Monday, 12 March 2012

Letter In Response to Tony Sparsis

A letter appeared in Cambridge News on Friday titled "Protection for Drivers Please!" which sought to sound fair and from an educated basis, just to repeat the same erroneous views that often get used by those who espouse their own experience only. Unfortunately, letters do not seem to appear in the online version. I decided to reply as follows.
UPDATE: The letter did not make the weekly printed version. One letter asking motorists to behave and stop thinking that they are without blame did appear, but none of the factual errors have been taken up. The problem is that doing so does create a rather long behemoth like below! --------------------------------------------------------------------------

I’m sorry to see so many factual errors and unsupported hypotheses from someone who claims to want to work for both cyclists and drivers. Let me take some of his points and explain why they are wrong. This is based on peer-reviewed scientific study, available on the internet (please do look for yourselves!) not some ad-hoc guess or random personal anecdotal experience.

  1. Ignoring red lights. Yes, this is a problem, and I urge cyclists to think what they are doing. I also urge drivers to do the same as nationally studies show a higher percentage of drivers jump red lights than cyclists. For drivers this usually occurs when the lights are changing, just when pedestrians are about to cross. Also, some studies show that some cyclists jump red lights to get out of the way of danger, usually waiting next to HGVs in their blind spot. 
  2. Wearing Cycle Helmets. This is a common misconception amongst many, so let’s make it clear. Cycle Helmets are designed to protect heads when in a fall from a bike under 12mph. They are not designed for collisions with vehicles. The British Medical Journal suggested recently that kids should wear helmets, as they are more likely to suffer a fall. It also said the evidence they protect adults against serious head injury is “equivocal” (i.e. questionable). It’s sad that Mr Sparsis uses his experience in the medical profession in such a misleading manner. Clearly he is not an expert in this area despite hinting at it. Also, a study by Dr Ian Walker (Traffic, transport and environment psychologist) shows that wearing a helmet leads to drivers pass closer when overtaking, thus increasing the danger to the cyclist. 
  3. Riding poorly maintained bikes. Again, I urge cyclists to perform maintenance. It’s actually not that difficult to do. I also urge drivers to do the same, as many cars are not fit for the roads either. 
  4. Ignoring the need for lights. Cycling without lights is silly. I just got another pair for £3. However, in a recent crackdown, police only managed to catch 1 person every 80 minutes. Hardly the problem it would seem to be. 
  5. Ignoring the basic rules of the road. Without repeating the first item above, this is something for everyone again. Looking at police studies, over 158 thousand drivers where spotted speeding in 17 weekly locations last year in Cambridge. And in another police study, only 25% of vehicles were driven in a way that would avoid prosecution for speeding in a location in south Cambridge. 

 I think it wrong to think of cyclists versus cars versus pedestrians, we all have to share. And all of us are responsible for our own behaviour when doing so. We all make mistakes, that is inevitable. However, making a mistake in 1 ton of metal has much more consequence than when on a bike. I drive and cycle and know that I make mistakes on both. I try very hard to limit them, and when driving, spend a lot more effort being slower and much more aware of possible dangers, like someone stepping off the pavement without looking. I take on that responsibility, as we all should do, when I get in a car and take control of a large, powerful machine. The best protection against having an collision in a car where the cyclist is at fault (which is pretty rare) is to give enough space, and spot potential issues a long time before they occur. Far too many drivers seem to switch off from this behaviour and follow an automaton process not paying enough attention.

Finally, the little disc on the front of each car is Vehicle Emissions Duty. Paying for this disc is based on how much the car pollutes the air. Lots of low emission cars pay nothing. This, and petrol duty, and parking charges, and all the other things do NOT pay for the roads. In fact, even if it were ring-fenced (and it’s not), if you added it all up, it still comes in short. Our roads are paid for by general taxation, including council tax. Again, studies have shown that nationally those who cycle earn more and thus contribute more to this than those who don’t.

As I say, if you disagree with the above analysis, please do search amongst the studies that are available online. Don’t just assume because you think you see differently sometimes, that you know everything. And don’t assume I do either, read the research!


  1. In response to the response of my original letter.
    You have basically agreed with all that I said.
    I do not want to see cyclists injured on the road be it their fault or not. I also do not want motorists to be injured on the road, also, be it their fault or not. So yes I am for the cyclist and motorist.
    "It’s sad that Mr Sparsis uses his experience in the medical profession" there is nothing misleading in the calibre of injuries that staff have dealt with in a trauma unit.
    "Clearly he is not an expert in this area despite hinting at it" I have never confessed to being an expert in this area"
    On a Monday night I have a need to take my son at the other end of Mill Road at around 16:00hrs then 17:30hrs on my return journey. During the winter months a great number of cyclists use Mill road without lights, some with just a front or rear light. They don't wear bright "see-able" type cloths; there are dark spots on Mill road that you have to be extra vigilant when either sitting behind cyclists or passing them.
    You seem to be a bit of a keyboard warrior. Stop making excuses for the misdemeanours of cyclists and try and do something about them being safer on the road. Do you go into the various language schools during the holiday season when a large amount of students arrive in Cambridge, are given cycles to use, and then with little or no experience of using them the filter out on the roads in Cambridge. Try talking to taxi drivers about cyclists on the road in Cambridge. Stop searching on the internet for stats and get down to talking to people who experience the good and bad cyclists on our Cambridge roads.

