Why is Operation Close Pass important?

This article was published in 2017, in Newsletter 135.

Photo: West Midlands Police
Image as described adjacent

Recently Cambridgeshire Police issued a statement to Cambridge News from their Casualty Reduction Officer with regard to the decision not to rollout Operation Close Pass: ‘For Cambridge city where roads are narrower and often very congested we would be potentially forcing motorists to drive at the speed of cyclists when there isn’t the recommended space to overtake.’

But that is exactly what drivers should be doing! Highway Code rule 163 puts the onus on the overtaking vehicle to ensure it is safe to do so, and to hold back if it is not safe to overtake.

The police’s dismissal of rule 163 as impractical is signifi¬≠cant cause for concern, particularly coming from the Casualty Reduction Officer.

This attitude is in marked contrast to West Midlands Police, who launched ‘Operation Close Pass’ to educate and prosecute drivers who passed people cycling too closely.

The operation was carried out with plain-clothes policemen on bikes, alerting colleagues to pull over drivers who overtook cycles without leaving sufficient space (1.5m). They also used video footage submitted by the public to prosecute drivers who endangered cyclists. In one year they have seen a 20% reduction in cyclists killed or seriously injured on the county’s roads.

But why does the Highway Code suggest giving space to people cycling, and why is it important that drivers, and the police, take it seriously?

People cycling often need to avoid obstacles

People cycling are more exposed to irregularities in the roadway than people driving. A pothole which would jolt a car occupant can unseat a bike rider. A wet utilities cover or wet leaves can remove all traction from a bike where a car would be unaffected. Fallen branches can catch in the spokes. In busy areas in central Cambridge where pavements are narrow, pedestrians can walk into the road with no notice. Where cars are parked, people sometimes open doors into the path of people cycling. A driver will hardly notice the wind outside, but a person on a bike needs space to react to a sudden blow, be it when a large vehicle passes, or when a side-street opens the path for the wind.

All of these things mean that people cycling may need to take evasive action, or manoeuvre around obstacles for reasons of which drivers are unaware. This is why space is required when overtaking people cycling in a motor vehicle. More experienced cyclists often cycle in the middle of the lane to allow themselves enough space to react to such unforeseen obstacles. However, even if a cyclist has chosen to cycle at the edge of the road, this does not remove a driver’s responsibility to overtake safely.

Close passes intimidate people cycling

Even in Cambridge, there are people who would like to cycle but don’t feel safe doing so. Close passes in motor vehicles contribute to an environment where people don’t feel safe, and therefore don’t cycle. Where the obvious alternative is driving, this adds to the congestion in Cambridge. The primary cause of delay to drivers here is the number of other drivers on the road.

Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, has studied this in her ‘Near Miss Project’ (www.nearmiss.bike). The project looked at incidents users described as ‘near misses’, that is where no collision occurred, but people cycling felt endangered, or had to take evasive action to avoid collision. On average, people cycling experienced a ‘very scary’ incident on a weekly basis. Nearly 30% of reported near-miss incidents involved passing, and 22% of passing incidents were described as ‘very scary’. Many beginner cyclists tell us that such near-misses have a big impact. For many it is a terrible experience that leads them to give up cycling altogether. Other people will hear reports from people they know who cycle, and never take it up in the first place. If people had perfect control and anticipation, there would almost never be a collision on the roads. But the reality is that there are nearly 190,000 casualties on public roads in Great Britain every year of all severities. Overtaking people cycling without leaving a margin for error means placing vulnerable road users unnecessarily at risk.

In a built-up city like Cambridge, bikes and cars have a similar average speed. A driver may endanger a cyclist with a close pass, contributing to an aggressive and unwelcoming atmosphere on the road, only to meet the very same cyclist again at the next traffic lights or junction.

‘Cambridgeshire police’s decision is very disappointing. Not only does it demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Highway Code’s guidance on overtaking people cycling, Rule 163, but it also seems to prioritise the inconvenience of one road user over the safety of another.’
Sam Jones, Campaign Coordinator at Cycling UK

Long term, the best solution is high-quality cycle infrastructure which separates people driving from people cycling on the busiest roads, which is why Camcycle spends more time and resources on campaigning for this than on anything else. However, this will take years to achieve on main roads, and quiet residential streets will still involve cars and cycles sharing space. As West Midlands Police have shown, strategic initiatives to police the roads for the benefit of vulnerable road users can have an immediate effect on casualties.

Hester Wells

Camcycle issued the following press release in response to a statement by the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Jason Ablewhite which failed to address the outcry over Cambridgeshire Police’s dismissal of HIghway Code rule 163.
‘The PCC’s statement does not address why the Casualty Prevention Officer, in a role the PCC created earlier this year, told motorists that obeying Highway Code rule 163 was impractical. This is a very serious statement from the officer whose responsibility it is to reduce casualties.
We urge the PCC to issue a statement as soon as possible that clearly states that the comments from the Casualty Reduction officer were incorrect and to provide instructions that are clear, correct and safe for drivers to follow when passing cyclists.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Road Safety Partnership, to which the PCC is a partner, has set the goal to reduce the number of cyclists and pedestrians killed or seriously injured in collisions by at least 40% between 2015 and 2020. The PCC does not offer a single solution in his statement to reach this target.
The PCC says enforcement alone will not prevent casualties, and yet West Midlands Police have seen a 20% casualty reduction in one year as a result of Operation Close Pass, which is an initiative focused on enforcement. It is not the only tool available nor the only one that should be used, but the PCC seems reluctant to use enforcement at all.’