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“It’s problematic to have a value like that”: Researcher calls for better guidelines than “just 1.5 metres” for passing cyclists

The transport expert behind the high-speed close pass test also called for a study to have motor drivers on bicycles “passed by themselves”

A Swedish researcher, who is working on the safety of cyclists being close passed by extra long trucks at high speeds, said that having a stipulated distance of 1.5 metres for passing cyclists is misunderstood by drivers, while also hoping to run a test where drivers perform an overtake and then get overtaken in the same way while riding a bicycle.

Dr Katja Kircher, an expert from Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute VTI, performed a test last weekend on how experienced cyclists felt when close passed by the driver of an HGV at distances of one to two metres, at speeds of 50 and 80km/h (31 and 50mph).

Although full results of the test are yet to come out, readers of our blog were interested to know more about the study. So road.cc spoke to Dr Kircher about the project and asked what should be the safe distance for drivers to overtake cyclists at, to which she replied: “It depends.”

She said: “Having an absolute stipulated distance like just 1.5 metres can be ambiguous. It can be too little for fast traffic. It can also be impossible if you are on a narrow road. So it should be adapted to circumstances.

“1.5 metres is not enough for what we’ve done in the test — a long vehicle at high speed, especially if you don’t know that the vehicle is coming. But if it’s a wide-laned road, and there’s room for more than 1.5 metres, then it can be enough. But it depends on circumstances,” said Dr Kircher.

> Researchers hope to run 'drivers passed by themselves' study after high-speed close pass test

In the UK, the new Higway Code came into effect last year, which outlined that drivers should “leave at least 1.5 metres (5 feet) when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, and give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds”.

Her test was devised in response to investigate if these very high capacity and extra-long trucks can be operated on Swedish roads which are also shared by cyclists. In the Twitter video Dr Kircher posted, she can be seen shaking her head in dismay as the truck passes her, which quite frankly would have been really scary if it were to happen on a real road.

Dr Kircher told road.cc that with the data they collected, they will be analysing things like the stability of the bicycle, both during the manoeuvre and after, as well as the aerodynamic pressure generated by the truck and how it affects the cyclist. But most of all, they are also asking the cyclists if they felt  “safe and comfortable” being passed by the truck.

However, she conceded that even though what might feel safe in the protected and regulated environment may not translate to the real world conditions. “There can be unevenness on the road, some obstacle that you have to avoid. And of course, our simulation did not factor in the cross-wind, which can really throw you off balance when a large vehicle passes you at a high speed,” she said.

“What I would say though, is that if drivers are passing cyclists like this, it should not be legal to do these manoeuvres in real traffic,” added Dr Kircher.

> Study (still) indicates that drivers give cyclists wearing helmets less room when overtaking

The academic, who has 24 years of experience in transport and road safety research, had a policy suggestion. “In real-world scenarios, drivers should be switching lanes so that cyclists have more time and space to prepare themselves. And on narrow roads, going over to the other edge and slowing down can be an option,” she said.

According to her, something like this would be clearer to understand and easier to enforce than the ambiguous 1.5 metres, especially when so many drivers end up misinterpreting the rule.

She said: “It usually gets misunderstood as the target distance, when it should be the minimum distance. So it’s problematic to have a value like that.”

> Pro cyclist-led lights campaign, endorsed by Tadej Pogačar, “feeds into victim-blaming culture”, says road safety expert

Dr Kircher also said that she hoped to run an experiment in the future where drivers would first pass the cyclists, and then get on the bicycles and be passed by a driver in the same way that they originally passed the cyclist (in a safe and protected environment), so that drivers can have the experience and perspective of the other side and see for themselves if they felt safe and comfortable.

“What we see is people who drive but also cycle pay more attention when overtaking cyclists. There is the benefit of using the other transport mode but it would require some research,” she said. “I think it’s good if people use the bike and gain some understanding, especially if you operate a vehicle with a potential to kill.”

“One important experience of being a cyclist is that you cannot really choose a lot of what is happening. You are only on the receiving end and you’re the one who’s going to bear the brunt if there’s an impact.”

