This post is prompted by the misinformed comments of a significant number of ill-informed commenters about an incident in which a police officer attempted, incorrectly, to instruct us that we must ride in single file next to the kerb, and an article in the Manchester Evening News about it. A video of the incident may be seen here:
In the responses to the video and the newspaper article, many people tried to claim that the wording in the highway code says that cyclists must move into single file whenever a motor vehicle approaches from behind. Here are just a couple of the relevant comments from the MEN article:
and here is an example from the comments on the YouTube video:
Now, it’s easy to see how this wording might be interpreted in this way by someone who finds it difficult (or can’t be bothered) to think about what the wording actually says. Before going into the analysis, it is worth pointing out that at the time and place the officer stopped to give this incorrect guidance, there was plenty of room for him to overtake safely in his van, which he did:
It’s also worth noting that the discussion is really about cyclists taking the primary road position. The cyclist in the orange jacket in the picture above is in the primary road position (usually taken to mean the centre of the lane), and the one in the yellow vest is in the secondary road position (i.e. at least 0.5 metres from the kerb). If a cyclist is in the primary road position, then it is irrelevant whether there is another cyclist to their left.
All of the comments copied above are quoting from, or referring to, Highway Code Rule 66, which contains guidance to cyclists about what they “should” do, and the point they are trying to use to justify their opinion is the part that says: “Be aware of drivers behind you and allow them to overtake (for example, by moving into single file or stopping) when you feel it is safe to let them do so”.
However, these are failing to understand (or deliberately twisting) two key phrases:
1. “…allow them to overtake…“ implies that there is something preventing a driver from overtaking and suggests that, in that circumstance, the cyclist should take some action to facilitate their overtaking. If, as is the case here, there is nothing preventing the driver from overtaking anyway, then the whole argument is irrelevant as they are already “allowing the driver to overtake”.
2. “…when you feel it is safe to let them do so” means precisely what it says: move over only if you are satisfied that it would be safe for them overtake. Firstly, this can be taken to mean an overtake that complies with the guidance in rule 163 of the highway code: “leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, and give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds”. Secondly, even if the space is available, there will still be situations in which it would be unwise to allow the overtake, such as when approaching a blind bend or a junction – indeed any place where a driver would be stupid to overtake. Experience shows that drivers are often stupid when it is somebody else’s safety at stake rather than their own, and a cyclist would be foolish to assume they would not be.
On a road like the one in the video, there is not sufficient space for a driver to overtake even a cyclist in the secondary road position without moving at least partially into the oncoming lane, so the driver should wait until there is no oncoming traffic before passing. If there is no oncoming traffic, then there is sufficient space to overtake safely even if the cyclist is in the primary road position by moving completely into the oncoming lane.
In fact, given the design widths of our roads, this is usually the situation. It is very rarely the case that an overtake that would be unsafe for a cyclist in the primary position would be safe for a cyclist in the secondary road position. For a cyclist riding 0.5 metres from the kerb, their off-side would be 1.1 metres from the kerb (on my bicycles at least – other cycles can be much wider). For a 1.9 metre wide car (e.g. Range Rover Evoque), giving the expected 1.5 metres clearance without encroaching on the oncoming lane or the second lane, therefore, the lane would need to be at least 4.5 metres wide. Such a situation is very rare indeed in this country.