Slapdash signals

I tweeted a little clip of something from a commute of a few months ago. It was the police making a couple of annoying, potentially very dangerous, and entirely understandable mistakes.

First, the police driver has blocked an advance stop box. I imagine probably the lights were green when they entered it, but a traffic jam ahead of them prevented them continuing on their way before the lights turned red.

It’s a common problem. Blocking ASLs is the least of it. Blocking pedestrian crossings and entire junctions happens all the time too, because motorists know they can try their luck and just keep bumper hugging in slow-moving traffic without worrying about whether they’ll be able to see when the lights turn green again. Aggressive motorists can nudge forward through red lights and pedestrian crossings, ready to floor it when they see their light turn green.

My thesis is that this behaviour is not merely accommodated by repeater traffic lights on the far side of junctions, but over time it has been slowly, creepingly encouraged by it. Those who have driven or cycled outside the UK will have noticed that having multiple signal heads to display the same signal strewn about a junction are quite a British peculiarity. They’re not unheard of elsewhere, but it’s far more normal to have just the one signal — in most countries, always situated at the stop line (but in some, always situated directly opposite on the far side of the junction).

And they exist purely to accommodate drivers who have overshot their stop line. I guess at some time, somebody identified that there was a niche problem: occasionally a driver accidentally stopped over the line, or had to make an emergency stop for some reason, and then couldn’t see when lights changed. And they invented far-side repeaters as a solution, and in doing so have created a far more ubiquitous and pernicious problem.

But this isn’t the only danger created by far side repeater signals. The second, equally excellently demonstrated by the police in the original video, is that they turn junctions with the slightest complexities into a dangerously confusing mess. The police driver clearly sits in the advanced stop box watching a signal on the far side of the junction, and shoots off when they see it turn green. Only to realise that they’ve been watching one of the many independent signal heads that is associated with an entirely different stop line in the junction complex. Luckily on this occasion there wasn’t anybody in the pedestrian crossing, and they correct their mistake before hitting the traffic that actually has the green light.

Far side repeaters have also created ample opportunity for the opposite kind of confusion: people who are making a turn will ignore any red light in the street they’re turning into, because they’ve been trained to assume that such lights must be far side repeaters aimed at traffic waiting in the perpendicular arm of the junction. So we get people who are making turns shooting through pedestrian crossings because they’ve been trained that when you’re moving through a junction, it’s normal to see red lights that don’t apply to your flow and which you can safely ignore.

This is just one specific, but excellently illustrative example of two more fundamental flaws in how we design and manage our streets:

  1. The motoring industry has successfully defined “road safety” as being accommodating the bad behaviour of motorists and making sure that the dangerous situations they create don’t end up with them killing themselves, rather than about preventing them creating those dangerous situations.
  2. We have lots of lengthy and precise regulations and design guidance which get prescriptive about lots of detail that isn’t really very important (giving councils plenty of opportunity to say improvements are impossible because the technical guides say no) while remaining silent on lots of big stuff that has a massive effect on the usability of our streets, allowing councils to create all kinds of confusing slapdash rubbish.

This latter point is perhaps more perfectly illustrated by this deadly pedestrian crossing in Sheffield, which last I checked had not been fixed because it follows the strict and detailed regulations and design guidance perfectly, while being utterly and fatally incomprehensible to everyone who has to use it.

Anyway. That’s my pitch. The campaign to ban far side repeater lights is open.

 

 

New road safety campaign calls for greater visibility on the roads

As the nights draw in and the clocks go back, it’s time once again for the perennial road safety campaigns to call for cyclists and pedestrians to take their share of responsibility by making sure that they’re visible.

But today I’m delighted to announce another important new road safety campaign.

Because every day when I look around on our streets it is clear to me that it’s not just cyclists and pedestrians who are failing to do their bit by making themselves visible. There is another group of road users who are all too often failing to do their bit.

That’s right, I’m talking about fluorescent yellow illuminated retroflective plastic ‘keep left’ bollards.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

All of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

Both of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

 

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

One of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

https://twitter.com/adventuresofrob/status/887372941691932673

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard still should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

It’s time fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective plastic ‘keep left’ bollards took their share of responsibility on the roads and made themselves more visible.

Cyclists need more situational awareness and training

No more learned an authority than Lord Alan Sugar recently proclaimed that cycling infrastructure is unnecessary because cyclists simply need more situational awareness and training.

I realise now that the noble lord has a point. We could save the tiny number of very important people like Lord Sugar who drive into London minutes on their journeys if we just train everybody to be more situation aware.

There’s just one thing I’d have to add to Lord Sugar’s training programme: it’s not just the cyclists we’d have to train.

Because these signposts also need more situational awareness.

These traffic lights need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This guardrail needs more situational awareness.

This utilities cabinet needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This street lamp needed more situational awareness.

These stands needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This 20mph sign needs more situational awareness.

This bollard bottom right needs more situational awareness.

This utilities box needs more situational awareness.

This stand needs more situational awareness.

This bin needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This lamp post needs more situational awareness.

All of this needs more situational awareness.

These signs need more situational awareness.

This stuff needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

This zebra crossing needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

These 20mph signs need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

And this bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

All of this shit needs more situational awareness:

This railway needs more situational awareness:

This underground railway needs more situational awareness:

This lake needs more situational awareness:

https://twitter.com/KatyHolliday/status/684697437051682816

This “Let’s look out for eachother” sign needs more situational awareness:

This sign needs more situational awareness:

These bollards need more situational awareness:

This sign for cyclists needs more situational awareness:

This photographic representation of a cyclist on a phone box advert needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian guardrail needs more situational awareness:

Traffic signals need more situational awareness:

Ponies need more situational awareness:

The sea needs more situational awareness:

All of this needs more situational awareness:

Cycle paths need more situational awareness:

Trees need more situational awareness:

Rivers need more situational awareness:

These Dutch things need more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This bus lane and contraflow cycle lane needs more situational awareness:

These trees need more situational awareness:

This traffic signal needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing button needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness:

If we can train the cyclists to have more situational awareness and we can train the road signs and the bollards and the bridges and the pedestrian refuges and the zebra crossings and the traffic lights and the fences and the bell bollards and the utilities boxes and the bins and the railways and the lakes and the phone boxes and the guardrail and the cycle paths and the sea to have more situational awareness… then we’re 👌. Lord Sugar will once again be able to do whatever the fuck he likes.

Oh, except we’ll also have to train all the houses, and some of those are quite old and set in their ways…

A picture of a corpse

I saw a corpse on the street on the way to work this morning. Not for the first time, and, well, traffic violence is hardly worth commenting on these days. But a corpse is still enough to mark a day apart.

