Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Dead cyclists, missing helmets and playing the blame game

Please forgive this slight detour from this blog’s usual topics to discuss something that’s come up an awful lot on Twitter over the past 48 hours. It’s that most tedious of bicycle-related debates, the Helmet Issue.

I always wear helmet while cycling and I always will. It’s a personal choice. There’s a whole stack of studies that suggests this choice makes very little difference to my chances of head injury, yet I stick with it. I appreciate that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I’ve had two (both involving car drivers breaking the law) that ended with my helmet seriously damaged and my head unscathed. So I’ll keep on wearing one and I’d always encourage others to do likewise. As long as it’s properly fitted*, it’s not doing anyone any harm.

But I know there’s only so much a helmet can do. The EU standard for cycle helmets, EN1078, tests helmets’ resistance to impacts on flat ground and kerbstones at speeds of up to 5.52 metres per second, about 12mph. And that’s pretty much all it tests – impacts on a hard surface. It’s important, because it shows that cycle helmets are designed to protect your head from an impact with a hard surface at relatively low speeds. In short, they’re designed to stop you hurting your head when you fall off a bike.

There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a perfectly valid aim. As I said, I’ve bonked my head more than once and my helmet has taken the brunt of the impact.

But most of the cyclist fatalities we see in big cities, especially London, do not involve cyclists falling over and banging their heads. They involve huge buses, coaches and HGVs literally driving over the top of cyclists, more often than not while turning left. A helmet will not protect you in these circumstances, it is not designed to protect you and the manufacturers would not expect it to protect you. That’s not to say it won’t help you in other situations, but in this one? Absolutely not. For example, the post-mortem on Roger William De Klerk, the 43-year-old killed by a bus while cycling through Croydon, gave the cause of death as “compression of the head, neck and chest” – it seems very unlikely that a helmet would have made any difference at all (and Mr De Klerk may have been wearing one, I don’t know either way).

Yet every time a cyclist dies in such circumstances, questions are asked about whether the victim was wearing a helmet, regardless of whether it would have made any difference to the outcome of the accident. It’s bad enough when wannabe shockjocks and untalented local newspaper columnists do so, but lately the Met Police have joined in the fun, noting in press releases that the victims in various recent fatal accidents were not helmeted-up. It’s worth noting that a quick run through the Met’s press release archive did not immediately produce any descriptions of cyclist deaths that mentioned helmets when they WERE being worn, only when they were not.

It would be one thing if an inquest had taken place and the coroner had stated, based on the evidence presented, that a helmet would have saved the cyclist’s life. But that hasn’t happened. At this stage there is no evidence that a helmet would have made any difference at all in the death of a 21-year-old man in Whitechapel last week, yet the Met Police feel the need to add “The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the collision” to the end of their press release. There’s no mention of what the bus driver was or wasn’t wearing, so why comment on the fact that the cyclist was doing something perfectly legal?

This is the same police force that spent Monday morning stopping cyclists who were going about their business perfectly legally in order to tell them that they really should be wearing helmets and high-vis jackets, even though there is no legal requirement for either.

“So what,” I’ve heard many people say, “Helmets save lives and the police should do whatever they can to encourage cyclists to wear them”. I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether helmets reduce or increase risks; as I said at the start, I make the personal choice to wear one and that choice has no impact on other people.

But I will say this much. Banging on about whether dead cyclists were wearing helmets is wrong and it is dangerous. It is wrong because it suggests, even before enquiries have been completed, that the victim was in some way to blame for his or her own death. This is quite simply insulting to the dead cyclists and their families.

And it is dangerous because it fuels the attitude that cyclists are responsible for their own deaths if they are not wearing a helmet. It shifts the burden of responsibility for staying safe onto the most vulnerable road users. It absolves drivers of their responsibility and absolves the authorities of their responsibility. It shifts the focus of the political debate from what can actually be done to keep cyclists safe and onto a red herring that will make very little difference in HGV v bicycle incidents. “The problem isn’t with careless drivers or poor road design,” it says “It’s all down to cyclists not wearing helmets”.

Wear a helmet, don’t wear a helmet, it’s entirely up to you. But don’t for one moment pretend that they will prevent the kind of slaughter we have seen on London’s roads of late, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from calling for the kind of changes that really will make a difference.

