I attended Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee on the 2nd of April 2009. During the policing agenda item James Woodburn, representing the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, spoke about the situation on Hills Road Bridge. The roadworks on the bridge have resulted in narrow lanes for traffic, it is impossible for cyclists to be overtaken safely by cars while crossing the bridge. Once on the bridge cyclists are “trapped” in the lanes as there are barriers on either side, this makes it very dangerous as there is no “escape route” for cyclists who find themselves being overtaken. Compounding the problem is the fact some streetlights on the bridge have been rendered inoperative by the work.
Sergeant Gordon Morgenthaler reported that there were two cases of overtaking cyclists being considered for prosecution. One of cases involved a PCSO on a bike being overtaken. Mr Woodburn commented that there appeared to be a lack of proportionality as many more cyclists were getting challenged for cycling on the pavement on the bridge than the number of motorists being held to account for dangerously overtaking cyclists. Mr Woodburn said that he had attended a meeting with Cllr Baker and representatives of the police and county council but said nothing had been done following that meeting. He raised a number of points on which he had expected action but had not seen any:
- There had been no progress on getting the street lighting fixed, Mr Woodburn said that it was unacceptable to leave the crest of the bridge “half dark”. Given the presence of generators and lighting on the site it would appear straightforward to me to set up some floodlighting.
- Mr Woodburn said that there was a Department of Transport provision for 20 mph limits during roadworks such as these, but there had been no progress towards getting one in place on Hills Road Bridge.
- CCTV on the bridge had been discussed but not implemented.
- Investigating the possibility of the illumination of the no overtaking of cyclists sign had been promised but as the sign had not been lit.
Sgt. Morgenthaler said that the City Council were looking at installing CCTV to coincide with when single lane working, which is anticipated soon, begins. The meeting was told that CCTV images would be-able to support the prosecution of drivers overtaking cyclists. It would not however be possible for the police to prosecute purely on the CCTV footage as there was a need to get a statement from a cyclist to say that they were impeded, or felt endangered by the behavior of the driver.
Pushed on why the statement from the cyclist was required, we were told that the current no-overtaking cyclists signs were not legally enforceable. When the police suggested legal no-overtaking signs as an option, Mr Woodburn explained that even the standard legally enforceable sign had an exception for cyclists and other slow moving traffic. The possibility of a no-overtaking sign with an “including cyclists” plate added underneath it was then discussed. (Such wording sounds ambiguous to me – would cyclists still be able to overtake cars and move to the front of the queues at the traffic lights – which is the safest place for them?). The police expressed an opinion that the legal sign with the additional wording “including cyclists ” would put any action they took against overtaking drivers “on a better footing”.
The police also expressed the view that the legality or not of the sign wasn’t really important as photographs of the current sign could be shown to magistrates who would then be expected to take it into account. The police said that the two prosecutions of drivers currently under consideration were for careless driving. The meeting was told that the police doesn’t prosecute – they produce a report for the CPS to consider, they were suggesting “inconsiderate or careless driving” as the charge on the basis that the police did not think overtaking cyclists on the bridge amounted to the level of “dangerous driving” in legal terms. The police described careless driving as “fairly easy to prove” and said changing lanes without indicating and cutting someone up was another example of something which typically amounted to careless driving.
The advantage of a legally enforceable sign appears to be the expectation that it would enable a prosecution for merely overtaking. The police Sgt. did not appear confident with this claiming there was case law arising from someone who had undertaken on a motorway and got away with it because there was no proof the behavior had had an effect on anyone. (Why isn’t that a defense to a speeding charge then?)
Sgt. Morgenthaler said that as the main difficulty was to get evidence from cyclists he had a practical suggestion: that the cycling campaign could publicise what was needed to their members. He said he had produced an article which he had hoped would make its way into the campaign’s newsletter. He admitted he hadn’t submitted it in a particularly appropriate form, he had hoped someone would make an article out of an eleven page summary of the situation which he had written.
Mr Woodburn said that taking down a car number-plate and finding a witness while cycling wasn’t particularly practical. What he wanted was police, on the bridge waiting to photograph offences and take action against drivers overtaking cyclists. He wanted the police to be doing that as well as dealing with cyclists on the pavement.
The police tried to start talking about the illegal turns out of Brooklands avenue but Mr Woodburn quickly put a stop to that insisting it wasn’t relevant to his line of questioning.
County Councillor Heathcock said he had repeatedly reported the street lights as out, only to be told it was tied into the guided bus works. He suggested to the county council liaison officer who now attends all area committees that a site meeting with Richard Preston, Bob Menzies, the police Sgt would be useful to look at what signs are there, what is enforceable. Cllr Heathcock asked if it was possible to use the police’s mobile CCTV and was told the problem was one of where to park the van. Sgt. Morgenthaler said the potential sites for positioning the City Council CCTV to ensure good quality coverage were being considered, and noted the utility of the footage would depend significantly on where the cameras were placed.
On the subject of street lighting Mr Woodburn asked if the police would be prepared to complain to the county council suggesting that the police saying the situation was dangerous might have more weight. The police were sceptical of the idea that they might have any more influence with the county council’s street light team than any member of the public. I found this an astonishing opinion, something which if true shows up a serious failure in collaboration between the police and county council. I think the county council’s street light team ought be responsive to police comments, both with respect to road safety as well as crime and fear of crime.
Cllr Baker spoke saying that he wanted to take Mr Woodburn “to task” with respect to his claim nothing had happened since the meeting. Cllr Baker said that his idea – to put the pictures of cycles into the middle of the lanes – had been acted upon. He suggested that if Mr Woodburn cycled in the middle of the lanes he would not be overtaken.
Cllr Taylor declared an interest as a member of the cycling campaign and a regular user of the bridge, she said she was often overtaken and beeped while cycling over the bridge so understood the frustrations expressed.
Despite the discussion no councillor proposed adding dealing with the problem of drivers dangerously overtaking cyclists on the bridge, or of the apparently unfair treatment of cyclists verses car drivers, to the local policing priorities for the next period of time. Our local Liberal Democrats appear to me to be very reluctant to exercise the opportunity they have to influence the police. Cllr Ward spoke at the last North Area committee to say he was unwilling to go against the professional opinion of the police, and County Cllr Huppert explaining his unwillingness to pass on residents’ concerns relating to policing expressed a belief that: ““We have no democratic control over the police in the UK” – he appears to think this is an acceptable state of affairs. The last West Central area committee didn’t even formally consider the proposed police priorities put to them, officers covered for them by writing in the minutes that they were agreed “through further discussion”.
I think the area committee system which enables local democratic influence over the police is a brilliant opportunity, and we ought both publicise it and elect councillors who are prepared to use it.