‘Victimless Crimes’?: Operation Snap in Wales

Since being pioneered in Wales and the West Midlands in 2017, Operation Snap – an online reporting system for video footage gathered via dashcam, bike camera or smartphone – has been put in use by a variety of police forces in the UK. As West Midlands traffic officer Mark Hodson put it, it operates on the ‘Martini Principle’: if you commit a traffic offence, you can get spotted ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ by a member of the public, and sanctioned for it.

Given how ubiquitous traffic offences are, there are never likely to be enough traffic cops to spot even the most serious ones – particularly given the cuts that have come since 2011.

For a while (seems like a looonnnnng while) now, I’ve been in touch with both GoSafeCymru (a road safety-focused partnership between Welsh police forces and local authorities) and South Wales Police regarding the way Operation Snap (OpSnap for short) is run in Wales. Though some of the issues I’ve brought to their attention are, according to a lot of cyclists who use Twitter, common throughout the UK.

Yesterday, I had an online meeting with a road traffic officer from South Wales Police who has been one of the most helpful of my respondents. This was a highly productive conversation, which convinced me (despite numerous experiences of being stonewalled and even blocked on social media by other of my respondents) that there are people working for these agencies who actually want to sort out the serious problems that bedevil OpSnap. A review has been conducted of OpSnap in Wales, and as a result of that some searching questions are being asked of how it’s run.

I’ll say more about this meeting in a moment. But first, what are these problems?

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The ‘A’ Word

When people complain about rule breaking by cyclists, it’s common to see a response that goes something like ‘24000 people are killed or injured by drivers in the UK every year – what about drivers?’ And then it’s equally common for those who began the conversation by complaining about cyclists breaking rules to accuse their interlocutors of whataboutery . That is, of trying to move the conversation away from cyclists’ wrongdoing, by deflection. Whataboutery, it’s implied, is always an illegitimate debating tactic. Not strictly true. You’ll find an early example of what might nowadays get labelled whataboutery in the New Testament:

‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

Matthew 7:3

Or shifting to more modern parlance, don’t ignore the elephant in the room, particularly if you happen to be sitting on top of it.

The point is, there is simply no valid comparison between the consequences of cyclists breaking rules and the consequences of drivers doing so.

Let’s start here, with the absolute basics.

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Cyclists, goths and football fans

Imagine opening a paper (yeah, I know, harder & harder to imagine), or following a link, and reading in the first paragraph you see something along the lines of: ‘God, what is it with drivers? Don’t they sometimes make you want to just drop a breeze block off a motorway bridge and listen for the smash?’. Hilarious, no?

Rod Liddle, in The Times, on May 24 2020:

Every day it’s the same. Walk out of my front door with the dog to be swept aside, into a hedge, by a middle-class family from the city who think they’re all Bradley bloody Wiggins. Daddy and Piers, 11, in the peloton. Mummy bringing up the rear with little Poppy, 6, and Oliver, 4. All in Lycra, all with their energy drinks and fatuous expressions on their faces, expressions of self-righteousness and irreproachable virtue. This is a local lane for local people — go back to your tenements, I shout at them. My wife has persuaded me that, strictly speaking, it is against the law to tie piano wire at neck height across the road. Oh, but it’s tempting.

Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times, 24 May 2020

Don’t forget Rod Liddle in 2016:

At last we have a transport secretary prepared to take the menace of cyclists seriously. Chris Grayling opened the door of his ministerial car to knock one off his bike — a beautifully timed manoeuvre. Grayling then leant over the prone and whimpering Jaiqi Liu and told him he’d been cycling too fast. Respect! The cyclist had been “undertaking” — a practice enjoyed by many cyclists that, while not illegal, is discouraged in the Highway Code.

Grayling devised a suitable method of discouragement. When in London I repeatedly open and close the door of my taxi to try to catch one of them at it and send him flying. I like to think I’m doing my bit to make London a safer place for normal humans.

Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times, 18 December 2016

This earlier (and error-ridden – ‘undertaking’?) article was, according to a backpedalling Liddle afterwards, written with ‘heavy irony’. That would be irony so dense and weighty that it plummets straight to earth, crushing plausible deniability underneath it on the way.