According to people on twitter, passers by were taking pictures of the corpse. People on twitter thought it distasteful, not right, undignified. Best move on, let the police and TfL clean up, nothing to see, nothing to share, nothing to comment on.

I didn’t get my camera out, but I took away a picture.

A line of cones and the blue folding “Police Road Closed” sign, gently swept traffic into a neat turn down a residential side-street towards the Clapham Road. The four lanes of the Brixton Road were incongruously empty. People walked in it and their comments and conversations could be heard. You don’t normally hear what anybody says on a London street.

Four red double-deck buses and one large tourist coach were all that was left of a queue that I guess must have been much longer. A TfL man must have worked his way down the queue, turning the buses back to send them around the diversion, and he was waving the coach through a three point turn. Beyond the police tape, empty and silent, the bus at the front of the queue sat at an angle, frozen in the middle of pulling out from the bus lane.

Beyond that, some way, a small pile lay in the middle of the northbound traffic lane. A jacket, leather I guess, and some other scraps of clothes. A few little pieces of rubbish left from where the paramedics and air ambulance trauma surgeons tried to resuscitate the corpse in the road. Perhaps they tried to replace lost blood. Perhaps they cut it open where it lay in a final attempt to get it started again. But they weren’t part of the picture, just a trace in the scene some time after their departure.

And then there was the corpse. Moved to the footway, just placed on the kerb, perfectly parallel to the northbound bus lane. Just lying there, out on its own in an empty stretch of street. They’d spread a crumpled greying-white sheet — too small — over it, and a bare, pale, very pale left arm and shoulder lay uncovered on the kerb, one of those old, broad, dirty stone south London kerbs. Not muscled, not skeletal, not obese, not hairy, a fairly typical arm for a fairly typical corpse.

And some way further on still, a motorbike stood on its stand where it had been wheeled onto the footway, out of the way. I don’t know motorbikes. Something dark, modern, clean and not obviously seriously damaged.

I only glanced over for a second, from behind the railings far away on the diversionary path, and I turned away and I kept walking but I took away a picture.

On the way home, the road was as it always is. Swept clear and back to the gushing open sewer of traffic it always is. Two kerb stones were perhaps a little cleaner. And flowers had sprouted beside where the corpse’s feet lay.

It’s not right to take pictures of corpses. It’s distasteful, undignified to share pictures of corpses. When people see pictures of corpses they’re liable to think there might be dead people behind the corpses, and they’re liable to become curious about who the people are and why they are dying. When people see pictures of corpses, looking human, looking humdrum, perhaps lying on boring kerbs, their own boring kerbs, in their own mundane streets in front of their own ubiquitous red buses, like they do every other day somewhere in this city, perhaps they might question why there are people dying on their morning commute, and why we keep just sweeping them away.

Show some respect, eh. No pictures. No front pages.

DSC_3693

7 years, 4 months and 18 days

7 years, 4 months and 18 days ago, a train crashed in Cumbria. So it seemed like an appropriate moment to post this extract from another project that I’ve been working on. It’s all a draft so your comments and corrections on matters of style and fact are very much welcome.

Just before 8am on the 5th of October 1999, a commuter train left London Paddington bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. A few minutes later, just as it was getting into its stride through the inner suburbs, it approached the location where the bidirectional terminus station tracks cross over one another and organise themselves into strictly segregated “up” and “down” direction main lines in a great tangle of points. The train passed straight through a yellow warning signal without slowing, and soon after skipped the red stop signal that was all there was to protect those Ladbroke Grove crossovers ahead.

The morning InterCity from Cheltenham hit the commuter train head on at a closing speed of 130mph. The front car of the commuter train was crushed by the heavy express locomotive, which in turn shed its diesel across the tracks while its rake of coaches, full of momentum and still propelled by a second locomotive at the rear, jackknifed into the flaming wreckage. Thirty one people were killed on that occasion; more than 500 were injured.

The driver of the Bedwyn commuter train was obviously unavailable to explain why he failed to respond to the two signals warning him of the danger ahead. The front carriage of his train was completely destroyed in the impact; neither driver was available to defend against media speculation and blame. An Inquiry was ordered, and Lord Cullen was appointed to get to the bottom of the matter and find out what went wrong.

The Cullen Report

Cullen was unusually thorough in his investigations into what went wrong at Ladbroke Grove, eventually publishing not one but two reports. The first, as you would expect, looked at the immediate cause of the crash. It reconstructed the story of how the driver of the commuter train jumped the lights, but found that far from being one man’s mistake, a catalogue of errors had added up to the catastrophe. The driver had only graduated from his training two weeks before the crash, and the inquiry uncovered multiple problems with the train company’s training programme, including inadequate instruction in signal procedures. The train was equipped with an Automatic Warning System, with audible in-cab alarms to warn the driver when the train passes signals — but the system was too simple to differentiate between yellow warning signals and red stop signals, and each time the Bedwyn train passed a signal, the driver had pressed the acknowledgement button to prevent the system from automatically stopping the train, as was the correct practice for yellow signals. The signals themselves had been erected in confusing arrays on gantries over the tracks, with views restricted by nearby bridges and by the line’s newly installed overhead power supply. And the position and design of the signal lights meant that at 8am on a bright October morning, westbound train drivers would see the reflection of the sun “lighting up all the signals like Christmas trees”, as one driver told the inquiry, making it far from obvious that a signal was set to red rather than yellow. The inquiry concluded that a momentary lapse of concentration caused the driver to respond incorrectly to the first signal, while the poor visibility and reflections led him to incorrectly read the second.

The inquiry revealed that the crash on the fifth of October was just the visible tip of an iceberg. The failures that led to the Bedwyn train jumping the lights had led eight others to do exactly the same at that one signal in the previous six years, with a 67 red signals in total passed on the tracks out of Paddington during that time. So-called “signal passed at danger”  events — SPADs — were endemic, and railway management had never taken the problem seriously enough. It was only by chance and good fortune on those previous occasions that there was no oncoming express train. In fact, it was later calculated that, at the rate that signal jumping was occurring at Ladbroke Grove, a catastrophic crash was absolutely inevitable in that location, and at an expected rate of one every 14 years.

In short, Ladbroke Grove revealed that there were widespread failings in the railway system that enabled mistakes to happen and to go uncorrected, and the risks resulting from these failings were accepted as an inevitable fact of life. Cullen realised that his inquiry into the one incident couldn’t ignore the much bigger problem on the railway. And he was proved right even before he could publish his conclusions. One year after the Ladbroke Grove crash, an InterCity bound for Leeds at 115mph derailed on poorly maintained track at Hatfield, killing 4 passengers and revealing the scale of the failings that would soon lead to the collapse of Railtrack, the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure.

