’s a reason why I mentioned those apparently inane announcements about being careful not to trip over, and there’s a reason why our stations have become polluted by them. Slips, trips and falls now account for a majority of the serious injuries to staff and passengers on Britain’s railway, and resulted in half of the deaths in the 2012/13 operational year.


Think about that for a moment. A transport network carrying 1.5 billion passenger journeys at speeds now up to 140mph in vehicles with stopping distances measured in the kilometres under high-voltage power lines on complex tangles of steel rails over thousands of bridges and viaducts, all of which requires constant maintenance by a massive workforce using huge arrays of heavy machinery. And the biggest cause of serious injury and of death (aside from suicides and trespass) is falling over.

Four passengers died on the railway in 2012/13, and two members of staff died — though as with the single workforce fatality in the preceding year, one of those was in a motorway car crash on the way to a work site. The passenger fatalities were two trips, an assault, and one death at the “platform/train interface”. That is, two thirds of the fatalities on the railway had nothing to do with actually being on the railway, and could as easily have happened on a walk in the park — in fact, are probably more likely to happen on a walk in the park.


The fact is, far from accidents being inevitable, the Santiago de Compostela crash couldn’t happen here. Our signalling systems alone, not to mention the wider railway system and culture of safety, would not have allowed a driver to let his high-speed train travel so vastly overspeed into such a bend. That’s the exact sort of signalling that automatically protects and stops trains that Jenkins warns us against. And it works. Far from the 79 or more fatalities that Jenkins’s “safety systems are dangerous” thesis would predict, last year was the sixth consecutive one without a single fatal train crash. Zero people have died in a British train crash since a Glasgow-bound Pendolino came off the tracks at ill-maintained points in Cumbria early in 2007, resulting in an impressive back-flip by the lead car and a tumbling slide down the embankment by those following. And, astonishingly, just a single fatality of one elderly passenger, thanks to the strength and safety engineering of the modern carriages.

And as is always the case when there’s a British train crash — or even just a (not so) near miss — a thorough investigation followed, lessons were learned, investment was made in new technologies and working practices were revised to ensure that nothing like it could happen again.

Stopped clocks and even Simon Jenkins are right sometimes. We can learn a road safety lesson from a train crash. It’s just the exact opposite of the one Jenkins suggests. Accidents don’t just happen. We can stop them if we have the will.


Don’t treat obesity as physiology or physics

I have a whole bunch of draft and outline blog posts from winter and spring that I was never able to find the time to finish off. To clear them out of the way, I’ve bashed out some half-hearted conclusions, and will post them this month.

Flicking through the pile of Natures that never got read properly, ready to be rid of them, I alighted on Gary Taubes’s opinion piece: Treat obesity as physiology, not physics. Bear with me while I appear to be completely off-topic talking science for a while.

Taubes argues that:

…obesity is a hormonal, regulatory defect… it is not excess calories that cause obesity, but the quantity and quality of carbohydrates consumed. The carbohydrate content of the diet must be rectified to restore health.

Taubes set out his case that it is not useful to think of obesity as a straightforward energy in/out imbalance that causes weight gain, but that it’s in understanding that specific forms of that energy — carbohydrates, and sugars doubly so — activate our body’s own fat accumulation systems (through the well understood insulin process) where solutions lie. You’ll be familiar with it from all that “Atkins diet” and “glycaemic index” stuff: energy in the form of carbs bad; energy from dietary fat not so much.

Taubes thinks this is important stuff because:

…the overeating hypothesis has failed. In the United States, and elsewhere, obesity and diabetes rates have climbed to crisis levels… despite the ubiquity of the advice that if we want to lose fat, we have to eat less and/or move more.

There is an obvious response to this, but Taubes pre-empts it:

Yet rather than blame the advice, we have taken to blaming the individuals for not following it ‘properly’.

Suggesting that Taubes thinks that if only we change the advice from “eat less and exercise more” to his “don’t eat high glycaemic index foods”, the advice will be followed and we will then succeed in defeating obesity.

I imagine any “advice” we give will be useless, whether it’s based on physics or physiology.

Because while obesity is about physics and physiology — and psychology and genetics and half a dozen other fields of science — none of those things explain what is important: why there is more obesity now than in the past, and how to make there be less of it in the future.

The laws of physics haven’t changed in fifty years. Physiology, and the genes that underlie it, can change — but only by evolution over the course of hundreds of generations, not a few decades. Sure, our bodies have a mechanism for turning carbohydrates into fat stores. But they always have.

The focus is on the quantity of energy in and the quantity out because that is what has changed during the rise of the obesity crisis. By all means refine that to a specific focus on an excess of high-glycaemic index foodstuffs and a deficit of burning off specific sugars, but the problem that really matters remains fundamentally not one of physics or physiology but of our environment.

