On breaking the law

I had a bit of a go at a driver the other day. She was on her (hand-held, obviously) mobile phone and I was trying to get her to stop. The last time I did this, the man stopped rather quickly, but he was driving a van with company details all over it… the woman was in a normal car with no particular identification (apart from the number plate, of course…). Anyway the woman seemed to think that if she ignored me I would give up. Unfortunately for her, we were both waiting at a red light. I can confirm that banging on the roof of a car makes a really satisfactory bang… To be honest, in retrospect, I probably came across as a bit of a nutter, and I suspect that it is just as well I’m female – I would not like it if some angry man started banging on the roof of my car… Another time, in a traffic queue like that, I might try getting my phone out and taking a photo to go for the “post it all over the Internet” option. The thing is, I don’t suppose I have changed that woman’s mind about using her phone while she’s driving, and so I didn’t achieve anything. I do think that we need to object to phone use, and point it out when we see it, if it is ever going to become socially unacceptable. I just don’t think I went about it the right way that time. One thing I am glad I did, though, is say (well shout, really) “Stop breaking the law.” Perhaps that will make her think.

It got me thinking, too. I have an illegal manoeuvre that I make very regularly. I cycle the wrong way up a one way street. It is only about 10 metres long – that might make it worse, because I can and do quite easily push the bike up it instead. So the cycling up is just laziness. I have seen the odd driver go up there – it is not a regular occurrence, though. The reason it is one way in the first place (apart from being quite narrow) is that the exit at the top is really awkward with poor visibility onto a busy road. Not such an issue on a much more maneuverable bike, of course, but it is still a bit tricky, and so when it is busy I usually walk round the corner and into an ASL from which I can make a right turn in the usual legal manner. But, at 7am you can usually make the exit without getting off your bike.

I suppose the questions I am trying and failing to answer are; is minor lawbreaking like my one way street or the drivers I have seen go through red lights on pedestrian crossings once the pedestrians have crossed really worth making a fuss about? And, is it ok for me to criticise someone doing something properly dangerous like my phone woman, when I am not perfect myself? I think the answer to the second one is yes (well I would, wouldn’t I?) but the first one? I am not so sure. You could argue that 80kg of me plus bicycle is less dangerous than a tonne of car, or that I am only really risking myself, but I still think that there is a principle in there somewhere.

Mind you, I am still too lazy to walk 10 metres up a one way street…

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On a guilty plea

A year ago my triathlon clubmate Andrew McMenigall and his colleague Toby Wallace were killed on the first day of a cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats for charity. Yesterday the lorry driver who killed them pleaded guilty to two counts of death by dangerous driving, and a further count of dangerous driving on a later occasion. (BBC report, EEN report.) That later occasion astonishes me – you’ve been involved in an incident which has resulted in the deaths of two people and you don’t make any changes to the way you drive? Or even think about what you are doing?

The driver will get his sentece reduced for pleading guilty, of course. That is the way our justice system works. But I really hope they take his licence away for a good long time. Arguing that he needs his licence to do his job is like saying Rolf Harris should continue to have access to children because he’s always worked as a children’s entertainer. Find a different job, Mr Lorry Driver, one where you’re not going to kill people.

On an unusually popular blog post (and more on visibility)

Not many people read my blog, I have to admit. I started it mostly after some persuasion from some people on the City Cycling Edinburgh forum, with a bump on the head being the last straw. I think most of the people who read it come through the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain blog round-up. However my last blog post got lots of comments; I think because the CEoGB twitter feed decided to re-tweet it, and then a couple of people with a lot more twitter followers than me had a conversation about it, and so people came to see what the discussion was about.

It is interesting, though, that a subject like hi-vis which I would have thought has been discussed over and over again would still provoke discussion. My thoughts and practice on this have changed – when I started to cycle regularly again I got a hi-vis tabard with reflective bits on it which I’d throw over whichever office coat I was wearing at the time. However I’ve come to believe that cycling around looking like cycling is dangerous does not actually help the general perception of cyclists, and so these days the tabard lives in my pannier. Most of the time, that is. If it is very, very rainy I sometimes put it on, because I accept that everything is more difficult to see when it is raining hard. The rest of the time I rely on good lights, two at the front and two at the back.

A while back I came across these – little capes/jackets in hi-vis colours with reflective bits that would go over your usual coat but look rather more feminine than my tabard. Part of me thought that they were a nice idea, but I wouldn’t wear one myself.