*An improperly fitted helmet can actually increase your risk of injury. Which is why people who say “Boris Bikes” and their ilk should come with helmets are very very wrong.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Earlier this week, Top Gear fans everywhere gave a warm welcome to the news that police would be given new powers to fine people who drive in the middle lane on motorways for too long. At the time, I pointed out on Twitter that the people cheering the ability to fine motorists who "get in their way" on the road are the same ones who scream "war on motorists!" if laws on speeding, jumping red lights and so on are enforced against them.

The Mail was delighted with the crackdown on "road hogs" but today they're firmly back in the "enforcing the law is a bad thing" camp.

The RAC Foundation has today published a weighty analysis of the impact of speed cameras on accident rates. The headline findings?
Deaths and serious injuries down a quarter near speed cameras
Analysis of datafor 551 fixed speed cameras in 9 areas shows that on average the number of fatal and serious collisions in their vicinity fell by more than a quarter (27%) after their installation.There was also an average reduction of 15% in personal injury collisions in the vicinity of the 551 cameras.

And that's the line that is being widely reported elsewhere, for example on the BBC:

And in the Belfast Telegraph:

But over in Mailworld, speed cameras have always been A Bad Things, unfairly penalising innocent drivers whose only crime is to break the law. So a report that describes a correlation between speed cameras and a fall in fatal and serious accidents cannot be allowed to stand. Fortunately for the narrative favoured by the Derry Street massive, the RACF also found that at just under four per cent of speed camera locations the number of serious accidents had increased following the installation of cameras. Which gives them the excuse to use this headline:

The story begins:
"Speed cameras are increasing the risk of a fatal or serious accidents in some areas, a study suggests. It highlights a number of sites where collision rates have risen ‘markedly’ since cameras were put in place. The study raises new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras."

Of course, the study does nothing of the sort. Nowhere does it raise any "new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras", which is why the Mail is unable to quote what any of them are. Over and over again the report underlines the decline in accidents after the installation of cameras:
"Seven of the ten results in Table A2.1 point clearly to reductions in PIC [personal injury collisions of all severities] ranging from about 9% to 32% following camera establishment. Two of the others indicate no change, and one points clearly to an increase of about 10%." - p31
"Nine of the ten results in Table A2.2 point clearly to reductions in FSC [fatal or serious collisions] ranging from about 15% to 53% following camera establishment. The other indicates an increase of about 5%, which could well have arisen by chance." - p32
"Six of the ten results in Table A2.3 point clearly to higher numbers of PIC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years." - p36
"Five of the ten results in Table A2.4 point clearly to higher numbers of FSC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years" - p37
"In terms of severity of collisions, this indicates that in the vicinity of cameras in this partnership area the number of casualties per collision was about 10% lower, the proportion of collisions that were fatal or serious was about 55% lower and the proportion of casualties that were KSI [killed or seriously injured] was about 50% lower after establishment of cameras than well before their establishment" - p45

The vast majority of the report points towards speed cameras making the roads safer. Yes, there is an an acknowledgement that in less than four per cent of cases the number of accidents has gone up, but the Mail even manages to misrepresent this. Professor Stephen Glaister from the RAC Foundation says:

"The study has also identified a number of camera sites in the vicinity of which collisions seem to have risen markedly. This may or may not be related to the cameras but warrants further investigation. Therefore, on the basis of this study, we have now written to eleven local authorities suggesting they examine the positioning and benefits of a total of 21 cameras."

Note the large caveat in bold - he's saying that further work is needed to establish whether speed cameras are responsible for the increase in accidents. How does the Mail present this?

"The RAC Foundation, who carried out the study, believes some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents rather than preventing them."

How exactly does the RAC Foundation saying "this may or may nor be related to the cameras" turn into the RAC Foundation believing "some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents"? To give the Mail some credit they do print the part of Prof Glaister's quote in which he adds this caveat. But they chop out the first half of his statement, which reads:
"At the end of 2010 we published a report by Professor Richard Allsop which concluded that without speed cameras there would be around 800 more people killed or seriously injured each year at that time. Overall his new work reinforces those earlier conclusions".

Instead, this is relegated to the very last line of the entire story, when it is not even run as a direct quote.

Elsewhere, the Mail tries to make us think the situation could be even worse, that speed cameras could be killing and maiming countless thousands of innocent drivers up and down the country.