Taubes is right to treat those who “blame individuals for not following the advice properly” with contempt. But not because the advice is wrong. Because any “advice” — right or wrong — is going to be useless. This is not a problem that individuals have created for themselves, and it’s not a problem that individuals can be “advised” to solve for themselves. This is a problem of the environment that we live in: the types of food that are available to us, and the opportunities for an active healthy lifestyle that have been taken away from us.

Taubes later uses an analogy with smoking and lung cancer, and the analogy perfectly describes what’s wrong with the idea that obesity should be treated as a physiology problem. We know a great deal about the physiology of smoking-related lung cancer. We know how all of the many different carcinogenic chemicals within cigarette smoke flow through the lungs and pass through membranes into the cells. We know the chemical reactions that they participate in and how those reactions cause damage to the cells’ DNA. We know exactly which pieces of DNA damage result in the harmful mutations that transform them into cancer cells, driven to grow and divide. We know exactly how those mutations — to genes with names like RAS and RAF, and EGFR and a dozen others — change the shape of the proteins that those genes encode, and why that change of shape causes those proteins to misbehave. We know how these things result in the tumour evading the body’s inbuilt defences, how they hijack the blood supply to allow their expansion, and how they go on to invade and destroy neighbouring tissue and eventually escape and metastasise.

And knowing these things about physiology makes not the slightest difference to solving the smoking problem. Smoking-related lung cancer, like obesity, is a process of physiology. But it’s a problem of environment. And the most important lesson from smoking for obesity is that you can’t solve a problem environment with advice alone. Bad lifestyle choices are not an individual failing. Good lifestyle choices need an infrastructure to support them.

Bristol: this is an embarrassment, sort it out

Bristol is, I think — and have mentioned here many times — one of the top three least worst cities for cycling in the UK. They understand there that it is the danger and discomfort posed by motor traffic that prevents people from cycling, and it is their steady expansion and improvement to traffic-free routes that enabled a near doubling of cycle modal share for commuting since the 2001 census, to what is, by Britain’s risible standards, a relatively respectable 8%.

And this last week the city invoked jealous looks from the rest of the country on twitter when it opened the consultation on the latest in its long backlog of cycle network infrastructure projects: a proposal for what it describes as a “Dutch-style” bidirectional cycle track alongside a main road and the New Cut of the River Avon a little way south of the city centre. Not because the few hundred metres of cycle track are in themselves all that revolutionary, but because they saw a city quietly getting on with it, happy to replace car parking spaces with cycling infrastructure, and with little of the “Crossrail for bikes”-style hype.

So it should be a subject of great embarrassment for Bristol that at the same time as designing “Dutch-style” cycle tracks that take space from motoring on Clarence Road, it is finalising planning permission for the next Facility Of The Month alongside a big new ringway road — dressed up as a Bus Route — a couple of kilometres to the south.

The latest visuals of the South Bristol Link Road are strong contenders for the most ridiculous artist’s impression of a new road yet — and gosh does that prize have some competition.


And amongst the wildflower meadows and sylvan glades of this new paradise, where morning motorists will no doubt be serenaded by songbirds as they speed uninterrupted through the city like they were promised in the car commercials, pedestrians and cyclists will be treated with utterly contemptuous shared pavements.


A nineties throwback, a footway with a white line down it, interrupted by every driveway and sprawling side-road. Straight out of the government’s Manual for Crap Facilities.

Elsewhere Bristol is learning the lesson that much of its first generation cycle infrastructure — the Railway Path, the quaysides, and many dozens of “fiddly little bits” documented in detail by Sam Saunders — is proving inadequate, victim of the city’s small success, as their insufficient capacity and lack of clarity creates conflict between users. Which is why the city is learning to build “Dutch-style” clear cycle tracks — Clarence Road being the latest of a series.

And it’s why it’s so galling to see a proposal for something not even up to standards of that first generation of infrastructure. A facility that is, at best, worthy of Birmingham or South Gloucestershire.

What do we want? Marginal gains!

When do we want them? After a statutory period of public consultation


Oh, wait, no. The chant that greeted commuters on the Aldgate gyratory from the couple of thousand who turned out at short notice for the LCC “flashride” protest was:

Blue paint: not enough.

We always knew that Boris Johnson’s splashes of blue paint on big main roads were woefully inadequate and as we pause to mark the latest inevitable fatality to occur on the most lethal of the lot, CS2, the last thing we need is friends who tell us to be less ambitious in what we ask for.

The people who came to protest at Aldgate on Friday did so because they knew it was worth their time to do so: they know that what they are asking for is worth asking for. Worth fighting for. They came to ask for things that will make a real difference. A phase change.

