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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(April 2017)

After my column last month on bicycles, letís turn our attention to their riders: it seems to me that cyclists divide themselves naturally into two groups. The first are those with a life-wish, which they demonstrate by wearing helmets, making themselves clearly visible, and evidently being familiar with the Highway Code. The other lot possess a death-wish, or apparently so.

This second group dress in dark clothing, and show no lights at night, thus risking being quite invisible to drivers. They cut between road and pavement on a whim, and give no warning of approach to pedestrians from behind. On the road, you might see them keeping to the left of the carriageway, but itís just as likely that they will be on the right, in the middle or, if in a group, all over it.

When these cyclists-on-the-loose jump a red light (moving too early), do they always look out for a motor doing the same (too late) in the cross-direction? When they are using a mobile phone, isnít this just as much of a distraction for them as if they were at the wheel of a vehicle? And if (as the Highway Code states) itís illegal to ride on an ordinary pavement, carry a passenger or be unlit at night, why arenít these rules both taught and enforced rigorously, for the safety of everyone? Driving in the dark, my main fear is that Iíll hit an unseen bicycle...

All right, maybe Ďdeath-wishí is too strong for what such mad-cap people have in their minds. After all, plainly theyíve not suffered a bad accident so far, probably because of the high manoeuvrability of a bike. The other day, as I was walking towards a blind corner (on the pavement), a young man shot round it and just managed to avoid me, in spite of being visibly shocked to find me in his path.

But clearly he had no notion of ďbeing able to stop in the distance you can see to be clearĒ! And just now in the local paper, Iíve found a report of a tragic accident at our nearby main crossroads: an unhelmeted rider took a nearly blind left-hand turn (on the road) at speed and hit someone who was crossing over. The man on foot suffered only minor injuries Ė but the cyclist (a Reading University student) died in hospital two days later. How many other riders will learn their lesson from this, though?

I might also mention a problem that I have with certain pedestrians in the early darkness of winter, at a major road near here. I approach it aiming to turn right, across a minor road to Earley Station nearly opposite (to the right), and I often coincide with an emerging stream of dark-coated commuters. Some of them want to cross over, but canít be bothered to walk to the nearby traffic islands, a short distance either way. Instead they dive straight across the main road just where it is widest. And of course they are looking for the same gap in the two-way traffic that I am! Worse, the street-lighting is focused on the islands and the junctions, and not on this hazardous crossing-point. So Iíve learnt to emerge very cautiously indeed.

They are chancers all, these cyclists and pedestrians. I include the category of unsafe drivers too. But they so rarely pay a penalty for their risk-taking (and hence learn to appreciate its dangers). And why? Often itís because of the skill of the rest of us on the road. What one would wish upon them is a sudden piercing vision of what could have happened, if we werenít so watchful...

Now for a story thatís not unrelated to the name of our [Thames Valley] Group: one day last September, Mrs S and I took the train to Waterloo (having crossed the road carefully for Earley Station!) and then continued on to Charlton in East London, just south of the Thames. We walked to the river and turned right to arrive at the Flood Barrier. There in the visitor centre we looked round a fascinating explanatory exhibition. Coming out, we faced west and started walking again. Ahead of us stretched the 180+ miles of the Thames Path.

As I write, we have reached Putney Bridge and Fulham Palace: admittedly thatís only 20 miles covered Ė in six days spread across six months Ė but there was of course much to interest and distract us (such as the palace) as we strolled through the heart of London. Soon we shall have to accelerate, though, if we are going to reach the Source (wherever this happens to be at the time) before we fail our bodily MOTs!

I guess most enthusiasts walk the Thames in the downstream direction, but we decided that starting at the lower end would be more exciting, and less silly too should our enthusiam wane later. If we get to the top (which has an elevation of 350 feet) we shall raise a glass or more likely a water-bottle to the Thames Valley Group.

Hereís a puzzling walking-tale, involving what you might call personal physics: a couple of weeks ago I left home wearing shoes with smooth rubber soles which I knew were slippery on wet surfaces. But that day, all was dry. Except that I didnít notice a strip (less than three inches wide) of damp and dirt at the bottom of our driveway where it joins the road. Puzzle 1: how did one shoe manage to land on this in such a way that it completely lost its grip and sent me flying?

In contacting the road I hurt both knees, both hands and five finger-tips (also my watch). Puzzle 2: how was it, then, that I ended up on my back, very fortunately not having damaged my face or specs, or broken anything? Itís as if I performed the reverse of the Ďcat-righting reflexí, by which the animal rotates itself to the right way up when falling upside-down. Was mine a sort of man-bouncing reflex?

Lastly, a dilemma that arose from the above incident. As a precaution against infection in the various injured extremities, my GP prescribed antibiotics. The pharmacist said: take them an hour before food. The label said: take four a day, an hour before food or on an empty stomach. The leaflet said: take half to one hour before food. Well, firstly I donít eat four meals a day. So secondly, did the pills need to be followed by food, or not (and if so, how much)? And thirdly, how long after a meal does oneís stomach become empty again?

What we need, I feel, is a Medicines Code, based on the Highway Code and having the same usefulness and authority, in situations like mine above. It would hardly need adapting, to start with anyway: Introduction / ďThis Medicines Code applies to England, Scotland and Wales. The Medicines Code is essential reading for everyone. The most vulnerable medicine users are pedestrians Ė sorry, that should be dependants Ė particularly children, and older or disabled people. It is important that all medicine users are aware of the Code and are considerate towards each other. This applies to dependants as much as to those responsible for them.Ē And so on. Iím feeling much better now, by the way.

Peter Soul

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