The most commonly sited reason for not cycling is fear of traffic. Some of this fear can be overcome by familiarity. The first time you hear a bus or lorry grinding up behind you can be intimidating but when it passes sensibly – wide and slow – your realise that with a bit of common sense and mutual respect there is room for us all to share the road.
As always though, there are those who don't behave like this. The car that overtakes dangerously then cuts in front; the van that simply cannot wait to pass safely so does so anyway, 30cm from your shoulder, maybe with a honk to encourage you to get out of the way; the car in a slow moving queue drifting into your path as the driver texts on their lap. You may even be unlucky enough to be involved in an actual collision.
The natural reaction is to turn to the police for help, but what are they able to do, and does it happen in practice? Anecdotally cyclists report very mixed experience of dealing with the police. Some cyclists have been made to feel they are wasting police time, or even that they were responsible for an incident (e.g. because they were taking a safe primary position). Police response appears variable - apathy and a brush off, to rapid and effective action. Enforcement in Leeds also seems scant. Few police cars are in evidence and we are reliant on cameras to protect against speeding and red-light jumping. It can feel like the Wild West out there sometimes. So what can we do about all this?
Earlier in the year I met with West Yorkshire's Police Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, to discuss cyclists' concerns and to try to arrange a further meeting with representatives from our police force. Mark agreed to do this and raised it with the Chief Constable, which led to an invitation to meet with the Head of Road Policing, Chief Inspector Mark Bownass.
I must admit to being a little intimidated as I cycled in to the Road Policing HQ just outside Wakefield. It's a big estate in the process of construction. Huge warehouses are being built to hold mock housing estates for riot training, firing ranges etc. Dozens of police cars were parked up and the sound of police dogs barking emanated from kennels. I was vetted by the officer on the gate and pointed in the direction of some cycle parking, quite well used by the look of it. It was a pleasant surprise to be met by a smiling and friendly Mark and his Sergeant Tom Butler, who took me up to Mark's office through a room crowded with traffic officers readying themselves for another busy shift.
I started by explaining to Mark some of the problems cyclists face in terms of reporting incidents, knowing how and when to do it, and what to expect from the police. Both officers seemed genuinely engaged and interested – indeed Tom is a keen road cyclist himself and well understood the sort of problems I was talking about.
What should we do then? Well if you are involved in a collision in which someone is hurt then, exactly as with a vehicle incident, you must contact the police who will attend, take statements and decide what action needs to be taken. Often injuries to cyclists may be relatively trivial (bruises and scrapes perhaps) but they still need reporting – do not be bullied by drivers keen to avoid involving the police.
The cases of bullying, intimidating or downright reckless driving are more difficult to pin down. Fear can be subjective, and how can the police know who is really to blame, if anyone? You can imagine the sort of thing. A cyclists reports a car drives too close and 'almost' hits them. The police contacts the driver who says the cyclist pulled out in front of them. What can the police do without evidence?
Well by reporting the incident with the police it gets logged on a database. This means should several several people report the same driver, the evidence starts to mount and the police can take limited action. But still, it is just anecdote, which begs the obvious question – what about video evidence? I have had direct experience of trying to get the police to consider video evidence and been told in several cases 'we cannot use it'; on others an officer has visited me to view it. I posed this question to Mark.
The response was categorical and encouraging: Mark is happy to use video evidence. He has started using footage from car cameras and sees no reason this should not be extended to cycles. There are caveats of course. The footage must be clear and show the vehicle and registration (quite easy with modern head cams). We also need to use a bit of sense when deciding what to report. The police would be overwhelmed if we reporting every minor irritation. We need to focus on those incidents causing significant danger, where driver behaviour is grossly negligent. Defining this is difficult to put into words, but Mark is going to try. He and Tom have agreed to provide some advice on what they would regard as worth investigating.
Mark confirmed that (non-emergency) incidents should be reported to 101. You need to state that you are reporting a case of anti-social or dangerous driving, that you have video evidence, and that you want it to be viewed by a police officer. You should be given a reference number which confirms that the incident has been logged. A police officer will then contact you to discuss what has happened. They may then want to visit you and view the footage. This follow up to the initial reporting may not be immediate and is likely to be carried out by a member of your local Neighbourhood Police Team. They will decide what action to take.
I asked Mark what options were available to the police. The first step is to 'advise' the driver. This might be over the telephone or in person. You can imagine that some people would be quite shocked to have the police call, or turn up outside their house in a marked van. The police will explain that a complaint has been made and that it was captured on video. This is usually the point that excuses or denial turn into apologies. The police should then call you back to tell you what they have done.
If the incident is particularly bad, the police can issue a Section 59 notice for anti-social driving. What this means is in practice is that if the driver does anything similar in the next 12 months (in any vehicle) then the police can seize the vehicle, and crush it if they don't pay costs of recovery and storage. This is one very good reason to report incidents – you might be providing the crucial evidence that combined with existing can get a reckless driver off the road.
I discussed with Mark the mixed experience reported from cyclists calling 101. He said he would send an internal memo to the call centre clarifying procedure.
We went on to talk about enforcement, and the apparent lack of it. On this issue, you do feel for the police. Funding cuts have been drastic and West Yorkshire is down by around 1000 officers. Mark has to prioritise his traffic officers to motorways and main roads where statistics tell him most deaths and serious injuries occur. There is precious little resource left over.
I asked Mark whether we could simplify reporting, by uploading footage to a website perhaps. He confirmed this was already being looked into, although it would require not insignificant resource to process. He suggested there may be a future role for volunteers here – perhaps cyclists would assess incidents and identify the more serious for police action?
I asked Mark and Tom if there was anything we could do as cyclists to help the police. Tom felt that all road users could do with re-reading the Highway Code. This gives pretty much all the advice we need to share road space and suggested we could provide a link to this on our website: https://www.gov.uk/highway-code . Tom also cautioned against confronting drivers. It's all to easy to lose your temper after being nearly knocked off, but shouting and swearing at someone is never going to improve matters, and could actually make things much worse – road rage can turn violent. The advice is sound: try to stay calm, get the car details and registration and report it. Your case will be much stronger if you can avoid any aggravation.
The meeting drew to a close and I thanked Mark and Tom for their time, and for agreeing to take actions to address some of this issues I had raised. These were:
To speak to the 101 team and clarify procedure with respect to reporting cycle incidents
Confirmation that good quality video footage can be used as evidence
To provide guidance on what sort of incidents we can expect to be taken forward.
All in all it was a positive meeting, well worth making the effort to arrange and attend. More importantly the actions might improve how we work together. As is so often the case, communication is key.
From a campaigning perspective it is worth noting that all this started with an email from someone (I forget who now) mentioning the Police Crime Commissioner was holding a surgery in Otley and that perhaps we should go. Well we did, and he listened, and he acted, and we got the meeting. All campaigns start with small actions on the part of individuals. What you do matters.