Not marginal gains. Not splashes at the margins that “dance and dodge around motor traffic”. Nobody ever came out on a march with pickets asking for marginal gains.

Marginal gains are not enough.

But, despite decades of failing to motivate anybody with the prospect of marginal gains, marginal gains are what some would still have us campaigning for. Why? Because the cycling lobby is too weak. There aren’t enough cyclists to hold any sway.

It’s always good every now and again to have somebody new butt in, who hasn’t been paying attention, to run through and remind us of all the canards and zombie arguments. Welcome, Guy Chapman:

We can formalise the argument with a formula. The extent to which a cause is worth fighting is dependent on the magnitude of the payoff multiplied by the probability of actually getting your way. And the assumption is that there’s an inverse relationship between the magnitude of what’s being asked for and the chances of actually getting it. So we get fans of small payoff campaigns telling proponents of high payoff campaigns to “be realistic”.

Problem is, I reckon they’ve got their probabilities wrong. And they’ve got them wrong precisely because of the fact that you’ll never get people out on the street chanting for marginal gains. All except a small hardcore of campaigners will look at the payoff, shrug, and ask themselves what’s the point. Seeing nothing in it for ordinary people, the media will ignore it and politicians will dismiss it as a single issue minority pressure group asking for favours.

Whereas, if you get your strategy right, if you ask for something that is ambitious enough to motivate people to fight for it, you will have a much better chance of achieving your goal. If it’s attractive enough and inclusive enough to appeal to more than just the usual few suspects. If it has something to offer them.

The reason why we so often don’t get our strategy right all comes back to that pernicious way of thinking that is at the root of so much that is rotten in this field, and is so excellently demonstrated in the first of those tweets:

That is, the tendency towards the assumption of monomodality. In this case it causes us to think about cyclists’ issues, and ask ourselves what cycling campaigns can do for cyclists. Even when discussing the issue of what it takes to enable more people to make more of their journeys by bicycle — what we can do for people currently excluded from cycling — too many contributors to the discussion are encumbered by this idea that this must be a job for cyclists.

And there aren’t enough cyclists, therefore cyclists can’t achieve much.

Therefore there’s no point in trying.

When actually, the correct conclusion to all this is that if we are ever to achieve anything worthwhile, what we ask for has to appeal beyond cyclists: beyond those few who are happy to put that cringe-inducing cliché “keen cyclist” beside their name; beyond the hardcore who turn up to campaign meetings. Beyond the sort of weirdoes who tell to their bewildered friends that it’s fine if you “take the lane”. It has to actually have something obvious to offer to people.

Parliament Square

If you want to motivate and mobilise, your vision needs to make an obvious offer of something worth fighting for. (via Pedestrianise London)

At its finest, Go Dutch does that. It motivates and mobilises people who would just shake their heads in wonderment at the campaigns for marginal gains. It at least brings on board what are usually dismissively filed away under “occasional cyclists” — the third of the population who use their bikes on the very rare occasions when they can do so in a safe environment, but who otherwise leave them languishing in sheds, longing for the opportunity to use them more. It even brings on board a few people who aren’t even occasional cyclists, but who can see the possibilities when they are presented clearly in visualisations like those drawn up for Blackfriars and Parliament Square. Go Dutch motives and mobilises people because it has something to offer them. It gets in the Evening Standard because it’s of interest to ordinary Londoners. And it gets the attention of politicians because it’s for their electorate, not for a minority special interest group.

Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like m’colleague opposite, who has taken Bikeability and lives on a 20mph street, but who still won’t use her bike for anything other than recreation because to do so in London is far from fun. Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like my friend Shiv, who, if you even humorously suggest might “take the lane”, will explain that this is a “fucking terrifying” idea. Since they are not cyclists, they are at best going to ignore any campaign to make life marginally easier for cyclists as having nothing to offer them.

Go Dutch does offer something. They can see it making a difference to their lives. That could be for them. They can sign up to that.

Your country needs you

On Friday:

Join the London Cycling Campaign protest ride this Friday calling for clear space for cycling on our streets

Meet 6pm for 6.15pm start at Tower Hill (where it meets Minories) protest ride will last approximately 20-30 minutes, including a brief stop at the junction of A11 Whitechapel Road and A1202 Commercial Street to pay respects at the place where last week’s victim died
The ride will be marshalled by LCC staff and volunteers, and will finish at Altab Ali Park around 6.30pm

And read more about why at ibikelondon.

On Saturday:

National rally against road-building

Saturday 13 July 2013 at Crowhurst, East Sussex

Come to the Combe Haven valley to raise the alarm about Government plans for a massive programme of new roads. Join campaigners from across the UK for a rally and walk along the route of the most destructive and fiercely opposed new road being built in England – the £100 million Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.

That is all.