A couple of weeks ago I spotted a Vauxhall Corsa with a sticker on it, took a photo of it, tweeted it, and got a nice reply from the company who owned it. And that was pretty much it.
However, I hadn’t really expected the vitriolic (and often uninformed) responses—mainly on Singletrack’s Facebook page—that it generated once people found out about it. (That said, the stats on the posts indicate that the vitriolic comments are overwhelmed by tacit support. As usual: it’s a vocal minority shouting the loudest.)
So, given that there’s such a variation of views (and the fact that I’m not on Facebook) I thought: perhaps it’s worth explaining why I did it.
Here’s the original tweet.
In case it’s not clear, this is what the photo shows:
- a Vauxhall Corsa…
- …with a body wrap that covers the window with a mesh (it is not a panel van, as many people have assumed it to be: the glass is not fully obscured and it is still possible, to some extent, to see through it; more easily so from the inside than from the outside)…
- …and a sticker on the rear, bearing the text “Cyclists, beware of passing this vehicle on the inside”.
You could interpret HSS Hire’s decision to configure their Corsas in this way in one of two ways: either they’ve taken a car and decided to compromise visibility in favour of advertising, or they’ve eschewed a derived panel van and created something that provides the same advertising space whilst offering outward visibility. It doesn’t hugely matter: the fact is that what we have is a small car from which, despite the wrap, the driver can see out of in all directions (bar the actual window pillars).
Things we can all agree on
Before I explain what the issues are with these stickers, I think there are some things that we can (hopefully) all agree on:
- shared carriageways, where cars and lorries mix with people on bicycles, are inherently flawed in terms of danger to the users of the smaller vehicles
- some large vehicles (HGVs and large vans) have large, real blind spots within which a person on a bicycle close to the vehicle can be obscured; indeed the same applies to pedestrians on crossings
- hence people on bicycles (and, indeed, on foot or on motorcycles end even in cars) are well advised to avoid these blind spots unless the vehicle is stationary and they can be certain of passing fully through the blind spot before it starts to move off, so these stickers are, in principle at least, justifiable on such vehicles
- the same is not true of most (if not all) cars or fully-glazed vans: provided the driver moves their head when checking the vicinity of the vehicle, there are generally no spots in which someone on a bicycle cannot be seen
Hopefully those points aren’t too contentious to the vast majority of people. So, on to the issues.
No, I don’t mean offence as in being offended. (A number of people have dismissed complaints about the stickers as “being offended” or “being outraged”, but I would not describe these stickers as offensive or outrageous. Nor would I ever argue a point on the grounds of “being offended”, because personally I don’t think being offended is a valid replacement for rational argument.)
Here, I mean “offence” in the criminal sense. Are there any criminal offences associated with pedal cycles passing to the nearside of motor vehicles, or with any incidents that may arise as a result?
Now, contrary to what one or two commenters have said, overtaking on the nearside, or to the left (which are the normal legal phrasings; “undertaking” is somewhat pejorative), is perfectly legal. One commenter claimed that it was illegal because it was in the same lane: again, quite untrue. (But since such a rule would also make it illegal for drivers to pass cyclists without moving wholly out of their lane, bring it on.)
The only offence which can be committed by overtaking on the nearside would be that of “careless driving” (or cycling), defined as being of a standard “below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver” (or rider). Now, some might say that passing a vehicle on the nearside is inherently “careless”, but that’s at best debatable and in any case is not how the law works. As I’ve said, there is no legal obstruction to passing on the nearside, so it’s not the manoeuvre itself that makes it careless so much as the manner in which it’s done. Overtaking on either side can be done so as to constitute careless driving, as indeed can just about anything.
On what basis could a charge of careless cycling be justified for passing on the nearside? Well, the Highway Code could be used as a guide; but remember that it isn’t a legal document, just a set of guidelines that in theory represent expected practice. (Don’t be fooled, though: even that isn’t necessarily true.)
Rule 73 is the only cycling-specific rule that mentions passing on the nearside, but it’s in the context of manoeuvring long vehicles, not traffic queues (which is, for obvious reasons, by far the main scenario in which cyclists pass on the nearside).
Rule 167 disadvises overtaking “where traffic is queuing at junctions or road works”, but the implicit context of Rule 167 is overtaking to the offside, since it also disadvises overtaking “when a road user is indicating right” without qualification. (Rule 163 is explicit about this being a valid reason to pass on the left; but again Rule 163 has its own implied context, which is that of both vehicles moving.)
Rule 151, however, is fairly explicit. Much more so than the advice on when not to pass.
To be clear: “You should be aware of cyclists and motorcylists who may be passing on either side.”
This, although not legally binding, is quite plain: two-wheeled vehicles may pass on either side and, as a driver, you should be aware of them. Rule 160 reinforces this: “be aware of other road users, especially cycles and motorcycles who may be filtering through the traffic”.
Other rules confer responsibility on the driver in a queue who may be being passed: Rule 159 says, “Before moving off you should use all mirrors to check the road is clear [and] look round to check the blind spots”, and Rule 161 says, “use your mirrors frequently so that you always know what is behind and to each side of you”.
