Tuesday, 10 March 2015

An open letter to Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer of Devon and Cornwall Police

Dear Chief Constable Sawyer,

As a cyclist, I've pretty much given up on ever receiving any real support from Devon and Cornwall Police. This letter will try to explain how this came to be.

I grew up in South Africa, under the Apartheid regime that was propped up by a nasty and corrupt police force, so it was a breath of fresh air when I moved to the UK in 2000 and encountered an honest and professional police force. I have always taught my children that the police are to be trusted, and that they are there to help and support us, and keep us safe. Now I cannot say that in total honesty to my children anymore, and I've always been honest with them.

When my eldest two kids were old enough, I got them each a bicycle, and taught them to ride. At first that consisted of taking them to the park around the corner, but after a while their ability (and confidence) grew, and they wanted to go further. This led to me getting myself a bicycle, so I could go cycling with them. One thing led to another, and it wasn't all that long before I started cycling to work.

In those days I worked in St Budeaux, Plymouth, and my commute would take me along North Prospect Road. One morning I was nearly knocked off my bike by a driver who gave me a very close overtake, before immediately turning left across my path. That in itself isn't a unique occurrence, and sadly similar incidents happen quite regularly throughout the force's area, to many other cyclists.
No, what made this occasion memorable is the fact that there was a marked police car directly behind the lunatic driver, and inside that car were two uniformed officers. Sadly, as I was to learn the hard way in due course was normal for police officers, they didn't show the slightest bit of interest.

I have had a number of incidents since and my commute has increased to a 26-mile round trip. The number of incidents I experience with alarming regularity appears to be increasing, and lately it is quite common for me to have five to ten *very* close overtakes on my commute. During a meeting of the Plymouth Cycling Campaign, I have raised close overtakes with the head of traffic for Devon and Cornwall Police, only to be told that the police require several things to happen:
1) the cyclist *must* deviate course,
2) this *must* be witnessed (or filmed) by somebody else, who can be an independent witness and
3) helmet camera footage filmed by the cyclist suffering the close overtake wouldn't be accepted, supposedly due to how different lenses can make it look.

Let's think about that for a moment, shall we? If I'm cycling at 15mph and a driver comes flying by at 40mph, quite literally missing my elbow by 6 inches or less, the police feel it is right to do NOTHING, based purely on the fact that I was concentrating very hard not to fall due to the wind draft of that vehicle. The fact that I didn't swerve into the road (and directly into the path of the speeding driver following closely behind the first driver) or into the kerb isn't viewed as an achievement by me as a cyclist, but rather as evidence that the driver did nothing wrong!

Additionally, apparently, as a cyclist, my word counts for nothing, and even when I have video evidence supporting what I said it is dismissed by your force.

Please don't think the example of six inches is an exaggeration: I have had vehicles actually touch the sleeve of my coat while overtaking at speed.

How can police justify such an obviously deeply flawed approach?

I have also been told that D & C Police won't issue Section 59 warnings to drivers that give cyclists close overtakes, as D & C Police claim the event MUST be witnessed by a uniformed officer. I have sought clarification on this from a well-known QC, who had assured me that D & C Police are quite incorrect in that assertion.
He went as far as to say "Your police seem to have such a relaxed view of close passes that they do not recognise them as amounting to the offence of driving without due consideration" and "a close pass IS a Section 3 offence". This is backed up further by other forces actually having issued Section 59 warnings based on first-person helmet camera footage received from cyclists.

Somebody, somewhere is telling porky pies, wouldn't you say? Who do you think that may be?

I have asked the police why they don't EVER enforce Advanced Stop Lines (ASL's, also known as cyclists' boxes) being encroached upon by drivers, to be told - in as many words - that if the police tried to enforce that they would be told to get on with "real" police work.

I have submitted video of a road rage incident I suffered, in which a taxi driver gave me two very close and dangerous overtakes, before stopping in the road, blocking it, getting out of his taxi and scream and swear at me. The PCSO that viewed the footage (because cyclists aren't worthy of "real" police officers, are they?) stated immediately she didn't see anything wrong. When I was unhappy with that, she referred it to her sergeant who, she later told me, said there was NO evidence of wrongdoing.

I've linked to the video below - please decide for yourself if this is what you would classify as "No evidence of wrongdoing".

For a long time, I didn't even bother reporting anything to the police, as I knew it would be a futile and monumental waste of my time. I had an incident when cycling home over Laira Bridge, Plymouth, where a car driver came alongside me (I was in lane 1, he was in lane 2) then started moving over, pushing me out of the way. As he was looking at me while doing so, I can only surmise that it was deliberate. I screamed at him, and on hearing my South African accent, he promptly told me to go back to my own country.

I posted this to Twitter, and D & C Police *jumped* on it. Apparently not because a dangerous lunatic had deliberately driven a car AT me (and could quite easily have killed me). No, because there was a "racist element" to this. That was an utterly misguided response.

Which do you feel is most worthy of police time and attention: him telling me to go back to South Africa, or using a car as a weapon and deliberately driving AT me?

