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UK HSE culture, AUK and Copenhagen

Published by Matt Polaine | Filed under Bicycle, Cycling

Will the future of the LEL and other long distance UK events fall foul to UK-style H&S dogma?

AUK is right to feel paranoid about the HSE creep. In the UK, local authorities and some corporate environments have adopted a bizarre cross-breed of cultures from those of an isolated island, European joie de vivre, and American liability extremes. The result is possibly the worst of all worlds.

UK cycle infrastructure is built by local authorities (rarely designed for the end user) to reduce liability and enable tick-box engineering of Local Transport Plans - ” 20 new miles of cycleway - done”. The fact that it is nigh on useless white paint and lanes disappear when really needed merely reinforces evidence of this mindset. Lanes are put in place where it is already a low risk position. In most cases - dooring location being one of the exceptions. This is the result of the Local Authorities own version of risk assessment. It took some legal challenges over Freedom Of Information Act to extract what these ‘risk-assessments’ entailed in Cambridge.

Coming as I do from Cambridge, one would think as a Cycle Demonstration Town and the highest density of cycle use in the UK, there would be a very pro-cycling culture, almost meeting mainland European levels of cycle culture. Not so. Highway engineers here specialise in meeting the minimum standards required for works to be judged as ‘cycle infrastructure’ in much the same way that painting a cyclelane line down the road is job done. Much of this is about liability avoidance being mixed up with risk aversion and user perceived safety.

This confused mindset towards cyclists extends to about a two thirds (in my experience) of drivers’ approach to cyclists on the road, in that cyclists are to be tolerated some of the time, but mainly a nuisance, but always unsure of how to drive past them.

As a result of this confused perception of cyclists needs, mass start events are now being asked for greater levels of policing, where some local authorities won’t allow road racing at all. Many cyclists will recall the fiasco of a stage in the 2007 Tour of Britain event. The fourth stage of the Tour between Rotherham and Bradford was neutralised between mile 46 and 67 after the North Yorkshire Highways Authority refused to give the event permission to race on its roads. Can you imagine the French doing this?

Now that police charge for policing these events, costs for policing alone jump to tens of thousands of pounds. At what point will a local authority decide to ‘ban’ an AUK event with the excuse of H&S, backed up by the police? 550 riders is beginning to look ‘big event’.

It seems that while UK Gov spends £billions on dealing with an obesogenic culture, traffic fuel consumption and pollution, and traffic congestion, it is barely lifting a finger in comparison, for cyclists (ie total spend on cycle provision over next three years = about one mile of new motorway cost). Cycling which addresses directly all these negative social and environmental issues. Events like the LEL should be encouraged, to show what is possible.

My concern is that as the LEL increases in scale as the PBP has done, unlike the French who will do all to enable a celebration of the human spirit of achievement, the British will ban it on H&S grounds.

AUK is not alone in monitoring this erosion of sanity. Chairman of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, fired a broadside at the very same UK culture in November 2008. He said,

“This [HSE culture] is a plague and it is not just something that affects the National Trust. It is something I would join as a campaign to see if we can’t get some protocol of reasonableness from health and safety authorities to free people from total risk aversion.”

So are there good examples of how to approach HSE and cycling? Well yes there are, all over the Benelux countries for a start, but we are still an island, in many senses of the word.

Read about Copenhagenize Cambridge.

March 25th, 2009

One Response to “UK HSE culture, AUK and Copenhagen”

  1. David Hembrow Says:

    We went on a bike ride to watch the Ronde van Drenthe go through a local village yesterday. The ride there and back was, as ever, completely blissful. No hassle at all, and of course the pleasantness of it beings out numbers of cyclists which you simply don’t see anywhere in any other country.

    The event itself involved no HSE nonsense and again no bother at all. Roads were closed where they needed to be. Dozens of cyclists flashed by in the blink of an eye as we drank beer at a cafe. Marvellous.

    Later in the year we have the Erik Dekker classic (he’s one of many cycle racers in the area and comes from a place a few km south of here), the fietsvierdaagse (not competitive, but tens of thousands cycle at once), the Jeugdtour (the largest youth cycle race in the world - imagine the HSE implications of that) and of course the Vuelta a Espana starts here in Assen this year.

    There will be no problems whatever for any of these events, all of which involve road closures (and of course that was just a partial list).

    Also, of course the cycle paths really work for getting to places. My 31 km return trip from work today, 30 km of which is on various cycle paths, took 55 minutes door to door. That’s not bad for me, though there are several people with a similar commute who consistently overtake me. It works because everything is designed to benefit cyclists. No tokenism.

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