The Battle for Blackfriars

On Friday night, thousands of cyclists demonstrated against Transport for London’s balmy plans to raise the speed limit for cars on Blackfriars bridge. (Mark has the full story here.)

I’ve participated in that ride and just produced this video:

Cyclists, busses and the unsettling death of Jayne Helliwell

TfL busses in central london

About 10 to 20 cyclists die on the streets of London each year. Almost all of them are killed by motorised vehicles. Quite often, the drivers are charged with dangerous driving and have to face an inquest. The results of these inquests, however, are frequently very depressing.

The latest example is the death of Jayne Helliwell, a 25 year old student who died on Oxford Street last April. She was crushed to death by a TfL double decker because the driver incidentally hit the accelerator instead of the break. (There are two heart breaking orbituaries written by friends and colleagues of her: here and here.)

And guess what? He was recently acquitted. The case against the driver named Carlton Lewars was dropped after it was revealed that Lewars suffers sciatica. According to a report in the Evening Standard, he claimed that he suffered a “sudden pain” immediately before his bus hit Jayne. Allegedly, this pain was the reason why he used the wrong pedal.

I’m not expert in law, generally I do trust the British judicial system and I think the presumption of innocence rightly has to be applied if there are any reasonable doubt left. So let’s assume that the “not guilty” decision by the judge was correct.

Nevertheless the whole case is deeply unsettling. The company employing Carlton Lewars – Metroline – knew about his illness but allowed him to stay behind the wheel anyway. The “Evening Standard” quoted a Metroline spokesman stating that Lewars had been declared fit by his GP and the illness did not revoke his bus driving licence.

To me, there seems to be a significant hole in the system. How is it possible that an illness does not render somebody unfit to do his job, but when he makes a grave mistake due to this illness, he’s not responsible for his behaviour?

Either his GP (hughly unlikely) , Metroline and/or Transport for London has to take responsibility, in my humble opinion. Metroline employed an ill man who was unfit to drive a bus safely and hence killed an innocent cyclist.

Looks more scary then they are - if the driver is fit.

The “Evening Standard” quoted the Metroline spokesman saying how deeply sorry they are about the death of Jayne. Well, fair enough.

But how about putting your money where your mouth is? Because of your hiring decisions and employment policies, you’re indirectly responsible for the death of Jayne Helliwell. You knowingly employed somebody who due to his illness wasn’t able to do his job properly.

Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to blame TfL bus drivers in general. In fact I do have a very high opinion about them and thing the vast majority of bus drivers in London are doing an amazingly good job. My personal experience as a cyclist is that almost all TfL busses are driven in a very considerate and careful manner (of course, as always in life, there are exceptions).

LCC’s “London Cyclist” magazine has recently done an interesting story on the cyclist awareness training for bus drivers. I think this is really paying off.

According to my statistics on severe cycling accidents in London only two other cyclists have been killed by TfL busses since 2006 (a male cyclist on Park Lane in February 2008 and Dorothy Elder on Southampton Row in November 2009. The driver who killed Dorothy was also acquitted, later. Freewheeler wrote a good post on that disturbing decision, and I commented on his post.)

This compares to a total of 82 cyclists, the big majority killed by lorries and vans. The low numbers of cyclist killed by bus drivers is even more remarkable given the fact that TfL busses probably significantly outnumber lorries on the streets of London, the job is very stressful and the pay isn’t fantastic.

Nevertheless, Jayne’s death and the revelations from the inquest are deeply unsettling. Hence, I urge Metroline and TfL to take responsibility for Jayne’s death. Pay a comspensation to her family and donate some funds to the London Cycling Campaign. However, even more important is a tightening of the employment rules. Otherwise, the message to any driver in London is straightforward: Convince your GP to diagnose you with sciatica. That’s the perfect insurance policy against any possible wrongdoing.

Update: On 2 November 2011 there was in inquest into Jayne’s death. The “Camden New Journal” published a brief report.

King’s Cross / St. Pancras: Accidents waiting to happen

According to my hand collected data, eight have been killed by cars and lorries in Greater London in 2011 so far (not five, as the BBC claims). The latest victim was Paula Jurek (20) in Camden last week who was crushed by a left turning lorry.

It might be only a question of time until someone gets hit at King’s Cross / St. Pancras. There is massive construction work going on around King’s Cross at the moment, probably in preparation of London 2012. Some traffic obstructions are inevitable, of course.

However, appartently the companies working on the construction sites don’t care at all for cyclists. I took this picture a few minutes ago at the junction of Pancras Road and Euston Road.

Pancras Road has an Advanced Stop Line for cyclists which is disregarded by both drivers. When I dismounted to take the picture, only the black HGV on the left had entered the box. The tractor (which was pulling a dreadful trailer and was turning left) arrived later. Both vehicles came from the construction site at King’s Cross.

I had a brief – and friendly – conversation with the driver of the tractor after I took the picture. I hold him that he was standing in a bike box. He looked at me in utter disbelief and did not understand what I was telling him.