I can give you a very long list of other incidents, none of which I bothered to report as yet again I knew it'd be a waste of my time.
I had a bus driver mount the kerb on Royal Parade, Plymouth, while swinging the double decker bus at me. I had a bus driver squeeze me to the railings on Laira Bridge, Plymouth, screaming I should be on the pavement. I had a taxi driver from Tower Cabs badly cut me up, then swearing at me while making rude gestures. I had a Mercedes driver push me to the kerb along Billacombe Road, Plymouth, while screaming through the open window that I should get off "his effing road". I crashed that time, in preference to being run over. On Plymouth Road, Marsh Mills, I crashed when I tried to bunny-hop onto the pavement to avoid being crushed by the driver of an HGV who insisted on overtaking me when there was NO space at all for him to do so. The list goes on and on and on.

In case you were wondering, yes, I do actually follow the Highway Code. I'm a good driver, and I'm a good cyclist - in fact, I've been trained by British Cycling to take groups of inexperienced riders out on the road. I don't go looking for trouble, and I make allowances for the fact that we're all human, and we can all make mistakes.

Yesterday morning, at the roundabout by the Elburton Hotel, on Billacombe Road, Plymouth, I was very nearly run over by a lunatic who just accelarated hard from a side road. The fact that I was wearing (as usual) a bright-yellow hi-vis coat and had a 3 500 lumen strobing headlight made no difference at all. I had full priority, and despite having made eye contact, he drove straight at me. It was scarily close!

In February, cycling inbound on Embankment Road, Plymouth, near the shops, I witnessed a driver drive AT another cyclist. That cyclist had done nothing wrong at all, and the driver only just missed him. I absolutely believe this was deliberate and intentional. The driver then pulled into a parking bay and started getting out of his car. The driver of the car directly behind followed the cyclist, who simply kept riding, and the maniac jumped back in his car and started pulling out, very nearly colliding with that other driver. I followed behind her, and while looking at me, the maniac driver (who stopped at the last moment to avoid a collision with the other driver) pulled out at speed, very nearly knocking me off my bike.

At the traffic lights at Cattedown Roundabout, the driver stopped again and hopped out of his car, running over to where the cyclist was waiting at the red light. I genuinely thought the cyclist was about to be assaulted, but fortunately it didn't come to that.
The second driver yelled at the maniac driver through her open window, saying that the cyclist had done *nothing* wrong, and that the maniac driver was in the wrong. I filmed part of what happened using my mobile phone, including the registration number of the maniac driver's car, and the registration number of the other driver's car.

I wasn't going to report this matter to the police, as I was convinced that yet again Devon and Cornwall Police would fail to act on road aggression against cyclists. Several other cyclists practically begged me to report it, and in the end I did so, even if reluctantly.

To nobody's surprise, I heard nothing for some time, and had to chase it up several times, including via the D & C Police's Twitter account. Finally I received an email from the PC investigating the matter, stating they couldn't view the video. This is despite another police officer having had no issues at all with viewing the video I'd shared online.

Finally, I received an email saying the other driver couldn't be located and in view of no other witnesses, the matter would be closed. The message I received quite loud and clear simply says "We couldn't be bothered to take this seriously and won't waste our time with it".

I am quite frankly utterly disgusted with D & C Police's continued failure to protect cyclists on our roads, but I was not at all surprised about the outcome. Experience taught me that out on the road drivers can do whatever they want with total impunity, and that D & C Police will NOT act to protect cyclists. I am NOT alone in feeling this way - there is a significant number of cyclists with stories similar to mine.
We're tired of all the PR answers we're given - about how so many police officers cycle, too, and suffer the same as we do on the roads. If that's really the case, it's even more mind-boggling why the police are so obviously reluctant to act on any aggression towards cyclists by drivers, or any endangerment of cyclists by drivers.

We're tired of all the usual victim-blaming "safety advice" we get from police - you know: wear a helmet, wear hi-vis, have lights, don't go up the inside of HGVs, don't skip red lights. Incidentally, I always wear a helmet and hi-vis, have excellent lights, never go up the inside of HGVs and don't skip red lights unless forced to do so to get out of the way of the speeding vehicle behind who evidently has no intention of stopping for the red light. I also count the number of drivers I see skipping red lights on my commute and I usually see around five of them. Every day.

Chief Constable, I put it to you that your police force is institutionally anti-cycling. You will naturally want to disagree, and I can only hope you will reflect on this, and have the courage to investigate deeper, until the true and awful picture emerges. Not the sound-bytes we're all told.

I now have some questions for you:
1) Why does D & C Police not issue Section 59 warnings, yet other forces do?
2) Why does D & C Police dismiss helmet cam footage, yet other forces don't?
3) Why does D & C Police view enforcing the very road laws designed to help make cyclists safe as not doing "real" police work?
4) Why does D & C Police seem to be utterly disinterested in cyclists' safety? And yes the force pays lip service to it, but as the old saying goes, you talk the talk, but you certainly don't walk the walk.
5) What will it take for D & C Police to start taking this seriously? One dead cyclist? Ten? More?
6) What do you suggest I tell my children about the police? Bear in mind, they know of several of these incidents (I haven't told them all the details though) and my 11 year old daughter asked me "But Dad, why won't the police do anything?" I had no answer for her then, and I still have no answer for her now.
7) What will YOU do about this?

I look forward to receiving your response.