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RTC - John C. Kirk

Feb. 26th, 2011

12:47 am - RTC

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The weather's been getting a bit warmer recently, which is good for cycling: I put my thermal jacket away a few weeks ago, switched to a short-sleeved jersey yesterday, and wore shorts instead of tights today. Unfortunately, I've seen some remarkably poor driving from other road users: I've had two close calls, and a car hit me this morning.

Last week I came to a roundabout that was gridlocked, i.e. it was full of vehicles that weren't moving. This is where a bike comes in handy, because I could get through the gaps between them. I kept a close eye on each exit as I approached, just in case anyone wasn't expecting me to appear. However, I wasn't expecting to meet a car coming in the opposite direction! This was a minicab with one of those TFL stickers in the back window ("Pre-booked - private hire only"); I'm not sure who they report to. Anyway, he'd clearly decided that he'd take a short cut by going the wrong way round the roundabout instead of queuing up with everyone else. Fortunately he was already turning off as I approached, so I was able to avoid a collision by braking. I looked at his licence plate, and repeated the registration number to myself so that I could report him. Unfortunately I then forgot it, so the lesson is to write these things down as soon as possible. I keep pen and paper in my "bar bag" (mounted on my handlebars).

On Monday night I had some trouble with a bus (map). Here's the complaint I sent to TfL (via their website):

I was on my bicycle, waiting at the traffic lights on Abbey Road so that I could turn right (south) onto Park Royal Road. Meanwhile, the bus was waiting at the traffic lights on Park Royal Road so that it could go (north) to Central Middlesex Hospital. We both had red lights, because traffic was allowed to move east/west along Acton Lane and Coronation Road. My light then turned green, allowing people on Abbey Road to go straight ahead or turn right. At the same time, the traffic light for the left turn lane on Park Royal Road also turned green; the "straight ahead" traffic light stayed red. I moved off, but the bus also moved forward, cutting across my path, and I had to brake to avoid a collision. I assume that the driver just saw the green light and didn't understand which lane it applied to. So, please could you address this as a training issue, before he kills someone.


I've reported a few problems with bus drivers (either as a passenger or a cyclist) and I've had good results, i.e. personalised replies from people who've clearly read my message rather than just a form letter. I think it's important to be polite, since the person reading my message hasn't done anything wrong. Similarly, I normally use the phrase "training issue", i.e. I'm suggesting that they should teach the driver what he did wrong; I'm not demanding that they fire him or anything like that. I also provided them with extra info that I haven't repeated here, e.g. the bus route number, the licence plate, and a brief description of the driver.

As I mentioned, I had to brake; the bus just carried straight on. I have to wonder why this is. If the driver didn't see me, that implies that he didn't look, because I was wearing high vis and I had my lights on. If he did see me, and decided not to brake, this would presumably be because he thought that he had the right of way. However, I also thought (correctly) that I had the right of way, and I still stopped, because I'd come off badly in a collision. So, would he be quite happy to injure/kill someone just for jumping a red light? I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it's hard to put a positive interpretation on this. (As a side note, I reported another bus for overtaking me when I stopped at a red light, i.e. it sped up and went through, so I don't think that buses have any moral high ground compared to bikes.)

This brings me to today's (Friday's) incident. I was going along a fairly wide road (the A23 near Norbury), so there was enough space for two cars to drive side by side in each lane. I was on the left, going at 20 km/hour (12 miles/hour). There was a car on the right, and it slowed down because there was a lorry stopped ahead of it, waiting to turn right. The car driver then decided to move over to the left, i.e. swerve around the lorry. Unfortunately, I was in the way. I saw him turn towards me, and shouted "WHOA!", but I don't think he heard me. Maybe I should have thumped the side of his car to get his attention, but I needed both hands to slam on my brakes.