This is really a shame. Unfortunately I don’t know who is responsible for the construction work at King’s Cross. Is it Transport for London? They urgently have to teach basic cycling awareness lessons to the HGV drivers working there. Otherwise some cyclist will get hurt sooner or later.

Why Norman Baker is right about cycling helmets

Me and my helmet

The question if cyclists should wear a helmet is one of the most contentious among cyclists. I usually wear one, as the picture taken on a bike trip in Sweden in 2006 proofs. However, I absolutely think that this should be the personal decision of any cyclist. No cyclist should be forced to wear a helmet.

I’m glad that Norman Baker, the UK minister responsible for cycling shares my view. According to the Guardian, Baker, who is a keen cyclist himself, has recently said:

“I don’t wear a helmet when I cycle. The first reason is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to wear something on my head. For me the joy of cycling is to have the wind in your hair, such as I have left. It’s free, it’s unencumbered; I don’t want to be loaded down.

“It is a libertarian argument. The responsibility is only towards myself. It’s not like drinking and driving where you can damage other people. You do no harm. I’m not encouraging people not to do this, I’m just saying I make a decision not to.”

I think he is absolutely right. But what has happened to poor Norman Baker after his remarks? He got scolded, as the Guardian reports. The paper quotes Joel Hickman, spokesman for  the road safety charity Brake:

“Last year, over 17,000 cyclists were injured on UK roads with over 2,500 killed or seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury. This is precisely why many of our international and European partners have already introduced compulsory helmet wearing. Ministers should practise what they preach and when a minister directly responsible for cycling safety refuses to wear a cycle helmet, we then have to look at their suitability for the role.”

I don’t doubt that a helmet increases the safety of a cyclist. However,  Hickman is beating  a strawman, in my humble opinion. At least here in London, helmets would not have prevented most of the cycling fatalities. The biggest danger here are not head injuries but lorries. As my data on cycling accidents in London since 2006 shows, between 2009 and 2011 at least 51% of the 31 fatal cycling accidents involved lorries. According to an academic paper by Andrei Morgan et al. between 1996 and 2010 (“Deaths of cyclists in London: trends from 1992 to 2006“) “freight vehicles were involved in over 40% cyclists killed”.

You can wear the best helmet in the world – unfortunately it does not help you at all when you’re crushed by a left turning lorry which does not have proper mirrors.

Continue reading “Why Norman Baker is right about cycling helmets”

Will 2011 become a black year for cyclists in London?

2011 may become a black year for cyclists in London. Yesterday, the latest cyclist was killed by a lorry, report the Evening Standard and London 24. At the moment, only few details of the crash are known. It happened at 3.20pm on the junction Camden Road and St. Pancras Way.


According to my mostly hand collected statistics, the number of killed cyclists in London in 2011  has risen  to 8 (compared to 10 in 2010) Details  about all crashes are available here. These numbers are terrible and depressing.

However, I strongly caution to read  any real trend out of this. These numbers do not show that cycling in London has become more dangerous recently!

Since 1986 the number of cyclists killed in London per year varies massively. On average, from 1986 to 2010 , 17.2 cyclists died per year. If there is any trend, there seems to be a slight decline in the more recent years. The average from 1986 to 1999 was 18.3 while from 2000 to 2010 it was 15.9. However, the  yearly variation is huge. For example, in 2004 only 8 cyclists died. One year later the number rose to 21. The worst year as 1989 with 33 fatalities.

All in all, the absolute numbers of dead cyclists  are very small (fortunately!). Statistically this makes it almost  impossible to  detect any reliable medium to longterm patterns. Statisticians call this the “law of small numbers“. A recent academic paper by Andrei Morgan et al. ( “Deaths of cyclists in london: trends from 1992 to 2006“)  puts it this way:

… the number of cyclists killed in London remains small, meaning that even if trends were present, they may not have been detected.

I recently had an email exchange  with Andrei Morgan, a researcher with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine regarding the numbers. Among other things  I asked him the following question:

What was going on in 2004? Why was the number of killed cyclists so much lower in that year? Was it  just luck?  The number of seriously injured cyclists was very low as well, which might indicate that something else was happening. Was the  weather particularly bad (probably not, since your relative estimates went down as well. Have there been significantly fewer construction sites and in London?

This is what Andrei answered:

There are, of course, many possible reasons for this. But statistically speaking, if annual deaths are modelled using a poisson distribution, as we did, one would expect between 8 deaths and 25 deaths given that the average underlying rate was 15 deaths per year.

Two things, however, are for sure from my point of view.

1) Transport for London and the major are massively  missing their aim to reduce cycling fatalities. Boris Johnson sees it differently. He’s recently argued:

I would however like to make the point that cycling in London is getting safer the whole time. I know it may not feel like that but the statistics show that while cycling has more than doubled in the last ten years the number of serious injuries and fatalities has declined by a fifth.

