Thursday, 21 January 2016

Oh, the bikes, the bikes... and the bikers

Our little bit of middle England, South Bedfordshire, is facing a new scourge.

I should relativise that complaint. Like most inhabitants of the wealthy countries, we enjoy levels of comfort and protection far beyond anything we deserve. For us, soldiers are more likely to mean a parade than a terrifying threat of rape, murder and mayhem. The weather turning cold doesn’t mean freezing in a refugee camp or among the rubble of a destroyed city. The sea is a summer pleasure, rather than a menace of terrible suffering and potential death while crossing it in winter.

No, what I’m talking about is a fairly small fly in a relatively large pot of ointment. Even so, we’d like the fly removed. And it’s galling that our government’s commitment to austerity means reducing the amount of ointment and failing lamentably to remove the fly.

The scourge involves young men, some of them little more than boys, performing thrill-rich stunts on well-powered motorbikes, along our narrow streets or in our public parks. The drivers tend to be wearing balaclavas to hide their identities, but no helmets, and the bikes are often unregistered: they have no plates. I can’t confirm that they’re uninsured, but it seems likely, and they may well be stolen.

Nuisance bikers, making the parks – and the streets – a lot less safe
The drivers push their antics to rather beyond their level of skill, often losing control. As well as parks, they like to buzz around schools as the kids come out, for the sheer joy of spreading panic among parents, children and teachers. So far, they’ve neither killed nor injured anyone, though they have killed a cat and one of the riders has managed to injure himself, breaking an arm in a crash. There is, however, a generalised feeling that it could be only a matter of time before they cause serious injury somewhere, especially as the pastime is spreading: all the urban centres of the region, and now increasingly the countryside too.

So we attended a Community Meeting in Luton, where we live, earlier this week. It allowed the audience to express concerns to two police representatives – one a superintendent, so relatively senior – as well as two local councillors and a journalist from a local radio station.

It was a curious experience.

The most striking aspect of the meeting was that the more articulate complainants found it necessary to speak at inordinate length about their grievances, and to do so repeatedly. They were, unsurprisingly, mostly men though one or two women also felt the need to share their thoughts in uncomfortable detail.

Most of these interventions added nothing to the discussion. No one was disagreeing with them. What was going on wasn’t communication, it was venting.

The specific issue that vexed speakers most was that the police do not give chase to unhelmeted motorcyclists when they see them. The superintendent explained several times that pursuing such riders is likely to make a dangerous situation still worse: they will escape by driving faster still, making it more likely that they will lose control of their bikes and cause a serious accident.

It’s also possible that a bike rider pushed to drive too fast, without a helmet, might cause himself serious or even fatal injury. That was when the mood of the meeting turned a little ugly: there was a substantial portion of the audience, though perhaps not a majority, that felt this would be a perfectly satisfactory outcome. “They would have brought it on themselves,” seemed to be the line.

I feel that we should perhaps stop short of making vandalistic bike riding a capital offence. Responding with police behaviour liable to cause death is a tad over the top. I was glad that the police seemed to share that view.

It would make much more sense to catch these lads and take their bikes. That’s the police aim. The problem is that achieving it means being there when they venture out onto the roads, and in a place where space is too constricted, and there are too few exits, for them to get away.

And that’s the central dilemma. Catching these characters would require significant numbers of police, backed by the right equipment: cars, bikes, surveillance systems, and more.

The police superintendent was quick to point out that he had no intention of talking about “resources” – code for the impact of Conservative austerity policies on services, including the police. Even so, throughout the meeting, he had to point out repeatedly that they would invest all they could to deal with the problem, though there were many other calls on their time too.

In other words, they don’t have the resources to deal with the issue. But they’re going to try with what they have.

This bike riding is just the kind of law and order problem the Tories love to denounce as unacceptable. So it’s interesting that it’s made all the more difficult to solve by the Tory government's own austerity policies. Something for which it’s time David Cameron’s government was called to account.

In the meantime, I wish the police well in their endeavours. We’re not, as I say, facing the same hardships as Syrian refugees at risk of drowning in freezing Mediterranean waters. But we are up against an irritation that could turn lethal. I’d like to think that a wealthy nation could afford to resource the police sufficiently to deal with the problem before it turns nastier.

Perhaps we could, if we spent less on prestige projects like nuclear missiles, or pointless ones like ineffective airstrikes in Syria…

No comments: