Tackling bad driving will encourage cyclists – but more money is needed

Laura Laker
theguardian.com

It’s time for the Treasury to allocate significant funding so the nation can reap the huge benefits of more people cycling

Two wheels good … Jesse Norman, the minister responsible for cycling. The government has announced £1m of funding towards schemes to tackle dangerous driver behaviour. Photograph: Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

The government has announced £1m of funding to help police forces across the UK crack down on close passing of cyclists by drivers, and to improve driving instructor training around cycling safety.

Although the sum is small beer indeed in transport terms, split between two projects, poor driver behaviour is a key reason people are discouraged from cycling in the UK. If we can start to tackle the culture of poor driving, including at source with driving instructors, we could eliminate a major reason more people don’t cycle – but it needs more money.

The minister responsible for cycling, Jesse Norman, told the Guardian these were issues he wanted to address after sifting through the 13,000 responses the government received to its cycling and walking safety review (CWIS).

“This is something that’s clear, important and pressing, and so we thought we’d push ahead with it and not wait,” he said. “People have been going on about close passing and having a proper awareness of it in government and it’s nice to be able to respond.”

Norman said it is “a dream and a hope of mine” to have long-term strategic funding for cycling and walking, as we do for roads, rail and air travel, and that he would like to see “the [funding] numbers heading appropriately upwards”.
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“The CWIS as a strategy pulled together these pots of money but it did highlight that the amounts of money in this area have significantly gone up. I think it’s trebled, from £2 to £6 [per person per year], and so it would be nice to take that level of commitment on again,” he said.

Norman recognises the success of the “close pass” cycling initiative, pioneered by West Midlands police, where plain-clothed police on bikes are used to catch close-passing drivers. West Midlands police recognised driver behaviour as the primary cause of collisions involving cyclists, and their evidence-based approach reduced cycle injuries by a fifth and halved close-passing reports.

Many drivers they pulled over had not even seen the police cyclist, and educating people is a key part of the force’s tactic. While several police forces across the country since followed suit and introduced their own close-pass initiatives, others remain sceptical. Whether extra resources, which have yet to be defined, will get them on board remains to be seen.

PC Mark Hodson, one of two West Midlands officers who pioneered the initiative, knows the tactic is effective, as drivers cannot tell whether a person riding a bike is a police officer or a member of the public. “Cycling groups are telling us that, on the whole, motorists are becoming more considerate and understand we will prosecute them if they endanger vulnerable road users,” he said
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“We’ve seen reports of close passes halve in the West Midlands since we started the project and the number of cyclists seriously hurt in collisions fall by a fifth − that’s incredible against a backdrop of increasing numbers of people cycling on our roads.

“Drivers who endanger vulnerable road users need to understand that we run operations to catch them, and if they avoid our officers we can still prosecute them using footage provided by cyclists and other motorists.”

Then there’s the driver training element. The Bikeability Trust, which delivers cycle training, will give driving instructors “bespoke” training with their £500,000 – though with 400,000 registered driving instructors in the UK, this amounts to just £12 per driving instructor. As it’s a voluntary pilot scheme, though, only those driving instructors who want the training are likely to go for it.

Campaigners want to see a mandatory cycling element in all driver training, but Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK, said “training the trainers and embedding cyclists’ safety in the mindset of driving instructors is a fantastic first step”.

“Education and awareness on its own is not enough, which is why close pass operations by police forces have proved so effective,” he said.

Dollimore wants to see close pass policing as “the norm, not the exception”. Research by Cycling UK published on Friday revealed that 52% of British adults were not aware of Highway Code recommendations on overtaking cyclists, with approximately one in 10 believing you only need to give a cyclist a handlebar’s width when overtaking.

We know the benefits of people walking and cycling more, and the impact poor driving has on our communities. We know investing in cycling reaps enormous returns, and Manchester’s announcement of a huge programme of cycling infrastructure earlier this week shows that some local authorities recognise it.

But the Treasury holds the purse strings. It’s time for it to get on board and allocate significant funding so the nation can reap the huge benefits of more people walking and cycling. However small the sums, focusing funds on reducing the danger posed by bad driving is a welcome start.

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