Adwitiya joined road.cc in 2023 as a news writer after graduating with a masters in journalism from Cardiff University. His dissertation focused on active travel, which soon threw him into the deep end of covering everything related to the two-wheeled tool, and now cycling is as big a part of his life as guitars and football. He has previously covered local and national politics for Voice Wales, and also likes to writes about science, tech and the environment, if he can find the time. Living right next to the Taff trail in the Welsh capital, you can find him trying to tackle the brutal climbs in the valleys.

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26 comments

Avatar
StokieBloke | 1 year ago
2 likes

Whilst I absolutely support the 1.5m minimum introduced last year, I could never really understand why it's always 2m+ for pedestrians/horse riders etc, but only 2m+ for cyclists when the overtaking vehicle is travelling 30mph or more.

In itself this creates a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty. Surely the simpler option would've been to have 2m+ for all; having the 1.5m rule implies - and in some cases reinforces - that cyclists are somehow less important, and less vulnerable.

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wtjs replied to StokieBloke | 1 year ago
3 likes

The distinction hardly matters when the police view is that 0.5m is better than whingeing cyclists deserve anyway

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marmotte27 | 1 year ago
15 likes

In the current state of our society, embodied in our traffic system, it is impossible to accommodate drivers and cyclists on the same roads without the former endangering the latter. You cannot reconcile the prevalence of a "might is right" ideology and empathy, respect for vulnerable road users.

The good news is, to be able to combat climate catastrophe we'd have to get rid of this ideology and of motorised individual traffic at the same time.
The bad news is, we don't seem prepared to do either, at all, and we're running out of time incredibly fast.

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Car Delenda Est replied to marmotte27 | 1 year ago
1 like

💯

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chrisonabike replied to marmotte27 | 1 year ago
2 likes

I think the best we can do by *choice* is "tame the car". I'm confident that is both desirable and possible because it has been done in a couple of places. Indeed in rather similar places. It will not be cheap, quick or simple. Places which have changed are where motoring was maybe marginally less culturally dominant but an important factor was that other modes - especially cycling - still remained mainstream. Even then changing thinks still took decades (and is ongoing). Plus motoring is still a major part of transport, culture, the built environment etc. The Dutch for example own a lot of cars, and they still drive them a long distance on average. It's just that many short journeys are done using other modes.

On the other hand "something may happen" and we may not get to make a choice. That doesn't have to be catastrophic (keeping driving until the fuel / battery minerals run out). Maybe some tech or social change comes along and makes the current problems irrelevant. Obviously that will of course give us new problems!

I'd just like to leave the place in a reasonable state, given what we know at present.

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Daddy Feebs | 1 year ago
8 likes

If they'd like drivers to suffer what cyclists experience, then they're tacitly admitting asymmetry. Getting others to experience that asymmetry, in the hope that it enters a new state of balance? that's a very forlorn hope. Plus, you can't fix a problem by attempting end-user reform. You've got to go after the structural causes. Don't make the drivers understand the consequences of their mistake, prevent them from being able to make it, in the first place.

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marmotte27 replied to Daddy Feebs | 1 year ago
1 like

This!

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Car Delenda Est replied to Daddy Feebs | 1 year ago
0 likes

I agree completely

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wycombewheeler replied to Daddy Feebs | 1 year ago
0 likes
Daddy Feebs wrote:

. Don't make the drivers understand the consequences of their mistake, prevent them from being able to make it, in the first place.

Are you suggesting a network of completely segregated cycle infrastructure? This sort of thing is possible in towns and cities but even in the Netherlands it is not possible to go everywhere without ever sharing with cars.

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marmotte27 replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
2 likes

The difference is about speed differentials and about intersections. In the places in the Netherlands where you share or meet with cars, if there's a collision you don't normally die. In other countries chances of that are far higher.

But the fundamental problem remains the place and importance given to cars everywhere. Even in the Netherlands recent figures are not good, and this is due to more and more and bigger and bigger cars: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2023/04/whats-gone-wrong-with-road-...

The Dutch system was ok for the 20th century: separate and thus get most of small distances onto bikes. In the 21st that's no longer been good enough. MIT must be pushed back actively and decisively.

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chrisonabike replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
0 likes
wycombewheeler wrote:

Are you suggesting a network of completely segregated cycle infrastructure? This sort of thing is possible in towns and cities but even in the Netherlands it is not possible to go everywhere without ever sharing with cars.

