Friday, 30 November 2012

'Safety in Numbers' or a 'Target Rich Environment'?

'Safety in Numbers': the idea that by being part of a large physical group or mass, an individual is proportionally less likely to be the victim of an accident.

'Target Rich Environment': a situation in which an attacker is presented with a large number of vulnerable targets.

In the Great War, during 'Bloody April' 1917, novice British reconnaissance pilots were sent into battle after spending just a few hours learning to fly. They were given no training to prepare them for the realities of battle: they learned no combat training or evasion techniques - after all, they could barely fly straight - how could they be expected to learn to fight? Upon arrival at a front line squadron, they were simply given a helmet and ordered to fly their aircraft deep into enemy territory. There, they would form a defensive circle of aircraft, the rearward firing machine guns of each plane supposedly protecting the next - 'safety in numbers'! Veteran German pilots saw things differently - they saw a 'target rich environment' - and they took full advantage of the situation. As a result, the life expectancy of a novice British pilot might be measured in hours.

On our 21st Century roads, there are a few similarities. Novice cyclists are encouraged to get on their bikes with no training whatsoever. Most barely know how to ride. They have little clue as to the rules of the road, how to ride safely or how to avoid collisions with motor vehicles. They are told that if enough of them start cycling, their numbers will magically protect them - again 'safety in numbers'! Like the pilots of April 1917, they too are reminded to wear a helmet. As a result of the failure to properly prepare cyclists, there is a 'target rich environment' in which the roads are filled with vulnerable and clueless potential victims - and London's roads have become more dangerous for cyclists as a result.

Of course, the biggest difference between the situation in the skies above Flanders in 1917 and that of London roads in 2012 is that motorists aren't actively trying to harm cyclists (though there are exceptions). The vast majority of cycling casualties happen by accident, caused by a shared lack of competence and sense of entitlement on the part of motorists and cyclists alike. Motorists seem to think that the fact that they passed a driving test (sometimes decades ago) means they don't need to brush up on the Highway Code, while cyclists think their right to the road means they don't need to do so either. In general, both groups seem to think they can do as they like (as long as they don't get caught breaking the law). Both groups act as if their vehicles are toys. This attitude kills, and as long as it persists, no amount of supposedly 'safe' infrastructure, no amount of green, blue, yellow or white paint, no amount of segregation, no amount of rhetoric and no assurances about 'safety in numbers' will make any real positive difference.

The fact is, 'safety in numbers' doesn't work - at least, it hasn't during the last 5 or 6 years in London; a time when Transport for London and London's 'cycling mayor', Boris Johnson, have implemented a number of schemes intended to encourage people to cycle on the city's new segregated cycle lanes, paths and 'Cycling Superhighways'.

Here's what the Greater London Authority has to say about the situation:

"Our analysis in Graph 1 shows that the safety in numbers effect has not prevented an increase in the cycling casualty rate between 2007 and 2010. Therefore, there remains an imperative for the Mayor and TfL to make improving the safety of cyclists on the roads the top priority in all their cycling programmes."

Safety a top priority? Ya think? Well, that would be a change!

'Safety first' is, admittedly, a novel concept for traffic engineers. Maybe now they'll take some time to consider the actual evidence for and against segregated cycling facilities. Maybe the government will even spend some money teaching novice cyclists how to ride safely on London's roads.

Yeah, right! Who am I kidding?

So just as with the pilots of the Great War, today's cyclists will have to learn purely through survival. The longer they survive on the road, the better their chances of learning the integrated cycling techniques that will keep them safe. They must learn this alone because, according to today's brand of populist cycling advocacy, it's much more important to demonize car culture, to praise the health benefits of cycling and to support questionable infrastructure than it is to teach cyclists how to use the road safely. Like the British soldiers and airmen of the Great War, today's cyclists who dare to go out on the road are 'lions led by donkeys'.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Two odd traffic problems...

Both of these situations happened to me within the last week and I'm not sure how best to prevent or deal with them:

1. Coming up to a 4-way stop. I take a position in my lane for a left turn (two or three feet to the right of the center of the road) and this happens:

The motorist takes a wide left turn and overtakes me in the intersection in order to get ahead of me. As I accelerate, he spends a few seconds in the oncoming traffic lane. This has happened to me twice at this intersection within the space of a few weeks. Motorists seem to think I will be going at 5mph and immediately take a far right position in the lane, but I don't - I accelerate fast and take the lane (and there's often a car parked where that grey car is, so I go even farther left than is shown in the diagram), so they end up in potential trouble. This happened about a week ago, and also a couple of weeks before that.

2. Same intersection, I'm turning left, and this happens:

The green car has stopped, because I arrived at the intersection first. As I check, I notice the purple car approaching from my right, slowing (I assume for the stop). But instead of stopping, he moves into his left lane (the oncoming traffic lane) intending to turn into my lane (again, the oncoming traffic lane). He stops at the second position in the diagram because he can't comfortably get past me (he could have squeezed by but he chickened out at the last second). I proceed to take my turn, shaking my head in disbelief. This happened this morning.

Both situations seem to me to be hazardous. Is there anything I can do to make these scenarios less likely, without undermining my ability to counter more likely problems?