    Tony Sparsis

    1. Tony, you appear to have a bee in your bonnet over this. RW is promoting the facts, not making assumptions, something which is both commendable and right.

      He is in no way defending bad cycling. What you're doing is scape-goating and making out RW to be the bad guy (when in fact he is a law abiding cyclist and ambassador for safe and legal cycling).

      Anecdotes do nothing to actually show what is happening on the road. This is why the peer reviewed studies are the ONLY way to build up an effective picture before trying to solve the issues where they matter.

      I've known a taxi driver in the past, and he wasn't the most honest person out there (as HMRC had to look into his finances in some measure). Now I wouldnt attempt to start suggesting all taxi drivers are like him, that would be madness.

      I would strongly suggest that you're not helping cyclists but actually contributing to the misinformation and disapproval of them as a whole.

    2. Hi Tony,

      No, I've not agreed with what you've said, by a long way.

      I'm glad you want to see both motorist and cyclist safe, it's a noble aim. I'm also glad you are extra vigilant on Mill Road, a scary road by any account as a driver and a cyclist. Although I wll say that at the 20mph limit I have not much of a problem seeing all cyclists, with or without lights or in any clothing, as well as pedestrians about to step off the pavement without looking.

      Injuries are terrible, I know. Unfortunately they are usually very terrible for a cyclist in a bike-car collision and hardly ever physically effect the driver. And this is where my 'terrible' stats come in again and say that it's over 70% listed as driver responsible to less than 25% as cyclist responsible (and the remainder shared).

      You may not have meant to describe yourself as an expert in cycle causal related injuries. However, you have inserted your experience of the trauma unit in a particular manner. This means a reader considers that you're effectively implying it.

      There's a current cross-party government aim to increase the modal share of cycle journey's to a UK average of 25%. The main reason for it is that a very high percentage of journeys are very short and could be done so, saving a vast amount on paying for road maintenance, and much, much more on health bills in years to come. This means places where it is easy will need to probably need to be around 40%, but that's just my guess, absolutely nothing concrete. To do that all the calls for hi-viz and helmets are a great distraction. Looking at places that have effectively acheived this level of cycling they have very very little of these. Most people ride in completely normal clothes, what they would choose to wear to the event or workplace to which they are going. It's called 'normalising' cycling. A lot of that has been done by building a robust cycling infrastructure, which costs around £20 per head per year. Currently the UK spends around 79p in comparison, and it's poorly done. Increasing the spend to do this would save around 40 times as much in road maintenance by reducing the wear and tear.

      As far as talking to people about their experience of the road, I have a very different experience to you (and those taxi drivers), in a car and on a bike. I see incredibly stupid actions by car drivers all the time, and some cyclists too. Like the taxi driver at lunchtime on his mobile phone driving on Trumpington Street, the car that missed hitting me by a few inches, in bright daylight, the bus that locked in an ambulance whilst it was trying to blue-light it to Addenbrookes. That's just the things I've noticed today. Does this make me an expert in knowing road conditions? No, and nor does the taxi drivers you are talking about. Whatever we do, our road experience can only be tiny fraction of a percentage point. Thus it is entirely subjective and can no more help us sort out the mess of our transport system than say, using the sight of one black sheep to conclude all sheep are black.

      I'm proud that you've called me a "keyboard warrior". I'm glad that something as simple as writing can create something worth talking about.

    3. I'm sorry, my stats are old, the DfT says it's only 7% cyclists fault.

    4. sorry to bother you but are you the Tony Sparsis that worked at Whitby Hospital in the 1980's!

  2. Tony, you are seriously telling RadWagon to stop basing his argument on measured facts and statistics and instead just listen to what someone might randomly assert to be the truth? You're saying that your subjective experience is more valuable than recorded data? You're saying that rather than paying heed to studies counting the proportions of those breaking the law while using different forms of transport we should instead go and talk to taxi drivers because, presumably, they'll be more accurate?

    Do you want to take a step back and think about what you're saying?

  3. Nope, I don't want to step back. I base what I say, on what I see in and around Cambridge on a daily basis. I used the example of taxi drivers as they spend a vast amount of time on Cambridge roads and see a lot more than most.

    I do not imply I am an expert of cycle injuries, I have just seen my fair share of cycle related injuries, when they have been admitted via the A&E department, like a lot of my colleagues who work in the medical profession.
    I am also not saying that my subjective experience is more valuable than data recorded.

