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Specialist cycling advocate Mark Hambleton looks at proposals to change the Highway Code, and explains why they are sorely needed

After 11 years the government is finally considering a review of the Highway Code, to take into account the vast technological changes that have occurred recently; most notably autonomous vehicles. In my opinion, it can’t come soon enough – cyclists like myself are crying out for new rules on safe overtaking to avoid close passes.

According to findings from Dr Rachel Aldred’s Near Miss Project, a study to calculate a per mile near miss rate for people cycling in the UK, close passes account for 29 per cent of the incidents with motor vehicles recorded by the study group as making them feel annoyed or scared.

Dr Aldred and her team found that closes passes were most prevalent during the morning rush hour – that is, between 8 and 9 o'clock, Monday to Friday. Those cycling at an average speed of under 8mph experience three times more near misses per mile than those cycling at 12mph of faster.  

What does the Highway Code say currently?

As it stands, the Highway Code says the following on close passes:

  • Rule 163 - overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so. You should not get too close to the vehicle you intend to overtake…give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car.
  • Rule 212 - when passing motorcyclists and cyclists, give them plenty of room…If they look over their shoulder it could mean that they intend to pull out, turn right or change direction. Give them time and space to do so.
  • Rule 213 - motorcyclists and cyclists may suddenly need to avoid uneven road surfaces and obstacles such as drain covers or oily, wet or icy patches on the road. Give them plenty of room and pay particular attention to any sudden change of direction they may have to make.

This wording isn’t at all precise. There are references to “not too close”, “give them plenty of room” and “give them time and space”, terms that will mean different things to different people. The difference in interpretation will be most stark between cyclists and motorists who don’t cycle – the majority of motorists.

The Highway Code would better serve cyclists and give clearer guidance to motorists if some of the rules were redrafted. For example, to remove “not too close” or “give them plenty of room”, and quantify the space needed by stating that the minimum overtaking gap between cyclist and motor vehicle should be 1.5m. Only then will we all know where we are. Greater distances can be stipulated for larger/faster-moving vehicles.

Will changing the Highway Code make a difference?

There is already evidence that close passes can be reduced by changing driver behaviour. West Midlands Police have been leading the way with ‘Operation Close Pass’; plainclothes officers on bikes reporting close passing vehicles to colleagues further down the road. Drivers who passed too close to cyclists were pulled over and shown what they had done wrong – the officers used a simple safe pass mat showing the safe overtaking distance of 1.5m.

This initiative saw a 50 per cent reduction in reported close passes in three months and a 20 per cent reduction in cyclists killed or seriously injured. Of course, the police still had the power to punish motorists who had driven dangerously or refused the tutorial.

This initiative has been such a success because it directly tackles the attitude and behaviour of motorists towards cyclists on our roads today. The Holy Grail remains a far better network of segregated cycle lanes and infrastructure. Until significant improvements are made in this respect, hats off to West Midlands Police for finding another way to tackle close passing. We still want more people to take up cycling (because of the benefits to health, congestion, pollution and so on) but we have to be realistic about whether that is likely to happen unless changes are made.

Is close passing putting off would-be cyclists?

I suspect that if you did a straw poll at work or with friends and family, most would cite dangerousness as their reason for avoiding road cycling. We know that cycling isn’t a dangerous activity*, so why do people think that it is?

Perhaps the answer is that the perception of danger is based on non-accidents such as close passes, which can be very scary. These near misses may discourage people from cycling because there are far more of them than accidents – how often have we discussed near misses with colleagues, friends, family? Dr Aldred found that commuting cyclists can expect a scary incident once a week alongside harassment and/or abuse every three weeks.

If re-drafting of the Highway Code can help to make cycling safer and to make it a less scary and intimidating mode of transport, only then can we hope to see an increase in cycling in the absence of huge investment in infrastructure.

*Data from Stats19 (police collision reports) flagged up in Dr Aldred’s report shows that a regular commuting cyclist could expect to ride daily for 8,000 years before being killed on the roads. An injury (most likely minor) could be expected every 20 years or so.

After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.

Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at Royds Withy King.

15 comments

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brooksby [3382 posts] 6 months ago
6 likes

Excellent op-ed, Mark; thank you.

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pjclinch [103 posts] 6 months ago
4 likes

Whether or not they're actually dangerous, close passes are certainly not any fun.  

"Here, try this for your local journeys.  It's a bit like a roller coaster because you're actually quite safe but there will be some degree of trauma as you're regularly shaken up (oh, and you'd better wear this crash helmet, just in case).  What do you mean, 'no chance!', don't you see it's good for you?"