I don’t take issue with the fact that cycling has more than doubled in the last ten years. But I think the statistics at least with regards to fatalities don’t say much.  Severe injuries  have declined, but there are some doubts about the  figures (possible reporting bias)

2) Lorries are the biggest single danger to cyclists in London. Between 2009 and 2011, 51% of all fatal cycling accidents involved lorries. According to Morgan et al. between 1996 and 2010 “freight vehicles were involved in over 40% cyclists killed”. Boris, if you really want to make cycling safer in London,  do something about the lorries! In their “No More Lethal Lorries” campaign, the  LCC has drafted a five point plan.

  • Cyclist-awareness training for drivers. All city lorry drivers should be have ongoing cycle-awareness training, including on-bike experience.
  • Drivers must take more responsibility. Authorities must recognise driver responsibility for doing everything practical to reduce risks. Blaming a ‘blind spot’ should be an admission of guilt.
  • Safer design for London lorries. Lorries designed for off-road use should be taken off city streets. The best mirrors, cameras and sensors should be fitted as standard.
  • Higher standards from lorry operators. Quality-assurance schemes such as London’s Freight Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) should be mandatory, and the police encouraged to crack down on rogue operators.
  • More responsible procurement Companies must only buy haulage services from reputable firms, with government taking a lead in encouraging best practice.

Boris, please don’t boast about shady statistics anymore. Get real and fully endorse all those  points. Just sign  and implement the  LCC  petition.

A reply to Celia Walden: You owe Tom Barrett a profound apology

I’ve never heard of Celia Walden* before, but my Google Alert on “cyclist” and “killed” has just drawn my attention to her. She’s the author of just another rant against cyclists which has been published in the “Daily Telegraph”.

Celia is describing a close call with a female cyclist who

swerved into the middle of my lane without signalling. There was no helmet, of course, and no high-visibility gear – which would have marred the whole sunny tableau. The worst accident she could think of was that her skirt might flutter up to reveal a charming pair of white cotton knickers.

In the next paragraph Celia confesses:

basically I loathe all London cyclists. (…) these people live in a fantasy world. (…) Traffic signals don’t apply to London cyclists, up there as they are on the moral high ground with their officially endorsed sense of righteousness. Sociologically, polls have shown that they tend to be a preening, upper-middle class bunch.

The most shocking sentence comes in the third paragraph:

At least she, after a near-death experience with a London bus or the onset of a little light drizzle, will permanently withdraw from the roads.

Apparantly, this Celia Walden thinks that near-death experiences for cyclists are a good thing which teach them a lesson. I wonder what she would tell the father of Jayne Helliwell, 25, who had a more-than-near-death experience with a bus last year (the bus driver was charged with dangerous driving after the crash).

Reading Celias article in a week where another London cyclist has been killed by a lorry is not just unsettling. It’s utterly disgusting. Until today, according to my statistics at least seven cyclists have been killed on London roads in 2011.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from a Telegraph journalist but some research before writing an article might be a nice idea. Well, I’m here to help:

Celia, do you seriously think that Barrett (he commanded a squadron in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded an Order of the British Empire), Mason ( he was “notable for his iron chin, stout heart and thunderous punching power”, according to the Telegraph) and Hawkes ( “one of Britain’s leading child protection experts”, listen to him on Radio 4 ) “have lived in a “fantasy world”?

Do you think they deseve to be loathed?

Do I deserve to be loathed?

One thing is for sure: Tom, Gary and Colin have permanently been withdrawn from the roads, if I may use your words.

Celia, I’m really shocked by your degree of callousness. I don’t understand how the editors of the “Daily Telegraph” dare to print such highly cynical stuff.

In the name of Tom Barrett, Gary Mason and Colin Hawkes (as well as all those other cyclists who have been innocently killed and injured by dodgy drivers in London) I expect a profound apology. Otherwise I would conclude that you just think they just got what they deserved.

* That’s why I’ve misspelled her first name as “Celina” in an earlier version of this article.

My spreadsheet with detailed information on fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006: http://bit.ly/cycling-london

My map showing the locations for fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006: http://bit.ly/cycle-crash-map-london

Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?

“Isn’t it dangerous?” This is the ultimate question regarding cycling in London. Almost everyone asks me this when I tell them that I get around here almost exclusively by bike. I know a significant number of people who do not cycle in London because they consider it utterly unsafe.

My standard  reply to questions on cycling safety is: “Of course it’s dangerous. As life is in general.” I then explain that if you respect certain rules (“Never ever get on the left side of  lorry” being the most important one), safety is not an issue.

Afterwards I usually rave for five minutes about the benefits of cycling. I never forget to mention that, according to studies frequently cited by the CTC, the health benefits of cycling massively outweigh the risks.

Deep inside, however, I always feel a little bit queasy because I ask myself if I’m talking  somebody into cycling who might  end up under a car….

Hence I wanted to get a deeper understanding of cycling safety in London. This is why I’ve started to collect data on severe and fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006. The results are this spreadsheet on Google Docs and this map. Currently they list 59 fatal cycling accidents that have happened in Greater London since  2006.

Collecting this information was heartbreaking and a very emotional thing. I got sad, angry and frustrated by the carelessness and ruthlessness of some drivers; the errors and callousness of city planners  and the verdicts of coroners who were at least sometimes showing an astonishing degree of leniency.

Continue reading “Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?”