A lot of articles in the past, including many of my own, have been quite disparaging about the way the police handled – or rather didn’t handle – incidents such as close passing and tailgating of cyclists, as well as cases of deliberate aggression, by bad drivers. Given that context, there is a feeling that the lights have finally come on in the last year or so, with the introduction of police close pass initiatives and online submission of incidents directly to traffic police divisions. Given what the situation was like before, I think there has been an incredible shift in the police approach to this issue in such a short time, but it is important to remember that this is just one small step towards breaking the vicious circle of road injustice. We need to keep pushing forward on this issue to build on the good start that the police have now made, and this article is intended to be one small contribution to doing that.
During these early stages of implementing and using the online submission procedure, it has felt as though I (and presumably other users of the service) have been testing boundaries to see which incidents the police are prepared to go forward with. In my previous article, I looked at some aspects relating to the quality and reliability of video evidence. In this article, I want to explore my early experiences of Operation Considerate reports that have been followed up and reports that have been “rejected”. Hopefully this will stimulate some discussion of the issues involved, and also help myself and other users of the service to understand which incidents are worth submitting at this stage and which aren’t.
I should also mention that, for various reasons, incidents involving actual collisions do not currently fall under the remit of Operation Considerate. That is a different issue that I do not intend to address here.
I should stress that, despite my disagreeing with some of the decisions that have been made, it is not my intention here to “have a go at” the police over those decisions. There are bound to be differences between my expectations and those of the police, particularly as the objectives of the GMP close pass initiative have not really been clearly defined. I think I understand the reasons for those differences, which I will discuss as we go along, and I do actually think they are making a pretty good job of it so far. Nevertheless, I think it is worth looking at some examples that have been rejected.
The highway code states, in rule 163, that overtaking motorists should “give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”. Rules 212 and 213 explain the reasons for this in more detail. West Midlands Police, in their close pass initiative, have recommended that motorists leave a gap of at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists, and this is consistent with the guidance contained in highway code rule 163, as can be seen in this modified version of the picture that is contained in the highway code:
It should be noted that this distance is appropriate at 30 miles-per-hour; at higher speeds a greater clearance should be given.
I should mention that, in the examples that follow, I will go into some detail regarding the distances involved, and this is detail that is not available to the Operation Considerate team when they make their decisions about which cases to pursue.
I will start with this example, because it is one that I firmly believe ought to have been pursued at least in some form, and because the reason for not pursuing it, whilst quite rational, raises some interesting questions (see the discussion). This one happened last Friday (Warning: contains swearing.):
Now, I should mention that I felt the bus at the beginning of the clip was rather too close; I would estimate that it was about a metre away. However, the car driver left far below the recommended 1.5 metres gap, as you can see in the still-frame below. I have included a reference image showing what 1.5 metres clearance looks like on my camera:
I can say with confidence that the car was considerably less than 1 metre away, as measured from my right hand side to the side of the car. In fact, I am fairly confident that it was closer to 0.5 metres than 1 metre. I also know fairly accurately from the road markings in the video that the car was travelling at 25 miles-per-hour.
This case involved a Lancashire United bus, and I have included it because, whilst it was certainly not as close as example 1, it still fell far below the distance recommended by West Midlands Police. Nevertheless, this is a case that I myself feel is bordeline regarding whether or not to report it to the police.
In this case, I can estimate the passing distance very confidently based on two sources of information, shown in these two images:
The first (left) is a measurement that I took of the distance from the tip of the arrow that can be seen just as the front of the bus overtook, to the lane marking that is under the bus, just on the inside of the nearside wheel – a distance of 1.5 metres. Taking account of the width of my handlebars (0.3 metres centre to tip) and the width of the bus tyre, the passing distance at this point was 1 metre, or perhaps very slightly more than that.
The second piece of information (right) is from a raster that I can place on a still frame from the video; a technique that I discussed in my previous article. This picture is taken from the point at which the bus came closest to me. The yellow markings are 0.5 metres apart. I have marked in red the position of the end of my handlebar (30 cm from my wheel) and the position of the side of the bus (based on the shadow cast on the road), and the distance between these is just 1 metre. From the road markings, it can be calculated that the bus was travelling at 27 miles-per-hour.
