When Mark Hodson gets on his bike in the morning, like many cyclists in the UK, he has come to expect a few close calls. Perhaps drivers will whizz past him too close, or someone will even try a ‘punishment pass’.
Luckily, Hodson is a West Midlands Police traffic officer, albeit in plain clothes, and just yards up the road a colleague in a police car is waiting to pull over drivers that give him less than 1.5m space when overtaking (a distance that increases for faster speeds and larger vehicles).
That driver will be offered a choice: prosecution, or 15 minutes’ education on how to overtake a cyclist safely. The worst drivers, or repeat offenders, will simply be prosecuted.
This tactic is part of a ground breaking new initiative launched by West Midlands Police, in partnership with Birmingham City Council, to tackle cycling safety.
The Highway Code states drivers should give cyclists at least the same amount of space as they would give a car, but often this is not the case. Over four trial days ahead of the scheme’s launch 80 people were pulled over for close passes.
This morning Hodson and his colleagues pulled over eight offenders within an hour – people who could have been prosecuted for their driving. Among those stopped were lorry drivers, and a pupil under supervision by a driving instructor.
In many cases drivers just aren’t looking out for cyclists.
He said: “The last two drivers we pulled over, we asked: ‘do you know how far away you were from the cyclist’, and they said ‘what cyclist?’”
One of those was the driver of a 7.5 tonne vehicle.
Responding to the 530 cyclists killed or seriously injured on West Midlands roads over four years, Hodson and fellow traffic officer, Steve Hudson, asked the Central Motorway Police Group to analyse collision data from the region.
They found about 70% of collisions involving cyclists occur at junctions, most involve a motor vehicle, and in most cases occur because drivers failed to see a cyclist.
“We needed to do something about driver behaviour,” he said. “In about 98% of cases [the collision] was down to driver action, it was nothing to do with the cyclist.”
“We are some of the highest trained road users,” he said of himself and his fellow officers. “We can anticipate anything and everything, but what we can never account for is if someone hits you from behind.”
This tactic will now become part of normal police business in the West Midlands and, after an initial three-month blitz, officers will move beyond the education phase to enforcement only, by which point Hodson says people should have got the message to drive safely. Then, if anyone is caught overtaking Hodson or one of his colleagues, they will be prosecuted.
As Hodson puts it: “It is the fear of prosecution that stops drivers committing offences, it is a fact of British driving.”
Going forward, close passes will be targeted periodically in the same way drink driving is, across the West Midlands.
Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s senior road safety and legal campaigner, praised the initiative. “This is the first time a police force has come forward with a plan to prioritise enforcement against close pass drivers. It is quite simply the best cyclist safety initiative by any police force, ever.”
He called the mix of education and enforcement “a simple but effective way to combat a long-standing concern”. He hopes other police forces around the country will follow their lead and is going to approach five police and crime commissioners looking for cost-effective ways to tackle road danger, with the ‘blueprint’ from the West Midlands.
He says the operation is cheap – costing £70 for a mat to demonstrate safe overtaking plus a police or community support officer to be the cyclist – and efficient: based on the West Midlands’ experience, 20 drivers can be prosecuted within two hours.
When asked whether it could be rolled out nationwide, a National Police Chiefs Council spokesperson said: “Police forces are committed to keeping the roads safe. Individual forces are always looking for the best ways to help their local communities, and the West Midlands initiative is a positive step. All forces aim to develop new and effective means of keeping people safe on their roads.”