Archive for the 'Bicycle helmet' Category

Oct 27, 2012

Bicycle helmet law MP tells twitter followers about car & pedestrian helmets


On 25th October @ItDoesTheJob sent a tweet to @allpartycycling, the twitter account of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and patched in Peter Bone MP, the Tory MP for Wellingborough:

“Bicycle helmets offer a false sense of security.”

The MP, who has long campaigned for helmet compulsion for UK cyclists, replied:

“Bicycle helmets save lives and prevent serious injury. How can anyone be opposed to them?”

Fair point. If a protective device saves lives it ought to be considered a ‘good thing.’ Helmets for pedestrians and motorists would undoubtedly save lives but campaigners for bicycle helmet laws rarely, if ever, admit this point.

I sent a sarcastic tweet, removing the words ‘bicycle helmets’ and replacing them with ‘car and pedestrian helmets’.


Surprisingly, he retweeted my tweet. Not once, but twice. His 585 followers have now seen car and pedestrian helmets in the MP’s timeline. Peter Bone may not read have my tweet and retweeted it because I said “Well done @PeterBoneMP”; or he’s a contrarian happy to repost messages he doesn’t agree with.

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Feb 04, 2012

Will UK politicians ever seek to restrain the motorised majority?


I signed up to the cycle safe campaign by The Times. There has been some fine reporting on the real and rightly worrying danger posed by motorised traffic but, as today’s paper exemplifies, there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some good bits in today’s newspaper, there are some awful bits in today’s newspaper.

Which will people most remember? The bad bits. Cycling, the paper’s reporting would have us believe, is so incredibly dangerous it’s best to stick to riding around a velodrome (Rebecca Romero’s piece); it’s best to ride on cycle lanes (even though, as we all know, the current crop are currently underused because they’re not up to Dutch standards; we need to cough up for a licence fee to pay for segregated tracks (Jon Snow’s piece, but here’s why licensing is not the right answer); and we need to don protective equipment for popping down to the shops (”In Britain, going out to cycle is a little like preparing for battle.There is body armour and helmets to consider, Lycra and face masks to squeeze into,” is from an otherwise positive piece headlined ‘Reasons to take to your bike’).


Political parties are said to have welcomed The Times campaign, and Labour is even calling for a Cycling Summit.

All well and good but if politicians think cycling is so incredibly dangerous will they clamp down on the source of the danger, or will they “protect” vulnerable road users by forcing them to wear helmets, making it compulsory to sport hi-viz jackets and restrict the use of bicycles to cycle paths that, largely, don’t exist and when they do exist are usually as about much use as chocolate tea-pots?

Naturally, the easy option, the option that would be supported by the majority of voters, is the latter.


The best commentary I’ve seen on The Times campaign has been that from Andrew Davis, the director of the Environmental Transport Association. He said he welcomes the campaign because it “raises the debate to a wider public” but - and I agree with him here - “it fails to address the bigger question – why do we allow cars and trucks to dominate our townscapes?”

This is the absolute crux of the matter. The cyclesafe campaign is potentially divisive. It’s not just cyclists that need protecting from speeding traffic, it’s pedestrians and all other road users, too, including motorists.

If MPs want to do something for cyclists, brilliant. But if that thing doesn’t involve a massive clamping down on motorised traffic it will come to naught. And if MPs say they’ve seen the light on the Cyclepath to Damascus, that’s fantastic, but I won’t be convinced until I see the colour of their money.

Big bucks needs to be thrown around to protect vulnerable road users. Some tough decisions need to be made on how we want our cities to look in 20 years time. And the race tracks that are our rural roads need to be changed, too. Naturally, it will be far easier for MPs to lobby for things like helmet compulsion for cyclists rather than place draconian restrictions on the “freedoms” enjoyed - and exploited - by Mondeo-man.

And we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken. Beware politicians who promise they’ll make conditions in this country better for cyclists. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t see anything being put in place any time soon that would make a genuine difference.

Soon The Times will tire of the cyclesafe campaign and move on to something else. In the meantime, many people will have been scared off their bikes. Now, thundering trucks passing within inches also scares people off bikes, but will UK politicians take a long-term view on the transport problems we face and do what really needs to be done and that’s restrict motorised traffic?

