This is going to be a rant. If you are of a sensitive disposition, please go here instead. Thank you.
Readers who peruse this blog on a fairly regular basis will no doubt be aware that I’m a fairly keen, dedicated cyclist. I’m not a head down, racing snake figured, lycra clad speed demon, so much as a portly, middle-aged bloke in normal trousers on a knackered old bike. I cycle thousands of miles every year – both for enjoyment and utility. Quite simply, I love to be on a bike, I love the engagement with the environment the activity gives and I see cycling as a both a way of keeping fit and as a pleasing occupation that helps to relieve the stresses and irritation of workaday life. I’ve been riding a bike ever since I was a small child, and have only ever been away from two wheels for a couple of years in my entire life. I pride myself that whilst I’m not a perfect road user, I try to uphold the standards of courtesy, skill and care that I myself expect to find on the road. I’ve learned over the years to be positive, assertive, polite and decisive within traffic; to always be informative and clear to other roadusers.
Of late, I’ve been commuting from Brownhills through Walsall and off into the Black Country on an almost daily basis, and my route takes in many of the arterial roads and junctions of the area. At this time of year, with dark evenings and heavy, pre-Christmas traffic, one gets used to seeing some odd things on the roads and patience is an absolute must. Three or four weeks hence I had to take evasive action one evening as a driver of a large car, two unrestrained children on the back seat, pulled quickly out of a junction in Walsall’s Butts area, directly into my path. His vehicle was virtually invisible as it had no lights whatsoever. In a curious bout of role reversal, I pointed out his suicidal lack of illumination, to be told that ‘…I don’t need fuckin’ lights mate, this is a fuckin’ built up area!’. Such things are depressingly regular, from many sections of the road using community.
I’m mindful of the often justifiable bad press that cyclists receive, and abhor bad manners, lawless riding, lack of visibility and disrespect that many cyclist engender. Such behaviour irritates me immensely and I will often remonstrate with those who recklessly endanger themselves or others whilst on a bicycle. I never expected to have that kind of conversation with a representative of the Police.
One thing that is common to all serious cyclists is that we study the techniques and behaviour of other riders carefully. Being quite vulnerable, it is usual to find yourself watching how others handle traffic situations for pointers and critique of one’s own approach. I have been noticing, in a kind of background way, that the local police seem to be increasingly deploying both regular Bobbies andS PCSO’s on bicycles, which I think is a thoroughly good idea in principle. What I’ve also been noticing is that the road skills of some of the officers deployed in this manner seem to be woefully poor. Way back in the summer, I observed a police officer on a bicycle in a crowded Bradford Place in Walsall, weave between queuing, slowly moving buses, and then ride so close behind one that if it should stop, even at slow speed, he was sure to hit it. Certainly the bus driver would have had no idea that he was there. The officer continued to dodge around vehicles, until he headed off up Bridgman Street – I was so disgusted by the riders behaviour that I tweeted about it. Often, one sees bike police riding in pedestrian areas or on footpaths – curiously, this is quite correctly a fixed-penalty offence for civilians. There seems to be a casual unawareness of the general behaviour acceptable from cyclists in such a position.