But then, it’s always ‘just a laugh’, this kind of thing. All the way back to Matthew Parris in 2009, also writing in The Times and calling for the decapitation of cyclists with the assistance of piano wire (similar methods are regularly used to injure mountain bikers and leisure cyclists in the UK). When it’s cyclists in the frame, people’s appetite for comedy seems endless. Even if the same – obviously entirely unserious and entirely harmless – ‘observations’ seem to get recycled a lot.

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The Unacceptability of Cycling

This tweet at the beginning of March 2021from Jezza Vine ‘started a conversation’, as high profile media types like to say.

It wasn’t, however, just an attempt to stir things up. In fact, it was a reasonable question to ask following an incident that Vine had experienced earlier (being called a ‘cunt’ for doing exactly what he describes in that tweet).

It’s particularly interesting that, in the first tweet linked above, Vine didn’t ask whether a cyclist who acted in the way described would be breaking the law. Instead, it was a question about acceptability (so, what is likely to be socially judged as reasonable behaviour). Yet the thought process gone through by a large number of commenters on that tweet seems to have run something like this:

  1. Hang on, Vine’s at it again with his cycling crap. Fkn cyclists!
  2. Hmmm. There is something unacceptable about this, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Fkn cyclists!
  3. Can the law help me make sense of my intuition? (Fkn cyclists!)

Why was this?

An example of a not untypical kind of response follows.

So here you have someone suggesting that the law just has to be clear on this issue. Probably because, in tricky conflictual situations we like to believe that the law will sort things out. Though anyone who has been to court after witnessing bad driving, uses the family courts or fought a libel case will probably not agree.

The law isn’t 100% clear here either (and in my initial replies to Vine’s tweet, I was rather too convinced that it was, mea culpa). Some case law suggests Vine’s cyclist is doing nothing illegal. Famously, Crank vs Brooks [1980] established that, when crossing pavement to pavement on a marked crossing, and pushing their bike, a cyclist is, in law, a pedestrian. But crossing from stop line on one arm of a junction, with lights red and no traffic, to the opposite in opposite arm in order to continue on one’s way? Some legal opinion suggests that no-one has ever been prosecuted for this.

Perhaps, then, the legality of doing it remains to be tested in court. Perhaps propelling a bike by pushing it while remaining in the carriageway means the cyclist remains in charge of a vehicle on the carriageway and must abide by laws that apply to someone in this position. But it’s doubtful whether this would be so in the case Vine describes – and even more doubtful in the incident he was involved in, when he walked his bike through the lights on a pedestrian green phase.

Subsequently, several actual police officers responded to the incident by confirming that Vine did nothing wrong.

So there’s a lack of case law relevant to this incident, and the legal position is thus unclear – so that intuition expressed in the tweet I quoted about cyclists ‘not being able to have it both ways’ just doesn’t stack up. Although maybe that feeling there’s something going on here that’s just unacceptable is about something else, perhaps the rightness or wrongness of Vine’s actions in a broader sense. Various commentators indeed pointed out that the law and morality are very different kettles of fish. So what about the morality of Vine’s actions?

Well, as the tweet from Harry Tangye confirms, no-one was harmed, put at risk or even put to any form of inconvenience or disadvantage by Vine’s actions. There were no consequences that flowed from his actions. The recommendation in the Highway Code (a recommendation, not any kind of binding law, by the way) that all road users should be ‘considerate’ is thus not even relevant, as it’s hard to see what actual impact Vine’s actions could have had on anyone else.

So what exactly did over 8000 people find unacceptable about his actions? Some were determined to keep reaching, one going so far as resorting to the concept of pre-crime.

One final possibility. Suppose we say that it’s ‘cheating’ that’s the problem – that it’s cyclists flouting the rules and getting away with it that people find unacceptable (see p. 16 of this Dept of Transport paper from 2002 on the commonness of this perception). Well, first of all, it’s not at all clear (as we saw) that any rules are being flouted here. Secondly, cheating implies that someone is getting an unfair advantage – but again, no-one is being disadvantaged here. To reiterate, there’s no harm or inconvenience involved. Vine continuing on his way as he did had literally no objective consequences for anyone else.

