Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Watch out, that cyclist you’re cutting off could be a cop.
London drivers beware: Starting this spring, the ordinary-looking cyclist pushing past your side mirror might just be a cop. That’s because, in a bid to enforce more careful driving around bikes, the city’s Metropolitan Police is going low key, with plain-clothes police officers pedaling through the streets on bikes to monitor and reprimand drivers’ behavior.
The main goal is to crack down on so-called close passing—that is, drivers overtaking bikes at a distance of less than 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet). The police will be able to make arrests if necessary, but they’re aiming to inform rather than punish. Motorists caught engaging in driving that compromises cyclists’ safety will be given the choice between prosecution or a 15-minute roadside safety training session. The operation won’t cover a very large area of London’s roads at any one time. By introducing the idea that cyclists on the road might just have a police badge in their pocket, however, it may have a far greater effect than punishment alone.
This isn’t just a hunch. The scheme has already been tried elsewhere with great success. Last Autumn, police in the West Midlands (the region that contains England’s second city, Birmingham) sent just two plainclothes officers out on bicycle patrol to monitor drivers. Within just nine hours, the pair had stopped 130 motorists, reported eight for serious safety offenses, and revoked one license on the spot. Among the other drivers, only one chose prosecution over an advice session.
Public awareness that the police were on patrol seems to have had as much effect as actual contact between officers and drivers. Since the scheme began, collisions between cars and cyclists in the area patrolled have halved. This striking drop has been achieved at almost no expense, just a few man-hours and a roll-up mat (pictured above) showing the safe passing distance for each officer.
London police were initially skeptical about introducing the scheme in the city’s considerably more congested streets, but their reservations have more or less been blown out of the water by the success of a pilot trial in the London borough of Camden. The city already has the largest unit dedicated to cycling in Britain, the Cycling Task Force, which has 33 full-time staff. If two officers alone patrolling part-time in the West Midlands could provoke a 50 percent drop in collisions, then the impact of London’s larger force could potentially be huge. Now it’s possible that the scheme could be rolled out nationally, with 16 police forces considering its introduction.
To some, this might seem to be a case of police sweating the small stuff while the job of fighting more serious crimes is neglected. It isn’t. Last year, 123 British cyclists died on the roads, 89 of them due to collisions with motor vehicles. Five of those incidents saw the driver hit and run un-apprehended, without contacting emergency services or police. These incidents don’t just shatter lives, they create a climate of understandable fear that discourages more people from cycling, preventing cuts in congestion and pollution.
It seems that a large number of these pointless deaths could have been prevented by more attentive driving. According to a bike officer on the West Midlands scheme, most cyclists that were killed or seriously injured in that area were hit because a car driver failed to look out for bikes while turning at a junction. Simply encouraging more watchfulness, respect, and distance between drivers and cyclists could save lives. Indeed, in the West Midlands it probably already has.