If cycle tracks are built (and built to standard) will space be taken from cars and trucks or taken from pedestrians? At the moment, it’s the latter but for any real progress to be made it needs to be the former.

As Andrew Davis asks “Why aren’t the centre of towns designed for people first? Why do we, in this country, aspire to so little?”

He continues: “We have got so used to living in places made dangerous by speeding cars and out-of-control trucks – and we just accept it. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our towns and cities can be made fit for pedestrians, cyclists, children and the infirm rather than trucks and cars.

“We have the money. We need the imagination. We need the will.”

And here’s the rub: when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians - and anybody else not in a car or truck - we don’t have the money, we don’t have the imagination and we certainly don’t have the will.

Some have suggested that the cyclesafe campaign by The Times could be the UK equivalent of ‘Stop the Child Murder’, the 1970s campaign in the Netherlands that helped make a cycle and pedestrian friendly country even more cycle and pedestrian friendly.

Maybe. But the British love affair with their cars (and the trucks that aimlessly circle ring roads, calling in at supermarkets when product shortages are flagged by computers) runs incredibly deep and it would take politicians with balls of steel to go against the wishes of the motorised majority. And by dangerising cycling - and walking - we run the risk of making more people take to cars.

Most of the coverage in today’s edition of The Times will do little to encourage cycling. It will do the exact opposite. The Times wants to protect cyclists by highlighting the dangers, and forcing legislators to “do something”, but that “something” will likely not be a joined-up network of protected cycle lanes on every stretch of busy road in the UK. I wish that it was but I shan’t be holding my breath - I’ve been to far too many ‘cycle strategy’ meetings with politicians.

Nevertheless, like Andrew Davis, I welcome the debate and genuinely hope something positive comes out of it.

Rooting through some back issues of Cycle Industry (the mag I used to own and edit before BikeBiz) the other day I came across a couple of issues from May and July 1996, the last time we had politicians saying they were going to do lots of exciting stuff for cyclists.

As I said in the editorial at the time (’Cycling needs cash not soundbites’), if no cash was forthcoming to back up the fine words it was all just hot air.

If The Times can get politicians to agree to spending big chunks of cash on cyclists and on pedestrians, and less on infrastructure for cars and trucks, I’ll happily eat all of the cynical words above.

For now, read the words on the mag scans below (click to make bigger), and weep.





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Apr 01, 2010

Sue of Oz has lid law case quashed

In Australia, bicycle helmets are compulsory for all cyclists. Last year, Sue Abbott, a doctor’s wife of rural New South Wales, decided to fight a AU$54 helmet fine, spending thousands of dollars in a legal challenge. She rides a Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bike and doesn’t feel she need a helmet when cycling slowly around her small home town.

She lost her case, as can be seen in this video:

She decided to appeal. Last week, she won.

I know this because Sue just told me via a comment on one of yesterday’s stories.

“The judge quashed my conviction! I am no longer a criminal!

“Given that Australia has no human rights provisions whatsoever, I had to argue the ‘defence of necessity’ - very narrow…but the judge agreed that I had the ‘necessary belief’ and that my ‘response was proportional’ but he couldn’t agree with the ‘imminent peril’ element that I raised.

“He said I was too much at the vanguard with my catastrophic climate change argument, and he felt I had other alternatives like push my bike 8km if i couldn’t walk and carry my shopping. 2km are on dirt…I don’t think so!

“The judge urged me to apply for an exemption from the roads and traffic authority which I have done on therapeutic grounds and grounds of civil liberties. I haven’t heard back yet but will chase them after Easter.

“Whatever the outcome, I’ll then proceed to the office of the ombudsman, and then maybe the UN, and then maybe Ii’ll get a law job! That is if anyone will employ me – I think people think I’m a trouble-maker…”

It’s unlikely Sue’s victory could be used to repeal Australia’s mandatory helmet law but no doubt other individuals could follow her example and use her case as a precedent for other jurisdictions to consider.