Cullen knew that the failings on the railway were far too numerous to identify and fix in one report — he had identified a dozen serious problems in the Ladbroke Grove case alone — and besides, fixing problems would not guard against new ones creeping in. Instead, Cullen introduced the systems that would enable a continual process of identification and correction of problems, and a long-term plan for improvement. Key amongst these were the creation of the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) to oversee an overhaul of the railway’s safety culture. RAIB, modelled on the older Air Accident and Marine Accident Investigation Branches, was created to ensure that an independent investigator got to the bottom of every incident on the railway, rooting out the failures at all levels of the industry. RAIB does for railway incidents today what Cullen did for Ladbroke Grove: the investigator makes extensive enquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to thick reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned. Working practices get revised, enforcement of rules is tightened, and investment is made in new technology.

RAIB investigates incidents with the aim of preventing anything like them from ever happening again. But the one thing RAIB does not do is assign blame. It inherits from Cullen the recognition that in a complicated system like the railway, it takes more than one person to mess up. Malice and incompetence, laziness and greed, and momentary lapses of concentration are surely all characteristics that can be expected of people from time to time. But if those traits are ever allowed to lead to a catastrophe, it is the system that has failed at least as much as any individual.

As Cullen put it, describing the problem of the epidemic of jumped signals — SPADs — at Ladbroke Grove:

Underpinning my approach to these matters is the following. On the one hand the public quite rightly expects that there should be no SPADs which run the risk of causing injury. On the other hand human nature is fallible: no matter the training and experience — and they are extremely important — it is impossible to exclude the possibility of such an event. … if and to the extent that the safe operation of a train is dependent on one person it is essential that the demands which the railway system makes on him or her take adequate account of human factors.

This is a central principle of the systems that Cullen put in place. Ladbroke Grove was not the fault of one driver for failing to stop at a signal: the life and limb of 500 passengers should never have been placed entirely in the hands of one fallible human, just a single momentary lapse of concentration between him and disaster. So in Cullen’s system, the railway industry now identifies situations where one easy mistake could have terrible consequences, and it eliminates them.

Frequently, this means re-configuring track to reduce the kind of the movements that could allow a crash to happen, and introducing new technology to automatically protect trains from the minor mistakes that human drivers and signallers inevitably make. Cullen’s report, for example, specifically advised that Britain roll out technology called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). This system, coupled with other advances in modern signalling technology, makes it pretty much impossible to accidentally crash a train: the positions of all the trains on the line are automatically detected by circuits in the rails and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the person operating the signals to put trains on collision courses; and the trains are sent information about speed limits and signal states, preventing their drivers from speeding and, even if the driver fails to do so, stopping automatically at red lights. ATP had been investigated by British Rail before privatisation, but the government at the time was not prepared to pick up the billion pound bill for installing it across the network. Once the inevitable had happened at Ladbroke Grove, it was perhaps a source of shame to some that the technology which would have made the crash impossible had been rejected on these cost grounds.

Equally important to the success of mechanisms like RAIB in building a safe system is a recognition of the Heinrich Triangle. This, remember, is the pyramid of the many near misses, minor incidents and major injuries that sits below every fatality. RAIB investigates all of these things, not just the headline crashes and fatalities. Even if nothing serious ever came of the near misses and minor lapses, understanding and eliminating the could-have-been calamities is vital if actual catastrophes are to be avoided. In 2013, for example, RAIB investigated such incidents as a part on a poorly maintained engineering train working loose, causing minor damage to track; a team of maintenance workers coming within 2 seconds of being hit by a train, when processes in place should have ensured they always clear the tracks with at least 10 seconds to spare; another in which a farmer was given the go ahead to use a manually operated level crossing while a train — which she saw in plenty of time to stand clear — was approaching; and a signal passed at danger on a minor line that had yet to be equipped with a full train protection system. None of these incidents had any consequences for life or limb — but it was only luck that there were not worse outcomes. So, rather than dismiss them as inconsequential, RAIB investigated and made recommendations for revised working practices and improved technology. New maintenance regimes were implemented for the engineering trains; the planning process for work teams was tightened; and a software bug in the signalling system for the farm crossing was identified and quickly eliminated. By tackling the could-have-been tragedies at the bottom of the pyramid, RAIB have stopped the tragedies at the top before they ever happen.

Ladbroke Grove was just one of a series of catastrophic train crashes that occurred during the short tenure of Railtrack as the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure. Before that, British Rail presided over regular train crashes — diminishing slowly in number and severity over time, but a fact of life nevertheless, from the 112 killed at Harrow and Wealdstone in 1952 to the 35 killed in a similar three train pileup at Clapham Junction in 1988. The pre-nationalisation rail companies were worse still, from the death of William Huskisson in 1830 on the opening day of the original passenger railway, through the dark decades of the late 1800s when sometimes rail disasters could be expected monthly, to the railway’s worst year, 1915, when 265 were killed in four catastrophic crashes. And these are merely the numbers for train crashes, not including the poor neglected navvies who built and maintained the lines or the men operating the freight yards. In the early years, such lowly workers were expendable labour, while politicians agreed with the railway companies — in which many owned shares — that safety regulations would be too burdensome a barrier to bigger profits.  The railway was a different world.

The last time anybody died on a train that crashed in Britain was on the evening of 23 February 2007 when a Virgin Trains express to Glasgow derailed on mistakenly unmaintained track at Grayrigg in Cumbria, the lead carriage performing an impressive backflip as the trailing carriages rolled down an embankment. Thanks to the sturdy design of the modern carriages, just one person died. The Grayrigg crash happened just 7 years, 4 months and 18 days after Ladbroke Grove. It’s impossible to say “never again”, and we must always guard against complacency, but as that incident fades ever further into history, it has started to feel like train crashes simply don’t happen any more. The world changed, and it only took 7 years.

Postscript

For the blog it made sense that I let this little extract stand on its own as a story by itself, but really it’s meant to be understood as one piece within a larger story that I assembled early in the year, topped and tailed with an edited version of this story. In it I try to tie together a few disparate strands that I had been thinking about, using as a theme the imagined “different worlds” that Dave Horton talked about and the real different worlds that have come about, in surprisingly short time, in the Netherlands and on the railways. And in it, the 7 years, 4 months and 18 days of fatal train crash free days are contrasted with the 27 days during that period when we can expect there to have been zero fatal crashes on Britain’s roads. Hopefully it might one day be fit to see the light of day…

Be nice to the ASA

I am sure that if you have not already, you will soon be reading an account of the Advertising Standards Authority’s embarrassing adjudication on complaints made about Scotland’s “Nice Way Code” series of “won’t everyone just play nice on the roads?” adverts. Briefly, of all the things that the ASA could have picked up on in the Nice Way Code, the offending footage ruled to be irresponsible by the ASA are (a) showing a roughly realistic proportion of people riding bikes with and without helmets, and (b) showing somebody riding a bicycle more than 0.5 metres from the side of the road. Other people will give you the full story.

