Thursday 14 March 2013

Close Overtakes - They are not careless.

I can't help but be baffled by the commonly held belief among folk in the UK that close overtakes from motorists, on cyclists, are 'careless', or due to 'not having to move out and taking the straight line'.

In my opinion this is complete nonsense.

I mean, lets look at some of them. Here's the first UK one I find by searching youtube, from userkmcyc.

That wasn't careless. It was an exquisitely judged act of aggression. You can't be showing no care or careless judgement if you're passing within a hairs breadth of a cyclist on the road - to do so requires much more attention than passing with a safe margin of error. This wasn't careless, it was an intentional close overtake. The motorist knew he would be passing the cyclist very close, and either intended to do so to frighten the cyclist or didn't care sufficiently that this would be the inevitable result - we can't even for an instant accept that any adult on the road would not understand that such is terrifying.

Lets pick the next one from a different user. This is a chap with the rather fetching youtube handle of 

Again, is that careless? No of course it isn't - the motorist, in this instance one in charge of a dirty great big HGV, has accurately picked the location of the cyclist in the carriageway to within a few inches and chosen to drive something with a massive side wind, in wet conditions, so close to the cyclist that he feels compelled to stop. He's scared the crap out of the poor chap. Unless he's got absolutely no capacity to empathise with other human beings he knows that will be the impact of what he's doing.

This is the same pattern we see again and again with these incidents. The motorist maybe doesn't want to pull out further so consciously chooses to pass close to the cyclist to avoid being in to the other lane... The motorist maybe wants to teach the cyclist a lesson for being 'too far out'.... Possibly he's bored and doing it for his own entertainment. In effect it doesn't matter why the motorist has chosen to overtake like this (here an example from roadieeeee which also hilights how naff bike infrastructure can make this problem worse rather than better).

On every single example I see, the motorist has chosen to overtake closely. They're not forced to do so - the world doesn't end if they hold back a short while, he has consciously chosen to make the aggressive choice of overtaking within a couple of feet or even a few inches of the cyclist. Far closer than is reasonable - and as human beings they are fully aware of how terrifying this is. What do people tell you when you ask why they don't ride? Its not safe. Why isn't it safe? Motorists pass too close - this is perhaps the single greatest problem we have in getting greater uptake of cycling on our roads, intentional close overtaking of cyclists.

Lets be clear - the claim that this is careless or due to poor observation is not credible. They're carelessly but accurately judging nearly killing us? Pull the other one.

Lets get a bit of sense into this discussion - close overtakes are on purpose. Whatever the desire behind that intent may be, the act itself doesn't just happen because they're not paying close enough attention. This is, on every occasion, on every road, intentionally risking the lives of cyclists. Hey, Police, do not accept any excuse for this. Of any sort. Ever.


  1. An interesting post although I think there are also cases where motorists completely fail to assess the speed of a cyclist up ahead. They make a decision to overtake and then carry it through regardless (which is most definitely careless+). I find this happens at pinch points. So the overtaking is intentional, but the close overtaking is not the original intention.

    The situation is not helped by the ambiguity of Highway code rule 163."Give vulnerable road users at least as much space as you would a car." Along with a picture showing a car overtaking a bicycle with a margin of ~2m. Many drivers wouldn't give that much clearance when overtaking another motor vehicle.

    There also many narrow Cycle lanes that "encourage" close overtaking of cyclists by motorists. (The Histon Road in Cambridge is one such example). These can lead cyclists and motorists astray - although invariably when there is a problem it is the cyclist who comes of worst.

    1. I agree re. bad cycle lanes encouraging close overtakes. Histon Road in particular - quite nightmarish at times.

      But for the misjudgement issue - your'e right, that can leave a motorist stranded between flooring it and overtaking and braking to give the cyclist fair space. Thats still a choice that the motorist is making though, and the decision to carry on regardless rather than take the safer, less intimidating option reflects very negatively on them. Instances where braking is not safer than overtaking in that scenario are, I suspect, vanishingly rare.

  2. Part of the problem is also that so few motorists seem to have the faintest idea how wide their veicle is!

    1. Yeah, I've heard that said. But is it true? I mean, if that were the case, how would they be accurately judging passes of a foot or two? Something about it just strikes me as fishy.

  3. "Part of the problem is also that so few motorists seem to have the faintest idea how wide their vehicle is!"

    I think that if this were really true there would be more instances of collisions while overtaking than we see in the statistics. The general pattern of car/cycle collisions is that they happen on junctions rather than during close passes.

    I think that Cambridge Cyclist is right in saying that the standard close pass is a deliberate act. Whether this is motivated by aggression, resentment, bravado or weak ego could be debated. The point is that it doesn't matter. It shouldn't happen. Those of us who do drive cars should take note and wait for a safe opportunity to pass a bicycle - just as we do for all other road users or road restrictions.

    As a (rather old) cyclist I sometimes make a large pantomime gesture with my elbow in the hope of being seen in the miscreant's rear view mirror. It's a kind of big nudge that I hope is interpreted as "please move over when you do that".

    I agree that traffic officers should be more alert to it happening and be ready to file charges or issue cautions.

  4. I think motorists are actually quite good at judging how wide their vehicle is ... most of the time.

    As a driver you have to pass parked cars all the time and thread your vehicle between the oncoming car and wing mirror of the parked car. This practice leads some to be over confident getting through smaller and smaller gaps - they'd probably call that skill.

    But, they do not realised the effects on real people being passed that close, and they fail to predict wobbles of bikes, or someone going round a pothole for example. This is learned driver behaviour that is hard to correct without training, enforcement or even publicity.

    Ideally we shouldn't be mixing slow cyclists with fast traffic. There's less time for drivers to plan ahead.

    1. One part I can't accept is that they don't understand that its frightening being passed close in such a way. Unless they're entirely lacking in the capacity to empathise with other human beings, or they don't even perceive a cyclist as another person, they know - and that degree of emotional isolation is very rare in normal people.

      It would be truer to say that they know but they don't care - this means that whatever reason they might give for a close overtake, it boils down to being an aggressive act. And should be treated as such.

      In my opinion the other option - that they just haven't thought about it - is much more damning. Such would display a complete lack of empathy. For all sorts of reasons, a person guilty of that shouldn't be driving.

  5. I suppose even though I'm a grumpy sot most of the time, I prefer to believe that the roads are full of incompetents driving cars than sociopaths ;-)