The trouble is that we seem to be caught up in a situation where everything has to be brighter than everything else (apologies to Meat Loaf). I’m against daylight running lights on cars for this reason – while it might make a car more visible, cyclists and pedestrians become less visible in comparison – the lights I have on my bikes are fine for the dark but only one is powerful enough to make an impact in daylight. (That light cost nearly £100 and is the one I got to see where I’m going when I do my long commute, where some of the roads don’t have streetlights. In flash mode, I think it is too bright in the dark – but I’ve used it on flash a couple of times in early morning light, just to make myself more visible to someone coming the other way who might be considering an overtake. I don’t think one should have to spend £100 on a light to cycle in urban streetlit areas.)

To be honest, if you can’t see a car in broad daylight, you either have very poor vision indeed or you were not looking… I’ve “not seen” cars a couple of times (I describe one incident here) but it would have made no difference if they’d had their lights on or been painted bright yellow – I didn’t see them because I didn’t look. If people don’t look for bikes, if people don’t think that there might be bikes to look for, then people on bicycles are not going to be seen, not matter how many lights or how much hi-vis they have. All of us, as road users, have a responsiblilty to look, look, look, and look again. And yet a lot of the defensive road use that is taught to motorcyclists and bicycle riders is to do with making yourself visible to people who are not looking for you. If, as a cyclist, I could assume that all drivers would treat me in the way I want to be treated, I would actually be a lot less agressive with my road use. As it is, I have to assert my position on the road, because I have to assume all other road users are idiots.

When we get to hi-vis for everyone, what do members of the emergency services wear so that they’re easier to see? Lights on their heads? How do you pick a marshal out of a group of runners all wearing hi-vis? I wonder, too, what the mother of the little boy who I often see walking along with his Mum when I’m heading for the station thinks she’s protecting him from when she gives him a hi-vis tabard to wear. He looks (to my untrained eye) too small to go out on the roads on his own, so she’s going to be supervising his road crossings, and if a car is going to crash onto the pavement the driver is hardly going to spot and avoid the small boy in hi-vis if they’re not in control of their car in the first place…

From all of this, I conclude that what I would like to do and what I actually do are two different things. We talk about and campaign for the roads that we would like to have, while dealing with the roads as they actually are. So I’ll continue to wear hi-vis sometimes, and run my bike lights in daylight sometimes, while hoping that one day there won’t be a need to do that any more.

(Oh, and thanks to “disgruntled” for the link to the Dutch campaign on bike lights. Even that, I noticed, comes phrased in a positive way: “I want to see you”, not “Protect yourself” or “Don’t be foolish” or whatever. No, I as another road user, want to be able to see you on your bike.)

On being not visible enough

I was folding my bike up at the station the other evening when a very polite and pleasant lady came and spoke to me. She told me that she and her husband had passed me in their car as I was cycling on the way there, and they had felt that I was not very visible. I have two lights, and she agreed that she could see them, but she still felt that I could be more visible, and wondered if I had something reflective to wear.

The conversation was entirely polite – I thanked her for speaking to me and I do think that she was genuinely trying to be helpful, and so I was left feeling a bit conflicted. I do have two identical Cateye rear lights (and I think the batteries were getting a bit low); but other than that I wear a long black coat and a grey hat (and that day I had black trousers on, too). So I do make some demands of drivers to notice me.

I’ve been having a few issues on that stretch of road recently too – it is the bit just after the roadworks where cars are accelerating away after being “held up” behind me while going through the one-way section. I’ve had a few alarming moments there – normally I try and hold primary through a series of pinchpoints and move over a bit between them, but recently I’ve struggled to control the road space along there. At least, I assume that’s where the woman who spoke to me passed me.

I posted about this on the CityCyclingEdinburgh forum, and we had an interesting debate. I replaced the batteries in my rear lights (they did need replacing) but I was still wondering if I should perhaps do something else. And then I cycled to the station again. And I thought
“This is a long, straight road, with plenty of good, bright streetlights. How the hell did you have a problem seeing me?”.
I’m still wondering if some of the streetlights were out, earlier in the week, though. I had spoken to another cyclist whose back light had slipped so that it was pointing down rather than backwards and my recollection is that I did think he wasn’t easy to see.