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Jan 07, 2010

Saving just one life…

Sledge injury

The mainstream media says the current brass monkey weather in the UK is causing “travel misery” but images of snowed-in cars and smug 4×4 owners are generally book-ended with shots of kids sledging their little hearts out, happy to be off school.

Of course, snow-related injuries are happening in great numbers. Mostly it’s ankle strains and limb breaks. Head injuries are also common. Sadly, at least two deaths have been reported from ice-linked falls.

“We have seen some injuries from sledging and those have often involved head injuries from collisions with people, trees, fences and lampposts.

“It is a type of injury we do not expect to see in such numbers and it is not the children, but their parents and grandparents who are coming off worst.

“A 10-year-old has softer bones and is falling from a lower height so can survive these impacts better.”
Dr John Heyworth, head of the Accident and Emergency department, Southampton General Hospital,, 11th January 2010

Despite head injuries, no MP is calling for compulsory head protection for youth sledgers. There’s no frothing at the mouth over the numbers of irresponsible OAPs doing their shopping without helmets, or wrist and ankle guards.

There’s a Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust but no Sledge Helmet Initiative Trust. Why not?

Why do certain individuals call for compulsory head protection for one faster-than-walking activity, but not another?

Parents who make their kids wear cycle helmets, don’t make them wear sledging helmets. I’m one of them…this is my boy sliding past a sledging injury:

Sledging injury

Cycle helmet compulsionists have been known to argue that if mandation “saved just one life, it would be worth it.”

But those folks don’t clamour for iced-up pavement walkers to wear helmets. The “just one life” argument seems so watertight, but it’s not.

The wearing of cycle helmets (albeit generally badly-fitted helmets, of no use in a crash) is now relatively commonplace so most folks assume cycling is inherently risky. So risky they’ll not bother to start. Cycle helmets may have saved a few lives over the years but the perception they broadcast - that cycling is dangerous - prevents a greater take-up of what, in fact, is a healthy, life-prolonging activity, helmet or no helmet.

I know all this, yet still wear a helmet. When cycling, but not when sledging. When you think about it, this makes no sense but, then, an awful lot of bicycle helmet promotion is based on emotion rather than logic.

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Nov 03, 2009

Could bike sharing schemes kill helmet compulsion laws?


Mayors around the world are falling over themselves to offer urban bike-sharing schemes, such has been the success of Vélib’ in Paris.

Montreal, Dublin, Berlin, Rome, Bristol, Barcelona and lots of other cities already operate such schemes, as chronicled by the brilliant Bike Sharing blog. London will have a bike sharing scheme next year. Melbourne in Australia will have one, too. It’s to be operated by Alta of the US, the company that created Montreal’s Bixi bike sharing program.


Ah, but unlike in the cities above, cycle in Melbourne without a helmet and you risk copping a fine. Australia long ago enacted bicycle helmet compulsion for cyclists. However, bike sharing programs are for new cyclists, or tourists, or cyclists without their normal bike that day. Folks who likely don’t travel with bicycle helmets. So, could Melbourne’s bike sharing scheme be the start of the end for Australian helmet compulsion?

In Rome, even Pinocchio rides a bike

In the video below, traffic engineer Cameron Munro says bike sharing schemes will not topple lid laws but he admitted he was “worried” about masses of Bixi users not using helmets.

The video is by Mike Rubbo, a 70-year-old e-bike rider from Melbourne Avoca Beach on the Central Coast of NSW, Australia. He interviewed Alison Cohen, who works for Alta and is helping to roll-out Bixi in Melbourne.

She admitted that rental helmets were a non-starter because they couldn’t be sterilised. Instead, she argues that tourists will stump up not just for the bike rental fee but for a helmet, too. Cheap helmets, possibly from Burger King.

“The helmet’s a vexing problem,” she said. “Right now our plan is to work with local retailers [like] convenience stores, and possibly fast-food restaurants that are open late at night, and work with them to have some behind the counter. We’re looking at low cost helmets, like AU$15.”

Tourists or newbies who choose not to wear a helmet “risk getting fined or having an accident,” laughed Ms Cohen. “That’s what freedom is about.”

