For cyclists, the way Chris Grayling opens car doors is a matter of life and death

Transport secretary Chris Grayling in happier times. Image: Getty.

I’m a London cyclist. I stop at traffic lights, I wear a helmet, and I even have an embarrassingly luminous jacket. After reading about the deaths of countless other twenty-something female cyclists, I hang back behind HGVs. 

And transport secretary Chris Grayling opening a car door without looking is bloody terrifying.

It’s happened to me before. I’m one of the slowest cyclists around, but even so, when someone opened the car door within a metre of me it was all I could do to shout and swerve out of the way. I thought immediately of a friend in Canada who wasn't so quick, and ended up with severe injuries. The man who had opened it looked at me with some confusion, as if he couldn't understand why I was so scared and angry. 

The video that has emerged shows Grayling emerge from his ministerial car in the aftermath of the accident on a congested London street. According to the Guardian, the car door had opened and sent the cyclist, Jaiqi Liu, crashing into a lamp post (a spokesman for Grayling called the incident an unfortunate accident and said the minister apologised).

Liu says that Grayling got out of the car to check he was OK, but couldn’t resist also giving him a sermon on cycling too fast (Liu says he wasn’t). The video emerged after the passing cyclist who filmed it read about Grayling ticking off cyclists for running red lights and criticising cycle lanes. 

Of course, there are cyclists that break the rules, and there is a testosterone-fuelled Lycra brigade that frankly I could do without on my commute home. But if the rules are reasonable, and keep you safe, most cyclists obey them. Just look at the traffic at a red light on a popular cycle route home. 

Every time a cyclist dies, somewhere an angry driver somewhere shakes his head and thinks of the guy who didn't have a helmet last night. But it is verging on offensive to suggest that cyclists breaking minor written or unwritten rules are somehow responsible for the dangers of injury or death. Cycling accidents overwhelmingly occur at junctions, in the daylight, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The most common reason for a collision with a motor vehicle and a bike is simply that most human of errors - "failed to look properly" - and in a slight majority of cases it is the driver's fault.  

I remember how much I resented being lectured by a policeman on my loose helmet about five minutes away from the notorious Elephant & Castle roundabout, where HGVs have ploughed down cyclists for years. Yes, it’s good to protect your head, but last time I checked, that doesn’t protect you if a 26-tonne lorry turns onto a cycle lane. To join in with a culture of blaming cyclists reveals a startling complacency about the patterns behind cyclists' deaths. 


The fact is, if a cyclist skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or just cycles “too fast” (despite being under the speed limit), and an accident happens, it is the cyclist who dies. And if a truck skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or is over the speed limit, and an accident happens, it is also the cyclist who dies.

And the solution is not "give up your bike". Successive London mayors have encouraged cycling is not because they are fluffy green bunnies or climate warriors, but because the public transport system is overloaded, and cars already clog up the road. The same could be said for the centre of Bristol, or Edinburgh, or Manchester. In London over the past five years, this pragmatic leadership has transformed my experience of cycling. It is now possible to cross central London using almost exclusively cycle lanes, and I no longer have any hesitation in encouraging others to take up the habit. 

However, this transformation would not have come about without the unpaid work of volunteer cyclists who propose junction ideas, teach others to cycle safely and give feedback when accidents happen. If the Transport secretary learns anything from this encounter, it should be that next time an unfortunate accident occurs, he asks the cyclist what went wrong, and listens to them. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of the Staggers, where this post was originally published.

 
 
 
 

Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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