    As a point of interest I got my daughter to record the number of cyclist travelling along Mill road on Monday night at 19:45 who had lights switched on their bikes. A requirement by law for a car.
    Between the junction of East road and the “T” junction of Coleridege on Mill road there were a total of 18 bikes with no lights on. At two sets of traffic lights whilst displaying red a total of 5 bikes went thru the red traffic lights, two of which had no lights on.
    I don’t suppose this data is recorded? This is not subjective data, but the truth observed on one journey along Mill road.

    If a percentage of the cyclist that ignore the rules just realised the danger they present to themselves and others on the road our journeys by car, cycle or pedestrian would be a lot safer.

    Tony Sparsis

    1. Tony, we have no way of verifying your daughters account, as it is yet again internet anecdote.

      It is a requirement during the hours of darkness to have lights on a bicycle, too. Everyone who talks with RW or reads this blog will agree that it makes sense. But the point STILL stands that the Police nationally are not catching that many unlit cyclists or cyclists behaving illegally.

      Do as we do, get a camera and film the junctions in question. That is evidence that can be taken to the Police. Even taken to the press.

    2. I can verify my daughters account.
      I do have much better things to do than walk around with a camera. I have already regretted responding to this blog. I have a life......

    3. No you regret it because you've failed to argue your case, Tony. If you're not prepared to help provide evidence (many of us are now using helmet cameras for this purpose) then why sit here arguing the toss?

      And no, you dont get it, LOL! You haven't verified anything. You've just written something on the internet.

  4. Ah, Hi Tony!

    Sorry if you're going, you have engaged and I feel you have an inquisitive attitude and want to make a difference!

    A few things though.

    The problem with basing decisions on even the best of vehicle drivers is it's still completely subjective. When studies are done, they work out ways to take the observer out of the equation. I'm sorry, but taxi drivers are not the most objective of viewers. I've seen many doing very poor driving, and also many doing perfectly reasonable driving! But that means they cannot observe without being subjective. Just like I can't! That's why I (and a lot of people who are required to make decisions) rely on the statistical analysis done. Just because taxi drivers have experience, it doesn't make them traffic experts.

    I'm glad you (and your daughter!) have taken the step to count the number of cyclists jumping red lights and without good lighting. It shows a level of analytical thought. However, the stuff you've done so far is but a tiny, tiny dot on what is needed to talk with conviction about what is really going on. For example, you've simply talked about those that fail the standards (that we both set) and not those that succeeded as well. That's a basic requirement. After all for the 5 that failed there could have been 1000 that didn't. And you did need to get into the 1000s at least before it's worthy of note. A recent Cambridge police study of people speeding went to finding over 158,000 out of nearly a million.

    Then, there's a need to cover more than one road at one time. Journeys and people vary, you need to be able to take account of that. Then the real fun begins and you have to start doing double-blind and/or blank analysis. And this is probably where it gets to being a bit awkward to explain. There are a whole variety of disciplines required to actually say whether some observations are not correctly done, and there's loads of maths to follow as a result.

    You mention the percentage of cyclists ignoring the rules. It sounds like you want to look at the data! And the objectively viewed evidence says that 93% of all UK bike-car collisions are the drivers fault, 14 times the level of cyclists fault. It seems ludicrous to target those 7% when ignoring the 93%. On top of that pedestrians are 40 times more likely to be killed or injured by a car that a bicycle.

    I do take your counts at what you say, although it still isn't verifiable of course. It's just what you say. Again, that's where studies help, they have to be independently verifiable, not based on what 1 or 2 people saw. And sometimes cameras help, but in a different way.

    Helmet cameras are being used to record events, mostly not to build up statistical evidence. A number of them have been used in prosecutions of poor road behaviour. Yes, this is mostly specifically aimed at cars, but that's because driving a car is a lot, lot more dangerous (to others) than walking and cycling, and that's why you need a license to drive.

    I'm using my camera to build up examples of what happens on roads around Cambridge. I map the data rather than specifically going after the drivers, that's not my way! If I'd get something very bad, then it would go to the police. I've built up a picture of roads where danger occurs to cyclists. And I've been very surprised by what I've found. I hope to use this to make junctions safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.

    I'm glad you have a life, and it sounds full! Kids are the best and you are lucky! I don't have any of my own, but I do volunteer with older kids which makes my day/month/year. Although I've been doing this for 25 years, I have just started doing cycling stuff with some. It's not in Cambridge and you can bet I train with lights and proper behaviour. But also the positive position!

  5. Downfader,
    It’s people like you with your horrible comments that put people like me and many others off from supporting what RedWagon is trying to do.

    Thank you for that explanation on what you and many others are trying to achieve. I merely wanted to give an opinion on my experiences within Cambridge. I have been involved in much research over the years and fully understand the protocols of blind/double blind studies and the accuracy of data collection etc; I saw an opportunity to voice an opinion on my observations in and around Cambridge. I wish you luck in what you are trying to achieve. As I said, I have a life and it’s to busy to get involved with the conflicts, good or bad that exists between motorists and cyclist.
    I wish you many miles of trouble free cycling.


    1. Tony, if you cant take some constructive critique then what hope is there?

      I've not sworn or been nasty in any capacity towards you. All I've said is accept the reality, you havent.