He was moving diagonally, so the front left corner of his car hit the right side of my front wheel. Luckily, I have racks mounted on both sides of my front wheel (to carry panniers); I was only using rear panniers today, but the rack shielded my wheel. I hadn't thought of them as armour when I bought them, but it's a fringe bonus. I think the driver started to brake when he felt the collision, but that took a few seconds. In the meantime, he was pushing me towards the kerb, and I eventually ran out of road. When my wheels hit the kerb, I toppled over to my left. I have SPD pedals, i.e. my shoes are attached to the pedals while I ride. As I fell, I thought "This is going to hurt!" Fortunately, I was able to unclip my left foot in time, and I got it down on the ground to absorb the impact. By this point, the car had stopped, and there was no sign of damage to me or the bike. A pedestrian nearby saw what happened: I'm not sure whether he was looking our way already, or whether he turned when I shouted. However, he echoed my comment of "Whoa", and said that the driver was an idiot.

I wheeled my bike backwards, and peered in through the side window. The driver wound it down, and I said "You really need to look where you're going." He nodded, but didn't say much, then he drove away. At that point, I was so relieved to still be in one piece that I didn't get angry with him. However, in hindsight it would have been a good idea to exchange insurance details, just in case I discovered any damage later. He seemed a bit shaken as well, so he presumably had no idea that I was there (because he didn't look!), although I'd be more impressed by his remorse if he'd made some effort to apologise and check whether I was ok, rather than waiting for me to approach him. I made a note of the car details (licence plate, colour, make/model), so I've reported that to the police via Roadsafe London: that's a useful site that other people may want to bookmark. Hopefully the police will contact him, and have a quiet word to suggest that he be more careful in future.

All in all, no harm done, but it wasn't much fun. It could have been a lot worse if the car had been travelling faster, so I agree with the 20's plenty campaign, i.e. reduce speed limits from 30 mph to 20 mph in residential areas.

I also think it's time I got a helmet cam, so that I can record my daily commute. The BBC reported on these recently: Helmet cameras capture bad driving. I realise that this makes me sounds like a "gargoyle" from Snow Crash, but I'll delete the videos afterwards unless anything significant happens. If I'd had a camera today then I'd put the video up here to show what I'm talking about. It may be useful if I have to report bad drivers, so that it's not just my word against theirs. However, it would also be useful to review my own actions. I don't blame myself for what happened today, but I wonder whether there's anything I could have done differently; did I miss an early warning that he was about to swerve? If I'm surrounded by idiots who are armed with lethal weapons, I need to stay alert.

These events also demonstrate why things like the World Naked Bike Ride are important. One slogan I've seen a few people use is: "Can you see me now?" (Example, NSFW.) Even if drivers don't notice individual cyclists, something like that should be blatant enough to get their attention.

There's also the concept of "car culture", and I think there's a parallel with firearms. In the UK, it's unusual to (legally) own a gun. There are a few people who go to shooting ranges, and subscribe to magazines like "Guns and Ammo", but I think most people would view that as a bit weird. On the other hand, attitudes seem to be quite different in the USA. I've never been there, but I was amused by a discussion on the letters page of The Walking Dead (zombie comic) recently. Someone asked why the characters don't use bows and arrows instead of guns, since that would be a lot quieter, so they wouldn't attract other zombies. The writer basically said: "Oh come on, that's ridiculous. How many people do you know with bows and arrows at home?" So, this implies that it's perfectly normal for people to have guns at home. It seems strange to me, but it seems normal to people who grow up in that culture.

Coming back to cars, the fact is that they kill people, but it's considered perfectly normal for people to have one, and people treat them quite casually. Imagine that every so often mobile phones would randomly explode, killing everyone nearby. What would be an acceptably low risk for that? (I need to dig out some figures to get the equivalent proportions.) Would it be better if the person using the phone was safe, and it was only the bystanders who were in danger? I'm not saying that we should ban cars altogether, but they shouldn't be the default form of transport. Similarly, I'm not saying that all car drivers are idiots, but I think we should be more selective about who's allowed to drive.

I sometimes hear people say: "I wouldn't cycle, it's far too dangerous." (Or "I wouldn't let my kids cycle...") However, the danger comes from cars, not from other bikes. So, if you drive instead, is that really the best solution? The problem is that it's the tragedy of the commons, i.e. it would be safer for everyone to have fewer cars, but a given individual would be safer (or at least feel safer) in a car than on a bike. The only solution I can see to that is legislation, i.e. for the community to come to a collective decision that everyone will abide by. If other people weren't driving cars, you wouldn't need your own armour plating to protect you, then you wouldn't be putting other people in danger, and everyone wins.