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Near Miss of the Day 521: Close pass ... by a police van (plus how it all went a bit Kafkaesque afterwards)

Our regular series featuring close passes from around the country - today it's Hertfordshire...

In terms of follow-up information, today’s video in our Near Miss of the Day series may well be the most comprehensive we’ve ever had – which is in large part down to the fact that the motorist involved was driving a police van.

Footage of the incident, which happened in Hertfordshire last July, was sent in by road.cc reader Moray, who told us: “I have been working through the appropriate complaints processes which took quite a while.

“I have now exhausted those processes after various increasingly worrying responses. I have been keeping Keir Gallagher of Cycling UK abreast of my progress and he has not been impressed.

“What I have found quite disturbing about this saga is that even though it has proved to be very difficult to get the Hertfordshire PCC and Police to acknowledge that this incident was a problem; other similar incidents I have reported about ‘normal’ motorists while this was going on have resulted in ‘appropriate positive action’ (at least once Herts Police started actually giving useful feedback in September).”

Moray also provided us with a full write-up of how issues progressed, and given the Kafkaesque nature of it, we’d be failing him if we did not repeat it in full.

Strap in. Here’s the whole story, in Moray’s words.

The basic incident, which occurred in July 2020, was a large police ‘crew-style’ Transit van which came charging past me pretty close – not the worst I have ever experienced, or reported – by you do expect better from a Police driver.

What made the incident worse was that I then caught up with the Police van while it was parking at the public car park outside the local Police office 600 metres further up the road, and – having waited for bit while it parked – I then spoke to the driver about it:

Me: ‘Excuse me. You were a little close as you passed me coming up the hill there’
Officer: "Was it? I do apologise, but I thought I'd left you quite a lot of room’.
Me: ‘1.5 metres is the recommended distance"
Officer: ‘I thought I'd left you good enough room. But, you know … ‘

Me: ‘It was quite worrying’.
Officer: ‘Ah, do apologise’.

Moray describes it as “A sort of grudging apology ruined by a justification of the distance as ‘quite a lot’ and poor judgment about what is ‘good enough’.

He says: “I felt that he obviously didn't appreciate enough about the close-pass issue and how scary his big van can be charging up behind cyclists and overtaking them at about half of the best-practice ‘Operation Close-Pass’ recommended clearance! I also thought the overtake was a classic impatient must-get-in-front given the relaxed parking at the office.”

He continued: “This is not the first time that officers from this small local office have shown a disinterest in a close-pass – some time ago I was sent away because ‘an officer had not seen the incident’ for one (video evidence wasn't good enough for them) and ‘no-one was injured/not interested in no MoT’ for another. I've used online reporting (or 999 in one instance) since.

“I submitted a report to the Hertfordshire Police web-site as a video-evidenced ‘Careless or Inconsiderate Driving’ plus 'Cyclist or Pedestrian near miss', which resulted in the usual (at the time) 'black-hole' response:

‘Thank you for the submission of your footage, we will now review the footage and investigate any offences disclosed.
‘Please be aware that you may not hear anything further from us in relation to this matter.
Should we need any further information we will contact you. Unfortunately due to the data protection Act 2018 we are unable to disclose the outcome of the case with you’.

“I have never been impressed with this response – but for a police vehicle it seems to be definitely the wrong answer," Moray said.

“More recently, Herts Police have started responding more positively, saying that they would take ‘appropriate positive action’. The Herts PCC had also previously acknowledged to me that the black-hole response was a very lazy interpretation of the DPA and poor feedback on the public's efforts to help the Police.

“The black-holing of my report left me no alternative but to use the complaints process to find out what the actual answer was and also complain (yet again) about being treated like a mushroom (kept in the dark etc ...). Having to start the complaints process also prompted me to look more closely at my original subjective assessment that the vehicle was going ‘quite quickly’ and work out that it was actually speeding (35.6 in a 30mph limit). I used video frame counts and 1m resolution OS map reference points at junctions >200m apart either side of the incident, and also calculated that I'd have to be implausibly inaccurate with these to be wrong about the excess speed (more about this later).

“Submitting a complaint got me a review by the OPCC Complaints Team which told me that the Herts Police Digital Evidence Team (DET) had rejected it on the basis of Highway Code 163 (gave as much room as they would give a car) and that the 1.5m best-practice was only guidelines. That is reminiscent of the flexible view in the Pirates-of-the-Caribbean – ‘The code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’ … !

“The OPCC then sent me some generic information about police driver training, and offered to close the case – having studiously ignored the time/distance calculation of speeding.

“So, I escalated it, which meant that this time it went to Professional Standards Department (PSD); in reality this meant that it got assigned to the PC's local station sergeant.

“While PSD were thinking about it for a couple more months I pointed out to them that several more recent reports had come back with the feedback of "appropriate positive action" (i.e. Warning letter, Course offer, Points and fine, or Court) – making it look like the close-pass guidelines were at least being applied to ordinary motorists, and that there was a danger of this looking like double standards.

“Then the response got worse.

“PSD came back saying that the driver had been provided with words of advice, had apologised and had been on a check drive; BUT this was countered, and completely ruined in my eyes, by MORE reasons why the close-pass was not really a problem!