I’m not an expert on advertising regulation, but I guess the first ruling sets a precedent against any future advertising featuring helmetless cycling. Things like TfL’s Catch Up With The Bicycle campaign. A depressing but not entirely unpredictable result of the lazy fact-free assumption on helmets that seems to have put down deep roots in this country (and started growing the fearsome thorns of shouty emotional anecdote). The second ruling is the more interesting and hilarious of the two. This one effectively precludes any future advertising of the standard long-established government guidance on road positioning, as taught in the official “Bikeability” cycling proficiency training. Like the advertising TfL and the DfT (under the Think! brand) are currently running on buses and billboards in London and several other English cities. But again, others will have more time than me to explore the amusing implications of the decision.

No, I only really popped into the discussion to say one thing, in the spirit of the Nice Way Code: be nice.

Obviously someone at the ASA has made a spectacular cockup, and they deserve a day’s mockery and ridicule for such an achingly absurd, side-splittingly ludicrous joke of an assessment.

But, occasional slapstick stupidity aside, I’m sure the ASA are not bad people.

Clearly some junior adjudicator got out of his or her depth, read one document they didn’t entirely understand, and remained ignorant of the actual relevant research and guidance in the field. Sure, there should have been processes in place to prevent errors of such a preposterous magnitude from ever getting so far as publication, but I have no doubt that with the blunder now evident to all, the ASA will be working fast to fix the mistake, and will ensure all is put right before the DfT and TfL are forced to put their adverts on hold while more time and money is wasted formally challenging it.

I’m sure they’re good people, and I’m sure they’ll have this one under control in no time. So be nice to them.

By all means clog up their system with satirical reports intended to mock, and with serious test cases designed to force contradictions, but do be nice.

That’s the Nice Way Code, after all.

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.

PassengerInjuries

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.

EuroComparisons

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.

Riskbymode

Insults, injuries and incompetence

Boris shouldn’t just apologise for blaming cyclists for getting injured. He should correct the policies that are based on this mistake.

It will come as news to nobody that making a journey by bicycle on Britain’s roads means exposing yourself to a considerable number of people who are operating potentially lethal machinery despite having neither the skills nor the temperament for the task. The fact that a significant proportion of the people society has allowed to drive on the public highway are simply not competent behind the wheel is far from a new phenomenon. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for starting this blog two and half years ago.

Over those years the blog has strayed off into all sorts of other areas, like designing out the need to deal with incompetent drivers entirely, but the original issue has been back at the top of my mind — partly due to the other thing I’ve been working on. Mostly, though, I think it’s because of the forceful reminder of the fact that comes from moving to SW17, just off Cycle Superhighway 7. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, or perhaps it’s simply the psychological bias towards to the recent, but after a New Cross-Bloomsbury commute, the roads between Tooting and South Kensington seem to have more than their fair share of the sort of motor vehicle operators who demonstrate a screaming lack of the aptitude and/or attitude that the activity requires.

It’s particularly highlighted in south west London by the near zero speed limit compliance around CS7 between Kennington and Clapham outside of the rush hour congestion, and the folk using the bus and cycle lanes to pass already speeding traffic as they try to get their high-powered cars — which I’ve always presumed must be stolen from the West End — back to Stockwell and Streatham. Or the few folk who still insist on commuting to the City by car, desperately seeking a ratrun back to the Surrey suburbs and not allowing any of LB Wandsworth’s traffic calming to slow them down as they slalom in and out of cycle lanes on residential streets like Burntwood Lane…

Burntwood Lane, LB Wandsworth
Morons in South West London just see traffic calmed residential streets with schools on them as the next level up in the game. Few of the bollards shown remain in situ.

And yet there is one person to whom this blindingly obvious problem might have come as news, at least until recently: Boris Johnson. During his successful campaign for re-election in the spring, the famously carefree with facts Mayor made the absurd claim that two thirds of cyclists who had been injured and killed on the city’s roads were breaking the law when they were injured. After months of pretending that he was trying to remember what the evidence for the obviously fictional factoid was, he finally retracted it — once the election had long passed.

Last month, Jenny Jones MLA asked the mayor to apologise:

In your response to question 2450/2012, you admit that Transport for London’s statistics and research completely disprove your previous claim that two thirds of cyclists who have suffered serious injuries were breaching the rules of the road at the time. Will you now apologise for wrongly blaming cyclists who have been killed or injured on London’s roads through no fault of their own?

The mayor instead decided to send a great big “fuck you” to victims:

Please refer to my response to MQ 2450 /2012.

But it seems to me that Boris has much more to make amends for than merely insulting the victims of bad driving and the way we operate our streets, and he needs to take far more substantial action than making an apology.

Because Boris is responsible for the problem, and if he really has been labouring under the delusion that it is cyclists who are responsible for the carnage on the capital’s streets then his mistake would at least explain why his policies have so far failed to do anything to address the problem.

The office of Mayor of London has always incorporated the role that in the rest of England and Wales is now played by the recently introduced Police and Crime Commissioners. Policing priorities are therefore ultimately Boris’s responsibility. And there is no remotely realistic policy in place for tackling the problems of life-threatening incompetence, aggressive anti-social behaviour, and barefaced criminality amongst operators of motor vehicles that is on near constant display every evening along Cycle Superhighway 7 and the residential streets of south west London. Boris has allowed deadly dangerous driving to carry on as the norm, apparently because he was oblivious to it, preferring to pursue policies targeted at changing cycling behaviour.

He has added insult to injury and he needs to apologise for both.

The telling death of a railwayman

Here, to keep you occupied while I work on something else, is a very short extract from a first draft of something else. It’ll need a bit of work. The context is that it comes amongst a long discussion of societal and judicial attitudes to dangerous driving, including the right to drive and our reliance on cheap road haulage and distribution with lax regulation, and illustrated with several of those case studies with which we are now all too familiar. (The pictures aren’t part of the extract, I’ve merely taken them from the Rail Safety and Standards Board Annual Safety Performance Report, and from STV news (warning: autoplaying audio/video)).

