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West Midlands Police: If poor driving makes people too scared to cycle, it's a police matter

Force says its award-winning close pass initiative is about helping more people cycle without fear for themselves or their loved ones

Police behind a ground-breaking “close pass” initiative say 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.

West Midlands Police (WMP) received an award on Tuesday at the House of Lords from the Road Danger Reduction Forum – the first ever awarded in the organisation’s 22 year history – recognising their Give Space, Be Safe operation.

The operation involves a plain clothed officer on a bike radioing ahead to colleagues if a driver overtakes too close. The driver is pulled over and educated on things like safe passing distances, and in some cases will face prosecution. The operation, which was dubbed the “best cyclist road safety initiative ever” by Cycling UK, has now been introduced by police in Camden, with WMP inundated with enquiries from other forces.

Some drivers see cyclists as "road furniture" - or don't see them at all

Officers say drivers who once saw cyclists as little more than road furniture come away with altered attitudes and better skills for driving around cyclists, and the “magic” of the operation, launched in September, is people will spread the message to family and friends. They emphasised it is about tackling the cause of danger on the roads, and improving safety and behaviour, rather than picking on any one road user.

West Midlands Police to offer "training package" to other forces looking to run close pass operation

PC Mark Hodson, an officer behind the initiative, told a packed room of road safety campaigners on Tuesday: “We want to protect vulnerable road users because we need more vulnerable road users on the road. The benefits we all know about and it’s how to get them on the road.”

West Midlands Police say “99% of people” they speak to don’t cycle to work or school because they fear the traffic, particularly close passes.

“It’s altering their lifestyle choice,” said Hodson. “In any other aspect of life it would be a police matter, so this should be a police matter. If somebody wants to ride a bike to school, to work, and they want to do it in a manner they don’t have to worry about the behaviour of drivers endangering them on a daily basis that should be a case for us to support and there shouldn’t be an argument against that at any level.

You shouldn't have to worry about your loved ones cycling, say police

“Ideally we’re looking for a situation where if you’ve got a loved one who gets to work on a bike you can say goodbye to them and not have to worry about them when they get to work on that bike, or go to school on that bike, and that’s not the case at the moment.

“It’s an overriding factor as to why we’re doing this – people shouldn’t have to live their lives like that. The only way you’re going to change that is to change driver behaviour and take away that threat to people, and we wish to do that.”

Cycling UK lauds West Midlands Police’s new close-pass initiative

The initiative was launched following a spike in pedestrians and cyclists killed or seriously injured (KSIs) on urban roads, prior to which West Midlands Police had focused on bike lights and “exchanging places” style operations.

“We knew in our heart of hearts what we’d been doing hadn’t been effective and we knew we needed a new approach,” he said.

Hodson said data analysed by the Central Motorway Police Group showed in the majority of cases the collision was caused by “injudicious action by the car driver” such as failure to look when turning at junctions, while most cyclists involved were experienced commuters.

Close-pass footage has now been used to prosecute 78 drivers, say West Midlands police

"Petrol head" police insist it's not about picking on drivers

Steve Hudson, the other officer behind the initiative, said: “We’re traffic cops, we’re petrol heads ourselves,” he said. “We love cars, so we don’t want people to think we’re just picking on car drivers, we’re not. The idea is to make it a safe place for both people to be on the road at the same time. There’s no reason why someone travelling at 15mph on a pushbike can’t safely get to work when you’re travelling in your car at no more than 20mph.”

A 20mph speed limit has recently been rolled out across Birmingham, and police told campaigners on Tuesday they are enforcing this speed limit.

Hudson, who often does the education part, which involves demonstrating safe distances to drivers on a road sized mat (pictured above), while Hodson cycles, says the initiative has a striking effect.

“A lot of car drivers have never ever thought about this before. They see cyclists as road furniture, and that’s the problem. They don’t think of them as people on a mode of transport, that could very easily be hurt, so we get them on the mat, make them think about it, they go away and we’re pretty satisfied that their attitude is then changed. The magic of this is they’ll go away and they’ll tell their family and friends as well.”

Would you drive like that on your test?

“We’ve had feedback from people who’ve gone away and read [a brochure they produced on safe cycling and driving] and said: ‘You know what? There’s some genuinely good advice there’. It’s balanced as well, there’s advice for cyclists as well.”

“The acid test is if you drove like that in your test would you pass? If it’s no - that’s a simplified version - but essentially that’s driving carelessly or inconsiderately, below what’s expected of a competent and careful driver; it’s nothing more complicated than that.”

Hudson said: “We ask people what’s stopping you getting on a bike at the moment and 99% of people say 'because cars pass me too close', so although the statistics will point out you’re more likely to be knocked off at a junction, or mid-junction, the reason that’s happening is people aren’t used to seeing cyclists on the roads. It’s the old look and not see.”

Focusing on the cause of harm

“We know, like Chris Boardman says, that cyclists are as liable to be poor road users as anybody, we all know the cyclist with no lights, but you have to start as he said with the greatest risk of harm, which is as he said the car driver or the large goods vehicle driver.”

Intimidation of cyclists in UK 'unacceptable' says MP

Chair of the Road Danger Reduction Forum (RDRF), Dr Robert Davis, congratulated West Midlands Police on Tuesday and presented them with a silver dish celebrating the initiative.

“We’ve been in existence since 1994 and this is the first award we’ve given. Instead of being negative all the time, here’s something we can be positive about.”

He echoed sentiments made by MP Ruth Cadbury last month, saying: “We need to change the intimidatory aspect of cycling, not just by highway engineering but by having right policing enforcement that stigmatises behaviour we don’t like, and supports benign and sustainable modes.”


Baroness Jones congratulates West Midlands Police (image courtesy of Road Danger Reduction Forum)

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