Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Driver malfunction and a false dawn

Those of you familiar with the origins of the entire Operation Close Pass that's been slowly spreading across the UK will no doubt recognise that this post's title is based on the blog post by West Mids Traffic Police that started it all: Junction Malfunction and a New Dawn

If you're unfamiliar with Close Pass (where have you been?), I suggest clicking that link first, and reading their excellent blog post, before coming back here.

From that blog post, we get this absolute gem:
"Our time and effort, we have quickly realised, is better spent enforcing the law and prosecuting, thus creating a scenario whereby should someone not give a cyclist the time and space necessary or fail to see them completely they should expect to be prosecuted. In other words the carrot goes out the window and in comes the stick. Why some might ask? Well if drivers expect to be prosecuted for committing offences they suddenly stop committing them, unsurprising correlation I know but it’s the truth. Once drivers become aware that an infringement involving a cyclist is one they should expect to be prosecuted for, they suddenly become more aware of them on the road and in turn start giving them the time and space they should lawfully have as an equal road user.  Cyclists suddenly occupy a drivers attention, they actively look out for them and so are less likely to miss them at junctions and contribute to our KSI statistics."

Now originally, West Mids Traffic started by educating drivers that gave cyclists a close overtake, though from the outset, this was their strategy:
"Those who are committing any other offence as well as the “close pass” due care offence will be prosecuted for all offences, no immediate educational alternative for those who show such a low standard of driving."

Additionally, they had this as part of their strategy from the outset:
"Following a period of education at a particular location if offences persist we will have “enforcement” only days where education isn’t an option for those committing close pass due care offences."

The underlying motivation is clear: start off by giving drivers education about why close-passing cyclists is a bad thing, then move on to prosecuting drivers for close-passing cyclists.

West Mids Traffic realised they were on to a good strategy here, and invited all police forces around the UK to attend a day, to learn about the initiative. Sixteen forces attended that training day, but Devon and Cornwall Police decided they didn't need to attend.

Following a great deal of campaigning by various individuals, Devon and Cornwall Police changed their mind, and attended a second such training day. In fact, even the local Police and Crime Commissioner, Alison Hernandez, attended the training day. Those who attended came back all enthused, with plans to launch a similar operation in Devon, Cornwall, as well as Dorset. D & C Police and Dorset Police share a traffic department, under a Strategic Roads Policing Alliance, in case you were wondering about Dorset.

On the day D & C Police launched Operation Close Pass simultaneously in Plymouth and Dorchester, it was raining heavily in both locations. So much so, that both events were stopped early. That's nobody's fault, but rather just pure bad luck.

A few months later, a second Op Close Pass was held in Exeter, along a road where some cyclists have even been assaulted by drivers.

Sounds like D & C Police are getting on board with Op Close Pass, doesn't it?

Well, all is not how it seems. For starters, the Roads Policing team covering Devon, Cornwall and Dorset is small, and vastly overstretched. Factor in the fact that Devon alone has more miles of road than all of Belgium, and the scale of the problem becomes more clear. To make matters worse, over the past six months, there have been a spike in road fatalities this small team has to deal with.

Think about that for a minute. The same officers are exposed to traumatic events again, and again, and again. And if you don't consider a traffic fatality from a collision traumatic to deal with, then you've never seen mangled bodies in wrecked cars before.

Obviously, this will - over time - take a toll, and indeed several of the Roads Policing Alliance team are suffering.

So how does this impact on Operation Close Pass, I hear you ask? Heavily, is the short answer! For starters, clearly, there is a rather obvious difference between a cyclist suffering a close pass, even if at speed, and a crash where one or more people died.

When people are continuously exposed to trauma, they become jaded to it. This is an expected effect, and to a degree forms part of a healthy mind's ability to try and protect itself from the horrors it's seen.
Only, when severely jaded minds review video footage of a close pass, it will be oh so easy to simply dismiss it with a snort, and by saying "Yes, but did you die?" And there, in one fell swoop, the extremely negative, often very dangerous experience the reporting cyclist may have had is dismissed.

This becomes more obvious when we look at some of the responses police gave to reports of close overtakes. In Exeter, an officer told the cyclist they shouldn't have been riding in primary position (the middle of the lane, specifically to try and deter close passes), while I've been told they won't act on a deliberate close overtake (we call that a punishment pass) because two cyclists were riding abreast in the video!

For what it's worth, the cop who said that was completely wrong - even a cursory examination of the video would've shown one rider had actually overtaken the other, and they were briefly abreast. Perhaps D & C Police know of a way for cyclists to overtake each other without ending up riding two abreast, for however short a period of time?

More importantly, the particular Highway Code rule that was referred to is an advice only rule, while a close overtake is actually covered in law. As Surrey Roads Police have often publicly stated on their @SurreyRoadCops Twitter account, cyclists remain perfectly legal if they ride two, three or even five abreast. Perhaps they know a bit more about the law than D & C Police?

Basically, D & C Police have said that they can't  take any action against a driver who willfully and intentionally endangered cyclists, because two cyclists were briefly alongside each other. Now, being a chocaholic, I'm intensely aware of the difference between chocolate and bullshit, and I can assure you, that excuse certainly isn't chocolate!

Let's put that into perspective: less than two years ago I was told that I'm completely mistaken about the scale of the issue, and that cyclists in general aren't endangered on the roads policed by D & C Police. When they challenged me to get other cyclists to report incidents, I managed to do so to such an extend that very recently they told me they're swamped with reports.
If I hadn't pestered and pushed this issue all the time, D & C Police would still be denying that there is a problem at all.

I've been told that I'd been given unprecedented access to police, as if I should be extremely grateful. I have a problem with that:

I don't want unprecedented access to police, I want effective roads policing that is responsive to reports about driving that endangers cyclists!

I've been told, in as many words, that my having sworn at a driver giving me a stupidly close overtake means police can't take action against the driver. Remember, boys and girls, if ever you're stabbed by a mugger, that you mustn't swear at them, else police simply will not be able to do anything about it. See how ridiculous that sounds?

I had such high hopes when D & C Police announced they will after all be running OpClosePass (remember, at first they couldn't even bother to respond to West Mids Traffic Police's invite to go have a look). The sad reality is what D & C Police implemented is an extremely poor facsimile of OpClosePass, and it is delivered so infrequently that a driver wanting to be caught by it will probably never be caught. It is a joke, and police ar pretending it is a brilliant success, as part of a PR campaign designed to make them appear to be doing something, while actually delivering effectively nothing at all.

There are some rays of light, though: apparently police are looking at employing a dedicated gatekeeper, whose job will be reviewing video footage. They're being swamped with video, not only from cyclists, but also from dashcams.

There's an honest attempt to increase the number of roads policing officers, and they're currently working on implementing a secure system for video to be uploaded.

Time will tell if these aspirations become reality, and until then, I'm afraid to say as a cyclist, you're pretty much on your own out there.