In 2011, a railway worker was killed. Just one. His name was John McInnes, an infrastructure maintenance worker who looked after lines in the north of Scotland. McInnes had thirty years of experience in a job that can come with all the hazards of working alongside fast trains, around heavy machinery, on high structures and amongst live wires. He was killed on the evening of the fourth of July 2011, while travelling to a work site on the Highland Main Line at Kingussie, only five miles from Crubenmore, where this whole story started. But McInnes did not die on the tracks. Accessing the work site by the A9 trunk road, his van and a car crashed with enough force to spark a horrific inferno that took firefighters 45 minutes to control.

This ironic tragedy highlights the already stark contrast between safety on the roads and safety on the railway. For more than a decade, railway workforce fatalities have been measured mostly at the low end of single figures, and five years have now passed without a single passenger or crew member having been killed in a train crash.

There wasn’t always such a profound difference between the safety cultures of the road and the railway. The navvies who built the Victorian railways were treated as expendable labour by powerful company owners who fought safety regulations, not only during construction, but also in everyday operation. Even when the railways were nationalised in the late 1940s, the toll on the workforce was still more than 200 every year. But strong unions demanding their right to safe workplaces, and public opinion demanding change when things go spectacularly wrong — as when major crashes occurred during the Railtrack era — has ensured that, these days, many layers of safety are built into every part of the railway.

The railway industry investigates not only all of the deaths on the tracks, but also the injuries and near misses below them in the Heinrich Triangle. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch makes extensive inquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to fifty page reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned, the working practices to be revised, the rules which must be better enforced, and the new technology which should be adopted. The occurrences that it investigates are mostly what we would call accidents. Nobody was really to blame, and it is not the intention to find anybody to blame, only to prevent anything like it from happening again.

And so we have developed signalling systems which make it almost impossible to accidentally crash a train: train positions are automatically detected and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the signaller to put trains on collision courses and automatically triggering the brakes if the driver fails to stop at red. Engineering work is checked and double checked and measured automatically by high-tech high-speed engineering trains on rolling schedules. In the event that engineering work must be carried out during live traffic, the engineering gangs work with dedicated trackside lookouts using flags and air horns to warn of approaching trains, while drivers sound their own horns until all workers have ensured their position is safe and signalled a clear acknowledgement in reply.

The railway has developed a culture in which staff at all organisational levels respect the fact that the railway is a hazardous work environment and that they must take seriously their responsibilities for the safety of their colleagues and passengers. But it did not achieve its enviable safety record simply by demanding respect and courtesy, and nor did it do so by imposing harsh penalties on workers whose momentary misjudgements ended in catastrophe. It designed a system which forgave those misjudgements: one which accepts that when humans are in control things will go wrong, so the system should be designed to allow humans to make minor mistakes and recover from them before there are any consequences.

In 2011, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch did not have to investigate a single worker death. John McInnes was on the road when he died at work, and when you work on the road, you’re still expendable labour.

Unskilled and unaware of it (re-post)

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t posted anything for weeks. It will be a few more before the project that has been taking up my time is out of the way. Here, then, is something I wrote way back in November 2010, which seemed relevant given the latest Department for Transport “please play nice on the roads” marketing campaign. If I were writing it today, I’d mention a million other things, and probably do away with the sarcastic transport mode tribalism that amused me so when this blog was young. But I’m not.

In the War Bulletin this week I mentioned a study that found drivers to be at fault in 87% of car/bicycle collisions.  According to the press release and coverage, the study included (but was not limited to) giving cyclists in Melbourne helmetcams, and analysing the footage of 54 “events”, including 2 collisions.  It sounds like the study has a number of limitations — it’s difficult to draw general conclusions about collisions from only 2 of them, and the results were only ever going to apply to the helmet-law and vehicular-cycling environment of Melbourne, and even then only to experienced cyclists who (presumably) were aware that that their own behaviour was being recorded.

The study was conducted by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, who I am sure did a good job.  But unfortunately nothing resembling it appears in their reports and publications, and I can find no evidence that the original research has been made public yet.  (Allowing the world’s media to uncritically churn your press release without being able to see the actual details of the work — and perhaps more importantly, before your fellow academics are allowed to review what you have done — is rather bad form.)  So there’s not really anything more we can say until we can see the study itself, and we may yet find that everything that has been said was wrong.

But the reported findings do fit with what we already know about accident causes and driver behaviour.

The Motorist attitude to their own collisions and near-collisions is a particularly interesting field.  When one suggests that speed cameras might be a good thing, for example, somebody will always pop up to declare that they have been driving at 90mph for decades and never caused a single accident, because they are a perfect driver who knows exactly when speed is appropriate. And it might be true: some people are good drivers and some people are bad drivers.  Trouble is, the driver himself can never know which he is: all drivers believe themselves to be above average.  Everybody is seeing bad driving, but nobody admits to doing it.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt documents the details of the phenomenon of drivers unable to recognise their own lack of skill.  A large part of it he puts down to a lack of feedback.  For example, in the Monash helmetcam study, there were a mere 2 collisions, but there were 6 near-collisions and 46 “other incidents” (the classic Heinrich triangle).  These “other incidents” correspond to those situations where we notice people driving badly.  They occur because the driver failed to spot a hazard or failed to recognise as a hazard something that they did see.  By definition, if they did not see or did not recognise, the driver will never have been aware of the situation.  They will reach their destination assuming that they had done a great job, oblivious to the bad driving that had been recorded.  That’s probably what happened in 52 out of the Monash group’s 54 “events”.

And when the driver does finally notice that they have just been in a near collision, they can congratulate themselves for having the skill to have avoided an actual collision.

Thus reassured of their own driving skills, on the few occasions when they do get some feedback, they find ways to dismiss it.  That horn honk wasn’t aimed at me, or if it was, it must be because the other driver is an impatient egotistical bad driver who wouldn’t recognise good driving like mine.  The police pulled me over because they have a quota to fill, or because they’re anti-Motorist, not because I was driving dangerously.  After all, I already know that I am not a dangerous driver.

And then they crash, and it was an accident, bad luck, a momentary loss of concentration, beyond one’s control.  They couldn’t have caused it, because they already know from their experience and their long record of not causing accidents that they must be a good driver.

The evidence from driving simulation experiments shows that drivers can’t accurately remember what was happening in the lead up to the crash — what they saw and heard, who else was on the road and where and which order and when they appeared; what they were thinking and where they were looking and when they last checked their mirrors.  So they can unconsciously fill in these details with whatever makes them feel the least uncomfortable.

When drivers are shown videos of their driving (from helmetcams, or, as Vanderbilt discusses, Drivecam), most of them are surprised to discover that they have many more bad habits than they were aware of.  And that can create some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for them, with attempts to deny or justify their behaviour, or, as with speeding, attempts to redefine it as safe.

