How To Design A Death

by
July 27, 2016

On 21 July 2016, John Toon was struck and killed while using a cycle crossing on the Strategic Road Network, which is managed by Highways England. The precise details of events remain unknown at this stage, but a mere glance at the crossing itself is enough to make it obvious that the design of the crossing is homicidally flawed. And it’s just one of many outrageously dangerous pieces of infrastructure under Highways England’s control.

A fatal crossing

a38-slip-road-crossing copy

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The above image (all of the images in this article can be clicked to go to their location in Streetview) shows the A38 exit slip road crossing on which John Toon died, looking into the oncoming flow of traffic. Just in case the problems with this crossing aren’t terrifyingly obvious:

  • The closing speed of traffic here is around 70mph. Aside from the obvious fact that this almost certainly makes the consequences of any collision extremely serious, it’s well known that time-to-collision estimation is cognitively difficult for fast-moving objects approaching at low rates of angular motion (in other words, for anything coming straight towards the observer, as is the case when crossing the road). It would only take a small mechanical issue on a bicycle to turn a slight error of judgement into a disaster.
  • The fact that in this case there are two lanes means that there’s a very real risk of one vehicle being obscured by another. Someone may, for example, correctly judge from the nearside of the crossing (on the right in the above image) that they have time to cross lane one before the van arrives but may incorrectly believe lane two to be clear, when actually there is a much faster vehicle about to pass the van.
  • This particular crossing is very close to the start of the slip road. This adds very significantly to the risk of error: it would be easy for users of the crossing to incorrectly assume that a vehicle with no illuminated indicators was continuing along the main carriageway, and it is obvious that a late decision by a driver to cross the chevrons at the last minute and take the slip road—as most of us will have seen people do from time to time, often cutting across vehicles that have previously obscured their view of the slip road—could easily result in an inevitable collision with devastating consequences. The standard stopping distance at 70mph is 96m, yet this crossing has been sited approximately 80m from the start of the chevrons dividing the slip road from the main carriageway. A late-exiting driver could potentially enter the slip road just 36m shy of the crossing, with little more than one second until impact.
  • At either edge of the crossing is a sharp right-angle turn. People cycling across with therefore generally need to brake whilst still in a live lane, extending their exposure to danger and complicating the estimates they need to make in order to judge when to cross.
  • Notice the tactile paving at the edges of the crossing. Either you’ll be picking your jaw up from the floor right now or you don’t realise the implications of this, namely that this crossing is (at least in someone’s deranged mind) intended for use by blind pedestrians. Two lanes of 70mph traffic in an environment full of the sound of traffic travelling on multiple carriageways at 70mph, and someone expected the blind to cross it without the assistance of a pelican crossing. It beggars belief that anyone could consider this to be anything other than suicidal. But it also has implications for cyclists: those tactile slabs are extremely slippery when wet, giving rise to the risk of someone losing traction while negotiating that sharp right-angled turn and falling into a live lane.

It is astonishing that this crossing passed any sort of scrutiny whatsoever, yet it presumably did.

Danger by design

Despite the unusually high number of factors which make the A38 crossing so incredibly dangerous, it arguably represents an unusually high degree of provision for cycling, in that although it is itself appalling, it is at least bounded on either side by a segregated path—albeit one which ends abruptly at the top of the slip road.

a38-cycleway-end

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This separation is unusual. In most cases, Highways England see fit for pedal cycles to be directed along the carriageway itself: a 20mph vehicle and its unprotected rider dropped into a 70mph flow of cars and lorries weighing anything from one tonne to a few dozen and piloted by people of varying abilities.

The only people who think this is remotely sane are Highways England and a handful of ultra-vehicularist cycling enthusiasts for whom the “right to ride” mantra has become dogma which has expunged from them any form of sense whatsoever.

Even those who don’t want to cycle in such conditions are sometimes ensnared in dangerous designs. On the A3, a (barely) separated shared path—which at its start is appealing enough to attract relatively cautious users—ends abruptly, nearly a mile shy of the next exit. (There is an off-road route to the left, but it loops under the carriageway via some unmetalled surfaces and then heads north: it’s hard to spot, has no signage indicating where it leads, and is broadly impractical for any destinations south of the A3.)

a3-shared-path-end

It was somewhere near this point that James Stephenson was killed in January 2015, on his way to a destination south of the A3 near the next exit.