We need to make cycling be and be seen to be both safe and pleasant.

 

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alansmurphy [1851 posts] 6 months ago
5 likes
pjclinch wrote:

Whether or not they're actually dangerous

 

 

They are and herein lies the root of the problem. How many mm does it take for a close pass to become death? A pothole, not being 100% on a straight line (me or driver), slight deviation (me or driver), pedestrian stepping out, gust of wind and on and on...

 

The problem has always been "give as much consideration" and some such gumph about another vehicle. This was potentially well intended in terms of suggesting cyclists were to be considered as normal or as important as cars. The problem is, cars passing at a mm seems to be the new test of how good a driver you are, how ballsy. The difference is that a clipped wing mirror is at most a very minor inconvenience...

 

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Martyn_K [267 posts] 6 months ago
4 likes

I have said it many times.

Presumed Liability is the only way forward. A law that makes the most powerful road user automatically at fault in the event of an accident has to be passed.

For a country that is apparently a world leader we are only one of four countries in Europe without this legislation (Romania, Cyprus & Malta). At the moment there is no obvious consequence for dubious actions using a vehicle against a cyclist so attitudes reflect that. Presumed liability will instantly put all road users on a level playing field relating to their potential to do harm to others.

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brooksby [3382 posts] 6 months ago
4 likes
Martyn_K wrote:

​...

For a country that is apparently a world leader

...

I think I missed a memo, there: I was under the impression we were a bit of a laughing stock, the embarrassing uncle at a wedding, that sort of thing... 

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oldstrath [975 posts] 6 months ago
4 likes
Martyn_K wrote:

I have said it many times.

Presumed Liability is the only way forward. A law that makes the most powerful road user automatically at fault in the event of an accident has to be passed.

For a country that is apparently a world leader we are only one of four countries in Europe without this legislation (Romania, Cyprus & Malta). At the moment there is no obvious consequence for dubious actions using a vehicle against a cyclist so attitudes reflect that. Presumed liability will instantly put all road users on a level playing field relating to their potential to do harm to others.

Getting rid of trial by fellow incompetents would help as well, as would proper sentences for the tiny minority who somehow manage to get convicted.

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cyclesteffer [337 posts] 6 months ago
2 likes

+1. Any trial in court of dangerous driving iinevitably has a jury or judge who drive cars and probably don't know what it's like to be close passed.

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ConcordeCX [829 posts] 6 months ago
1 like

"a regular commuting cyclist could expect to ride daily for 8,000 years before being killed on the roads."

I'm hoping to have retired before that, but I expect millenials will still be working to pay my pension, so we need to consider reducing death-in-service payouts.

 

 

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BehindTheBikesheds [2123 posts] 6 months ago
7 likes

For far too long the HC is a one sided load of plop that is used only when it suits for plod, CPS, defence lawyers and judges not to mention joe public.

Yet again this evening a learner driver overtook parked cars extremely close to the parked vehicles, I was central in my lane to try to dissuade them from pushing past but no, still they came forward. The instructor insisted I had plenty of space, not in my opinion, not when you've next to zero leeway on either side, and that's with a learner never mind an experienced driver.

It's this mentality that is instilled in drivers as might is right, cutting it close is acceptable because I haven't actually hit you. It's precisely this that needs to change and change in a big, big way.

This most definitely has to apply to oncoming as well as overtaking, particularly where the person presenting the harm makes next to zero acknowledgement or adjustment to avoid threatening another road users or actually making contact.

That incident with the timetraillists and the 4x4 with a boat on a trailer, 50% fault on the injured party is utterly ludicrous. Even when you're battle hardened you can't help but think when is the next incident going to occur, when is the next loud/hard accelerating vehicle and/or shadow looming over your shoulder going to be the one.

How people on bikes are attacked and threatened every single day or the fear of being hurt is just like walking along the footway and every few seconds someone makes you feel fear of harm with a deadly weapon. So much so that you even consider giving up walking anywhere. Even worse if you're walking somewhere and someone sledgehammers you in your head the police, justice system and joe public blame you for your injuries.

As I said previously, if CUK or someone with a lot of weight decided to take the government to the high court/european court of human rights I'd put £500 into the pot. If it had any chance of forcing the gov to act so that it makes me feel safer, my grandkids feel safer, makes it safer for me as a driver and for others, changes the whole ethos of how we approach using the roads then it would be worth every penny.

At the moment, even those sworn to keep the peace are too often not interested in keeping to their oath and too interested in blaming the victims, the MET police and the way they dealt with the Michael Mason case is one of the most disgusting travesties of justice.