"And [The RAC Foundation] say that because only a third of speed-camera partnerships overall supplied data in a usable form, the true extent of the problem could be much worse."

However, yet again the RAC Foundation have said nothing of the sort. The report highlights that two-thirds of bodies required to release data on speed cameras and accidents have failed to do so. And Prof Glaister complains that this is "dissapointing". But because the report was produced by a sensible academic, one who understands that you make judgements based on the evidence you can see rather than what you can't, it does not at any point say that "the true extent of the problem could be much worse". To claim they have done so is a total fabrication, a lie.

As if this hatchet job wasn't enough, the Mail decide to finish the job by introducing another pet hate:

"Supporters of speed cameras have given them the more politically-correct title of ‘safety cameras’"

Quite how calling something a "safety camera" instead of a "speed camera" is "politically correct" is beyond me, but it all adds to the Mail narrative of "bad stuff being forced on normal folk" - speed cameras, political correctness, I'm shocked they didn't try to squeeze gay marriage and Muslims in there somehow too.

Further down there's a reference to "so-called Safety Camera Partnerships". Why the "so-called"? That's what they ARE called. If we're going to start adding that prefix to statements that some may not agree with, it's only fair to call Ray Massey, the author of this piece a so-called journalist, and his employers a so-called newspaper.

Monday, 3 June 2013

DWP Minister caught making up "facts"

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan may or may not have once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they can't have their own facts. Which is why it's been quite worrying to see so many recent incidents of the Government making up headline-grabbing claims with no basis in fact in order to, well, grab headlines. 

Ministers have repeatedly been told off for abusing official statistics in an attempt to prove a point, while Michael Gove was amusingly exposed as having used a PR puff-poll advertising a crappy TV channel as the basis of claims about the standard of education under the previous government. Now it's Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb who has been caught making us his own facts. 

This Government likes nothing more than a good crackdown, and back in May Webb announced the latest. He told the Daily Telegraph that people who live overseas and haven't paid National Insurance in the UK would no longer be entitled to a state pension based on their spouse's contributions. There are various holes in the policy - as Full Fact pointed out at the time, it's not exactly a massive problem to begin with, and a couple of days later the Telegraph itself highlighted that the policy could have unexpected consequences for "ex-pat wives" who trail around various overseas postings with their husbands.

But whatever you think of the policy, you can't deny Webb and his department the right to come up with such things. The problem is, he didn't end there.

In a bid to give the story legs, Webb said the following:

"Women married to British men, we are getting more of them claiming a pension based on his record. In some cases, they have never set foot in Britain at all

"There are women who have never been to Britain claiming on their husband’s record. There are also men who have never been to Britain claiming on their wife’s record."
The claim that people who have "never set foot in Britain" are claiming pensions was widely reported. It made the second paragraph in the Telegraph story, the third in the Mail's version, was given airtime on the BBC and Sky and still picks up almost 2,000 hits on Google - and that's just for the exact wording.

The trouble is, it's not true. Or at least, Webb has absolutely no idea whether or not it is, as his own department has just admitted.

As soon as I heard the claim, I smelled a rat - it seemed extremely unlikely that the government would have any means of cross-referencing every single visit to the UK with the NI records and pension claims of people living overseas. So I sent the Department for Work And Pensions an FoI request asking for their official numbers showing how many people claiming a spouse's pension in the way described by Webb had "never set foot in the UK". 

The answer?

"The information requested is not held by the Department as we do not collect information on whether State Pension claimants, who are not currently resident, have ever visited the UK."

So Steve Webb stood up in front of the national media and said something that has no basis in fact. It's entirely possible that some pension claimants have never visited the UK, but it's also possible that there is nobody in this situation. Webb doesn't know either way. 

He could have got round this by saying "it's possible for someone to never visit the UK and still claim a pension", and he'd have been entirely right. But he didn't. He stated, as a fact, that "there are" men and women who have never set foot in Britain but are still claiming pensions here, and he said it despite having no way of knowing whether or not it's true.

It all raises a few questions.

Why does the government think it's acceptable for ministers to create their own facts in order to support their opinions? Why do so many otherwise sensible journalists blindly repeat claims made to them by politicians without checking their provenance?

And has Steve Webb himself had a change of heart since 2006 when, in a speech to the NHS Confederation conference he attacked the Labour administration by saying:
"So much for evidence-based policy. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making it up as it goes along!"