Monday, 5 September 2011

Somebody died on my commute route

It was reported in the Cambridge Evening News that a cyclist, Michael Smyth had died after a collision with a car on Histon Road in the early hours of Sunday 28th August.

It was only a couple of days later when I was cycling into work did I realise exactly where this happened.  Flowers were laid at the roadside which I stopped to read.  There were messages from friends and family, including his children and carried such grief that they moved me greatly. It is not pleasant to think about, but you can see a blood stain on the road which I pass by on my way to work which really brings home the loss of life. This man, Michael, was just like me, a similar age, with a young family and was at the pub close by with friends. This could have been me.  I could not bring myself to take a photo at the scene, thankfully the CEN did - you can see a photo of the flowers, and read some of the messages on this subsequent CEN report.

This is not the only tragic death on my commute route.  There was grandmother, Mary Scott killed whilst cycling by a turning lorry while the driver was using his mobile.  There was also another father, Alan Barry killed whilst cycling between Cottenham and Histon.  Infact, the CEN regularly reports on collisions between motor-vehicles and cyclists, motor-vehicles and pedestians.  The end result is always tragic for the person, family member, loved one, who was not protected in a metal box that day.

It is the memory of these deaths and my own experience of cycling and walking on our local roads that motivates me to try and do something to fix the problem of cars and lorries killing people.

To keep cycling, I have to remind myself that statistically, my cycling will be more likely to lengthen my life than shorten it.  It's not easy when you are regularly buzzed by traffic (close passed) and you really feel the fear of traffic and your adrenaline pump - a sure sign that your body thought you were under attack.

It's not easy when you look at a map of the incidents either.  This is taken from the council's web site and plots Cambridgeshire Accident Data 2008-2010.

The more red it looks, the worse it is.  My typical route follows the yellow road, the B1049:

Accidents spots and cluster sites 2008-2010, north of Cambridge.

Another interesting plot of data is BBC: Deaths on Britain's Roads 1999-2009. If you click around you can see what kinds of vehicles were involved. Within Cambridge the serious incidents are often car-bicycle or car-pedestrian.

The problem I have is that I see bad driving almost every day.  I see drivers taking risks with other peoples lives.  Sometimes I experience drivers taking risks with my life.  And the bigger problem I have is that the risk to drivers is low.  When there is a collision, and no good witnesses the driver cannot be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.  In my opinion the balance of law is wrong and I support Presumed Liability. Where there is no evidence, the person with the larger vehicle should be deemed at fault as they had the greater duty of care.

What's worse, is that even when a driver is convicted, the sentencing is low.  Take the example of Mary Scott, killed by a lorry driver on his mobile - simply banned from driving for 12 months.  Its cases like this that coined the phrase: If you want to kill someone, do it in a car.

I have seen how a small subset of people drive around Cambridge, around our loved ones. So, when I see that Micheal Smyth was killed by a Ford Tourneo, a van decked out with rows of seats, I would put money on that being a taxi driver, because I have been in one at 1am and the speed they drive at is shocking. I have also experienced the way they drive around our city in the daytime. Cyclists are not fans.  Licensed to drive on our roads badly, by the council, representatives of us.  I really hope that the recent Taxi Policy Consultation (comments by Sept 11th 2011) does something to improve driver behaviour.  Let me just be fair to the driver in this incident - I do not know the cause of the accident or who was at fault.  What I do know is whenever a car and pedestrian collide, the outcome for the pedestrian is always severe.

I would not stop at taxis.  I have experienced the way some of the buses are driven. Here is a mockup of a pass that happened to me (its not the only one). This footage was taken on the same road, the B1049 Histon Road, just half a mile north of where Michael Smyth died.

Buses authorised to drive around our loved ones like this, by us, by our elected council.  Like taxi's, they have a bad reputation. These near misses are not represented on the statistics.  If this were air traffic control, a near miss would be taken extremely seriously, and the planes have black box recorders so they know as much as possible about what happened.  The newer StageCoach buses in Cambridge have CCTV facing in and out, but as I found out, the footage is rather difficult to get hold of. Perhaps one day, black box recording will be mandatory for motor vehicles.  For now, if you want to prove what happened in an accident, pedestrians and cyclists will all have to wear cameras such as Magnatom who's famous video - 20cm from death - is shown on the TV every time there is a debate about cyclists.