Of course, what’s far more likely is that people rent the bikes but neglect to pop into McDonald’s to buy helmets. Melbourne police officers will decide it’s too tough - and stupid - to fine Bixi riders without helmets and so the city becomes part of Australia where helmet laws are openly flouted, and hence die.

Robbo thinks he has an answer: sport cyclists on drop handlebars or stretched-out MTBs should continue to be forced to wear bicycle helmets but anybody on slow, sit-up-and-beg bikes should be able to ride bare-headed. You know, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cycling is a normal, everyday activity and where safety equipment is deemed daft.

It’s always worth noting that bicycle helmets are designed for low-speed crashes to concrete kerbs and offer next to no protection in car v bike smashes i.e. they are better suited to the Copenhagen/Amsterdam style of riding.

“…better construction techniques don’t often mean better impact protection, just thinner helmets and more vents. In short, more money will buy you more vents, but not necessarily more safety…[Manufacturers] are convinced that they can’t sell a helmet that is thicker and therefore bulky looking. And their lawyers will not let them advertise that a helmet is ’safer’ or ‘more protective’ or even ‘designed to prevent concussion’ for fear that they will lose lawsuits when a rider is injured in that helmet.”
American pro-helmet organisation the Bicycle Helmet SafetyInstitute

It will be fascinating to see whether Bixi, in time, brings about the demise of Australia’s helmet laws. And, should London’s bike sharing scheme prove popular, the percentage of helmet-wearing cyclists in the UK capital will no doubt decrease. Just about the only factor that would convince the UK Department of Transport to push for cycle helmet compulsion would be a high percentage of cycle helmet wearing from the current crop of cyclists: dilute with non-helmet wearers and compulsion fades to grey.

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Oct 10, 2008

London cycle chic: with added lorries

Lorry doesn't faze her

I was in London yesterday, visiting the Cycle show at Earl’s Court. I had a bike to deliver, a Cannondale Bad Boy single speed, the one with the new Lefty fork. It was a great day to cycle in London, the sun was out and so were the cyclists.

I had an hour to kill before being allowed in the show so I took my time getting from Kings Cross to the other side of Kensington High Street. In the best furtive style of Mikael Colville-Anderson over at the utterly brilliant, I slung a camera around my neck and captured as many non-Lycra cyclists as I could.

Leather jacket Ridgeback rider

It was easy pickings. The place was awash with what Colville-Anderson flags as “Normal people in normal clothes on normal bikes.”

This made a visit to the Cycle show a bit like flipping over into a different universe. There was a token town bike on many stands - and stand-out urban brands such as Brompton, Pashley and Velorbis were there - but, as to be expected really, much of the rest of the show was dripping with high-end road and mountain bikes. Personally, I drool over these kind of machines but I do wonder what a ‘credit crunch commuter’ would make of all the carbon on offer.

Don’t get me wrong, aspirational bikes are good and a show stuffed with stealth black hybrids and Dutch roadsters would turn off the techies, but if Joe Breeze is right, ‘transportation bikes’ will become a bigger category than the mountain bike was in the ’80s and ’90s. If so, the bike trade is in the pre-MTB phase of largely ignoring what’s staring them in the face.

In another post I’ll talk about the show, and what was on offer for the urban commuter. I was especially taken by the Bspoke clothing range, which has been designed by rag trade specialists but has the added benefit of subtle, you-don’t-know-they’re-there cycle-specific design features. Simon Mottram of Rapha told me there’s huge scope for cycling-to-work togs to become a major category. It’s in its infancy at the moment.

Right-o, back to the pix, more of which can be seen on this Flickr set. I didn’t deliberately take pix of folks without helmets, most people just weren’t wearing them. And this is why I’m a strident opponent of cycle helmet compulsion: it would force many of these kind of cyclists to ditch their bikes.

Driving while distracted with cellphone

Bastard motorist. Has he even seen the cyclist?

Suit, nearly riding with heel

Top marks for cycling in a suit, sir, but you might want to modify that pedal position. Cannondale has sponsored a bunch of Bike to Work Book video quickies which will identify and fix these little cycling errors.

London Cycle Chic 2

Ancient bike, short shorts

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Aug 18, 2008

GB’s trackies rule the world. Here’s why.

