Friday, February 25, 2011

Trouble with the Law

Riding in today, I got off my bike in Storey's gate, and walked it along the pavement, as the road is currently blocked by roadworks.

There were two PCSOs walking in the same direction. As I passed them, one of them stopped me and said, "You can't ride on the pavement - you can get done for that". "I am aware of that", I replied. "You just jumped off," he responded. This was untrue. I'd got off at the start of the pavement. He couldn't have known whether I had or hadn't, as he'd had his back to me.

It so happens I'm not in the habit of breaking the law. I don't think society works too well when people pick and choose the laws they obey, and people doing that is one of the reasons the roads are as dangerous as they are.

This is not an anti-police blog. I think most police do a difficult job under difficult circumstances. But I don't appreciate being accused of something I haven't done. Unfortunately, minor though this incident was, it's illustrative of a pattern of behaviour in law enforcement that is not helpful. As a cyclist the perception is that on the one hand the justice system is very obstructive and dismissive when you're a victim of a crime (see Martin Porter's blog or this for details), and on the other hand you're disproportionately targeted for minor infractions (between January and November 2010, the Metropolitan Police Service and City of London Police together issued over 10,500 FPNs to cyclists) and in my case unjustly accused. I have no problem with the police ticketing cyclists, as long as the enforcement is not selectively targeting one group of road users over another, and the behaviour of all road users is subject to an equal degree of scrutiny. This appears not to be the case.

Law enforcement depends in no small part on the trust of the community. It's pretty easy to lose that trust if you don't treat every member of the community in an even-handed way. When that trust is lost, people are less likely to come forward as witnesses or co-operate with the police for fear of being accused, and they're perhaps more likely to take the law into their own hands. Those in charge would do well to remember that.


  1. Actually I do not agree that motorists and cyclists should be treated equally.

    Taking your example of riding on the pavement. This law's purpose is the safety and convenience of pedestrians.

    For a cyclists it is technically an infringement of the law but rarely dangerous and usually causes no inconvenience.

    Whereas when a car drives along a pavement (and I've seen it!) it is usually dangerous and inconvenient (if only for the damage it does to the surface).

    Hence the default action should be to ticket the motorist. Whereas not the cyclist - except when this is the umpteenth time he/she has been asked not to do it, gives the police lip or actually is causing danger or a real nuisance.

    In other words the police do often forget their discretionary powers are there to target people who are causing danger or nuisance and not simply 'enforce the law'. The law is inevitably imperfect. Good policing is needed to make it better.

    Ahem I'm primarily a motorist before anyone asks ...

  2. This is an interesting point and one I will be putting to our local (Bournemouth) Police rep on the cycling forum. The recent law was issued with guidelines which expressly allow responsible pavement cycling...

    On 1st August 1999, new legislation came into force to allow a fixed penalty notice to be served on anyone who is guilty of cycling on a footway. However the Home Office issued guidance on how the new legislation should be applied, indicating that they should only be used where a cyclist is riding in a manner that may endanger others. At the time Home Office Minister Paul Boateng issued a letter stating that:

    "The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of traffic and who show consideration to other pavement users when doing so. Chief police officers, who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road, sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required."

    Almost identical advice has since been issued by the Home Office with regards the use of fixed penalty notices by 'Community Support Officers' and wardens.

    "CSOs and accredited persons will be accountable in the same way as police officers. They will be under the direction and control of the chief officer, supervised on a daily basis by the local community beat officer and will be subject to the same police complaints system. The Government have included provision in the Anti Social Behaviour Bill to enable CSOs and accredited persons to stop those cycling irresponsibly on the pavement in order to issue a fixed penalty notice.

    I should stress that the issue is about inconsiderate cycling on the pavements. The new provisions are not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other road users when doing so. Chief officers recognise that the fixed penalty needs to be used with a considerable degree of discretion and it cannot be issued to anyone under the age of 16. (Letter to Mr H. Peel from John Crozier of The Home Office, reference T5080/4, 23 February 2004)