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The Squeaky Wheel gets the Grease

At last! After last week's blog we have good news to report: we have now received a a courteous reply from the Department for Infrastructure on our request for a contact with whom we can discuss adding a Cycling Proficiency Test to the training syllabus for learner drivers.

Unfortunately that's where the good news ends. The Department's reply stresses that its Road Safety Strategy focuses on “more vulnerable road users” - although this focus will not achieve much until the 2022 changes to the UK Highway Code are implemented here in Northern Ireland. We know that in 2022 the DfI briefed Minister John O'Dowd against the adoption of those changes here. We have asked the Department for clarification on whether its position has changed in the interim.

Reading between the lines of the DfI response, we were disappointed to learn that “the Department also continues to review the Highway Code for Northern Ireland” (our italics) rather than recommending an immediate adoption of the 2022 changes. We have urged the Department to make the adoption of these changes a ministerial priority for 2024 and asked when the department “review” will be completed. Without the adoption of those changes, the Department would only be paying lip service to focusing on more vulnerable road users. Watch this space!

The DfI's reply to ANDCCG referred to "GDL". For those that are not au fait with DfI acronyms, that is the Graduated Driver License. Sounds good in theory, but I have been unable to find any announcement among the 1,025 search results on the Department for Infrastructure's website that this proposal actually has been implemented.

In any case, in our opinion the proposed changes to the syllabus do not go far enough in raising awareness of cyclists with new drivers. I personally have experienced several close passes (before roundabouts) by local learner drivers who had trouble judging my speed and ran out of road before the roundabout, close-passing me in the process. Having had the opportunity to speak to one such learner driver at the Rathgael Road roundabout in Bangor, it turned out that he was in a hurry and wanted to get to the roundabout before me (cutting across three lanes of traffic in the process), only having to wait for traffic from the right to clear. Taking the primary position did not help me in this instance: I had to brake sharply and swerve to avoid getting sideswiped.

Attitudes need to change and requiring new drivers pass a cycling proficiency test is the best way to make them understand the problems cyclists face. It would also teach drivers that for a lot of short journeys the bicycle is the most efficient, quickest and sustainable means of transportation.

It is hugely disappointing that while the public consultation for GDL closed in January 2018, it still has not been introduced officially (page 4). The result of this inaction is clearly displayed on page 8 of the linked 2022 report: the number of KSIs in which drivers aged 17-23 were involved essentially has not changed since 2010 (with the exception of 2020 and the Covid lock-downs). A GDL (with a cycling proficiency test…) is long overdue.

We have asked the Department when GDL will actually be introduced officially. I would expect the preparatory work related to this to have been completed over the six years that have elapsed since the public consultation finished so all that is needed to roll out GDL is a ministerial OK. A delay on account of more preparatory work being required would be scandalous. As with the Hierarchy of Road Users outlined in the 2022 changes to the Highway Code the clock is ticking. Further delays will cost more lives. Doing nothing is not an option.

We indicated in our response to DfI that if anyone there would be interested in meeting with representatives of our group to get first hand feed-back on why the introduction of the 2022 Highway Code changes is so important, we would be available.

On a related matter, there was an interesting response published a couple of days ago to a question Stephen Dunne (MLA for North Down) tabled with Minister O'Dowd (AQW7512/22-27). Dunne asked for clarification on the reallocation of funds from other areas of the department to road maintenance. The answer was enlightening and shocking at the same time: It turns out that the extra £8.1 million allocated to road maintenance include £3.1 million of "internal reallocations from other business areas [...] including Active Travel".

Some observers argue that it is better to spend these funds on repairing road infrastructure that in many places is not even of Third World standard rather than letting the available funds go unspent. Our view is that if a significant amount of funds earmarked for Active Travel had not been spent by the department over the past eleven months, then the department's Active Strategy needs to be reviewed urgently. We are aware that currently an e-bike charging network is being set up across this island. The project managers approached DfI but never heard back from the department. Those funds and departmental endorsement would have facilitated the roll-out greatly. An opportunity missed...

While we are on the subject of EVs, e-bikes and e-scooters - it would be hugely helpful if legislation were introduced standardising not only the charging infrastructure, battery construction/safety and charging connectors but also required new housing to provide suitable charging ports. Planning regulations fall under the DfI's remit! E-scooters are being used on pavements even though they should only be used on private land. E-bikes are being souped up with speed limiters removed. Where is the monitoring on this? The lack of coordination on EV charging infrastructure and connections here nor anywhere else in the UK leads me to conclude that the UK Government really is not convinced that EVs are the future of private mobility. As long as replacement EV batteries cost about 40% of the price of a new car once you include installation, EVs have to be viewed as disposable as a mobile phone, with a life expectancy of perhaps five years. My internal combustion engined car is coming up to its 26th birthday and is still going strong: that is sustainability. Leasing a new EV every three years is not. If you're thinking of actually buying one, I would urge you to do your homework: the depreciation is brutal. After three years the residual value of many is only 30% of the list price.

Let's see how all this pans out. The DfI has a lot of work to do internally to make its staff realise that not only is Climate Change real but Active Travel and multi-modal forms of transport play an important role in reducing Northern Ireland's carbon footprint and should be prioritised rather than being misused as a convenient way to provide extra funding for road maintenance.

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