So, to the broader debate. To what extent should cyclists make ourselves visible, beyond the legal requirements on lights and reflectors on the bike? Some people choose hi-vis, reflectives, the works. On the road bike, I only ride in the dark when I’m commuting, and so I have a rucksack cover with reflectives on, as well as reflective ankle straps (partly to confirm to the spirit of the law about pedal reflectors as I run clipless pedals which are illegal in the dark, as they don’t have reflectors). On the Brompton, though, I only ride in urban areas where there are streetlights. Hi vis isn’t all that good in streetlights – I was following my wonderful boyfriend on his bike the other day when he was wearing hi vis with a pale green rucksack on top and you couldn’t really tell what was hi vis and what was rucksack: the thing that made him good and visible was his nice bright rear light (a present from me, I might add…). So if you have a good light, I really don’t think you need anything else.

In my view, it is back to the issue of responsibility. Who is responsible for my safely – me, or the person who is using a tonne of dangerous machinery (otherwise known as a motor car) in my vicinity? Well, I don’t think that I have no responsibility at all; but I do think that the person in charge of the car has responsibility too, and at the moment our culture of road use does not seem to put much responsibility onto the car driver. Its all better, brighter lights and so forth on the bike – a lumen war, another piece of expense (really bright lights are expensive) that make riding a bike at lot less easy than riding a bike. I wonder: what sort of lights do the Dutch have on their bikes?

On two impatient drivers

Wonderful Boyfriend and I were cycling along. There was a car behind us, and I got the sense from the revving engine that the driver wasn’t too impressed at having cyclists in front of them. We turned right at a junction – I signalled, my boyfriend didn’t. Then we came up to another junction. I thought we were going left, so I signalled left. Unfortunately my wonderful boyfriend was actually going straight on. The driver, came blasting past me, started to turn left and nearly knocked my boyfriend off his bike – a classic “left hook”. Fortunatly my he jammed on his brakes and she missed him.

Now if the driver had hit my boyfriend it would have been entirely her fault and “I thought he was going left” would not have been good enough. But defensive cycling techniques try to make up for the short comings of others, and learning from your mistakes is important. In the end, I think if I had not signalled, the driver might not have tried to overtake.

So here are my lessons learned:
1) if you have an impatient driver behind you, don’t signal
2) if you are following someone else, only signal when they signal

My second impatient driver didn’t leave me feeling I’d done anything wrong…

I was on the big bike, coming back towards Balerno about 6:30pm I guess. I was on the bit of the A70 where it goes through some woods, just before you get to the 30 limit and the climb through the narrow, twisty section. The wooded bit has quite a few stretches with double white lines, so visibility isn’t all that good. I was aware of a car coming up behind me, and also that there was a car coming towards me. The car behind me managed to nip round me before the approaching car got there – however there was another car behind the first, and when the driver of that car went to overtake they realised they didn’t have time before the oncoming car got there. I heard a “bump, bump, bump” sound as they braked hard which I’m told is the ABS kicking in. (In retrospect, that is a bit scary because it means that the ABS thought the car was skidding – so I’m told, anyway)

I take a fairly assertive secondary position along that road, in order to be a distinct obstacle and therefore get drivers to think about how they are going to pass me (as opposed to just whizzing past leaving me very little space). It also gives me some space to move into should I feel I need it. I find it interesting, in retrospect, that I didn’t head for the verge, thinking I was about to be mown down from behind. I’m also partly glad that I did not, because I half expect that if I had the driver would have then thought I was “getting out of the way” so they could squeeze past me.

The driver sorted themselves out and passed me, and we all went on our way. Another 30 second delay for some poor motorist.

On a weekend in the West (3) – risk, roads and other ramblings

So last Sunday I finally got up a hill, having decided that I didn’t fancy any of the big hills that I’d passed on the previous two days while walking on my own, and having failed to persuade anyone to join me. The hill I did go up was “only” a Corbett, jsut behind the Kingshouse in Glencoe. I think I made a pretty good choice – the southern side, where I went up, had been well stripped of snow lower down. There was more snow higher up, but by then the angle of the slope was easing. There was some really impressing rime ice on the summit rocks and trig point. Good views north, as well as an unusual angle on Buachille Etive Mor.

I did a fair amount of driving over the weekend, not something I enjoy doing. I do try not to worry about the impatient person behind me and think about the road ahead. It is always had to decide if I’m too cautious or the other person is going too fast. People who overtake me on straights when I’m doing 60 in a 60 limit I can live with, as it were – it is their choice to break the law. It is the twisty sections where an appropriate speed is more debatable that worry me. Anyway I got less stressed about it than I do sometimes.