Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Police commissioner proposes ID for cyclists – but can't explain why or how . . .


Police commissioner proposes ID for cyclists – but can't explain why or how

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The issue of cyclists being obliged to wear some sort of identification has been raised once again.

It’s one of those peculiar notions which can sound initially appealing to some but would, in reality, bring pretty much no benefits while creating huge negative consequences (I run through all this below). As such, it’s arguably most useful as a political barometer: you can safely assume that anyone who suggests it has no grasp at all of the issues.

The latest such advocate is Katy Bourne, elected in 2012 as police and crime commissioner for Sussex, one of 41 occupants of the newly-created offices around England and Wales.

At a public meeting in Brighton on Monday, Bourne was reported as saying she would like cyclists to “wear some form of identification like cars have, so when they go through traffic lights you can identify them and prosecute them for breaking the law”.

This was interpreted by some as a demand for license plates for bikes. I had a chat with Bourne where she said this was not her intention. As you’ll see below, however, it’s very hard to work out what she does want.

Bourne told me what had happened:
I prefaced the answer by saying I wanted to speak up for cyclists. I’m very pro-cycling – it’s healthy, it’s environmentally-friendly, more people should do it. But what I want to see is more responsibility by road users, be they on four wheels or two.

I said that I believed that cyclists should have some form of identification. Now what that identification is, I don’t know. I’ve been attributed as saying some fairly wacky things, by the sound of it.

I never said anything prescriptive. All I said was that I believe they should wear some form of identification.

This is quite vague, I said. By “wear” identification it sounds like some sort of number, or a wearable tabard. Does she mean this, or just that riders should have some ID in a wallet with them? She replied:

I don’t know. That’s the whole thing. I don’t want to be prescriptive about this, but I’d like the debate to be had…

I stand by what I said. I do think it would be helpful if cyclists had some form of identification. But I don’t know what that is. Actually, it’s not for me to come up with solutions, just have a debate around it.

I pressed again – come on, you must have some sort of vision:

It’s not my job to have all the answers about this.

If this was all getting a bit strange, stranger was to follow. As I pressed again over why she felt such a scheme was needed, she responded:

In the last few years in Sussex we’ve had over 1,700 incidents involving cyclists. Those sort of numbers worry me.

But what did 1,700 incidents involving cyclists meant – was it incidents where cyclists broke the law, or were themselves hit by cars? And if the latter, how would bike IDs help anything?

That’s the terminology that the police use – 1,700 incidents. You’d have to ask Sussex police.


This is information that the force have given me. In the last three years, over 1,700 incidents involving cyclists in Sussex.

But what does it mean?

If you’d like to know I can give you the details of Sussex police, who’d be delighted to help. I think anything that says 1,700 incidents involving cyclists is concerning.

So it could, hypothetically, mean 1,700 bikes struck by cars?

Peter, with the best will in the world, I don’t want to go down the hypothetical route, because I don’t think it’s going to help anybody.

It’s possibly fortunate that at that point our call was interrupted by her press officers telling her she was required at another interview. There were only so many times I could say, “Hang on, so you’re advocating a policy on the basis of a statistic when you have no idea what that statistic means?”

To her credit, Bourne was unfailingly polite throughout my increasingly open incredulity, and seems to genuinely want to see more cycling.

I asked Sussex police about the “1,700” figure. They’re looking into it, but believe it relates to all incidents of any type where someone was injured or killed on a road and a cyclist was involved. They’ve also promised to provide an official statement on whether they support ID numbers for cyclists.

In fairness it’s worth stressing that Bourne is far from alone in her thoughts. Her comments came, she said, after a series of questions at the meeting about Brighton’s cyclists jumping lights or riding on pavements. Lots of people experience this as a major problem, and undoubtedly some bikes are ridden in a very antisocial (if very, very rarely lethal) way. 

That said, equating such actions as being as serious as, say, speeding by motor vehicles (which does kill a lot of people) is a factor of the normalised state of such behaviour by drivers, while cyclists remain a minority. Any elected politician worth their £85,000 salarly should be able to see this.

Why cycle ID plates don’t work
There’s many very good reasons why such ideas have precisely zero support among police, road groups and serious politicians, and why they’ve been almost unknown, anywhere.

For a start, it’s absurdly impractical and virtually unenforceable. Where does the number go? A plate on a bike? What happens if you have several bikes, or borrow one, or rent one? Or on a wearable tabard? But what if you carry a bag? Or it’s very hot? Or you need to put on a raincoat?

Then you have the parameters: would it only be for adults, or would, say, children need numbers? If children are excepted would, say, 15-year-olds need to carry ID to show they are exempt?

Next: the minimal benefits. Red light jumping by cyclists is, to my mind, deeply antisocial and can be intimidating. But it’s very, very, very rarely responsible for serious injury or death. It might seem counter-intuitive, but that’s the case.

Also, there is already a very good case study of easily readable ID plates for cyclists: London’s hire bikes, which have numbers in easily-readable digits on the frame. But when someone asked the cycle hire people how many reports of lawbreaking had been made out of several million tripsthe answer came back: two. And neither cited the registration number.

Finally, you get unintended consequences. Force cyclists to register, let alone wear a tabard, and at a stroke you’re likely to greatly cut the number on the roads. Suddenly - more road deaths, more smog, greater congestion, greater ill-health from inactivity.

It simply makes no sense.

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