“PSD acknowledged that the van "would have been an intimidating presence passing a cyclist" yet then countered with "I do however have to act on the evidence in front of me … “ which didn't make any sense given that the evidence in front of PSD was from a cycle-mounted camera which is precisely the view that the intimidated cyclist gets of a large vehicle whizzing past their elbow!

“The response then went on to suggest that 't is OK for a larger vehicle to have 'had to be closer than a normal car'.

“That looks like a worrying concept – moving the close-pass reference point to the FAR side of the vehicle to take account of the size of the vehicle!

“Certainly it is counter-intuitive – since it means, for example, that this large, 6-ton, Transit Van has to give cyclists a lot less room than an old Mini ....?

"It apparently 'may have needed to be closer if it was to stay within the confines of the carriageway', which is a horrible excuse for NOT actually using the whole of the other lane.

“The oncoming car would probably have been truly worried if it had used the WHOLE confines of the carriageway; as it was the van is just inside the
white line, and the oncoming car is hugging it's nearside kerb as they pass.

“Much better to keep closer to the cyclist, avoid worrying the oncoming car, all to avoid slowing down and therefore not get 'held up'!]. – it is OK if you can't see the cyclist taking evasive action (how-on-earth does a cyclist 'evade' an overtaking vehicle?) – it is OK if the cyclist isn't (obviously) buffeted off course;

“PSD also decided that I had agreed that my speed calculation was inaccurate, which was not true! What I actually provided as part of the detailed calculation was an estimate how implausibly large any measurement error would need to be for me to be wrong, and not that I'd actually made that error.

“I'd got the apologetic/words-of-advice part right at the start of the process then I probably wouldn't have taken this any further, so the PC involved can thank the responses from DET, OPCC and PSD for ensuring that I went through ALL of the escalations available.

“However,” Moray continued, “given this worrying list of ‘not really a problem’ counter-arguments, I felt compelled to challenge this rationale – which turned out to be a referral back to OPCC!

“That felt a bit like the old problem of ‘Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results’; but I had to try and work with the process.

“Some more time passed, and this review came back recently with the headline conclusion: ‘The reason I consider the outcome to be reasonable and proportionate for allegations [...] is due to the fact that the complaint handler has explained the rationale leading to the conclusions made’.

“So the final answer from OPCC is that as long as the ‘rationale’ was explained by PSD all is well; whatever that ‘rationale’ implies. Just to add to the insult, the final review responded to the speeding part [by saying] that PSD had dismissed it because:

(a) they don't trust my measurements and would have to do it themselves; and

(b) ACPO recommend that if this was a member of the public the police would not look to prosecute under 36mph in a 30mph limit.

“So a Police Van charging around at 35.6 mph (by my calculation) in a 30mph limit for no obvious reason is fine even if I am right,” Moray said.

“The officer was not in any hurry parking at the station further up the road, and as a result I had time to catch up with the van, wait while it parked, and then talk to him; plus he then had time to stand and glower at me as I rode away afterwards.

“It's a shame that local police, with no particular need to hurry, don't respect the speed limit on a road where the local council have installed a peed Indicator Device because of a problem with speeding on it.

“The net result of all these escalations is that this case is closed,” he added.

“Of 12 contemporary reports to Herts Police during the course of this process, he says:

5 fell during the ‘DPA black-hole period’; before the feedback got more informative – so absolutely no idea of the result.

7 resulted in ‘appropriate positive action’; including 5 'just' close-passes with no other aggravating factor than <<1.5m passing distance (the others also involved double-white lines or 86mph in a 40mph limit).

“These contemporary cases make it look like the 1.5m ‘guideline’ does get applied to members of the public, even if it is not appropriate to apply it in the case of a Police vehicle – until perhaps the new Highway Code comes out,” Moray said.

“Hertfordshire Police have also been happy to talk about the guideline on their web-site, under the banner of ‘Operation Velo’, even if it appears from FOI responses to Cycling UK that they don't actually run this operation.
https://www.herts.police.uk/news-and-appeals/New-safety-operation-to-red...'s-roads

Moray added: “I will continue reporting incidents to the police, because the evidence seems to show that I can at least take careless and inconsiderate driving by ‘ordinary’ motorists to task, and maybe by doing so I am helping – as the standard acknowledgement of a report says "May I take this opportunity to thank you for your assistance in making the roads a safer place."

> Near Miss of the Day turns 100 - Why do we do the feature and what have we learnt from it?

Over the years road.cc has reported on literally hundreds of close passes and near misses involving badly driven vehicles from every corner of the country – so many, in fact, that we’ve decided to turn the phenomenon into a regular feature on the site. One day hopefully we will run out of close passes and near misses to report on, but until that happy day arrives, Near Miss of the Day will keep rolling on.

If you’ve caught on camera a close encounter of the uncomfortable kind with another road user that you’d like to share with the wider cycling community please send it to us at info [at] road.cc or send us a message via the road.cc Facebook page.

If the video is on YouTube, please send us a link, if not we can add any footage you supply to our YouTube channel as an unlisted video (so it won't show up on searches).

Please also let us know whether you contacted the police and if so what their reaction was, as well as the reaction of the vehicle operator if it was a bus, lorry or van with company markings etc.

> What to do if you capture a near miss or close pass (or worse) on camera while cycling

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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