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.

The troubling death of Dorothy Elder -Comment

Freewheeler, who runs the blog “Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest”has written a very good post on the death of Dorothy Elder, a cyclist who got killed by a TfL Bus in London in 2009. Last week, the bus driver was cleared in court. Freewheler rightly points to some oddities of the crash and the verdict.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to add a comment to Freewheeler’s blog. Hence I do it here.

The crash happened on 11/11/2009 at 11pm.  According to the Evening Standard, the bus was waiting in front of red lights in Theobald’s Road in the middle lane and was bout to turn right into Southampton Row.  Dorothy passed the (standing?) bus on the vehicles nearside. When she was in front of the bus, she changed landes, apparently without looking or putting her arm out to indicate.

In court, a road crash expert named Barry Wheeler cleared the driver Leola Burte. He said

  1. there may have been a three-second window for Leola Burte to spot Ms Elder become a hazard
  2. however, the driver  would have been focusing on the more immediate traffic dangers to her right
  3. the view of the cyclist may have been obscured by a combination of the cab fittings and windscreen wipers
  4. The prosecution  suggested that Miss Elder should have worn more visible clothing and should not have ridden in front of the bus  in the first place

There are a number of things that deeply irritate me.

Three seconds is quite a long time.  Dorothy was either in front or to the right of the bus. Even according to Mr. Wheeler the driver would have been focusing on the things which were happening to her right. I don’t understand how this can be used an an argument in favour of the driver.

How can windscreen wipers obscure the view of a bus driver? If this is really a valid point, busses should urgently be re-designed. If the view was really obscured, why does Mr. Wheeler stress that Dorothy did not indicate? If the  driver really was unable to see the cyclist, this would not have helped anyway.

The verdict really is surprising given the fact that – according to an interview the bus driver gave to the Evening Standard after the verdict, even the bus company was convinced that the accident was the drivers fault.  According to the Standard,  Leola Burte said:

“I went into the office and they [the bus company Metroline] told me they had seen the CCTV and that I was at fault. I was treated like a murderer. They told me I was sacked and to give back my uniform.”

This is really peculiar. Either Metroline really is an utterly awful employer which does not protect its employees at all or the CCTV recording was very straightforward. Freewheeler makes another good point:

If the collision was captured on CCTV (…)  it is far from clear to me why there should be any room for doubt as to how long the cyclist was visible in front of the bus. This would be a matter of record, not speculation.

Freewheeler rightly points to the fact that at the same junction another cyclist was killed one year earlier.

All this is really unsettling. Has the jury really done a proper job? I do have some  doubts.

Some issues, but even more fun – my experience as a casual Boris Biker

Boris Bikes - the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme in London

Over the weekend, some friends from Germany were visiting us. On Saturday (March 26) we took them for a ride on Boris bikes. Since my wife and I only have two access keys (thanks to a design flaw in the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, but that’s another story), we had to hire two more bikes with a credit card as casual users. We had a terrific day and our visitors absolutely loved cycling in London. We cycled more than 15 miles which was great fun (and quite cheap compared to using the tube)

However, unfortunately there are still a number of glitches and inconveniences which should be rectified by  Transport for London (TfL) and Serco, the company which is running  “Barclays Cycle Hire” on behalf of TfL. Hence, I want to share our experiences. Those are my insights:

Casual access finally works

This may sound like stating the obvious, but it isn’t. Officially, the  scheme has been open for casual users since December 2010. However, when I tried to hire bikes for some friends in early January, the system declined several German Visa cards. On the Boris bike forum there are quite a few horror stories (another one)  about casual usage. But believe it or not, on several occasions we really managed to hire two bikes using a German credit card last Saturday!

The hiring procedure is a little bit clumsy

Unfortunately hiring a bike as a casual user is more complicated than TfL suggests. When you’re buying your access period (1 Pound for 24 hours), you have to insert your credit card twice. On the first occasion, the system just checks if you’ve already bought an access period. Then you have to click through several pages of terms and conditions and answer several questions (how many bikes? and so on) on the touch screen. When you’re finished you have to insert your credit card again – now you’re finally charged. I found this a little bit confusing. Pointing this out more clearly at the terminal might be a good idea. Interestingly, we did not have to enter the pin number (we used a Visa debit card issued by a German bank).

Some confusion regarding the release codes

After you’ve bought the access period, the system asks if you want to hire a bike right now. Yes, indeed. The terminal then prints a five digit release code which you have to type in using the number pad at the docking point. (When you hire another bike in the same access period, you just have to enter your credit card and get a new access code.)

Continue reading “Some issues, but even more fun – my experience as a casual Boris Biker”

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

On a rather shaky start – and a brilliant night

Last night, finally, the first Friday Night Ride to the Coast was taking place. For me, it all had started rather awkwardly.

Shadow on the wall

On Wednesday, I realised that I really do need a new handlebar for the Grasshopper. Thanks to  frequent tumbles when I was learning how to ride a recumbent the handlebar got a little bit twisted. I probably could use it for another 10 years, but I don’t take any chances with regard to such vital parts. Alright, I’d always fantasised about doing a night ride on the Brompton. Well, here you go.

Good morning, Essex

The second issue was due to a guy I got to know on the German Brompton forum. He got in touch with me and told me that he was going to be in London in March. I touted the FNRttC and the joys of night riding and, rather unsurprisingly,  he got interested. We were supposed to meet prior to the ride at 10 pm at pub close to Hyde Park Corner. Well. I was there. He wasn’t. At 9.45 pm he sent me a text that he was running late. When the pub was closing at 11pm I still was on my own. I can thoroughly assure  you: There are things more funny than sitting in a London pup on a Friday night, fully dressed in Lycra and sipping on your sparkling water. (Of course, stuff happens but the guy only halfheartedly murmured an unconvincing apology.)

[Question to my English friends: What would you have been done in that situation? At 10.55pm I texted him: “The pub is going to close at 11pm. You guys are clowns. See you at HPC”. Would you consider this rude?]

But anyway. When I got to Hyde Park Corner and had chatted with some so the usual suspects this was quickly forgotten.

Apart from the shaky start the ride was utterly brilliant. I was absolutely delighted and amazed that Andy, a recumbent rider who introduced me to the FNRttC, was on the ride. He’d got clipped by a van recently and suffered quite severe leg injuries. He has been (and will be) the only one in the  history of mankind who did a FNRttC with having a crutch mounted to his bike. Absolutely outstanding!)

Continue reading “On a rather shaky start – and a brilliant night”

The Joy of Night Riding

My German friends frequently ask me how I like living in London. My answers are highly dependent on my current mood and my recent experiences. One thing is for sure: In certain respects it’s definitely better to be a tourist in London than an inhabitant.

The Friday Night Ride to the Coast

However, even when I’m completely fed up, there is one thing I always praise. It’s the FNRttC.

The what?

The “Friday Night Ride to the Coast”. That`s probably one of the weirdest bike rides in the world. And most definitely one of the greatest.

Between March and November, on a Friday night, once a month a group of cyclists meet at Hyde Park Corner at midnight and ride to the coast. (Technically, the ride should be labeled “Saturday Morning right to the Coast” because it starts on Friday, 12pm.)

Today (March 18th, 2011), the night riding season finally starts again . Around 11.30pm, more than 100 cyclists will meet at Hyde Park Corner. At 12pm sharp the group is going to leave – we’ll be heading towards Southend on Sea (around 55 miles). Southend is the shortest and most easiest ride but perfect for this time of the year.

I’ve been looking forward to this for several months.

Continue reading “The Joy of Night Riding”

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?”

CCC – a note on cars, carbon and cycles

How much carbon emissions could be saved if we could convince more people to cycle instead of using their car?

This question  came to my mind after reading a blog post by Felix Salmon. Felix runs a very good financial blog for Reuters and took issue with John Cassidy’s silly rant against bike lanes in New York City (as I did) . However, one point Felix raised in his blog really surprised me. He wrote:

The amount of pollution emitted by today’s cars is actually pretty low, while the amount of congestion they cause is enormous. I’d be happy to introduce Cassidy to Charlie Komanoff one day, the guy who’s actually done all the hard empirical math on this question. The pollution-related negative externalities associated with Cassidy’s drives into Manhattan are tiny, while the congestion-related ones are enormous — well over $100 per trip.

Can this really be true? Is pollution not an issue anymore with regard to cars? Unfortunately I was not able to open Komanoffs’ Excel file Felix is referring to on his blog. This is why I tried to answer this question myself doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations. I only focused on carbon emissions and took London as an example.

Continue reading “CCC – a note on cars, carbon and cycles”

London’s Cycling Wasteland (II): Lloyd Baker Street (Clerkenwell)

Cycling Wasteland No. 2 is dealing with a major obstacle for cyclists in Central London. This one annoys me particularly because it has been built  on purpose and it is utterly unnecessary. It’s not only a missed opportunity but a man made nuisance for cyclists.

I’m ranting against the fact that Lloyd Baker Street is a one way street.

Probably you’ve never heard about this street. It’s a small and quiet road in Clerkenwell crossing Amwell Street. It’s an important street  for cyclists who  want to go  from Angel towards Tottenham Court Road.


Lloyd Baker Street

As you can see on the map the most direct route on quite roads from Angel towards the West leads through this tiny street. Lloyd Baker Street connects the cycle path on Tavistock Torrington with Myddelton Square  and the triangle St. John Street / Goswell Road / City Road.

Again, as with Bath Street, I’m only talking about 50 meters of road. After having entered Lloyd Baker Street one can turn right on Lloyd Street and then left on Lloyd Square / Wharton Street.

However, a law abiding cyclist coming from Myddelton Square who wants to get to Ampton Street (which leads to the Tavistock-Torrington cycle path) would have to  make a significant  detour.  I suspect that a  lot of cyclists just stick to busy main roads.

As you can see on the second picture there is a nasty barrier which currently blocks westbound traffic. However there is absolutely enough room to build  a contraflow system.

A closer view. In front of the second traffic signs we're making a right turn.

The only sensible argument opening Lloyd Baker Street for westbound cyclists  could be that the next junction (Wharton Street / King’s Cross Road) is a little bit difficult to cross. It is a little bit hard to see the traffic on King’s Cross Road while standing on Wharton Street. If this was a concern, it could easily be addressed: just install traffic lights at this junction.