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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
I can’t believe that anyone else listens to the radio in quite the same way that I do! (I lend an ear to news and current affairs programmes and to classical music, but that’s not what I mean at all). I start with Radio Times – which is wonderfully titled still, though of course it gives comprehensive coverage to TV channels as well. Within a day or two of its arrival I’ve looked through it and marked everything of interest. And for me the TV shows are far outnumbered by the radio programmes.
They are on Radio 4 mainly, though enticing items appear on R3 and R4 Extra too. Late this evening on R3, for example, is The Essay: The Book That Changed Me / “Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh on how Tolstoy’s War and Peace began a teenage love affair with all things Russian”. The chances are, though, that I shall be doing (or viewing) something else and will miss it. But no matter, because next to my computer is a small pile of past RTs, and in a couple of weeks or so it will be the turn of Mr Marsh to be called up on BBC iPlayer to talk to me about his book, while I’m dealing with ‘admin tasks’: this is how I frequently listen in.
And then sometimes additional programmes catch my eye, from their details in the iPlayer listings on my screen. That’s how I recently came across an item on You & Yours about old tyres, specifically on coaches. Let me tell you the sad story: in 2012, because of the failure of a tyre that was nearly 20 years old, a coach crashed on the A3, the driver and two passengers aged 18 and 23 were killed, and others were badly injured. The mother of the younger deceased (younger even than the tyre...) began to campaign for a legal age-limit on bus and coach tyres.
This coach tyre still possessed 40% tread thickness, but it had rotted and delaminated on the internal surface. After hearing the programme, I found a statement from an accident expert that age had to be the cause of the failure, as the other possible causes (such as previous damage) had all been eliminated. Though curiously, he was not in favour of a legal age-limit until more research had been conducted.
But the mother recruited her MP, Maria Eagle, to her cause and she introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill in Parliament last December to ban the use of tyres more than ten years old on buses and coaches. It was opposed by the government (on the same grounds that research was needed). The Bill is however expected to have a second reading on 27 April.
The puzzle for me in this is that I thought it was common knowledge that tyres should not be kept beyond ten years (see my April 2013 column). As for the spare – or any tyre that’s kept unused – it should really be ditched after five years, as it won’t have had the benefit of the chemical preservative in it that is designed to be ‘activated’ during normal running. (The above coach tyre must have been out of use for much of its life.) OK, the ten years and five years may be arbitrary limits, but lines ought to drawn somewhere, so why not there, and why not legally?
Most of the big coach operators would actually have no argument with these limits (we were told). If you want to check whether you are complying with them too, then look for the four-digit number on the side of your road-wheels, and on the spare (assuming you are lucky enough to possess one): ‘1708’ or ‘1713’ for example would indicate that the tyre was manufactured in Week 17 (the end of April) of 2008 or 2013 respectively...
I’m sorry, this isn’t the cheerful column that you might have hoped for. I would like to turn now to another tragic tale which I encountered one Sunday morning in March, on R5 (just to add to your picture of my radio listening!). It concerned potholes and the accidents they cause. In 2011 three cyclists set out on a charity ride from Lands End to John O’Groats: in N Yorkshire, one of them hit (or maybe swerved to avoid) a hole next to a drain cover, and was thrown in front of a following car.
It wasn’t until the inquest three years later that his widow heard that the pothole had been reported at least twice previously and also that the road was subject to monthly inspections by N Yorks County Council. The hole was plainly a hazard, but it had been left unrepaired. And yet the council did not (and still doesn’t) accept liability for the death. It was said on the programme that highways authorities have a defence to compensation claims in court if they can demonstrate that they have a ‘reasonable’ overall system in place for the inspection and repair of their roads. Hence the majority of claims (relating to cyclists, anyway) don’t succeed.
So the lady who lost her husband has campaigned for a ‘better than reasonable’ system. One thing wrong, she said, was that the code of practice allowed roads to be inspected from a vehicle, going in just one direction. This was inadequate for seeing potholes across wide roads, and especially ones hazardous for cyclists. She achieved a code revision that focused on these, including defects such as grooves running parallel to the road in which bicycle wheels could become trapped. (And anything good for cyclists, regarding potholes, can’t be bad for vehicle drivers too!)
But the most impressive part of the R5 broadcast came when this lady, and the man who had been driving the car following her husband, spoke to each other (for the first time since the inquest). She confirmed that she held him not at all responsible for the outcome, and that she realized he also must have been deeply affected by it. He replied that hearing these things helped him greatly, as he still thought daily about the event. He even used to change his route to avoid cyclists. But later (he said) he decided to learn to ride a bike himself, in order to try to find out what had made the other man so passionate about taking to the road.
Me, I remember that feeling still, more than 50 years after I last cycled any long distance! Also, I don’t recall that potholes were a great problem then. Now, we’re told, the cost of filling them all could be of the order of £10 billion. Anyway, what we drivers can do – apart from giving cyclists a long and wide berth, I should say – is to keep on reporting the holes. It’s one of my regular ‘admin tasks’...
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