Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A broken law is no law at all

In the UK we have Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) at many traffic lights. Some people call these the "cyclist's box".

Rule 178 of the Highway Code says this about ASLs:
"Advanced stop lines. Some signal-controlled junctions have advanced stop lines to allow cycles to be positioned ahead of other traffic.
Motorists, including motorcyclists, MUST stop at the first white line reached if the lights are amber or red and should avoid blocking the way or encroaching on the marked area at other times, e.g. if the junction ahead is blocked.
If your vehicle has proceeded over the first white line at the time that the signal goes red, you MUST stop at the second white line, even if your vehicle is in the marked area. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows."

Seems pretty straighforward, doesn't it?

Except we have a few problems, starting with the fact that apparently most drivers don't have a clue why ASLs exist in the first place, and some drivers get very annoyed at cyclists filtering through traffic to take their place at the front in the ASL.

Motorcyclists appear to suffer some confusion and seem to think ASLs were put in place for them and them alone. Often I have been unable to get into the ASL as it was full of motorbikes.


ASLs exist to allow cyclists to filter to the front and position themselves right in front of other traffic, This is to increase their visibility and reduce the likelihood of a cyclist being squeezed out by impatient drivers anxious to get through a junction, and NOT to annoy drivers. Sadly, as most drivers appear to be clueless about ASLs, it seems too many do get annoyed by cyclists doing what the DfT suggests they do, and filter into the ASL.

In Plymouth, it is quite normal to see cars, vans, trucks, buses and especially taxis pull right into the ASL. I normally try to point out, in a friendly manner, to such drivers that the ASL is reserved for cyclists, and most of the time when I do so I am met with a torrent of abuse, especially from taxi drivers.

Sadly, from time to time I have seen police vehicles pull into the ASL, and that I find a massive problem. After all, if that is the example set by police, is it any wonder that ordinary drivers violate ASLs at will and with total impunity?



This made me wonder about how serious the police are about doing something about these traffic violations. After all, supposedly violating an ASL should land a driver with a Fixed Penalty Notice and three points on their license. Clearly I'm not the only one wondering about this.

With this in mind, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Devon and Cornwall Police, asking (amongst other things) how many FPNs were issued by them over the past five years for drivers violating ASLs.

This was their reply:
"there are more than one offence that may cover violating the advance stop lines such as ‘Contravene give way sign/lines’ or ‘Contravene a traffic sign other than parking’ and therefore as per Q10, no information is held on the number of tickets issued in the last 5 years but it would exceed the appropriate limit if the time scale was refined to 12 months."

They pointed out that "The Central Ticket Unit has confirmed that the tickets are only held for 12 months and there is no way to identify the location of offences prior to 2012" and "If you were to refine the request to just the last 12 months then the request would have to be refused as it is estimated that to locate, retrieve and extract the specific information is likely to take longer than 18 hours

The translation of the above then is something along these lines:
We do not consider such offenses important enough to keep seperate data on them and it would take too long to go dig out each FPN, read it and tally up the totals, therefore we cannot answer the question
I quite understand and sympathise with this task taking too long, but I find it odd that this info isn't recorded in a computerised system, making retrieving it a matter of a few mouse clicks.

There is a bigger issue at stake here, of course, in line with the Broken Windows Theory. The concept is that the more drivers ignore cycling infrastructure put in place specifically to make cyclists more visible, and therefore safer, the less safe cyclists are on the roads.

When our public protectors, the police, start joining in with the negative behaviour effectively they are demonstrating through their actions (if not their words) that they condone such negative behaviour from drivers. 
That simply means that because drivers had pushed the limits of the boundaries, and found that the boundaries had moved as a result, drivers are taught that they can "work" the system by ever increasing negative road behaviour.

This inevitably leads to some drivers overtaking cyclists in dangerous manner, leaving incredibly small gaps. Cyclists, meanwhile have learnt that the police won't act on these dangerous overtakes "as there was no collision" and unfortunately drivers have learnt they can do so with impunity, leading to increasingly dangerous driving.

You can see how this is set to spiral ever more out of control, placing cyclists at increasing risk.

Police, by and large, drive around. Yes, of course there are foot patrols and even some cycle police but overwhelmingly police drive. It is therefore only natural that they increasingly have the same point of view of the average driver, a point of view that is rather intolerant of cyclists and this is evidenced by police vehicles overtaking cyclists without giving them enough space. There are a number of YouTube videos showing such poor road behaviour from police drivers.

My next challenge now is to find evidence of ONE, just one driver that received a Fixed Penalty Notice and points of their license for having violated an ASL. I've asked on Twitter but had no results, and now I'm asking you here to help me.