If nothing happens now we will carry on being told (as per the coach turning thread) that we must get out the way all the time, that it's the vulnerable that should look out all the time and bear the greater responsibility.

Just like the A63 farce and forcing the vulnerable off the roads, why don't plod, government, motoring orgs (rememeber Jet trying to force through helmets for child cyclists around 2004) not fucking blame rape victims, why not tell those women and men that they need to wear a device to to try to prevent being raped or being stabbed and that you shouldn't go places where this might happen (which is almost anywhere ffs!), stab victims and not wearing a stab vest, tough shit, you're own fault.

Yeah, thought not you bent, double standard fuckers.

Rant over.

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bike.brain [11 posts] 6 months ago
4 likes

The Holy Grail remains a far better network of segregated cycle lanes and infrastructure.

 

I disagree!  Cycle lanes are generaly unfit for purpose for road cyclists.   Surfaces are generally neglected, poorly maintained, covered in debris and they often have vehicles parked on them.  They have road furniture obstructing them and they often end unexpectedly just when you need them, where the road narrows at a central traffic island for example.  Where there are side roads there are usually give way markings on the cycle lanes so that you have to slow or stop at every side turning.

No the answer is mutual respect enforced by changes in legislation supported by driver education.

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martynshort [7 posts] 6 months ago
1 like

I'm not convinced about presumed responsibility to be honest... As someone who does drive as well as cycle, I can attest to there being some absolute numpties out there on 2 wheels too. While I agree it'll make cycling safer, it's not fair to punish motorists for poor cycling. Also, it'll make some cyclists feel invincible, but you can still get killed, regardless of whos "fault" it is.

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davel [2396 posts] 6 months ago
2 likes
martynshort wrote:

I'm not convinced about presumed responsibility to be honest... As someone who does drive as well as cycle, I can attest to there being some absolute numpties out there on 2 wheels too. While I agree it'll make cycling safer, it's not fair to punish motorists for poor cycling. Also, it'll make some cyclists feel invincible, but you can still get killed, regardless of whos "fault" it is.

It's a blunt instrument, but it tips some of the balance in favour of the cyclist.

They will still be the squashy thing at most risk. But it will shift driver attitudes, which is necessary and won't happen otherwise in the UK. Drivers in their warm metal boxes need to put more skin in the game.

And I'm someone who drives more miles than cycles, too.

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oldstrath [975 posts] 6 months ago
2 likes
martynshort wrote:

I'm not convinced about presumed responsibility to be honest... As someone who does drive as well as cycle, I can attest to there being some absolute numpties out there on 2 wheels too. While I agree it'll make cycling safer, it's not fair to punish motorists for poor cycling. Also, it'll make some cyclists feel invincible, but you can still get killed, regardless of whos "fault" it is.

Them as has the power and weight advantage should bear more responsibility. Sure, there are poor cyclists, but i suspect you've avoided killing any so far. PL should make more motorists face their responsibilities.

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Mark Hambleton [7 posts] 5 months ago
0 likes

Martyn_K wrote:

I have said it many times.

Presumed Liability is the only way forward. A law that makes the most powerful road user automatically at fault in the event of an accident has to be passed.

For a country that is apparently a world leader we are only one of four countries in Europe without this legislation (Romania, Cyprus & Malta). At the moment there is no obvious consequence for dubious actions using a vehicle against a cyclist so attitudes reflect that. Presumed liability will instantly put all road users on a level playing field relating to their potential to do harm to others.

 

Thanks for commenting on my previous blog.

Based on what you said (and a few others on Twitter) I have written a follow up blog about presumed liability today.

Legally speaking, it's very difficult to see any good reason not to have presumed liability on our roads.

Please let me know what you think if you get the chance to read my latest blog.

http://road.cc/content/blog/237154-cycling-and-law-would-presumed-liabil...

 

 

 

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Mark Hambleton [7 posts] 5 months ago
0 likes

martynshort wrote:

I'm not convinced about presumed responsibility to be honest... As someone who does drive as well as cycle, I can attest to there being some absolute numpties out there on 2 wheels too. While I agree it'll make cycling safer, it's not fair to punish motorists for poor cycling. Also, it'll make some cyclists feel invincible, but you can still get killed, regardless of whos "fault" it is.

 

Thanks for your comment.

I'd be really interested to hear what you think after reading my latest blog on presumed liability - http://road.cc/content/blog/237154-cycling-and-law-would-presumed-liabil...