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Officer tells one cyclist: Wear hi-vis in case driver forgets glasses

The Metropolitan Police has revealed that 70 lorries were checked and 100 cyclists pulled over during yesterday's "educate and advise" road safety operation on which we reported yesterday – with one bike rider telling road.cc that she was advised to wear hi-visibility clothing to ensure she could be seen “if a driver wasn’t wearing their glasses.”

The advice the police were giving to cyclists and their choice of riders to stop will inevitably lead some to wonder whether those charged with enforcing road safety on the capital’s streets really understand the safety challenges faced by cyclists and indeed the nature of the dangers that some cyclists put themselves in which the statistics would suggest are nothing to do with choice of headgear and jacket colour and very much to do with road positioning when in proximity to large vehicles.

While it would be both unfair and foolish to judge the Met’s grasp of cycling reality on the streets of London on the back of one operation it is worth noting that the officer’s involved came from the force’s Safer Transport Command which includes the Met’s cycling patrols and the unit tasked with enforcing the rules on HGV safety and therefore it would be assumed familiar with the risks such vehicles pose to cyclists and the ways in which cyclists can put themselves in danger around HGVs.

It is a depressing measure of the educational gap that needs to be closed when it comes to improving the safety of cyclists if even some of the Met’s road safety experts think a hi-vis tabard is a cyclist’s best protection from a short sighted tipper truck driver rather than knowing not to position yourself in his blindspot where your hi-vis will be invisible.

The police operation took place on Vauxhall Bridge Road, Albert Embankment and Whitechapel Road between 7am and 11am.

It coincided with the start of Road Safety Week, and comes after a two-week period in which six London cyclists have been killed in incidents involving large vehicles such as lorries and buses.

Some 15 lorry drivers were issued fixed penalty notices totalling £2,300 for offences including driving more than the legally permitted hours without taking a break, or their vehicles being in an unroadworthy condition.

Officers also fined car drivers for offences such as encroaching on Advanced Stop Lines, also known as ‘bike boxes,’ designed to give space to cyclists at the front of motor vehicles queuing at traffic lights.

As we reported yesterday, cyclists were pulled over and given safety advice on issues such as wearing a helmet – something that is recommended in the Highway Code, but not compulsory – or being warned against the danger of wearing headphones while riding, again something that is not illegal.

Both issues are highly topical. Today, Mayor of London Boris Johnson told London radio station LBC that he would like to see the wearing of headphones by cyclists outlawed on safety grounds (we will be looking at that in a separate news item).

Meanwhile, as Carlton Reid points out in an article on BikeBiz, a Metropolitan Police press release yesterday regarding an unnamed 21-year-old man killed when he was struck by a bus in Whitechapel last week concludes by noting that “the cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the collision.”

The press release fails to mention whether the cyclist suffered head injuries in the incident, and as Reid points out, cycle helmets in any event are “designed for low-speed impacts from 1 metre and are not designed to offer protection against being hit by a motor vehicle.”

One cyclist, Harriet Lamb, told us in an email of her experience of being stopped by police as she rode across Vauxhall Bridge, with an officer telling her: “Hi, we’re stopping all cyclists in light of the recent cyclist fatalities, to make sure that you’re making yourselves as safe as possible. Obviously it’s great that you have lights on and are wearing a helmet, but have you considered wearing a hi-viz jacket?”

She replied: “No, I’ve got really bright lights, reflective material on my coat and my bike, and I position myself in the road so that I can be seen.”

The officer then said: “I just think that if a driver wasn’t wearing their glasses then they might not be able to see you.”

Harriett asked him: “Do you not think that a driver driving around half-blind is more the problem?”

“Well, we’re just here to talk to cyclists,” continued the officer. “We don’t know yet why so many cyclists are being killed but there are a lot of bad cyclists out there.”

“There are a lot of bad drivers too, perhaps you should talk to them as they’re the ones doing the killing.”

The cyclist, who says the encounter left her “fuming,” also said that the police officer told her that although it wasn’t clear whether bad cycling had been a factor in any of the recent fatalities, there were a lot of bad cyclists around.

She agreed, but pointed out that often, people take unnecessary risks and put themselves in a position of danger without realising they are doing just that, and perhaps the police should be advising them to avail themselves of free cycle training available through local councils.

She also remarked there was a lot of bad driving too – something the officer agreed with.

What the episode does suggest is that particularly at a time when emotions are likely to be charged among those who cycle in London as a result of the deaths that have taken place within the past fortnight, there may be a lack of understanding of the issues surrounding road safety on the part of some officers.

Moreover, the advice to wear hi-visibility clothing to stand out “if a driver wasn’t wearing their glasses” leads to thoughts of Joao Lopes, who was driving the lorry that killed cyclist Eilidh Cairns in Notting Hill in February 2009.

Three months after the fatal incident, police checked Lopes’s eyesight at her family’s insistence and found it to be defective. His licence was revoked, but he got it back in April 2010 and resumed driving lorries.

In October that year, Lopes stood trial on the only charge he ever faced in connection with Eilidh’s death – driving with uncorrected defective vision.

He received three points on his licence and a £200 fine, but magistrates did not ban him from driving.

In June 2011, he was involved in a second fatality when the lorry he was driving struck and killed 97-year-old Nora Gutmann as she crossed Marylebone Road.

He was sentenced to four year’s imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving, and will be disqualified from driving for six years when his jail term ends.

Speaking about yesterday’s police operation, Chief Superintendent Glyn Jones from the MPS Traffic Command, said: "We held this operation in busy areas where lots of cyclists and lorries share the roads during rush hour.

“This is a combination which has the potential to result in collisions if road users don't take adequate care. Our objective today was to raise people's awareness of the safety measures and to check that lorries and their drivers were fit to be on the roads.

"While today's operation focussed on cyclists and lorry drivers, our overall message goes to pedestrians and other drivers too. Our message is do everything within your power to be safe on the roads.

"We are not looking to blame one particular road user; we are here to urge everyone on the road to take the very best of care for the sake of themselves and others."

Assistant Commissioner Simon Byrne added: "All the officers within our Traffic and Safer Transport Commands are being deployed to deliver a focused and robust approach to those road users who put others at risk.

“The difference in our approach is this is now their number one priority, with all 2,500 officers from these commands deployed on these duties.

"Our activity will be targeted at all road users, during morning and evening rush hours, who are using our roads dangerously, without consideration or care, to reinforce the point that we all have a duty to be safe on our roads.

"Each and every death is a needless tragedy, the human cost of which should never be forgotten," he concluded.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.