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Nov
05
2008

Proving a negative and the onus of proof

Two assertions that I cannot prove:

·      No one, anywhere, ever, has been killed by a bicycle bomb.

·      No life, anywhere, ever, has been saved by the life jacket under their seat.

 Anywhere is a large place, and ever is a long time. The most one can do is broadcast an appeal for disproving evidence. In the case of bicycle bombs I have broadcast my appeal on my website, on various cycling Internet grapevines and on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. So far nothing. 

There remains a possible source of disproof. James Daley The Independent’s personal finance editor and cycling columnist (an inspired marriage of responsibilities) had his bicycle confiscated by the police for parking it near Trafalgar Square – http://blogs.independent.co.uk/independent/2008/04/my-bikes-been-n.html .

When he finally tracked it down he discovered that it was in the possession of Superintendent Ovens of Belgravia who justified his confiscation of James’ bicycle by producing a list of bike-bomb incidents dating to the 1930s -http://blogs.independent.co.uk/independent/2008/08/cyclotherapy-fi.html .

Intrigued by Superintendent Ovens assumption that James’ bicycle might have been a bomb I sent him an email asking if I might have a copy of his list of bike bomb incidents.

Dear Supt Ovens

I read in a blog by James Daley – http://blogs.independent.co.uk/independent/2008/08/cyclotherapy-fi.html – that you have a list of bicycle bomb incidents going back to the 1930s. Is it by any chance the list on which I comment on my website

- http://john-adams.co.uk/2008/07/28/bicycle-bombs-a-threat-to-westminster/ ?

If your list is different might I have a copy?

 Since posting my commentary on 28 July my request for evidence justifying the Westminster cycle parking ban has been picked up and more widely disseminated by various cycling grape vines. I also had an opportunity on 30 July to broadcast my request for evidence on the Today Programme and the BBC World Service. So far I have yet to receive a single convincingly documented case of a fatality caused by a bicycle bomb.

 I am amongst the large number of cyclists who have routinely experienced significant inconvenience as a consequence of the cycle parking ban. We would like to see the evidence justifying it.

 I would be very interested in any comments that you might have on the commentary on my website.

Despite two chasing emails the only response I have had to my message, first sent on 10 September, is “All rather busy but it’s on my list of things to do.”

So I still cannot prove that a bicycle bomb has never killed anyone, anywhere, ever. Proving a negative is notoriously difficult. When I confronted a senior police official recently with the fact that I had been unable to find a single instance of anyone, anywhere, ever having been killed by a bicycle bomb he replied instantly with “Yet”.

This takes us into the realm of “worst case scenarios”. Must everything imaginable, despite the fact that it has never happened and is highly improbable, now be guarded against?  Guarded against by authorities who cannot be challenged? This appears to be the state of affairs governing cyclists in the political heart of London.

When trust in those responsible for our safety is lost we become less safe. If their warnings and commands are not credible they will be ignored or disobeyed or – worse – construed as evidence that our guardians haven’t a clue.

Consider another example of bureaucratic paranoia: the life jacket under your seat. I recently asked the most senior person I know in the world of aviation: has any life been saved by the lifejacket under the seat, whose
 location and fitting is explained on every trip? He knew of none, although he did comment that many thousands of life jackets had been stolen by passengers heading for boating holidays in the Mediterranean.

So here we are. The police in the political heart of London are defending against a highly improbable terrorist threat in a way that seriously inconveniences thousands of cyclists, and the airlines continue to insist that billions of passengers pay attention to meaningless safety advice. Why should we trust them with our safety? Why should we pay attention?

8 comments

1 ping

  1. Chris Hutt says:

    At the same time as huge resources are invested in protecting us from barely credible threats such as you describe we find that resources are not available to deal with very real threats such as that of being knocked down by a motor vehicle.

    Clearly we cannot trust people who behave so irrationally with our safety and that I believe is one reason why so many cyclists routinely break the law by for example riding on pavements. We cannot expect protection from the law enforcers therefore we must make our own arrangements, if necessary in defiance of the law.

  2. AKP says:

    Here’s at least one proof against your assertion #1.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSSP1811320080513?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews

    May 13, 2008
    “JAIPUR, India (Reuters) – Seven bombs ripped through the crowded streets of India’s western city of Jaipur on Tuesday evening, killing around 60 people in markets and outside Hindu temples.

    The bombs, many strapped to bicycles, exploded within minutes of each other in Jaipur’s pink walled city, a magnet for foreign tourists.”

  3. Chris Hutt says:

    AKP, a bomb carried on a bicycle is not strictly a bicycle bomb – i.e. one using the bicycle frame as a casing. The bicycles removed from parts of Westminster do not, for the most part, have anything attached to them. The pretext for removing these bicycles is that the frames themselves might conceal bombs.

  4. David Hembrow says:

    There are an awful lot of silly ideas like this floating around about bicycles.

    I think it’s simply down to the general public’s lack of understanding of what a bicycle is, and what it’s good for. Many people in the UK simply seem to fear bicycles.

    One of the first things I noticed here relative to the UK is that in the centre of the city pedestrians don’t pull their children away from you and give you a hard stare if your bicycle comes within a few metres. They simply ignore you as you cycle by.

    It has always puzzled me why there are so many letters to newspapers in the UK from people have been been “nearly killed” by cyclists as it’s well out of all proportion to the danger.

    To me, a near death experience would probably involve a pretty major injury and a long hospital stay. But for them, merely seeing a bike at close quarters seems to be enough.

    It’s the same with the “bombs”. Whether or not one has ever existed isn’t really the point. It has been adequately demonstrated that bicycle bombs are at the very least extremely rare and in a cycle hostile place such as the UK there are much better ways of carrying around large quantities of high explosives without detection than by putting it into bicycle frames.

    The whole thing is much more of a fear of bicycles than a fear of actual bombs.

  5. Martin Parkinson says:

    Ooh – a comment from David Hembrow! Not that I’m stirring, but he recently posted something interesting about shared spaced on his blog and I’d been wondering what JA might think of it …

  6. Kevin O'Leary says:

    Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about bicycles, but about the potential risk posed by any property left unattended where it could pose a threat in a vulnerable location.

  7. Jim Tubman says:

    Well, here is an article about a plane going into New York’s Hudson River, and it looks like the passengers are wearing their life vests.

    http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2009/01/15/plane-hudson.html

    Whether the vests saved anyone’s life in this instance is not yet known, although it is easy enough to imagine someone falling into the water during the evacuation. (The life vest would prevent them from drowning, so that they could die of hypothermia instead.)

  8. Jim Tubman says:

    As a follow-up to my last comment, I have found more information to suggest that the US Airways flight landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, is the only recorded successful water landing of an airliner:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123205611103787217.html

    “Although commercial jetliners are equipped with life vests and inflatable slides, there have been few successful attempts at water landings during the jet age. Indeed, even though pilots go through the motions of learning to ditch a plane in water, the generally held belief is that such landings would almost certainly result in fatalities.”

    All that said, I hope that there is no similar disproof of the bicycle bomb theory.

  1. How We Drive, the Blog of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic » Blog Archive » Bikes Not Bombs says:

    […] Adams explodes the fear of “bicycle bombs.” And his point on life jackets is well taken […]

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