But the perception persists, as the 8000 people who found Vine’s actions ‘unacceptable’ confirmed. Now obviously we all regularly make sense of various phenomena we encounter in ways which, under scrutiny, don’t actually make a great deal of sense. But there was a stubbornness evident in many people’s responses to Vine’s tweet which is particularly interesting. An obdurate sense that a cyclist shouldn’t also be a pedestrian, even if alternating between these two ways of getting about has zero effect on anyone else.

So what other possibilities remain for understanding why those 8000 people had such a problem with Vine’s actions? Well, for some of them the unacceptable thing might not be the behaviour, but something about cycling itself. Given my background and the kind of work I do, what the stubbornness of so many replies to Vine brings to mind for me is above all Mary Douglas’s argument in her 1966 book Purity and Danger, regarding how humans tend to view things which, in relation to cultural distinctions between good and bad, pure and impure, come across as anomalous or ambiguous. Such things are a threat to order, to a belief that it is possible to identify a stable and consistent way the world should be. I don’t think it’s over-intellectualising things to suggest that cycling is, in cultures like that of the UK, unacceptable for some people because cyclists are really neither one thing nor another. Not drivers of vehicles and not pedestrians. And when they demonstrate this, as Vine did, it makes a certain subgroup of people – those who are very attached to certain kinds of hierarchy – very uncomfortable indeed.

That sense of ‘how dare you!!’, where it’s present, goes deep. When it surfaces, it does so in a way that wants to make itself respectable (through an appeal to the law, or to morality). But what it is, fundamentally, is something more akin to disgust. So, as the psychologist and cyclist Ian Walker points out, the desire to call out non-harmful, non-inconvenient, entirely insignificant behaviour like Vine’s is essentially a desire to erase this feeling and soothe an imperilled sense of how the world should be.

We can go one step further, though. For those people who feel it, the desire to punish cyclists is particularly intense, because cyclists are not just different, they are themselves – unacceptably – a kind of difference, the difference between vehicle and pedestrian bound up in one person.

Blackspot: Cathays Terrace

Strap yourself in.

This is the big one. This is Roath’s grand-daddy paradise for close-passing enthusiasts. Another part of the utterly unmourned Enfys network, superseded after the 2013 Active Travel Act by a concerted move toward a new strategic network, which has recently been bearing fruit, the Council having taken opportunities presented by successive Covid lockdowns to accelerate implementation,

The Cathays Terrace ‘cycle lanes’ (soon to be replaced by actual, erm, cycle lanes) present perhaps the best examples of the utterly mystifying approach to cycle provision that characterized Enfys (and indeed continues to characterize the majority of other ‘cycle lanes’ throughout the UK). This amounts to a dashed white line, about a meter away from a line of parked cars. The major innovation (I remember this being announced with some fanfare in 2012 or thereabouts) was to remove the centre white line, which was intended to incline drivers using the road alongside cyclists to behave with caution.

Of course, this didn’t work.

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Who are ‘The Drivers’?

You might be forgiven for thinking that there are two tribes out there on the roads, motorists and cyclists, given the ‘war on the roads’ rhetoric that we keep being treated to by apparently reputable media outlets (as its sometimes pointed out, if it’s a war, it’s a tad one-sided). The rhetoric is, of course, false. For a start, 80% of cyclists have driving licenses.

Including me. Shit, I’ve even done a speed awareness course…. :$

Yet the rhetoric persists – when it comes to cyclists, apparently ‘they’ all run red lights, ride in the centre of the lane for no reason, fail to have insurance, ride headlong on pavements at OAPs, etc. But then, don’t some cyclists just reciprocate and commit the same error? Look at the image at the top of this post: ‘the drivers are at it again’. So isn’t the same injustice committed against people on bikes constantly being committed against people in cars too? If we don’t like all cyclists to be tarred with the same brush as the rule-breaking ones, isn’t it equally unfair to associate all drivers with the one million or so who don’t have insurance, the 600000 who drive without a license, or those who kill/injure over 24000 people on the UK’s roads every year….OK, sorry, this is starting to sound partisan again.