[RE-POSTING] I’m in an index. I’ve always wanted to be in an index.

Reid, Carlton 180-6

I come after Queally, Jason and before Road racing…and doping.

The book is ‘Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution’. It’s another stonker from Richard Moore, author of ‘In Search of Robert Millar’. That title won the ‘Best Sports Biography of the Year’ award at the British Sports Book Awards in 2007 and more awards will surely follow for ‘Heroes, Villains and Velodromes’.

According to publisher HarperCollins, the book “reveals how an elite athlete, Chris Hoy, lives, breathes and pushes the boundaries of his sport. How does he do it? And why? What drives him to put his body through the physical and mental hurdles to become the best in the world?”


Moore shadowed Hoy for a year, from the World Championships in Mallorca at which Hoy became a double world champion, through to Hoy’s attempt on the world kilometre record in La Paz, Bolivia. Hoy has won two Olympic Golds so far in Beijing, and is favourite to win a third on Tuesday.

But this book is much more than a biography of Hoy, it’s a dissection of how Britain went from being a pariah nation on the boards through to the world’s all-conquering track team, better even than the Australians, a team so bereft of cycling medals at this Olympics you’d think the team had boycotted the Games.

It reveals the stunning levels of professionalism and dedication that go on behind the scenes at the Manchester velodrome, HQ for British Cycling.

So, how come I’m in the index? It’s all to do with my battle with the UCI in 2005. The gnomes of Aigle had decided to axe the kilo from the 2008 Olympics, a crazy decision when there were lesser track events to chop first or even the road time trial, a race that never attracted the cream of the world’s cyclists.

I created an petition which quickly gained 10,679 signatures including lots of top cycling names from around the world. Along with trackie Julie Dominguez I took the petition to the UCI and met with Pat McQuaid, then UCI president in waiting, now the actual UCI president.

He said some daft things about about the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, and I reported them on, grabbing a wifi connection in the dining hall of the UCI’s HQ. We hopped on a train to the Olympic HQ in Lausanne and by the time we got there, the PR man had already read the story and was waiting with an official rebuttal of McQuaid’s statement.

So, the kilo might have gone but that hasn’t bothered Chris Hoy. Team GB’s cyclists are a credit to the nation, and a credit to hard work. Many in the media, while praising cycling’s success at this Games, add that it’s because cycling is awash with cash. The BBC’s James Munroe said:

“Britain are the new Chelsea of the cycling world - with lottery cash in place of Russian roubles.”

What he fails to mention is that Britain’s pro trackies get less wages per year than a Chelsea footballer gets per week. In fact, the wage of one top-flight footballer could pay for the whole British elite track programme and still leave enough change for a brilliant grass-roots programme to bring on the next generation of Chris Hoy’s and Victoria Pendleton’s.

We’re crap at cricket; useless at football. We’re good at cycling. I hope the mainstream media’s current love affair with the sport lasts.

Until the lustre dims, it’s great to bathe in the reflected glory of Britain’s track superstars. I’m pretty sure motorists are giving me a slightly wider berth at the moment. Cyclists, for now, are all heroes. Now, where’s my aero helmet?

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Aug 18, 2008

This book could save your life


On Friday I was cycling along Gosforth High Street when I saw a canvas-coloured VW nudging out of a side road. This is normal rudeness and I wasn’t too fussed, even though I had to swing over a few inches to safely clear the nudger. As I passed I could see the woman driver was on a cellphone. She was inching out into the road. She might not have seen me. Instead of simply riding on, as I would do usually, I braked hard, hopped backwards and asked the driver to - please - get off the phone.

What happened next surprised me.

She said sorry. In fact, she was apology central.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said, and looked it. Her phone conversation hadn’t been suspended pending a rant to the idiot asking her to obey the law, she had immediately hung up the call. Amazing.

I explained how, next time, she might inch out and kill somebody. She agreed, and promised not to do it again.

This compliance threw me. This isn’t how it’s meant to work. We’re meant to shout at each other.

Surprised, albeit still a wee bit shaken by my brazenness, I started to ride off. A car pulled to the side of the first car. The woman inside said ‘What’s up? She was wasn’t on the phone was she?”