This example shows an incident that occurred at a much higher speed than the previous ones. The relevant vehicle is the grey Citroen, although I think the vans before and after were far too close at that speed.
Again, the reference image on the right shows 1.0 metres clearance and, despite a slightly different camera angle can be seen to be a very similar distance to the still frame on the left.
This is confirmed by the raster I have superimposed on the picture, which shows 1 metre of clearance, or perhaps slightly less. In this case, however, the car was travelling at 45 miles-per-hour, despite the road having a speed limit of 30 miles-per-hour.
The road here has a kerb-to-kerb width of 5.5 metres, giving a lane width is only 2.75 metres, so cars really do need to be completely on the opposite side of the road to pass according to the advice of West Midlands Police, as demonstrated by the driver of the silver car at the beginning of the clip.
I am showing this example primarily because of the reasons given for not pursuing it, which again raise some interesting points.
It is a little more difficult to estimate the distance when I am on my Elephant Bike because you can’t see precisely where the front wheel is due to the luggage rack. However, even a fairly generous estimate would place the side of the bus only 0.7 metres away from me. For comparison, I have shown my 1.0 metre reference image on the right:
This estimate seems to correlate with the width of the cycle lane, which I measured to be 1.1 metres from the kerb to the centre of the dashed line.
I am not currently able to show examples of cases that are being taken forward for fear of compromising a possible prosecution, so for comparison purposes I will show two older examples that I consider to be serious cases, which I am confident would be taken forward by the Operation Considerate team if they had been submitted to them.
In this case, the side of the van was significantly less that half a metre away from my side, as can be seen in this still image (I have placed my 0.5 metre reference image on the right for comparison):
The 0.2m mark is measured from the position of the end of my handlebar, so the side of the van was about 300cm away. The van was travelling at 25 miles-per-hour. I think this is just about as close as a driver can get without actually hitting someone. The door mirror must have missed my shoulder by a few centimetres at the most.
This final example is again a historical one, but shows a case in which, had I not taken evasive action, I would probably have been hit by the car.
The following still shows that case probably would have resulted in a collision if I hadn’t instinctively used countersteering to lean almost immediately to the left and swerve away from the car. Again, I’ve put my 0.5m reference image on the right, this time with the raster for comparison.
This was clearly a very dangerous manoeuvre by the driver.
Before discussing the issues raised by these examples, I think it is important to stress again that I think the Operation Considerate team are doing a pretty good job overall. It is indicative of how far matters have improved that, just over a year ago, GM Police only sent a letter to the driver shown in Example 5 but would certainly be taking it forward for prosecution now. I would hope that any cyclist with video footage showing themselves being subjected to driving like that will take the trouble to report it to the police and be confident that action will be taken. What about the ones that aren’t as serious as Examples 5 and 6, though?
The two main outcomes that might be addressed by police close pass initiatives are:
- to reduce the numbers of people killed or seriously injured, and
- to reduce or eliminate behaviours that cause people who would otherwise ride a bicycle not to do so.
I would argue that Example 5 carries sufficient danger to to be relevant to the first objective, and Example 6 certainly does, as I’m sure I would have been hit if I hadn’t moved out of the way; I have no doubt that these would be pursued by Operation Considerate without question.
I think it is fair to say, though, that incidents like those shown in Examples 1 to 4, although still falling well below the standard recommended earlier (1.5m clearance at 30 mph), are very unlikely in practice to lead to a collision. Consequently, these are likely to be of interest only in relation to the second objective, and this is where things get a bit fuzzy. I am sure that overtakes don’t need to be much closer than 1.5 metres to put many people off cycling on the roads at all, and I believe Examples 1 to 4 all fall into that category. The Roads Policing Unit at West Midlands Police take the view that: “if poor driving alters people’s lifestyle choices by making them too scared to cycle on the roads that is a police matter, as it would be in any other area of life”. The implication is that it is not only driving that presents a clear danger that is of concern to the police, but also driving that is anti-social: driving that is “inconsiderate”, to use the terminology of the Road Traffic Act (Section 2), and that surely applies to Examples 1 to 4.