It’s important to know these things about driver psychology if you’re trying to create a marketing campaign to make drivers be nice, or design ways to rehabilitate careless and dangerous drivers (how does sending a dangerous driver on their way with a £60 fine help anybody when the driver doesn’t have the skills to figure out what they are doing wrong?), or wondering whether to send your helmetcam footage to Roadsafe to be passed on to the offending driver.

And it’s important to know these things about driver psychology when deciding whether motor vehicles can ever share nicely with vulnerable road users.

John Forester is an asshole

Despite journalists who talk of a cycling “community”, and those beneath them in the bottom half of the internet talking of cyclists and all the evil things that cyclists do, people who use bicycles are a diverse bunch with diverse styles and, as is frequently demonstrated, diverse opinions. But I hope there is one thing on which British cyclists might be able to agree.

John Forester says of The Times Cities Fit For Cycling campaign:

The whole agenda is nothing more than a mix of half-baked ideas. … Consider the emphasis on HGVs. Fit them up to prevent “cyclists from being thrown under the wheels”.

Well, the exact approach to dealing with trucks was an issue we raised with the The Times at the Street Talks brainstorming session. On entirely friendly terms, of course, and all are agreed that there were problems with trucks to solve — they are, after all, a disproportionate source of danger and contributor to the barriers to cycling. Where I think Forester can unite us is in what he says next:

Crazy, who or what is it that reaches out and throws cyclists under the wheels of HGVs? While I don’t know the statistics from detailed studies, and apparently nobody knows, I suggest that the main problem is that cyclists throw themselves under the wheels of such vehicles during turning movements.

Well the Americans might not know much about the problem with trucks, but we know plenty, both from reviews like Morgan et al, and from the cases which make all too frequent headlines.

via Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest

Eilidh Cairns, an experienced commuter cyclist, was killed in February 2009, when a tipper truck driven by Joao Lopes ploughed over her from behind. Lopes was fined £200 for driving with defective vision, but the death was ruled “accidental” and he was free to kill again.

Catriona Patel, an experienced commuter cyclist, was killed in the Monday morning rush hour in June 2009. Pulling away from the Advanced Stop Line as the lights turned green outside Oval Station, a 32-tonne tipper lorry driven by Dennis Putz accelerated into her. Witnesses had to bang on the side of the truck before the oblivious Putz stopped. Putz was a serial dangerous driver, was hung-over — 40% over the limit — and talking on his mobile phone. He denied a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, but was sentenced to 7 years for it.

Brian Dorling, an experienced commuter cyclist and motorcyclist, was killed in the morning rush hour in October last year. A tipper truck turned across his path at the Bow Intersection. They had to use his dental records to identify him.

Deep Lee was struck by a lorry from behind as the lights turned green; Svitlana Tereschenko was killed by a tipper truck whose distracted driver failed to indicate before turning and driving over her. Daniel Cox was run over by a truck which did not have the correct mirrors and whose driver had pulled into the ASL on a red light and was indicating in the opposite direction to which he turned.

Try telling Ian McNicoll that his son Andrew, well versed in cyclecraft as a road and commuter cyclist, should have known better than to throw himself under the wheels of the articulated lorry that side-swiped while overtaking him in Edinburgh. Try telling Debbie Dorling that her cycle and motorcycle-trained husband should have behaved differently at Bow. Try telling Allister Carey that the death of his daughter Eleanor under the wheels of a lorry in Tower Bridge Road was her own fault.

The cycling “community” in this country might not always agree about the most appropriate or desirable method for reducing exposure to danger and its role as a barrier to cycling, but I think at least one thing can unite us: anyone who, knowing little about the world beyond California, says that the problem here is all cyclists’ own fault for throwing themselves under the wheels of trucks, is an asshole who can keep his discredited half-baked ideas to himself.

After Westminster Hall, where next?

I have been neglecting this blog, both pulled away by other projects and watching with awe the unfolding of The Times‘ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. I will assume that all of the readers of this blog have managed to keep up with those events through other sources, and have signed up and lobbied their representatives.

On Thursday afternoon, of course, the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign reached Parliament, with an excellent turnout of MPs enthusiastic for cycling and an astonishing degree of cross-party agreement about the things that make cycling unsafe and unattractive, and the sort of solutions that should be pursued. Unlike Boris “keep your wits about you” Johnson, the assembled MPs recognised that fast and busy roads are the main barrier to people making journeys by bicycle, and they recognised that Britain’s roads are not a natural and immutable phenomenon but things that we can alter to make less dangerous and more attractive for cycling.

There is, of course, only so much that backbench MPs can do, and the picture of Dutch-style cycling in Britain that one-by-one the MPs painted has so far been ignored by those who actually have the power to make a difference.  It is up to ministers to turn the debate into action, and the minister Norman Baker’s response to it all was, of course, embarrassing. Early Day Motions and backbench debates don’t, by themselves, change anything, and as Robert Davis and Cycalogical both point out, we should not be naive and think that the mere fact that this one debate has occurred means that we have received any of the things that were asked for.

But nor should we be too cynical and pessimistic: exciting things are happening. For as long as I’ve been writing about transport, cycling campaigners have tried to tell me that there is no point in asking for high quality cycling infrastructure because there isn’t the political will for it: there aren’t the numbers or the demand. Well the events this past year, and these past few weeks especially — the growing and multiplying flashrides and protests, the rise of cycling as an important London election issue, the Times campaign, and now the remarkably large show of MPs who really get it — have suggested to me that there are the numbers and there is the demand for change. Yes, promises have been made and broken before. But we know much more now — not least, of the alternatives that are possible. Now is the time to learn from those past failures, but not to learn that failure is inevitable. We must make sure that the issue remains at the top of our MPs’ agendas, and we must now set out exactly what ministers need to do, so that they can not fob us off with insufficient funds spent on inadequate things. This could be our “Stop The Child Murder” moment, but only if our efforts are sustained and focussed.

Norman Baker and David Cameron have already claimed their support with many words and few actions. It is, of course, obvious when poor Norman Baker is fobbing us off with a few pennies, barely enough for tiny isolated local incremental improvements; or when our MPs are trying to pass the buck to under-resourced local authorities. It needs to be equally obvious what real activity would look like.

The Times have set out the things that they think should be done in their manifesto. It’s a nice try, and identifying specific tasks for government — so that we can see clearly when they are or are not getting on with it — is exactly what we need to be doing. But The Times‘s list is not quite right. Chester Cycling has set out a better set of objectives for infrastructure, alongside an excellent set of principles for guiding policy discussions and keeping us on track.

My own list of tasks for ministers would place infrastructure at the top — because it’s the biggest, most expensive, and highest impact task — and look something like this:

Norman Baker’s department must get to work revising or replacing the engineering manual for cycling infrastructure — one of the most important promoters of crap cycle facilities and an active impediment to the import of international best practice — and changing the way that highways departments think about building for the bicycle (with the help of The Times‘s suggested “cycling commissioners”, perhaps). The Times are correct to identify junctions as the top priority for rebuilding, but unless we change the engineering manuals and culture, the rebuilt junctions won’t look any different from before. I will go into this in great detail in forthcoming posts.

The Times are absolutely right that funding needs to be redirected to cycling — more, even, than they specify (and taken from out dated relief road schemes). But of course large sums should not be handed out just to be wasted on substandard stuff that will need fixing later. In the first year, while a better engineering manual is being prepared, spending should be focussed on ensuring that we have the right expertise — the sort of expertise that Cycling England was just beginning to build up when it was cut — and that local authorities are ready to spend the money on something that actually sounds sensible and worthwhile when it does become available. Meanwhile, since almost everything that the DfT does is dependent on the Treasury thinking it’s a good idea, I imagine it would be sensible for Baker, Greening and The Times to be specifically working on those who hold the purse strings — making the case for serious and sustained investment.

The Times are right that 20mph should be the default urban speed limit, cycle lanes or not. 20mph is increasingly the urban speed limit, and most authorities would like it to be far more widespread, but 20mph zones are held back by the expense and bureaucracy of implementing it street-by-street. Given that this government is a fan of all that “libertarian paternalism” stuff — the latest being to make workplace pensions opt-out rather than opt-in — they should make 20 the default urban limit. Authorities would then have to go to the expense of opting out, consulting and erecting signs on the few roads where the appropriate limit is 30mph, rather than on the very many where it is 20.

The Times rightly identify big trucks as a problem. They suggest some sensible enough technological solutions to the danger they pose — alarms, sensors, safety bars, and the like — but bizarrely suggest that they only need to be present on trucks “entering city centres”. Vehicle design standards are generally handled by the EU these days, and my guess is that the EP is probably the best place to pursue this. However, there are steps that this government should be taking: standing up to the haulage industry’s relentless demands for bigger and heavier trucks, and pushing those big trucks back out of the city centres and narrow streets that should never have been expected to accommodate them.

There is one thing conspicuously absent from The Times‘s manifesto, given their focus on road danger and the many tragic stories that have been raised both in the newspaper and repeatedly by MPs who had lost constituents. They say nothing about getting dangerous drivers off the road. It is abundantly clear that in recent years we have developed a massive problem with the investigation of dangerous driving. Between us we could compile vast lists of hit and run incidents and near death experiences that have all ended in the police giving up because of lost files, untraceable number plates and the vehicle owner claiming not to have been the driver. Meanwhile, when cases of dangerous driving do make it to court, the sanctions are woefully inadequate. If the government were serious about tackling road danger, ministers from the DfT, Home Office and Justice department would be working on reforms to the policing and sentencing of dangerous driving.

Those are the areas where I think we should be expecting to see action from ministers, and I’ll go into more detail about each in later posts. The other items in The Times’s manifesto? Can’t argue with gathering more reliable stats on cycling: the “audits” that we’ve had in the past have usually been far from robust. Little to say about training: the funding for it is already adequate and protected, as ministers like to regularly re-announce (though I’m not sure why, given that vehicular cycling training has only been developed as a way to cope with their failed roads policies). And sponsored cycleways? A policy championed by Boris Johnson is the last thing cycling needs.

Prevention and cure

While organising notes, I stumbled upon this quote I bookmarked years ago, from the great Harvard cancer biologist Judah Folkman:

A pediatric surgeon in Boston just finished a difficult operation. To relax, he went to the Charles River and sat down on a bench. Suddenly, he heard cries of ‘Help! Help!’ and saw a person drowning. The surgeon jumped into the river and pulled the person to safety. He lay exhausted on the banks of the river and again heard, ‘Help! Help! ’ He glanced at the river and saw another person drowning. Despite his exhaustion, he jumped into the river and pulled the second drowning person to safety. Now, he was truly exhausted and lay on the ground huffing and puffing and again heard, ‘Help! Help! ’ He raised his head to look toward the river and saw a third person drowning, but he also noticed two basic researchers walking by the river. The surgeon shouted, ‘Colleagues, you must help! This is the third drowning person in the river in one afternoon! ’ The researchers looked at the river and then at the surgeon and said, ‘Three people drowning in one afternoon? This is very interesting! We’ll walk upstream to see who’s throwing them in!’.’’

(I think actually that it would work better if cast with public health researchers in place of basic researchers. The basic researchers would be too busy describing in obscure detail of the currents of the river, while translational researchers designed a better buoyancy aid for those currents.)

Folkman was applying the metaphor to his own field, cancer, but it works equally well for death and injury on our streets. The “road safety” approach to the problem has people studying the currents and advocating hi-viz vests and bicycle helmets, while spending billions on air ambulances and major trauma units. The “road danger reduction” approach goes upstream and asks why we are allowing large volumes of fast moving vehicles into the places where we live and work and play and learn. And it’s notable that in medicine, it’s the surgeons who think that preventing injury means bicycle helmets, and the public health researchers who think that preventing injury means calming and removing cars and trucks.

Here are a few of them: Danny Dorling talking about the open sewers of the 21st century; Harry Rutter’s Street Talk on moving towards a healthier city; and Ian Roberts, acting badly, on The Energy Glut. And you can hear Robert Davis talking about “road danger reduction” at London South Bank University on thursday next week.

During the 20th century, life expectancy lengthened by 30 years in the developed world. 25 of those years are attributable to public health intervention — to prevention rather than cure. But prevention disproportionately helps the poor and frequently hinders the rich. Guess which branch of medicine gets all the money.

A death in Hucknall

A funeral takes place in Nottinghamshire today. The Hucknall Dispatch reported on Sunday:

A LARGE congregation is expected to pay its respects at the funeral of a well-known Hucknall grandad who was killed in a tragic road-accident.

Cyclist Alan Davies (58), of Polperro Way, died after he and an articulated lorry collided on Watnall Road, Hucknall, near the Rolls-Royce site on Tuesday September 27 at 7 am.

His funeral is scheduled for Hucknall Parish Church on Market Place at 2.45 pm next Thursday (October 13). Cremation will follow at Mansfield Crematorium before a get-together at The Hucknall Empire pub and restaurant on Morven Avenue, off Beardall Street, from 4 pm.

As well as his wife, Dorothy, Mr Davies leaves three children — Danny (38), who now lives in Huddersfield, Kimberley (29) and Charlotte (28). He also leaves five grandchildren.