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The following design, which has some obvious commonality with the A38 crossing, is a common pattern on trunk routes: riders are directed alongside a slip road and then expected to come to a halt and then cross it, rejoining the main carriageway at the point where the slip road splits from it.

a1231-slip-road-crossing copy

Often, riders are expected to stop and turn in an absurdly small space. On the A3, riders are expected to stick to this narrow section of tarmac to the left of the solid line before stopping, looking behind them, and then proceeding across the slip road back onto the main carriageway.

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a3-slip-road-crossing

On the A43, as shown below, this design is extrapolated to utter absurdity. Here, riders are requested (by a sign behind the camera on the nearside verge) to dismount in a live slip lane before using the tiny patch of tarmac on the left to wait to cross that same slip lane. They are then expected to remount, then dismount (note the sign to the right of the picture) to cross the entry slip road, and then remount their bicycle again in a live slip lane before returning to the terror of the main carriageway.

a43-jug-handle

Stop and think about that for a moment, because it’s astonishing.

This two-stage crossing exists because the designers feel that, because of the nature of the road and the traffic flow on it, it is unsafe for a rider to take the slip road and then simply proceed into the cycle lane to the right. Their solution to this is to request that they come to a stop and dismount in the lane itself, in that same traffic flow. The assumption is clearly that the cyclist will be subserviently hugging the nearside kerb, and yet—leaving no stone unturned in this tour de force of malevolent design—they have added chevrons which guide drivers to hug that very same kerb.

Every single aspect of it defies all logic—save for the logic that one might apply if one were trying to kill people.

Cycling that’s so dangerous it’s illegal

There is perhaps no clearer illustration of the idiocy of Highways England’s provision than that provided by motorways.

Yes, I know: there is no cycling provision on motorways. Cycling on motorways is illegal. Bear with me.

Every so often you’ll see a news article like this.

motorway-cyclist

Such stories always cause a bit of a response. Here’s a similar story with 90 comments. (I’ve not read them, but if you’re taking bets on what they say then I’ll lay down a few quid.)

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Cycling on motorways is not only illegal, it’s dangerous (though it’s hard not to at least acknowledge the amusing pragmatism of cycling past a traffic jam that’s moving at below-cycling speed). We all know this. Pedal cycles simply don’t belong on that sort of road in that sort of traffic.

Now let’s take a look at Highways England’s cycling provision on the A3.

a3-cycle-lane

See that little picture of a bicycle there? The one that doesn’t even properly fit in the space available. That’s the provision.

Now, bearing in mind that both carriageways carry traffic moving at 70mph (or more, of course), which do you think is the safer place to cycle: the hard shoulder of a motorway, which is a full lane’s width; or the cycle lane on the A3, which is little more than a foot wide?

Clearly, the former allows a rider to be about three metres from the live traffic lanes, whilst the latter places a rider terrifyingly close—well within reach of the bow wave of air around an HGV if not practically brushing the vehicle itself.

This is Highways England’s cycling provision: self-evidently more dangerous than something so dangerous that it is prohibited by law.

Infrastructure that’s so dangerous it’s illegal?

Due to the absurdity of pedal cycles being permitted on these carriageways which are motorways in all but name, it is inevitable that cycling provision is for the most part assumed to be the carriageway itself. We have, in part, the dogma of the ultra-vehicularists to thank for this: there is no sense in defending this provision, when it would be better surrendered in return for proper provision. People’s natural understanding of physics means that these roads have a de facto ban on cycling anyway: virtually no-one is foolhardy enough to venture onto them.

But the additional design features which encourage or require pedal cyclists to undertake dangerous maneouvres are specific provision which are—strictly speaking—not necessary to meet that requirement, and thus represent a particular product of Highways England for consumption by certain users.

In 2008, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force. To save you sifting through the legislation, prominent law firm Pinsent Mason point out clearly…

…a duty [of care] will always exist between an employer and its employees, and between a business and its customers or anyone else who uses its goods and services.

Highways England being a business (it is a government-owned company), it has a duty of care to those who use its goods: namely, the road users who travel on its highways.

To establish culpability under the act, it must be shown that a death is due to a gross breach of that duty and that senior management played a significant part in that breach.

To return to the earlier point: Did the A38 crossing—or indeed any of these designs—pass any scrutiny? Was there no scrutiny, or was the scrutiny grossly inadequate?

One has to ask: how can it not be obvious to all and sundry that these designs are fatally flawed, and how can senior management have allowed this to continue?