Is there a police blitz on unsafe driving in London?

Clare in the community: Phoney war

Harry Venning of the Guardian’s take on the “blitz” in “Clare in the Community”

After a spate of cyclist deaths in London, cyclist safety is on the national agenda. For some, getting cyclist safety in the public eye is inherently good – we’re not so sure. The key issue is, after all, to do the right things for the safety of cyclists. Last week we were told that there is a “new zero-tolerance approach”  with a “huge escalation” in policing involving “stopping lorries and cars and where there is unsafe driving they will be taken off the road.”

But is a blitz on unsafe driving – under what is called “Operation Safeway” in London – actually happening? We don’t think so. So what exactly is going on?

Some Background: Andrew Gilligan’s response to the spate of cyclist deaths

Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan has responded to the reaction to the spate of cyclist deaths in London in an intelligent and well-argued piece :

In particular:

  1. A rush-hour ban on HGVs may not be that important or necessary a move. My view is that it could be largely a muck-shifting exercise which could make things worse for cyclists at other times, although it should be a possibility. Other issues like

(a)   Fundamental re-engineering of HGVs. There should be no gaps between the body of the vehicle and the ground that pedestrians or cyclists can easily be pulled into. This is particularly relevant for construction lorries, industrial equipment allowed onto streets full of pedestrians and cyclists in a way no other type of device would be. Even more fundamental, the drivers should be able to detect any pedestrians or cyclists close to their vehicle, on all sides.

(b)   Law enforcement with regard to numerous types of law infringement.

(c)   Appropriate sentencing, using black boxes on vehicles and based on deterring rule- and law-breaking drivers and freight operators.

(d)   Highway engineering

are of more importance, both for cyclists and – don’t forget – pedestrians:

2. The spate of deaths does not necessarily indicate that conditions in London have got worse. “In the first half of 2013, only three cyclists died in London – one every two months. In the recent spate, it was every two days. Are these same streets 30 times more dangerous than just a few months ago?” Exactly.

3. The rate of reported Serious Injuries is no worse than ten years ago. And SIs are a more reliable statistical indicator in London than deaths. That rate does appear to have got worse over the last few years, but it’s too early to say if this is a short- or long-term trend.

 4.     “The chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign wrote last week: “We want to know when the dying will stop.” Well, we can, and we do, promise to improve safety. But we cannot, and do not, promise to eliminate cyclist deaths. If that is the test the cycling lobby sets us, we, and every large city on Earth, will fail.” Good point. It is vital to measure cycling safety in a way which is different from the present convention of totting up the total number of cycling deaths.  Gilligan is absolutely correct to argue for a careful way of discussing cyclist safety. Working out alternative measures of safety has been a key commitment of RDRF since our inception.  

5.     “I fear the furore is aiding those who say we shouldn’t encourage cycling. I’m afraid it’s scaring cyclists away.” Unlike some of the new wave of bloggers, I disagree that highlighting each incident will help us move towards reducing danger. These bursts of attention can easily be reduced to victim-blaming  and false “solutions” to the problems of the safety of cyclists and others on the road. 

6. “…we can’t simply slap in panic changes”. Exactly. Although this does rather contradict what seems to be happening with the policing “blitz”. (And by the way, what is supposed to “make cyclists safer at the expense of other people’s safety.”?)

Some more background: Unfortunate comments by the Mayor

Others have dealt with the regrettable comments by Mayor Johnson after the events in question, with a useful summary of what should be happening in London here.

This is a background of discontent, which goes beyond journalists writing in the broadsheets  or making political points .

We now have everything from forceful cartoons lampooning the “phoney war” through to the London Evening Standard headlining a cyclist being stopped for – riding a cargo bike.

For some of the bloggers, the problem is essentially one of the Mayor not installing the right infrastructure, or not doing it quickly enough – points which Gilligan has made a reasoned response to.

What I think we need to look at now – with  a mass “die–in” today –  at the end of the first week of “Operation Safeway”, is to ask some questions about the attitudes underlying traffic policing. Whatever kind of infrastructure is in place for cyclists, there will still be danger on the roads for them and other road users. The Police are a key part of the apparatus charged with responsibility for safety on the road. Their approach  – and understanding what it is and how it links in with the rest of the “road safety” establishment – is absolutely key to achieving safe roads for all.

Traffic policing: Are we all in it together?

After the latest apparent problem with London’s traffic policing (a quota supposedly being set for arresting errant cyclists) British Cycling policy advisor, Chris Boardman, said that the police should be concentrating their efforts on larger vehicles.

If you don’t have the resources to prosecute everyone who breaks the law, then it makes sense to start with the people who can cause the most harm and work down from there.”

The bigger and heavier the vehicle you have got, the more damage you are going to do. I certainly would not let law-breaking cyclists off the hook, but they wouldn’t be top of my list.”

That pretty much sums up what a civilised approach to traffic law enforcement should be. But that is not what it has been. As we have continually pointed out , the approach taken has been to attempt to neutralise the difference between endangering others and being endangered. As with numerous “Share the Road” campaigns, there is a tendency to slot into appeasing the prejudices of those who are endangering cyclists and others. For a good current example and critique go here:


A crucial theme in “road safety” ideology is that programmes – such as law enforcement – are based on evidence. Let’s have a look at what has been happening so far in London:

According to Chief-Superintendent Glyn Jones, who is in charge of the current operation, “If you’re going to cycle in London, wear a helmet, wear high-vis, make sure your bike has the right lights, don’t wear headphones and obey the rules of the road. That way you will be a lot safer.”

The first four of these recommendations either have no or minimal evidence to back up the assertion that you will be “safer” (only one is required by law) as follows:

Helmets  here:

High-vis here and here:

Headphones: no research has been done;

Lights: legally required  but – according to  analysis of STATS 19 reporting forms, the last annual Borough reports I looked at had the relevant code (506) as implicated in under 1% of cyclist casualties. (STATS 19 forms in London are completed by officers the Metropolitan Police).

“Rules of the road” is vague, and presumably refers to red light running – although even this seems to be implicated in a small minority of cyclist casualties. There is evidence which was gathered for the Mayor’s Cycle Safety Action Plan – which in a former role I had a part in contributing to – and it is not referred to as a base for policing in the “blitz” we are supposed to be having. There is no reference to acquiring confidence from assertiveness learned in good quality cycle training: perhaps the Met is not interested in having  more of such people on the road?

But should we be surprised?

If we were to follow such evidence we would be referring mainly to what motorists get up to, and risk offending the sensibilities of the Great British Motorists (or at least what these are feared to be – the reality may indicate that law enforcement would go down quite well with many motorists). Discussing this matter with traffic police officers I have been told that, as the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Robert Mark said: “Policing must be by consent” – which in this context means going along with the prejudices of those who are far more likely to endanger others than cyclists are, namely ordinary motorists.

And it is ordinary motorists who are committing most of the rule and law infractions on the road. While an extreme minority of rogue law-breakers are far worse than the average motorist, and far more likely to be involved in collisions, they are just that – a minority. This leaves us with a problem: as John Adams and others have argued, the nature of human risk-taking is such that there are always problems with road safety interventions unless there is a background cultural change. Actually having an effect on danger from motorists will require more than a “blitz”, however well targeted it is.

However, my suggestion is that part of getting the cultural change required could well involve law enforcement. It is just that it has to be properly targeted – at those most likely to endanger others, and for the benefit of safety for cyclists and other road users endangered by rule- and law-breaking. The next post gives some ideas as to what that policing could be.

1 thought on “Is there a police blitz on unsafe driving in London?

  1. Pingback: What kind of policing do we need? | Road Danger Reduction Forum

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