His family and friends have been devastated by the tragedy.

A man with strong connections to local football, Mr Davies was well known in Hucknall. He stood as an Independent candidate in the Hucknall West ward at the Ashfield District Council elections earlier this year.

A former fitter at the now-closed Linby Colliery, Mr Davies was also an avid writer of poetry and an expert on Lord Byron.

His family say he “had Hucknall at his heart”.

An inquest into Mr Davies’s death was opened and adjourned at Nottingham Coroner’s Court on Tuesday.

As reported in the Dispatch, Mr Davies died 30 years after his five-year-old son, Julian, was killed in a road accident on Annesley Road in Hucknall.

It was the top Google News report when I was looking for coverage of the Hucknall “Town Centre Improvement Scheme”, a Development Pool project seeking £8.5 million to pedestrianise the town’s High Street… by demolishing eighteen houses to make way for a bloated new “inner relief road” linking the two streets named in this news item. I have never been to Hucknall, but Nottinghamshire must have a pretty low opinion of the town if they think that this an “improvement”.

It’s another of those roads that council officers have been drawing and re-drawing for fifty years — and it wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970s. Perhaps the current head of highways drew it himself, as a lad, in a junior position decades ago?

Hucknall already has a bypass, the A611, built in the early 1990s. It only has a High Street traffic problem now because it failed then to do anything to prevent the town centre being used as a ratrun.

Like all these Development Pool plans, it all sounds very nice in the sales pitch — all this new walking and cycling and public transport provision:

1.2 What are/were the primary objectives of the scheme? Please limit this to the primary objectives (ideally no more than 3) the problems to which this scheme is the solution.

• To promote the renewal and regeneration of Hucknall town centre and create an attractive and prosperous retail centre;

• To improve the quality of life in and around the town centre by enhancing the quality of environment for pedestrians, whilst providing cycle facilities in the vicinity of the town centre, and improving links between different parts of the town and achieving greater integration with the tram/rail interchange;

• To make best use of highway assets by reducing levels of traffic congestion through Hucknall town centre and enhancing the status of public transport in order to encourage a modal shift away from the private car and improve bus service

You wouldn’t even guess that most of the money will be spent on demolishing 18 houses and building a big new town centre road, to the most walking and cycling unfriendly design possible for a road of its class.

“Enhanced pedestrian and cycle facilities together with environmental improvements throughout the town centre will be provided.”

What are those “enhanced” pedestrian and cycle facilities? A 3.0 metre shared pavement has been specified. A new source for the Facility Of The Month, perhaps. Maybe there will be a while line down the middle, giving pedestrians and cyclists each their 1.5m share of the pavement.

Three metres is the bare minimum for an adequate dedicated bidirectional cycle track. Anybody who proposes in an official document that cyclists and pedestrians share a 3.0m pavement in a busy town centre should have their bid laughed out of the Pool. There should be legislation stating exactly that: setting proper standards and disqualifying the bids of councils and agencies who don’t meet those standards. But what’s this?

Are you proposing any changes of scope from the scheme as described in Section 1? If yes, please describe in detail the changes you are proposing. Please also attach explanatory maps, diagrams etc. as appropriate.

• Localised narrowing of the 3m cycleway/ footway. This would deliver a cost saving of £100,000 as a result of reduced land take and retaining wall construction

I don’t take the linking of a personal tragedy to a political campaigning issue lightly. But tragedies like these are entirely predictable. When you build big roads and unusable “facilities”, and send articulated lorries through town centres and residential neighbourhoods, people are going to die. Nottinghamshire have killed a man and they plan to kill again — with £8.5 million of our money, if they can get their hands on it.

The DfT are accepting comments on Development Pool proposals until the end of tomorrow, Friday, on development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk.

In which I have to agree with the ABD

…that remedial lectures are not an appropriate alternative to prosecution for people who use mobile phones while driving. Stopped clocks, and all that. Rather less frequently than twice a day in the ABD’s case.

Lincolnshire, amongst others, are extending their remedial courses — the sort that are already widely offered as an alternative to prosecution for those caught driving too fast — to those caught using phones while driving. Greville Burgess, principal road safety coordinator for the Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership, claims that such courses “could save lives”, but, this being a local newspaper, no evidence or source for the claim is cited. Burgess says:

“The evidence from other diversionary courses is very positive in that nationally less than 1 per cent re-offend within three years of completing the course. This strongly suggests that education rather than simple penalty points and a fine is more effective.”

But the latter does not follow from the former: Burgess does not give us the re-offending rates for those who take the penalty points. Is there really a statistically significant difference in rates at which people are caught — mark that, caught* — re-offending depending on which sentence they picked? But then, the utility of such numbers would be compromised anyway by the very fact that the offender picks the sentence: there is no randomisation in the groups we are comparing. The person who thinks that £60 and the points is the more lenient sentence might be very different to the sort of person who would rather spend £80 on the day-long remedial course. (Of course, both sentences look to me like absurdly light ways to deal with those who endanger the lives of others, but…)

This is the sort of intervention that is perfectly suited to a proper randomised controlled trial. While we’re at it, we could see whether combining the interventions — prosecution and remedial education — works better than either one on its own. If education really does work so well, why not make it a compulsory addition rather than an optional alternative to prosecution?

I don’t know what evidence Burgess thinks he has for his claim that these courses save lives, or are better than the alternatives, and I can’t find any likely candidates in the literature. But there is plenty of research on the topic, and a review of all the best evidence we have on driver education programmes — 32 properly randomised and controlled trials of advanced and remedial driver education programmes.  They found that the courses entirely failed to prevent re-offending.

And so far as I know, nobody has ever thought to investigate whether there might be side-effects to these policies. We have a prime-minister who sees moral hazard everywhere he looks, and is worried about whether we have sufficient deterrents to crime. We should not limit our assessment of driver education programmes merely to the rate of re-offending amongst participants. We must look at the wider and less immediately obvious effects of classifying mobile phone use while driving as the type of activity that merely merits spending a day getting a good talking to from a retired policeman. Perhaps there are no such side-effects. We don’t know until we look.

But I almost forgot. The prime-minister is also keen on some offenders being allowed their second chance.

I fear that this is now the second time I have found myself siding with the Association of British Drivers. But if I were to write about them every time they said something totally batshit crazy, I’d never get a moment’s rest.

* my own entirely unscientific observation is that, despite being universally recognised as extremely moronic behaviour, mobile phone use while driving is very common. The capture rate must be pretty embarrassing. I fear the 1% re-offending rate says far more about the efficacy of the policing than the efficacy of any remedies.