Upon my nod, she tutted and shook her head at the VW woman.

Apparently, this sort of real-person peer pressure has a big impact on drivers. In Bogata, Colombia, mime artists were once paid to mock bad drivers and jaywalkers. Behaviour improved.

Next time I see a motorist on a mobile phone I won’t be silent, I’ll ask, politely, for more concentration, less yakking. I don’t expect I’ll get the same sort of profuse apology as above but perhaps if lots of people shamed wrong-doers, such behaviour could be curtailed?

I was inspired to take direct action because of the book I’ve just read. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) is published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US, and Penguin in the UK. It’s written by tech journalist Tom Vanderbilt.

Pleasingly, Traffic is racing up the best-seller lists. This is good because the readers of the book will be mostly mainstream motorists, not just road radicals, pedestrianisers, transport behaviourialists and bicycle advocates.

The message in Traffic is that motorists can kill and that a society designed to placate the car is not a healthy society. Controversially, Vanderbilt ends his book with the belief that cars will eventually have to be GPS and computer controlled, packing more of the motorists that want to drive on to the increasingly congested roads of the world.

Traffic is a detailed, funny and endlessly surprising book. Vanderbilt explains why traffic problems around the world are really people problems. Vanderbilt delves into the psychology of driving, walking, and cycling. He visits Dr Ian Walker, the cycling academic who strapped a camera on his bike and filmed motorists passing him. Walker found that drivers often drive further away from those cyclists without helmets because they appear less anonymous, and when Walker donned a long blonde wig motorists gave him/her even more room because women are perceived to be wobblers.

Some of the research won’t be new to many cyclists. For instance, it’s reasonably well known that Hans Monderman’s idea of removing street signs improves road safety. When 95 percent of the signs on Kensington High Street in London were removed, pedestrian KSIs (‘killed or seriously injured’) dropped by 60 percent.

However, the book is rich in data that doesn’t normally make it out of academia, and Vanderbilt turns even the dullest of studies into interesting examples of how driving can make sinners out of angels.

Though we all may think we are better than average drivers, Vanderbilt examines why we all behave differently when we get behind the steering wheel. He examines what causes road rage – he prefers the term ‘traffic tantrums’ - and why we think that being inside a metal box absolves us from any obligation to anyone else. He compares the driving of men and women, young and old, and has travelled around the world to study traffic jams near and far. Why is it that some countries drive on the left and others on the right? (It’s to do with horses and swords). Why do New Yorkers jaywalk more than people living in Copenhagen? (No, it’s not just cultural, design plays the biggest factor).


But don’t think bad driving and traffic congestion is a modern phenonomen. Traffic starts with a eye-popping section on the history of vehicular congestion, from the cart ruts in Pompeii which show use of detours and one-way streets, through to the terrible congestion in 19th century London and New York. At least our congestion isn’t accompanied by mountains of horse dung.

Vanderbilt comes at the controversial topic of risk compensation from many angles. “Most crashes,” he writes, “happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers.”

Wide, clear, smooth roads are statistically more ‘dangerous’ than narrow, singletrack roads with hairpins and steep drop-aways. Drivers are lulled into a false sense of security on the first, but fret for their skin on the second, taking more care.

He will make you think again about mundane street furniture. Traffic lights, for instance. They are bad. Roundabouts, which require care and attention, are good.

It’s Vanderbilt’s book which alerted me to this fantastic 1950 Goofy cartoon about pedestrian/driver split personalities:

There’s some related good news to report in the UK. From today there are some new, tougher penalties for motorists who kill because they were “avoidably distracted.”

The new offences will, for the first time, allow courts to imprison drivers who cause deaths by not paying due care to the road, or to other road users.

The new offences will carry custodial sentences of up to five years.

Justice Minister Maria Eagle said: “Drivers who kill through carelessness will no longer be able to walk away from court with just a fine. Driving requires full concentration at all times. A moment’s distraction can make the difference between life and death.”

What sort of distractions? Driving while talking on a phone or texting. Driving while drinking or eating, adjusting a GPS or car stereo, applying make-up or reading a map.