Isn’t it ultimately just some individuals who are the problem? Aren’t these guys the individuals who would act like plutonium-powered pricks whether they were driving a car, piloting a helicopter or riding a donkey? If the tribal war on the roads rhetoric is to stop, shouldn’t those of us who who ride bikes and keep banging on about ‘the drivers’ wind our necks in, particularly given how conscious we claim to be of what it feels like to be ‘othered’?

Nope. It makes perfect sense to talk about ‘drivers being the problem’. And I speak – as I pointed out above – as an occasional driver (and occasional speed awareness course attendant). Actually, that’s not right. It makes perfect sense to talk about ‘the Driver’ being the problem. What does this mean?

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Blackspot: Lake Road West

Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad (Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House)

Or roads, Shirley. Some roads are just…evil.

Lake Road West is one of them. Running parallel to Allensbank Road, north from Fairoak roundabout, it’s another vital link from the Roath and Cathays neck of the woods to north Cardiff. For cyclists, it’s another commuter route towards the city from the north and has the advantage of running alongside the endlessly wonderful Roath Park Lake. It’s also the quickest way to get to Worley’s Hardware and to Lendon’s Model Shop from where I live. Those are some positives, which are sadly quickly overshadowed, once you get to know it, by the bad. The very, very bad.

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Blackspot: Fairoak Roundabout

Way back in the mists of time there was something called the Enfys Network.

This was Cardiff Council’s plan to develop a cross-city cycle network, using mostly paint-on-the road cycle lanes, of the kind that runs alongside parked cars on Cathays Terrace (which was part of this network). Fairoak and Monthermer Road in Cathays were also to be part of this network. You can spot the roads which were intended to form part of the network by looking out for the jolly children’s paintings of cyclists which adorn the BT/Virgin cabinets on the streets thereabouts.

One of the streets that rejoiced in being recruited for Enfys is Shirley Road. Along with Fairoak and Ninian, this road takes a lot of commuter traffic – cars mostly – and has a generally ignored 20mph speed limit. It also has in common with them the fact that it meets Fairoak Roundabout, one of the busiest in this bit of Cardiff, and one of the worst blackspots for collisions. So why is it so dangerous?

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With no power comes great responsibility

The trope of ‘sharing’ comes up a lot in the road safety industry. Way back even before the embarrassing and actually borderline insane Niceway Code, this has been the established way of framing messages on road safety. Share the road. And above all, share responsibility. We all have a responsibility to each keep each other safe on the roads, so this messaging goes: car drivers, lorry drivers, horse riders, cyclists, pedestrians. Immediately this answer to road safety raises a whole lot of questions. What responsibility does a horse rider have to a lorry driver? What responsibility does a pedestrian or a cyclist have to a car driver?

Given that most media reports of collisions between pedestrians, horse riders or cyclists and drivers tend – after detailing the carnage inflicted on the vulnerable road user involved – to end with a sentence along the lines of ‘the driver of the vehicle was uninjured’, it’d be surprising if horse riders, pedestrians and cyclists were being asked to take responsibility by not maiming and killing drivers of motor vehicles.

Now, it’s common for the logic of ‘they’, of sterotyping and generalisation, to enter discussions about road safety. ‘Drivers always do this….’, ‘cyclists, you know what they’re like…’, and so on. But one generalisation is valid here: every driver, every single one, is operating dangerous heavy machinery in a public place, and so has a special responsibility to do so in a way which does not harm others.

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Blackspot: Allensbank Road

The (sweary) sound of (cycling in) the suburbs.

Allensbank Road runs up from Whitchurch Road through the Cardiff suburb of Heath, all the way to Heathwood Road, which runs west to the A469 and A470 and then on to Merthy Road through Whitchurch. Travelling south from Heath it’s a major transport link to the city centre via Whitchurch Road and Cathays Terrace. So it’s a significant commuter route, and this is no doubt a reason why Cardiff Council has been recently consulting on a new kerbed bike lane [PDF] running from Heath Hospital along Allensbank down to Whitchurch Road and then onto Cathays Terrace to join up with the kerbed lane on Senghenydd Road.

However, north of King George V Drive East, where the cycleway will begin, there is not currently any provision planned. This will need to be sorted out – one of the vital developments that will be needed across the city if the Council wants to open up cycling in Cardiff to households located north of the A48.

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