If possible in dense urban areas let's do it there then. So often the counter argument is "but cycling can't replace every single car journey, like for like, so forget it". No, let's start making the large fraction of current short journeys more convenient by cycling.

marmotte27 has covered it, but an important detail: the Dutch at least have a subtly different overall goal at the heart of their road policy (at least on paper) - the safe movement of *people*. Their name for this is sustainable safety:

https://sustainablesafety.nl/

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Daddy Feebs replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
1 like
wycombewheeler wrote:
Daddy Feebs wrote:

. Don't make the drivers understand the consequences of their mistake, prevent them from being able to make it, in the first place.

Are you suggesting a network of completely segregated cycle infrastructure? This sort of thing is possible in towns and cities but even in the Netherlands it is not possible to go everywhere without ever sharing with cars.

I don't know the solution or if I'm even advocating segregated infrastructure, but structural reform has to start with drivers, with cars, with license testing and with a complete shift in the attitudinal understanding of motorised vehicle privilege. That's societal -  and the sort of thing which has to happen with legislation and governmental intervention and action. Thus, I'm not holding out a lot of hope. 

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chrisonabike replied to Daddy Feebs | 1 year ago
3 likes

Agree on the importance of the top-level. Taking the case of NL, an important point was when a grass-roots movement got political support from the minister for transport. (See eg. BicycleDutch's excellent short history https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2021/11/17/how-did-the-dutch-get-thei...).

It may be that people change their view of driving - although it's hard to see how that can happen in isolation. We have made driving so convenient, so ubiquitous, so quotidian - and it has cultural meanings outside of just being transport. It's the default mode after walking.

So it's push AND pull, for change. As well as pushing back against driving there needs to be a pull from something at least as "attractive". Some of the most common uses of the car are for local journeys ad-lib and commuting for work. Luckily, cycling (and things like e-scooters, I guess...) can help here. It's a private form of transport with door-to-door capability which combines well with eg. bus or particularly train (you can park a LOT of bikes efficiently at a transport hub).

For that to work though people apparently need at least some purpose-built separate infra. The vast majority just don't like cycling with any substantial volume of motor traffic. Plus our roads are now set up for the requirements of driving not cycling (roundabouts, traffic lights, high kerbs etc).

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hawkinspeter replied to chrisonabike | 1 year ago
2 likes
chrisonatrike wrote:

Agree on the importance of the top-level. Taking the case of NL, an important point was when a grass-roots movement got political support from the minister for transport. (See eg. BicycleDutch's excellent short history https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2021/11/17/how-did-the-dutch-get-thei...). It may be that people change their view of driving - although it's hard to see how that can happen in isolation. We have made driving so convenient, so ubiquitous, so quotidian - and it has cultural meanings outside of just being transport. It's the default mode after walking. So it's push AND pull, for change. As well as pushing back against driving there needs to be a pull from something at least as "attractive". Some of the most common uses of the car are for local journeys ad-lib and commuting for work. Luckily, cycling (and things like e-scooters, I guess...) can help here. It's a private form of transport with door-to-door capability which combines well with eg. bus or particularly train (you can park a LOT of bikes efficiently at a transport hub). For that to work though people apparently need at least some purpose-built separate infra. The vast majority just don't like cycling with any substantial volume of motor traffic. Plus our roads are now set up for the requirements of driving not cycling (roundabouts, traffic lights, high kerbs etc).

There's also the excellent "Stop Killing Our Children" video: https://vimeo.com/361286029

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NOtotheEU | 1 year ago
1 like

I saw a video years ago of UK bus drivers getting a close pass while sat on a bike & even though it was controlled it frightened the life out of them. Sadly I can't find it now but this one is similar.

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/m4tFhXTmzl8

A quick Google shows these experiments seem to be a regular thing in various South American countries.

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Rome73 replied to NOtotheEU | 1 year ago
1 like

There is no way that type of test would be sanctioned in brexitland. The Risk Assessment would not pass. 

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mark1a replied to Rome73 | 1 year ago
6 likes

At least there's no restrictions or import duty on shoehorns though.  

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wycombewheeler replied to Rome73 | 1 year ago
2 likes
BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP wrote:

There is no way that type of test would be sanctioned in brexitland. The Risk Assessment would not pass. 

wasn't health and safety gone mad thrown on the bonfire of european nanny state legislation?