For example, to counter problem 1, I could simply take a wider turn, but that would put me in the oncoming traffic lane longer, which is surely more dangerous for me. It would also presumably put me in danger from a car behind me trying to get by me on the right. As things stand with what I do now, it seems to me that the motorist takes the biggest risk.

To counter problem 2, I could take a more central position in my lane, which would more effectively counter the guy attempting to cut the corner, but which would confuse road users as to what I intend to do (note also that my approach to this intersection is downhill, so signalling is difficult as I need to be using both brakes coming to the stop). As things stand, I did prevent the car from cutting the corner, but I'm not sure if a more aggressive driver would have been so easily dissuaded.

The intersection is the corner of Lanark Way and Lorain Avenue in Silver Spring. I'm going south on Lorain.

Wrong Way Cycling

It seems many casual cyclists believe that if you ride against traffic, you see them and they see you, making cycling safer. However, this is not the case. Let's look at the math:

If you ride against traffic, the speed at which cars are approaching you is increased by a factor of (car speed + bicycle speed) / (car speed - bicycle speed). At average cycling speed this factor ranges from about 1.5 to 3. This gives both parties far less chance to see and avoid each other, less time to brake and, in the event of a collision, it results in an impact speed of between 30 and 60mph (as compared with 10 - 40mph for same-way cycling). Note that bicycle helmets are only rated for impact speeds of about 12mph. Also, because you're riding against traffic, the number of interactions with other vehicles is greatly increased. Finally, at intersections, drivers entering and leaving the roadway are focused on vehicles coming from the opposite direction and are much less likely to see you.

Statistics show that riding against traffic is at least 3 times (some studies suggest as high as 12 times) more dangerous than riding with traffic, and collisions with 'wrong-way' riders are more often fatal than most other collision types.

In short, the most effective way to commit suicide on a bicycle is to ride against traffic.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Woman on cellphone turns left, cuts corner, nearly kills my daughter


She turns left onto our road, narrowly misses the curb, travels towards us in her left hand lane (our lane), then yells at me as she's narrowly missing us. Emily had to swerve right to avoid her.

All I had the presence of mind to do was yell "Get off the road!" as she went by.

In forty two years of road cycling, I've never seen anything that dangerous.

Maybe I should buy a bloody video camera.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day

I'm a Briton. Like many Britons, the Great War took a great toll on my family. My grandfather served, as did my great grandfather, four great uncles and six first cousins. Of these twelve family members who served, five were killed. So for me, the remembrance of these relatives has been an important part of my life.

For many of us in the British Commonwealth, the 'War to End All War' is not something that's truly in the past. The ultimate sacrifice that a million British and Commonwealth men and women made reverberates through the decades, hopefully making us realize the futility of war. The Great War ended at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. In Britain and the Commonwealth, we commemorate the Sunday closest to this date as 'Remembrance Day'. This year, the 11th actually falls on a Sunday and as I write, the 11th hour is only a few minutes away. When I post this at 11am, I will be observing a minute of silent contemplation.

Since this is a cycling blog, I'd like to take this time to remember the Army Cyclist Corps. This was a corps formed from over 8,000 pre-war cyclists, all volunteers who were, like many of the readers of this blog, cycling enthusiasts.

The first complete bicycle unit (the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers) was raised in 1888. During the Boer War, the bicycle was found to be invaluable for reconnaissance and communications work. Unlike the horses that had, until that time, formed the basis of reconnaissance units, the bicycle was silent and needed little if any maintenance, so in the first decade of the 20th Century, as these characteristics became well appreciated, more and more cycling units grew within the army.

On the eve of the First World War, the British Army had fourteen cyclist battalions. In the first weeks of the war, these were employed widely and very successfully as scouts, infiltrating enemy positions, severing communication lines, attacking ammunition columns and generally harassing the enemy. 

These, in the day when heaven was falling, 
The hour when earth's foundations fled, 
Followed their mercenary calling 
And took their wages and are dead. 

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
 They stood, and earth's foundations stay; 
What God abandoned, these defended, 
And saved the sum of things for pay.

In 1915, the Army Cyclist Corps was founded. It was later expanded to include 12 more battalions raised from second-line yeomanry regiments which had been converted to cyclists.

Men from the Corps were sent overseas in small groups, forming divisional cyclist companies. Contrary to popular belief, cyclists were employed in combat, and the common perception that they were ineffective is false: cyclists were always considered to be mobile infantry, and as such they would leave their bicycles when mobility was impossible or unnecessary. So in conditions of trench warfare of course many of the Corps' bicycles were stored and the men of these units were employed in more conventional roles. In 1918, with the deadlock of the trenches overcome, the men of the Army Cyclist Corps once again mounted their bicycles, and their mobility once more conferred an advantage in terms of communications, scouting and reconnaissance.

Despite the success of the cyclists, after the war, the cyclist units were disbanded. By 1922 all remaining cyclist battalions had been converted back to conventional units.

833 men of the Army Cyclist Corps were killed in the Great War. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.
The Bicycle in Wartime
BSA Folding Bicycle
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries by A.E. Housman
For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon