Too Close For Comfort

Cycling Scotland are currently running a fantastic campaign highlighting the dangers of vehicles passing bikes without allowing sufficient space (close passes). I am delighted to be involved in the campaign. I have also spoken to a number of people who feel that drivers are frequently giving them more space as a result of the campaign.

Close passes are a massive concern to me because I reckon my children and I experience this at least five times on each and every fifteen minute school run. That’s once every three minutes, although in reality most of these close passes are bunched together on certain (unavoidable) parts of our journey (all signpostedquiet streets).

The back up of some police forces, including the police in Edinburgh, is fantastic and I cannot praise ‘Operation Close Pass‘ highly enough.

But close passes still happen, to everyone on bikes, far too frequently.

Even more worryingly, close passes prevent far too many people from cycling at all. I am a Breeze Champion, a volunteer role which involves leading free, women-only bike rides. Many of the rides I choose to take out are very short rides for novices. Again and again I hear from women on my rides, and from those who would like to come but do not, that they are too frightened of the traffic to get on their bikes.

I also hear again and again from those women who have built up their confidence on Breeze rides that cycling has changed their lives for the better. I hear about them feeling fitter, feeling less stressed, discovering parts of their local community they never knew about, getting to where they need to go quicker. I also hear about the joys of discovering cycling with their children. This is what riding a bike is all about.

This is why the campaign to end close passes is something dear to my heart.

How Close is Too Close?

This is an easy one. Anything less than 1.5 metres is just too close. On the majority of roads, this means that vehicles should be crossing the white line in order to pass someone on a bike safely.

It doesn’t depend on how busy the road is, it doesn’t depend on the competence of the person riding the bike.

1.5 metres.

Why are Close Passes a Problem?

  • Close Passes are Intimidating – Being on a bike when a driver chooses to pass within inches of you really highlights just how vulnerable you are. If that vehicle hits you, there is no question who would come off worse.
  • The Impact on Children Cycling – I was asked in a radio interview if my main concern was that close passes put me and my children in danger when we are on our cargo bike. No, that’s not my main concern. I do not deliberately put my children in danger. I am a competent and assertive cyclist and I know how to anticipate drivers and keep us safe on the roads. My main concern is that close passes put me off allowing my children to ride their own bikes to school, and this denies them a valuable opportunity for exercise and for enjoying cycling.
  • Close Passes Take No Account of Wobbles or Potholes – Bikes sometimes wobble, especially if they are being ridden by a novice or a nervous rider. Many roads also have potholes of wheel-destroying proportions which are hard to see in advance and which cannot be seen from a car. If drivers choose to pass within inches of people on bikes, then the consequences of a minor wobble can be devastating.

Why Do drivers Pass Too Close?

Isn’t that a million dollar question?

I don’t honestly know what goes on in the minds of some drivers (and I’m not sure I would want to know in some cases). But here are the reasons which I believe are behind some close passes.

  • Ignorance – So many drivers seem to have no idea that they have any obligation to give 1.5 metres space to people on bikes. They also have no idea just how dangerous close passes are. Police support of campaigns such as that by Cycling Scotland is going some way to combat this. I think that those of us who ride bikes also need to talk to people who may not ride bikes about this. But, we need to talk calmly…more on that below.
  • Road / Cycle Route Layout – When people on bikes are directed down streets reduced to one lane by parked cars; streets also used as rat runs by frustrated drivers, there will always be close passes. The same goes for strips painted along roads and presented as ‘bike lanes’.
  • Deliberate Aggression and ‘Making a Point’ – There is no getting away from the fact that some drivers pass bikes too close on purpose. They feel people should not be on bikes, or that they have greater priority, or whatever it is these people feel. These are scary people and I wonder if they ever think through what would happen if they really did hit someone to make a point. I think they aim ‘only’ to intimidate, but their actions can kill. I do not believe there are many of these people out there, but they are out there.
  • Cyclists Behaviour – No, not jumping red lights, riding on pavements or any of that. I mean riding in the gutter or squeezing to the edge of the road whenever a car is behind. I mean singling out from riding two-abreast when there is not room to pass even if the group singles out. Everyone who rides a bike needs to understand about primary position and secondary position and we need to help build the confidence of nervous riders until they feel able to hold primary position when appropriate. Our position on the roads is sometimes the only means of communication we have with the driver of a sealed metal box behind us. We have a right to be on the roads and a responsibility to be considerate towards all other roads users, but we do not have to move into a dangerous position to avoid holding up a driver for twenty seconds. This is not me ‘victim blaming’, it is a plea for more confident cyclists to help develop that confidence and understanding in others.

What Does A Close Pass Feel Like?

I once saw something on Facebook about how being close passed on a bike feels like standing in front of the yellow line at the train station as an intercity train passes through without stopping. At the time I thought that was quite a good comparison.

Then I thought about it some more.

The two are nothing alike.

Intercity trains follow a predicable line along the tracks. If you choose to stand in front of that yellow line, you always have the option to step back again.

A vehicle passing too close could do anything and there is often nowhere to go to escape them.

I think a more accurate comparison is the feeling when you are driving on the motorway and you pull out to overtake a lorry, then the lorry starts to drift towards you as you are passing. It is that same feeling of not knowing what a larger, heavier and more dangerous road user is going to do, and of having no way to get away from them.

That is what it feels like.

The Online Debates Go On….and on and on and on….

As I said, I think that those of us who ride bikes, for whatever reason, need to talk more to those who do not cycle about how to pass people on bikes. But here’s the tricky bit – on an emotive issue, we need to talk calmly.

I am not sure that shouting at anyone ever changed their behaviour (trust me, I know…I have children!). I am also not sure that expressing fury (no matter how justified) in response to comments on social media, and getting into lengthy angry Twitter and Facebook debates is particularly helpful.

I try not to read too many of these debates. They make me angry and they often make me scared. It is hard not to feel negative when reading comments which range from the usual road tax and red lights type comments to the more extreme incitement to assault type comments. It is hard not to reply with anger and indignation.

I think these online debates merely exacerbate the whole driver vs cyclist, them vs us nonsense. There is no them and us. There is no driver or cyclist split. The vast majority of those who ride bikes also drive, myself included.

Media attempts to portray some kind of war on the roads are irresponsible and dangerous. It needs to stop.

Not only do I not read social media comments, I do not comment. However, I am thinking of starting to reply to each and everyone by posting ‘I ride a bike and I drive’. Nothing more, nothing less.

Nobody ever changed an aggressive driver’s mind by arguing with them. Just imagine if every ‘them bloody cyclist’ type comment was met by thousands of people pointing out that they ride a bike and they drive. No aggression, no anger; just a flat refusal to buy into them vs us.

It’s time to change the conversation.



10 Replies to “Too Close For Comfort”

  1. Good points although I’d argue that the real answer is to change the conversation at a governmental and local governmental level to stop cyclists and motorists having to share the same space. They don’t have these close pass problems in The Netherlands (although they do have the debate about mopeds in bike lanes!)

    1. I agree although I do not believe there will ever be a time when club rides us cycle paths so to some degree space will always need to be shared. With a brilliant network of cycle paths where I live I would make full use of them on my cargo bike, riding with the kids and for getting places, however, I would still use the roads for training rides on my road bike at 15mph+. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.

    2. There is a great deal of road space in NL shared with bikes and motors, but a crucial point is a significant chunk of that is 30 km/h residential non-through (for motors) where it’s much less of an issue. You do have to share, but you don’t generally have to share with fast and/or heavy motor traffic.

      Having said all that, you’re broadly on the money in the change of conversation needed. It boils down to building in cycling as a serious transport modality from the start to the end of the planning and building process. That is why NL is so different, the fietspads are just a part of the outcome.

  2. Very sensible comments. The increase in close pass initiatives is brilliant and I think that the roads are better than they were in terms of behaviour although I couldn’t quantify that. I still get the odd punishment pass but not that many. The rest are ignorance, mis-judgement and not thinking for a second in the rush to get some where. You are right arguing, it is a waste of breath that just entrenches views further. Education and behaviour change is likely to be the best way here.

  3. Very well said. I have in fact just emailed a local business reporting one of their drivers who passed me frighteningly close yesterday when I had pulled out to avoid damaged road. He would have seen me do this well in advance and had no excuse. I gave the company a link to Cycling UK’s close pass film and suggested they get their drivers to watch it.

  4. I think drivers are in a dream world imagining they are in a Grand Prix. Overtaking is then naturally to give one inch to spare on a corner with a dozen other drivers doing the same. In Kensington you also get the exhaust noise.

  5. I’m not convinced that conversation is going to solve this issue. Over and over many people in motor vehicles have shown, that when left unchecked, they don’t follow the rules. The threat of 3 points is useless without enforcement and the psychology of humans in cars has shown that we lose our human connection when controlling these large machines unless continually jarred back into reality. Awareness campaigns are not enough, if the Police really want to protect us, they get out there and start dishing out those points. There are just not enough hours in the day for people riding cycles to go around “talking” to every person in a motor vehicle.

    1. I’ve seen that and am not sure what to make of it to be honest. Great if something makes it safer to be on a bike, but at the same time surely this shouldn’t be necessary.

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