Long Arm Of PC Pedal, Tim Dawson (2009)

Article about the cycling law men originally published in The Sunday Times

The police came in for mockery recently over a draft manual for constables on two-wheeled patrol. The 93-page, two-volume document included advice on such rudimentary skills as braking and cornering — and there was even the suggestion of a “risk assessment” before cycling without a helmet, should officers be working undercover.

The Police Cycle Training Doctrine was quickly shelved by top brass but the kerfuffle offered an insight into the bicycle’s increasing contribution to the maintenance of law and order.

The Metropolitan police’s conversion to cycling is little short of revolutionary. In 2004 there were 400 officers who patrolled by bicycle; today there are 2,500. And it is not just in London. Even substantially rural forces covering vast areas, such as Tayside in eastern Scotland, have bicycles available for officers at many stations. The significance of this conversion took me back to a fact about bicycles that I learnt the hard way.

Years ago I was interviewed for the job of environment correspondent at a liberal broadsheet newspaper. The editor was a convert to green issues, so I had polished up what I thought was a winning idea to land me the job. To the question, “What special quality would you bring to the role?”, I replied that I would carry out all assignments on my bicycle.

The editor snorted. His deputy looked at his shoes. The man from HR shuffled some papers and found that there were no further questions. I made the long, lonely walk across the newsroom and out of the building.

Turning the inevitable rejection letter over in my hands a couple of days later, the stupidity of my mistake dawned on me. The editor was keen to fill his newspaper with stimulating, environmentally concerned stories — but largely indifferent to how that news was gathered. And his instinct is one that I suspect we all share.

The police are not hair-shirt converts who have taken to bicycles because they want to save the planet. They have done so because they can patrol without being isolated from the people they serve. On occasion, they can even take up chase more effectively than with any other means of transport. In simple terms, they have realised that using bicycles means they can do their jobs better. The same is true of cycle couriers, and even the scattering of paramedics who use bicycles, with medical equipment in panniers, to reach accidents quickly.

I suspect that most of us would be happy to use a bicycle when it was quicker or more convenient than any other form of transport. The incidental benefits — less environmental harm and better health — are welcome but don’t provide sufficient reason to persuade us to pedal.

So we should welcome the police manual as evidence that two-wheeled transport has been given an official seal of approval: if even the police — for whom getting between two points in the shortest possible time is one of the most crucial aspects of the job — think bikes are best, it’s a step in the right direction.

Okay, so I can think of better ways to spend public money than to advise constables to wear padded shorts for “in-saddle comfort”, as the document did. But have a heart — even coppers can chafe.

TD Nov 09

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