The depth of this situation came home to me on the 25th November 2009. I was cycling along the A461 Lichfield Road in Shelfield, towards Walsall. It would have been about 11am, and traffic was fairly heavy but free moving. I peripherally observed another cyclist entering some distance ahead from the right – possibly from Willows Road. I noted the hi-viz jacket with a blue panel on the back, and assumed that the rider was a security guard off to work. As I gradually caught up with him, I watched carefully as the rider hugged the kerb so closely that he occasionally only narrowly avoided hitting it; overtaking vehicles pressed him into the edge of the road, causing the errant bike to drift over the lines at the junction of The Parkway. This was a nervous, fearful cyclist struggling in the traffic. I overtook him somewhere near the Barns Lane junction, and saw that the blue panel was the badge of a Police Community Support Officer. Leaving him behind, I patiently waited in line with the cars at the Rushall Square junction for the lights to change, one car back from the stop line. Behind me, my attention was drawn to the same guy riding along the inside edge of the queue – he passed me, crossed the stop line, and then dismounting, pulled his bike to the centre of the two lanes of stationary vehicles and remounted. When the light changed, traffic turning out of Station Road was jamming the junction, and our intrepid PCSO rode up to it and confused, halted, leaving the vehicles he’d obstructed behind him unable to move. Spotting a gap, he headed for space. I again passed him somewhere in the centre of the junction, over to my right. I was determined to get out of the way, but stopped to let two indicating busses pull out of the bus stand in front of MacDonalds. The busses began to move, oblivious to the officer who shot past me and only came to a halt, narrowly avoiding being struck by one of them, when I shouted at him to stop. Fighting the urge to remonstrate with him, I quickly cycled past the PCSO and off to work, furious at the behaviour. I vowed to call the police about it – I swore oaths to blog on the subject – but as the day wore on I mellowed, and let the incident pass.
The incident remained niggling away at me until today. At about 11:15am, at the Rushall Square junction, I was again queuing for the lights to change. I was this time, some way back; traffic was heavy and slow moving. There was an articulated lorry in front of me. As the line of traffic distilled, whom should I notice but the very same PCSO, coming up on the inside. He undertook the lorry, multiple cars and vans, and in very little space. I watched in disbelief as he crossed the stop line (the lights still at red), then freewheeled along the pedestrian barrier before hopping onto the pavement in front of the bookies. This pavement is maybe three or four feet wide between a plain shopfront and protective railings. Had anyone emerged from the betting shop doorway, the officer would certainly have struck them. At this, deciding I’d seen enough, I called after him to stop. Pushing my bike up the same pavement, I asked him who gave him his cycle training – he didn’t answer, but seemed nonplussed that I’d challenged him. I pointed out that cycling up the inside of a traffic line was a stupid thing to do, and that doing so to heavy goods vehicles was doubly so. I explained that many cyclists every year were killed by drivers of such vehicles who just plain couldn’t see their victims. I also explained that I was concerned for his personal safety and chatted a little about vehicular cycling. The chap shook my hand a couple of times, apologised, then cycled off – still on the pavement – towards Aldridge. I would lay good money on the fact that he hadn’t a clue why I was so incensed.
I’ve written this piece because I’m disgusted. Not with the cyclist so much, more with an organisation that allows such clearly untrained, unprepared representatives out onto the road in this manner. Like most people, I expect the police to be upholders and beacons of correct behaviour, whichever mode of transport they are using. That officer is clearly endangered by his lack of skill, and by a management structure that has failed to spot the deficiency. How in God’s name can we expect the average kid on a bicycle to behave in a sensible, intelligent and safe manner when those who should be exemplary behave in this way? Bicycle riding police officers in Walsall would not appear capable of passing a Bikeabilty course, yet are charged with enforcing the law of the road. This is an outrage.
What worries me most about this situation is that should I ever have the misfortune to be involved in a traffic accident, the police will maybe be in attendance. I genuinely fear that if the accident were attended by some of the police riders I’ve seen, they would not have the knowledge or capability to assess the situation as they obviously don’t have a clue what the primary position is, why a cyclist would be in it, or even what correct lane discipline involves. How can we expect officers to correct the behaviour of yob cyclists when there’s not a shadow’s breadth between their bad behaviour and that of the lout?
I’m no angel, and I’ve done, and will continue to do, stupid things on the road. We all do it, sometimes our judgement slips. I’ve learned by my own bitter experience what happens if you don’t handle traffic properly. I certainly don’t expect our police to be perfect – they’re human, too – but what I’ve seen frightens me.
There was no small moral outrage in the Daily Wail et al recently due to the publication of a cycling manual for the Police. What was missed in this brouhooha is that we already have two excellent manuals for the cyclist – The Highway Code, and John Franklin’s ‘Cyclecraft’. We have an excellent cycle training scheme in this country, the wonderful Bikeabilty. It’s just a shame that West Midlands Police don’t seem to have heard of any of them.