A cyclist dies at the lights – no action required

The usual response to an accident is that the authorities are to blame, that they were “warned” about just this risk and that something – anything – must be done urgently to make sure that this “death-trap”, this “accident waiting to happen”, is fixed. Clichés apart, that may have been true of the recent drowning at Medley, but it is not true at the King’s Arms cross-roads.

On 18 April a student cyclist died under the wheels of a rubbish truck at the cross-roads where Broad Street, Parks Road, Holywell Street and Catte Street meet by the Kings Arms. One gets rather cynical about the encomia poured over those who die young, but they seem to be justified in this case.

The facts and the result of the police investigation are not yet known. Like the talents and qualities of the deceased they are not relevant to the comments which have filled the on-line pages of the Oxford Mail. These fall into three broad categories:

The whines of the something-must-be done-I-told-you-so brigade who rush to every such incident full of confident assertions that this was an accident waiting to happen, that they have been warning of it for years and that the council ought to have acted to prevent it

The usual tiresome war between anti-motorist cyclists and anti-cyclist motorists, usually backed by irrelevant anecdotes of offences committed by the one against the other.

The sweet little people who remind us that someone has died and that we ought to respect their loved ones by laying off the discussion about the circumstances.

The last point is easily dealt with: if it is not appropriate to discuss such things in the context of an event like this, when is it right? Do we have a sort of close season when the subject is taboo?

The sniping between proponents of different forms of transport can similarly be ignored. There are stupid cyclists and stupid motorists, and any discussion in which either group denigrates the whole of the other group is not worth having, with or without the tedious recital of accidents actual and potential which the writer saw / was involved in / heard about only last week. I would sew the whiners of both sides in a bag and drop them off Folly Bridge.

That leaves the only point which matters: is there something inherent in the layout of this junction which warrants attention by the council? Here is a sample comment:

That junction is a death trap. There are no filter arrows for the traffic, and even worse, there are no lights to tell pedestrians when it’s safe to cross or not.

The place was always an accident waiting to happen, and as usual (like with the river bank accident recently), the council does nothing until somebody dies.

It is hard to tell whether the author is himself stupid or merely attributes stupidity to everyone else. I picture a New Labour supporter, working in social services, the NHS or the equalities or discrimination industry, genuinely convinced that it is the job of Government to tell people how to live their lives and to guard them against the consequences of their own inadvertence or the everyday incidents of live.

Let’s deconstruct his contribution to the debate:

“the junction is a death trap”
Another report says that there have been two fatalities there in five years, but says nothing about the causes. A touch of hyperbole there I think.

“There are no filter arrows for the traffic”
Indeed there are not – but there are traffic lights and clear rules in the Highway Code as to who does what at a cross-roads. Whom would he filter, how and for what purpose?

“..and even worse, there are no lights to tell pedestrians when it’s safe to cross or not”
That is what eyes, ears and brains are provided for.

“an accident waiting to happen”
There is nothing like a good Daily Mail cliché to evidence the disengagement of brain. Any offers as to what this particular arrangement of words actually means?

“as usual (like with the river bank accident recently), the council does nothing until somebody dies”
The only things in common between this accident and the drowning at Medley is that someone died and that people claimed to have predicted that this would happen. The difference is that there is no room for argument about the culpability of the two councils at Medley – there is a clear causative link between their failure to act and the death. The towpath was neglected because there were no votes in fixing it. The King’s Arms cross-roads has been considered by the authorities and a decision made to leave it as it is.

I cannot see that the circumstances of this accident, to the extent that we know them, would have been any different if the layout were changed. A lorry turned left and a cyclist went under the wheels. What filters or pedestrian lights would have prevented that?

There are many arguments against tampering with the junction in the manner suggested, apart from the expense and the ghastly street furniture. The more that council officers (not themselves exactly exemplars of intelligent thought) purport to tell people how to think, the less thinking they will do. Further, it is common ground that most such accidents (though not necessarily this one) are caused by impatience on the part of one or both parties. Every additional delay (and pedestrian lights cause extra delay) will increase the number of people who jump the lights.

A pedestrian refuge (another suggestion made by one of the self-appointed experts) will have the same effect as so many of the fiddly works perpetrated by the council – they narrow the road just at the point where room is needed for manoeuvre.

More signs, say some people. As it happens, I have already written about a sign which used to stand outside Wadham (Nonsense at the lights). That one did not merely add nothing to what the Highway Code and common-sense dictated but was actually meaningless, a clear case where someone very dim had decided that a notice was required but whose intelligence did not run to devising any wording relevant to the circumstances.

I am all for people expressing their views (and I will defend to the death the right of anyone to write garbage like that which I have analysed above).The problem, however, with demands that County Highways drop everything to react to an incident is that so often they do just that. They do so without any regard to the expense, to other priorities or to any analysis of the cause of the incident.

Take the example of the Eastern Bypass, where the incident was caused by the act of a grossly negligent driver. There was no analysis there of causation – an accident had happened, people were shouting for action, and a combination of risk-averse officers and a particularly nervous (and useless) Highways Committee promptly lashed out £600,000 on barriers. It was a political decision, driven by the perceived need to appease the mob, not by traffic or budget considerations, nor by any rational analysis of the facts or of competing priorities.

This is a cross-roads. It has traffic controls with red, amber and green lights. It bears no more traffic than it ever did – less in fact than when I was young, when Holywell Street, Broad Street, the Turl and even Catte Street were open to through traffic.

Anyone who goes through the lights other than in accordance with the Highway Code commits an offence, and no quantity of new signage or regulation will make it more of an offence. The responsibility for all participanCouncil intervention in Oxford’s roadsts – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians – remains as it ever did.

Pretty well every intervention by the council notionally aimed at improving road safety has had the opposite effect – wishful-thinking cycle lanes giving an illusion that the road is wider than it is, deliberate narrowing of road-space at roundabouts and junctions just where safety demands room, signs and barriers everywhere and so on.

The people who devise all this nonsense have been trained in a sector where thinking is not part of the qualification for employment and where avoidance of blame is the primary driver. Their recommendations are made to councillors who, whilst they might be able to spell “causation” and even understand what it means, are driven by the baying of the mob and the need to be seen to be doing something – anything – rather than by any rational examination of the facts.

From the little we know of this accident, the road layout played no part in it in any avoidable sense – the road is as wide as the buildings allow, some vehicles have to pass that way and cycling is a necessary part of the culture. The most likely cause of this and other accidents here is an error of judgment by one or both of the participants.

No amount of signage, lights, road markings or any of the other clutter so beloved of highways officers will relieve those who pass this way of the responsibilities which the law and common-sense impose anyway. Leave it alone.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Broad Street, King's Arms Junction, Oxford, Oxford City Council, Oxford cycling, Oxfordshire Highways, Signs and Notices. Bookmark the permalink.

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