Summer of safe cycling

West Midlands Police with their new Cycling UK close pass mat
In March 2017, Cycling UK launched its #TooCloseForComfort fundraising campaign. While ostensibly its goal was to give every UK police force a 'close pass' mat, the real driving force was to make the roads safer for cycling. Cycling UK’s Sam Jones reports.

The germ of #TooCloseForComfort campaign began in Birmingham with two officers from West Midlands Police, PCs Steve Hudson and Mark Hodson. We supported it from the very first, calling it the “best cyclist road safety initiative ever”. Simply by sending plain clothes officers out on bikes, and pulling over drivers who passed too close, West Midlands Police began an education and enforcement action which changed driver behaviour overnight and saw a reduction in reported close passes by 50 per cent.

It’s probably fair to say that most drivers who overtake too closely do so more through ignorance of the danger than malice. Understanding this, the force began educating the drivers through the means of a ‘close pass’ mat on how to overtake cyclists safely.

Going nation-wide

A number of officers from across the UK showed real interest in West Midlands’ activity, and Cycling UK decided that a close pass mat for every police force would help provide the right nudge and incentive to start setting up their own operations. 

We therefore launched our #TooCloseForComfort fundraising campaign, and in less than 48 hours, we had achieved our £12,000 target on Kickstarter. By the end of April, thanks to our 970 backers we saw a total of £14,568 pledged, which we've used to fund free mats for the forces who wanted one as well.

While fundraising is never easy, the hard work was still ahead, as we began seeking to find the right officers to speak to at the 45 forces across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and then convince them all of the value of running a close pass operation.

Buoyed by both the public interest and the enthusiasm exhibited by several forces, it was perhaps a bit ambitious to think that we would be able to easily build a list for 45 forces each willing to take a mat and run a campaign to help make cycling safer. As spring started coming to a close, and many forces keen to begin operations, we instructed our printers to roll out the first tranche of mats for the 33 forces (see chart below) that had agreed to run close pass operations using Cycling UK’s close pass mats. Thirty-one of these forces had their mats delivered on 16 June, while Suffolk and Norfolk had their mats soon after. 

No thanks

Only four forces said “No, thanks”. Two of these are the London-based forces of the Metropolitan and City of London. The Met has plans to run close pass initiatives that will not require a mat, whilst the enforcement issues in the City of London require a different approach from the force.

One, Lancashire, had already ordered its own mat for operations and did not require another. The fourth, Derbyshire, while initially claiming they did not have a close pass problem, could be changing its tune, in which case we’ll be delighted to share a mat with them. 

There are still seven forces we’re trying to reach and get a definitive answer – so in mat delivery terms our work is not done. We’re hoping peer pressure from the 34 forces who are running operations across the summer will persuade the rest to reach out and start taking close passes seriously too.

Operation Cadence

One of the forces yet to claim a free mat is Northumbria, which launched Operation Cadence in March, a campaign that centred on cyclists submitting video footage. Unfortunately, despite the warm welcome, this operation ran for only a matter of weeks. While we could be cynical and suppose that Northumbria took the positive PR and stopped consequently, we’re optimistic this is not the case and all they need is a little nudge.

While we’ve been successful in sending three mats out to help Police Service Northern Ireland cover Northern Ireland, we’ve had to adapt our tack in Scotland where similarly there is only one force, Police Scotland, to cover the whole area. Currently they have their own mat, but that’s in Edinburgh and we’d like to see close passing taken seriously throughout the whole of the country. We’re therefore going to be offering our mats to Road Safety Partnerships operating from the Borders to Cape Wrath, and have already started with the Fife Community Safety Partnership who wanted a mat slightly closer to home! 

The combination of both police and public support for this initiative has been quite incredible. It’s always easy to slam forces for not taking cycling concerns seriously, but I’ve been speaking with officers who are very much onside, see the need for such work, and are doing their utmost to convince their seniors of the need for close pass ops under very straitened budgetary circumstances.

It’s probably fair to say that most drivers who overtake cyclists too closely do so more through ignorance of the danger rather than malice.

Sam Jones, Cycling UK Campaigns Coordinator

We might wish it otherwise, but a change of culture does not happen overnight. Still, we’re seeing the green shoots of change, and witnessing a growing sense of community among the police in the need to tackle close passing, as well as taking wider cycling safety concerns seriously. 

We’re also witnessing some truly impressive work unveiled within the forces, such as Gloucestershire Road Safety Partnership. This partnership has produced one of the best road safety documents to engage with both people who drive and who cycle that Cycling UK staff have seen. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good in both terms of tone and content. Nearly every force we’ve shared this document with has realised its value and are looking to produce similar. It feels like change is afoot – and it could not have been achieved without Cycling UK members and supporters who backed our #TooCloseForComfort campaign. 

If you were one of those who pledged and have helped make this all possible, we will be in touch soon just to give you an update. If you were one of the people who pledged for one of our close pass beer / mouse / bath mats (but sadly not the Office Mat), then we’ll also be looking to collect your address so we can begin sending out your rewards. 

We’re going to continue working with all of the forces, looking to share best practice and learnings later this year. 

Here’s to a summer of safer cycling! 

Table of forces with Cycling UK mats