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qwerty360 replied to Rome73 | 1 year ago
2 likes
BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP wrote:

There is no way that type of test would be sanctioned in brexitland. The Risk Assessment would not pass. 

According to WMP's lawyers it likely qualifies as torture!

https://twitter.com/markandcharlie/status/1651890388985061377

 

 

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Off the back | 1 year ago
13 likes

One would like to say , when it comes to passing cyclists, common sense should dictate the distance required depending on the speed and road conditions when passing. 
 

Unfortunately, common sense is the one thing that is seriously lacking in most cases. 

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Bikepool | 1 year ago
2 likes

The bigger the vehicle the more terrifying it feels when it passes (not sure if it's height, width, length or a combination).

I appreciate this isn't helpful (we need clear unambiguous guidance for drivers to understand and comply with) but I'd be happy enough if passing distance was related to vehicle size (e.g. my lorry is 3m tall so I should leave 3m when passing or my smart car is 1.5m tall so I should leave 1.5m when passing). Maybe put in a minimum (1.5m) to be sure.

Either way, make drivers cycle as part of their learning and they will have more respect for the fears we face.

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ShutTheFrontDawes | 1 year ago
2 likes

"Having an absolute stipulated distance like just 1.5 metres can be ambiguous"

What is ambiguous about a minimum passing distance of 1.5m? I really don't understand. What's hard about that?

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momove replied to ShutTheFrontDawes | 1 year ago
3 likes

Agreed that 1.5m has no ambiguity about it - it's a distance, nothing more.

But I think it's the interpretation when a person is driving that is a problem. In countries that historically measured without the metric system, a lot of people might not have a good idea of what 1.5m is. Also that it's a target, something to aspire to, a "nice to have", instead of a minimum. And whether a person driving a car has a good understanding of where their car ends, presuming they're even paying attention to where my bike is.

I'd prefer this line be implemented:

"drivers should be switching lanes"

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ShutTheFrontDawes replied to momove | 1 year ago
4 likes

The highway code (specifically rule 163) already had lots of stuff that was considered as easier to interpret. Essentially that stuff was too ambiguous. That ambiguity led to the introduction of the 1.5m rule.

"Overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so" and "You should not get too close to the vehicle you intend to overtake" was apparently not clear enough.

If someone is unable to determine what is 1.5m or otherwise a safe overtaking distance, or considers the highway code as "a target" or "something to aspire to" they are unfit to drive. Full stop.

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momove replied to ShutTheFrontDawes | 1 year ago
6 likes
ShutTheFrontDawes wrote:

If someone is unable to determine what is 1.5m or otherwise a safe overtaking distance, or considers the highway code as "a target" or "something to aspire to" they are unfit to drive. Full stop.

Agreed. But it speaks volumes that there are so many people driving around that can't manage that. What was that report on here a few days (weeks?) back - something like half of HGV/other large vehicle drivers think they're at the top of the road hierarchy?! When I read that I could only hope there was some massive flaw in the study, or that the drivers had confused "at the top" with "most responsibility".

Edit: I definitely wasn't defending atrocious drivers in my earlier comment, just in case you thought I was! Just that if there's a rule and it's not working, then something needs to change. If it's not enforcement (and that seems not to be an option), then it's the rule itself, the physical environment, cultural attitudes or something else needs to change. To be honest I don't know that much will change in any short/medium amount of time, though I like the idea of close passing drivers getting their own pass done to them, as part of the driver awareness course or whatever they have to sit through, should they end up with any ramifications at all.

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lonpfrb replied to ShutTheFrontDawes | 1 year ago
2 likes
ShutTheFrontDawes wrote:

"Having an absolute stipulated distance like just 1.5 metres can be ambiguous"

What is ambiguous about a minimum passing distance of 1.5m? I really don't understand. What's hard about that?

The spacial awareness of a significant number of drivers are not up to this challenge.

The original HWC advice to pass vulnerable road users like another vehicle was intended but not stated to mean in the other lane at which point two cars would be about 50cm apart.

Unfortunately the ignorant took that to mean 50cm apart from flesh and blood is ok because it is for metal boxes.

So 1.5m apart is an improvement and a missed opportunity to say always use the other lane like you would passing a car.

Passing in the same lane is unsafe, lazy and wrong.

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