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At last: Progress with DfI!

Last week we met with two officials from the Department for Infrastructure who are in charge of Driving Policy (Driver Training/Licensing/Road Safety) and of the taskforce dealing with Highway Code changes. It was most encouraging to find out that on the whole our campaign group is pushing against an open door.

The Department shares our concern about the alarming increase of KSI casualties (Killed or Seriously Injured) on our roads. I found out that this is a trend not only in Northern Ireland, the Republic, and GB but also in mainland Europe. The UK Department of Transportation will publish the 2023 statistics in September (analysis of the data and then checking and peer-reviewing them does take time to do correctly).

The latest report from the EU makes for worrying reading: "The trend in the number of cyclists killed on EU roads is a serious concern: more than 2,000 cyclists were killed in 2022. This is the only main road user group not to see a significant drop in fatalities over the last decade, notably due to a persistent lack of appropriate infrastructure and unsafe behaviour of all road users such as speeding, distraction and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs." That pretty much sums up the reasons for the trend reversal: poor cycling infrastructure and unsafe behaviour.

The Head of Driving Policy explained how his group currently struggles with getting Road Safety Messaging delivered efficiently to its target audience: traditional channels like TV ads or ads in print media no longer work as many people stream, no longer read newspapers in preference to getting their news from other social media channels. This fragmentation makes it extremely difficult to decide where to place an ad campaign. It also makes it very difficult to measure the effectiveness of an ad campaign. We concluded that perhaps now is the time to start at the grass roots level: schools and campaign groups like ours.

The Road Safety Message needs to incorporate the "3 E's" - Education, Engineering, and Enforcement:

Education is key to improving road safety. This starts with the basics, common sense and the rules of the road, aka the Highway Code. Common sense is a rare commodity these days: many drivers appear to view the speed limit as a target rather than a limit and neglect to take into account road and weather conditions, visibility, traffic volume etc. Education must also incorporate certain elements of the second E:

Vehicle engineering needs to be explained in detail. Modern cars have a plethora of electronic driver aids installed, but if a driver pushes the car past the laws of physics, (s)he will end up in a mess.

Car design currently is going down a dead-end: while the use of mobile phones is forbidden (Rule 150) and penalised with points and a fine, it is perfectly OK to tap away on huge screens disguised as dashboards to adjust the cabin temperature. Older cars have sliders and knobs that one could adjust without taking one's eyes off the road. Where is the progress here? Why has legislation not caught on to this oversight? Rule 150 is too vague...

In addition, engineering covers road infrastructure. This currently woefully disregards the needs of cyclists. Most cycle lanes are not fit for purpose (dotted, and de-facto car parking spaces as per Rule 140), and new developments are hobbled by outdated planning regulations that do not facilitate pedestrian or cyclists' short-cuts away from main roads to facilitate Active Travel.

The final E relates to Enforcement, which needs to lurk in the background, ready to deal with offenders, otherwise we end up with tarmac anarchy.

There are plans for a Graduated Driving License (GDL) for car drivers, akin to what is already in place when someone wants to ride a motorcyle. A motorcycle license allows moving up to more powerful bikes only in stages, after a certain amount of training and time acclimatising on less powerful machines.

The night of my DfI meeting I watched a very interesting (and depressing) documentary (Drive Fast, Die Young) on BBC iPlayer. What struck me was the incident involving an 18 or 19 year old driver with a BMW 235i: that’s a 300bhp car that will accelerate from 0 to 60mph in less than five seconds.

Giving a new driver access to such a car (who probably passed his test in a 70bhp Vauxhall Corsa) is like allowing an 18 year old motorcyclist to buy a BMW S1000RR, a 190bhp super bike once he's shed his L-plates coming from a 500cc 60bhp Honda. The GDL has been in planning for a while but it's not live yet. We protect young motorcyclists, why do we not do the same for young car drivers? A Graduated Driving License for car drivers like we have for motorcyclists could be a very effective tool to reduce the depressing KSI statistics we currently confront here. Unfortunately it appears the idea was binned in 2020.

As we were talking about the implementation of the GB 2022 Highway Code changes here, I was advised that certain suggestions are being reviewed as they may not be appropriate for local conditions here in Northern Ireland. That seems like a sensible approach. When I mentioned passing distances. I was told that the “official” recommended passing distance in Northern Ireland is 2m. That would appear to be great news. However, as I had a look at Rules 162, 163, 212 and 213 of the NI Highway Code, I only found references to “allow/give plenty of room” (162 and 212) and “give vulnerable road users as much space as you would a car” (163) but no concrete recommended passing distance. I have been awaiting clarification on that point for the past week but have not received a response.

We agreed that ANDCCG would review the NI Highway Code and the GB 2022 Changes and revert to DfI with a list of cycling-specific rules that work and should be kept and others that should be amended.

On that topic, I will take the opportunity here to make a start: If the "2 meter space" isn't set out specifically somewhere in the NI Highway Code, let's change the wording of Rule 163 from "Give vulnerable road users at least as much space as you would a car" to "Give vulnerable road users at least a car's width of space where possible."

One item on my agenda that we didn’t get to talk about in detail was Active Travel. DfI do have an Active Travel Branch and we would be interested in having a conversation with them on three topics:

First, we have completed a mapping project where we identified gaps in the cycling infrastructure around Bangor. Plugging the gaps isn’t difficult or costly but it does need buy-in from various DfI branches such as Planning (see my comments above) and Roads.

Secondly, we have been unable to convince Translink that it’s a good idea to eliminate the rule that bicycles cannot be carried on trains before 0930. Having asked Translink for data supporting their decision under an FOI request, it turned out that the company actually does not collect any bicycle-related data. The current policy is not Active Travel friendly.

Third, for Active Travel to be viable locally, we need a proper cycle path from Bangor to Holywood for commuters who cycle into Belfast. The Coastal Path is scenic but not particularly accommodating in certain places (like around Royal Belfast GC). The A2 has a section of cycle path between Bangor and Ballyrobert but after that there is nothing. There were three ghost bikes on that section when I first came to Bangor. Unfortunately those sad reminders of cyclists' lives being lost have disappeared.

The obvious solution for filling that gap would be a cycle path along the train tracks of the Belfast-Bangor line. From Carnalea to Helen’s Bay it would be possible to route through Crawfordsburn Country Park and along Bridge Road, along the tracks until Seahill Road is reached. The tricky bit is from the Seahill Road/Rockport Road intersection to Glen Road. Once on Glen Road one can go down to the shore and along Seafront Road. From there to the Harbour Estate it would be an easy ride into Belfast city centre.

I will also have to follow up and get the name of a contact with whom we can discuss Roads and their state: is there currently anyone who actually checks the quality of repairs that are being carried out, or has that position fallen victim to budget cuts? Potholes are being repaired poorly and utilities seem unable to reinstate roads to their original state after digging them up (viz the Green Road in Bangor).

We extended an invitation to DfI to attend one of our our members’ meetings to discuss the Department's activities. It was suggested that their Road to Zero Team would be well placed to elaborate on how Active Travel fits into the Road Safety strategy.

We look forward to working with the Department for Infrastructure to effect behavioural change to make local roads safer for vulnerable road users.

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Excellent blog and a good representation of the current situation.

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