Please speak to people you come into contact with, family, friends, colleagues at work and ask around. Let's see if we can find that ONE example.

Because I don't think we will. I think the police believe cyclists are at best to be tolerated and that they feel it isn't a worthwhile usage of their time to prosecute drivers for such traffic violations.

I hope I'm wrong, I really do, because if not then things are far worse for cycling in the UK that we've believed to date. The trouble is, despite wanting to be wrong about this, I suspect I'm not.

7 comments:

  1. It's worth noting that the ASL may not actually be the safest place to be. The vehicle at the front may well be traffic light watching. I.E. looking up at the lights and not what is in front of them. Their aim is to get away as quickly as possible.

    If there is no traffic on the other side of the junction, then vehicles will see this and will want to get past cyclists to continue making there journey, there is some sort of hard wiring in the minds of a motorist that means they must get in front of they can see open road. This may mean they put cyclists in danger or under pressure because of it. This is easily solved by staying a vehicle or two back, in a similar position, central in the lane for visibility but this time moving away with traffic and attempting to keep up will lead to less instances of the driver behind trying to overtake dangerously as in front of them they can't see clear road, just other motorised vehicles.

    There is also the issue of cyclists that treat the ASL as a target even if that means riding illegally on the pavement, dangerously up the inside of a large vehicle or stupidly pushing past other cyclists to get into it.

    Would we be better without them? Nah, they serve a purpose, a limited one in my opinion and as a fast cyclist, I see them as a great tool to make progress past slower cyclists as I accelerate from a standing start.
    They do however had some dangers, some dangers which are overlooked and an obvious one mentioned in this post, drivers don't know what they are!

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    1. I agree ASLs aren't the greatest solution. The point of all this is to show that the police doesn't enforce things like ASLs, which leaves all cyclists in quite a precarious position on the roads.
      The police won't act on close overtakes, they won't act on left-hooks that don't result in a collision and they won't act on drivers being aggressive towards cyclists. In these instances it is easy for them to argue that it is subjective and therefore impossible for them to act.

      They claim that even when video evidence is produced, which beggars belief!

      But an ASL is different: there is clear legislation, and provided the offending driver was seen driving into an ASL against a red light, is a clear-cut case, yet the police won't even act on that.

      Where does that leave us? The police claim they police the roads fairly for all users, but the reality is they simply don't.

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  2. I submitted a FOI request to Greater Manchester Police on this very topic. Here's the reply:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/soundman/8314491505/in/photostream

    tl;dr - they've never, ever, ticketed anyone for this.

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  3. It is becoming increasingly likely that what I suspected is correct: no police force nationally is enforcing ASLs.

    Is it little wonder then the police let cyclists down in so many other areas? And I suspose the only suprise is that more of us aren't killed on the roads, given the lack of support we receive from the police, CPS and the courts.

    Who pays for the police? Surely we all do, and are therefore entitled to equal protection from them. Also, the police's job is NOT to make the laws, but to enforce them. Since when are they permitted to cherry-pick which laws to enforce and which to ignore, or break themselves?

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  4. There's the result of another FOI request to West Midlands Police here:

    http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/number_of_penalties_issued_for_s

    tl:dr - no FPN issued for ASLs in the whole of the West Midlands (2nd largest Police Force in the UK after the Met) between January 2009 and January 2010.

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  5. I've wondered the same thing. See it all the time when on my commute, with vehicles of all kinds, including on a couple of occasions police vehicles, positioning themselves as far forward as possible at lights. Not sure why they do this as it confers only a marginal advantage but I assume that if they are turning right across oncoming traffic they hope to beat the oncoming stream and be on their way. I get that sometimes a vehicle may get stuck there if the queue they are in moves slowly and the lights change so they can't move out of the ASL. The only solutions I can think of are, firstly, the reintroduction of public information films on TV. There are lots of "minor" traffic laws broken - indicating at roundabouts for example - probably because drivers have "forgotten" they should do it and aren't aware of the penalties. Re-education through mass media would hopefully address this, including misuse of ASLs. Secondly, why not reprogramme traffic lights so that cyclists can move away on a flashing green with motorists having to wait for a solid green, giving the cyclist time to get across the junction/lane before the onslaught of traffic begins? Or is that a crap idea?

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  6. I think we could reduce some of the "safer neighbourhood" police and increase traffic police who have been tasked with dealing with all bad road behaviour as you are right, people get used to getting away with it. ASLs can be a safety issue and care should be taken in designing them and training people to use them, but as a user, I would rather keep them.

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