It is easy to understand the difficulty the police find themselves in when justifying the resources spent on cases. It makes sense to concentrate resources on cases that are going to produce a result that contributes to achieving one or other of the objectives (outcomes) I described above. If a case seems unlikely to achieve this, then there is no point in pursuing it, not only because it would waste valuable resources, but because losing a case in court could actually have a harmful effect by reinforcing the existing bad culture.
In Example 1, the reason given by the Operation Considerate team for not proceeding was: “if this footage were to be shown to magistrates in any subsequent trial I do not believe there is a realistic prospect of a conviction”, and this appears to be the standard that is being applied in most of the cases. I imagine the same reasoning was applied in Example 3, though no reason was given in that case. Being passed 1 metre away by a car travelling at 45 miles-per-hour is pretty scary, but that might not be apparent to someone who has not experienced it
In Example 2, the reason given was: “there are two lanes and the bus passes you in the second lane albeit the bus is straddling the broken white line it makes sufficient effort in the circumstances to move away from you. This would not be sufficient to prove an offence of driving without due care and consideration”. Of the four examples I gave of rejected reports, I agree that this is the weakest. Passing a cyclist 1 metre away at 27 mile-per-hour is too close, especially in a bus, but it would be hard to convince a court of that if the magistrates have not experienced it themselves.
I do agree that the statement that a successful prosecution is unlikely is probably true for each of these three examples, but that isn’t really saying very much. We already know that it is possible, at least in a jury trial, for someone to drive a van onto the footway and drive over a child, killing her, and be found not guilty of driving dangerously or carelessly, and we know that, in Scotland at least, it is possible to do a similar thing and not even be charged with any offence. If drivers are not considered to have committed an offence in these circumstances, then it seems reasonable for the police to assume that any incident in which nobody was killed or seriously injured is unlikely to lead to a conviction.
Example 4 is particularly interesting, though. The reason given for not proceeding was: “based on the fact that you are in your cycle lane and the bus is not encroaching near to or into your cycle lane”. I don’t really know whether the police would have pursued this had the cycle lane not been present, but it seems likely that they would. If that were the case, then the reason for not pursuing the report would be that there is some paint on the road in between myself and the bus. Now, it is a common misconception among non-cycling drivers that the presence of paint makes close passing acceptable and I have written about this in another article, but this is a misconception that needs to be corrected. However, I can see that, in these circumstances, it could be argued that the presence of the cycle lane would make a successful prosecution less likely.
Example 4 illustrates very well the “Catch 22” situation in which the police find themselves. If they don’t prosecute cases, then the current unhealthy culture will persist, but if they do prosecute a case, it is likely to fail because of that very culture. Unfortunately, we are still trapped in the vicious circle that I described in this article and the follow up one, and it is difficult to see how the current police action is going to go any way towards breaking that circle. But, of course, that assumes that actions leading to prosecution are the only possibility.
A graduated approach.
From the discussion above, it makes sense that the police might be unwise to pursue a course of action that might lead to a prosecution in court in cases that are not the most extreme. However, there are in fact tools at the disposal of the police to deal with those cases.
Where the driving falls short of the standard in the highway code, they could at least send a letter to the registered keeper of the vehicle letting them know that they are driving in a manner that is inconsiderate to other road users. I think that Example 2 would fall into that category, and possibly Example 4. The objective here would be simply to educate people who are perhaps not aware that they are failing to show the level of care and consideration that is expected of someone in charge of a heavy, powerful machine in a public space. This process could easily be automated as well to improve efficiency.
In those cases that would actually be quite scary to someone not used to cycling, and are at the very least uncomfortable even for an experienced cyclist, they have the power to serve a warning to the driver under Section 59 of the Police Reform Act, 2002. This allows the police to issue a formal warning to drivers that their driving behaviour is anti-social (in that it “is causing, or is likely to cause, alarm, distress or annoyance to members of the public”) and that a second such incident with the same driver or vehicle will result in the vehicle being seized. I think it is fair to say that both examples 2 and 3 meet the criteria for this course of action. Indeed, the police did issue a Section 59 warning to the driver in Example 6, which happened just over 2 years ago, though I did not feel that was sufficient in that case.
Using these two tools to address these relatively low-level cases should provide a way for the police to start breaking the vicious circle and begin to address the second objective I described above.