The statistics tell us there will be death and serious injury on our roads. We all know what the problem is.  So why can't we solve the problem of dangerous driving ?  It is all so predictable. It's easy to sweep it under the carpet, but its not easy to wash the blood off the road.  Please push your councillors and MPs to do something to fix the problem of dangerous driving.

Minor update:  Sentencing.

On the subject of sentencing, I have read a lot of news reports about deaths caused by drivers over the last few years. Typically, the sentencing a very low in my memory - fines and community service.

The death of Mary Scott mentioned above, resulted in no jail time and a 12 month driving ban for the lorry driver who killed her whilst he drove using a mobile phone. The driver was convicted of driving without due care and attention.

Today the BBC reports another lorry driver who killed one person. He gets 6 years jail, and a 5 year driving ban. This one was convicted of dangerous driving.

I am not sure why these drivers were charged with different offences and such a large difference in jail time. You can make your own mind up by reading the CPS's Sentencing Manual on dangerous driving.  Also interesting is the more general page on the CPS site: Road Traffic Offences: Guidance on Prosecuting Cases of Bad Driving.

Update:  The last three weeks.

It has only been three weeks since the death of Michael Smyth. Unfortunately the incidents on the B1049 continue:

  • I came across an ambulance taking away a driver after two vehicles collided at the junction of Histon Road and Gilbert Road. It looked like somebody had jumped the traffic lights. Cyclists get a lot of stick for jumping red lights (I don't condone it) but the outcome is never like this.
  • I have seen a bus close pass another cyclist exactly where I was close passed.  There was no traffic coming the other way. My complaint to StageCoach has had no effect.
  • Yesterday, 21st September on Cottenham village High Street, two cars collided, one mounting the pavement and crashing into a mother and child.  The pedestrians were taken away by air ambulance. Click for the CEN story.  This particular piece of road is constantly troubled by cars trying to push through a busy area with a shop, churches, and other useful community services. There is lots of on road parking and poor sight lines.  The exit from Rooks Street onto the High Street is a common short-cut or rat run but the exit has the driver is pulling out almost blind due to parked cars. Cottenham High Street in general is one where the car is more important than the pedestrian.


  1. I live in Cottenham and just started a new job in central Cambridge. I was looking forward to getting back into cycling for the daily commute (hence finding your blog), but this has put me off quite a lot. I know that cycling can be dangerous but this really brings it home. Certainly if my wife read this she would not want me cycling to work.

    It seems that a lot of work as been done widening and repaving the section of the B1049 between Histon and Cottenham. Do you know if this has been done with cycling in mind and whether they intend to do this for that entire section of the road?

    Thanks for the blog, its informative and entertaining.

  2. Hi Andy,

    Congratulations for getting a new job.

    This blog entry is a bit Daily Mail, but don't let it put you off. You are more likely to die from an unhealthy lifestyle than cycling. To learn more about the relative dangers start on this page. If you need motivation, just compare the physique of your average cycle and car commuters and what their likely lifespan will be.

    Cycling has so many upsides, such as less cost, predictable journey times, and greater fitness.

    To mitigate any risk, consider Bikeability adult cycling courses or have a read of CycleCraft. They have a copy in the central library.

    Regarding the cycle path. The works you have been seeing are supposed to get a path from the southern edge of Cottenham, to the lights at Histon Green. Unfortunately, the part that is needed most of all is the section near Cottenham Skips and is has not been started. It has been put back so many times.

    The works from Histon lights to the A14 are complete.

    I believe the council are starting to consider the cycle lanes on Histon Road. They don't add to your safety and may end up being removed.

    Its funny, I thought my wife would be against me cycling to work for the same reasons as you, but she was all for it.

    Enjoy your first commute by bike!