Friday, November 29, 2013

Operation Safeway - Waste of Money ?

In the wake of the recent cluster of cycling fatalities the Met Police - accountable to Mayor Boris Johnson - has launched Operation Safeway, which involves the deployment of up to 2500 officers at the capital's most dangerous junctions (not supermarkets, despite the name). It will be reviewed at Christmas.

When I see a bunch of public servants standing around not doing much, which is what I've witnessed so far during this "safety" operation, my first instinct is to wonder to what benefit my road tax is being put. Oh I forgot - I'm a cyclist, so I don't pay road tax. Except I do because I have a car. But it's a low emission car so I don't pay much more than it costs the Government to collect it. Oh, but the Met isn't paid for out of road tax, it's council tax and I do pay a lot of that. Well, anyway...paying highly-skilled crime-fighters to hang around on street corners like a bunch of high-visibility hookers doesn't strike me as a particularly good use of public funds.



Apparently, they've dished out 2000 fines in three days, which is a bit less than 700 a day. That is less than 1 ticket a day per officer. If the intent is to deter, this operation is clearly failing. But maybe finding lawbreaking road users is harder than we expect. To test this theory yesterday, I went for my usual lunchtime stroll around the West End, and in 15 minutes I saw 2 drivers entering an advance stop box illegally, 3 drivers using handheld mobile phones, and one cyclist on the pavement. So maybe my comparison with hookers was a bit unfair - there's clearly plenty of business out there to be done, but the police are unaccountably shy. According to some reports, they've been acting a bit like Gok Wan, advising people on what not to wear.

The Met budget is £4bn/year, and employs around 32000 sworn police officers. So the cost of 2500 officers half-time for 4 weeks works out at around £13M. They don't seem to be doing this full-time, but even for 2 hours in the morning, another 2 hours in the evening, plus the logistics of getting them to and from the relevant locations still adds up to a good chunk of a working day. The Met claim the operation isn't costing extra money, but that's false economics - if they weren't doing this, they would be doing other things, which presumably do have value. The question is, whether this operation has significant value. In my opinion it doesn't, because it is starting from the position that the main cause of cyclist casualties is lawbreaking, which is a false premise. There is nothing uniquely lawless about British drivers or cyclists. People have an equal tendancy to break road laws in other European countries, but the Continental approach has been to build quality cycling infrastructure - infrastructure that removes incentives for cyclists to break the law, and keeps them away from lawbreaking drivers. If all drivers and cyclists respected the law all the time and never made mistakes, the roads would be safer, but I cannot see how a short, localized operation with little deterrent effect is going to reverse the effects of decades of complacent tolerance of motoring offences. With the exception of drink-driving, we simply don't regard traffic violations as "real crime". According to the RAC, 21% of drivers admit to using mobile phones at the wheel, 65% break the motorway speed limit, 36% break 20MPH limits, yet 92% of us consider ourselves to be law abiding drivers!

So I doubt very much if this operation will have any lasting effect. There is clearly no real appetite at any level of government to permanently ensure better compliance with traffic laws. Whereas, if you were to spend that £13M cost on decent segregated infrastructure or quality junctions...you would permanently protect cyclists from the consequences of bad driving and cycling.

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