The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little-understood dynamics are at work. There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life — different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, levels of psychological stability — mingle so freely.

The more you think about it — or, rather, the more time you spend in traffic with time to think about it — the more…puzzling questions swim to the surface. Why can one sit in traffic jams that seem to have no source? Why does a ten-minute “incident” create one hundred minutes of gridlock? Do people really take longer to vacate a parking spot when someone else is waiting, or does it just seem so? Do the carpool lanes on highways help fight congestion or cause more of it? Just how dangerous are large trucks? How does what we drive, where we drive, and with whom we drive affect the way we drive? Why do so many New Yorkers jaywalk, while hardly anyone in Copenhagen does? Is New Delhi’s traffic as chaotic as it seems, or does a beautiful order lurk beneath the frenzied surface?


Just when it seemed as if things could not get more complicated on the road, along came a novel and controversial machine, the first new form of personal transportation since the days of Caesar’s Rome, a new-fangled contrivance that upset the fragile balance of traffic. I am talking, of course, about the bicycle.

When I walk, I view cars as loud polluting annoyances…When I drive, I find that pedestrians are suddenly the menance, whacked-out iPod drones blithely meandering across the street without looking. When I ride a bike, I get the worst of both worlds, buffeted by speeding cars whose drivers resent my superior health and fuel economy, and hounded by oblivious pedestrians who seem to think it’s safe to cross against the light of ‘only a bike’ is coming but are then startled and indignant as I whisk past at twenty-five miles per hour.


When bicyclists violate a traffic law, research has showed it is because, in the eyes of drivers, they are reckless anarchists; drivers, meanwhile, are more likely to view the violation of a traffic law by another driver as somehow being required by the circumstances.


Max Hall, a physics teacher in Massachusetts: “The poetic and beautiful result is that four-wheelers behave like fixed objects, by moving very little relative to each other, even at significant speeds, while two-wheeler traffic moves ‘through’ the relatively static field of larger vehicles.”


Perhaps….we will turn the highways into blissfully cooperative, ultraefficient streams of movement with no merging or tailgating or finger flipping. Long before that happens, however, a sooner future seems likely: cars driving themselves, at smoothly synchronized speeds to ensure maximum traffic flow and safe following distances, equipped with merging algorithms set for highest throughput, all overseen by network routers that guide cars down the most efficient paths on these information superhighways.


It’s this last point that fascinates me. It makes total sense. Congestion is set to increase, a huge cost to the economy. The only way to get vehicular traffic moving is to allow computers to take over.
What’s the most dangerous component on a car? The nut behind the wheel. Take away the nut and the streets will be safer.

Motorists face a future of restricted movement (think of the current Beijing experience, with half of the city’s cars forced off the road, every other day). Cyclists, on the other hand, will be able to reclaim city streets, free to go as they please, when they please, protected from cars and trucks because vehicles will be forced to carry on-board speed restrictors, acceleration monitors, and vulnerable road user avoidance devices.

Such freedom to move will create even more cyclists, something that’s already happening. Catering for cyclists - like catering for pedestrians - is the quickest, cheapest and most effective way to civilise a city. And now that message - thanks to Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic - is going mainstream. Thanks, Tom.

Buy the book and bookmark his How We Drive blog.

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Jun 17, 2008

Watch out, watch out, it’s the helmet debate

Yesterday there was a ‘dispelling the myth’ helmet piece on Dave Moulton’s popular blog. Today, in The Telegraph, London Mayor Boris Johnson gives lots of erudite reasons for ditching his “bonce protector” (none of which refer to his blond locks).

Where do I stand on the Great Helmet Debate? I’m a staunch pro-helmet anti-compulsionist. Basically, if you want to wear a helmet, feel free to do so. I wear one, too. But I don’t want to force others to do so. It’s got to be a personal choice.

I don’t want governments to legislate on what one should wear on such a freedom machine as a bicycle. Ah, yes, but the same argument could be used about seat-belts and helmets for motorcyclists.

I wear a seat-belt, and not just because the government tells me to. If you wear one, too, try this. (On a private road, of course). Don’t wear it the Read the rest of this entry »

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