In short: there is rather more responsibility on a driver to see people on two wheels than there is on people on two wheels to avoid being in a position where the driver just happens not to see them. (Which is hardly unreasonable: one person cannot control the eyeballs of another.)
It’s bloody cyclists again
Highway Code be damned. It’s only those bloody two-wheelers that do this, right?
Wrong. In large cities, people usually do this on bikes. But away from urban roads, it’s a driver thing. On multi-lane carriageways, once traffic in the second or third lane slows or stops, the traffic in the first or second can, and does, pass on the inside. Perfectly legal. Ah, but the “in a single lane” thing? Can’t do that with a car, right? Wrong. There are plenty of regularly-congested junctions where drivers partially mount pavements or verges to squeeze past queuing traffic. You needn’t even hang around waiting for it to happen: I can show you plenty of rutted, muddy verges which are testament to this happening on a regular basis.
This, like so many things that are perceived to be, isn’t “cyclist” behaviour. It’s simply that the type of vehicles you see being used for this behaviour are a product of the road environment. (Plus, of course, the narrowness of a bicycle helps somewhat.) Stickers, of course, never suggest that drivers should take care. Anecdotally, I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen one aimed at motorcyclists.
Sure, you’re less endangered by large vehicles if you do this in a car. But the problem here is one of reductionism and othering: it can’t be explained away as unique to “cyclists”. It is, as with all behaviours on the road, a human thing. The vehicle simply influences where and when it’s possible to behave that way.
And there’s one of the key problems with the stickers: they say “cyclists” in big letters, and associate this behaviour with “cyclists”. It’s exactly the sort of thing which—no matter whether you consider it to be a small or a large piece of the puzzle—contributes to people’s perception of cyclists as “them” and of certain behaviours as unique to them.
When is a blind spot not a blind spot?
A number of people seem to claim that a Corsa has blind spots. Now, I’ve never owned or driven a Corsa, but I’ve owned and driven a whole pile of other cars and none of them has had a blind spot that could obscure someone on a bicycle close by. Think your car has blind spots? I’m sceptical. One thing that we need to note is that a blind spot is not the bit you can’t see when you glance in the mirrors. The blind spot is the bit you can’t see even after you’ve turned and/or moved your head. The difference between the two is the didn’t-look-properly spot. Always move your head. (Remember: Rule 159, right?)
If you get crushed by a left-turning vehicle, that’s Darwinism, folks
This is a commonly held view. You’ll see it in comments below news articles all the time. If not explicitly, then perhaps someone asking a rhetorical and pejorative question—”How do cyclists end up on the inside of lorries anyway, eh?”—neatly overlooking an obvious answer, “By being overtaken by lorry drivers”.
Sure, on occasion, someone will ride up the nearside of a lorry indicating left and suffer the consequences. But, actually, if you care to check the evidence, it’s quite rare. Of course, this doesn’t stop people assuming it to be the cause. (It’s false syllogism in stereo: cyclists are other people, other people are stupid, therefore cyclists are stupid; cyclists undertake lorries, cyclists get crushed by lorries, therefore cyclists get crushed because they undertake. If you can’t spot the chasmic flaws in all that, then there’s no hope for you.) Nor, of course, does it stop some particularly sociopathic people shrugging their shoulders and glibly remarking that death is an appropriate consequence for an error of judgment.
We all make errors of judgment, and often a terrible road layout carries much of the blame. Which gives us another obvious answer to the aforementioned perjorative question: “By following the guidance of the road markings.”
Remind us what cycle lanes look like…?
Have you noticed where cycle lanes get painted? The gutter. Highway designers even go so far this day to put advanced stop lines at junctions to act as bait for cyclists to ride along the gutter to them (potentially finding out that they’re already full once they get there).
The same highway designers didn’t have the basic competence to add an early green for cyclists, to allow the ASL and feeder lanes to be emptied before traffic moves off, so ASLs and gutter lanes remain traps. They are the highway system’s way of training people to ride up the nearside of vehicles. Various authorities have sort of recognised this, but they’ve tended to make posters and cheesy videos rather than, say, change the traffic lights.
To lay responsibility for this at the door of people on bicycles is wildly inappropriate. Instead of putting stickers on small cars, get on the phone to your local highway authority and start demanding better infrastructure.
But it stops people from passi—
Oh, come on. For the most part, the people championing the stickers are the exact same people telling us that cyclists constantly pass on the nearside. These stickers are rife in London, at least, and hardly uncommon elsewhere. To claim that these stickers are effective in changing behaviour in the same breath as claiming that people constantly ride bicycles up the nearside of vehicles overlooks the obvious contradiction in that. No-one, whether cautious or reckless, in in the slightest bit influenced by them.
There is no evidence whatsoever that these stickers reduce risk: the theory that they do certainly bears scrutiny no better than the theory that they increase risk by undermining established driver responsibilities.
All these stickers do is add a little grist to the victim-blaming mill.
Is it just me?
No. Who else takes the same view of these stickers on small vehicles?
- London Cycling Campaign (and, hey, there’s my alternative sticker :)
- the CTC,
- journalist Peter Walker,
- the Road Danger Reduction Forum,
- TfL (as mentioned in most of the above links) who agree that the stickers are only valid on goods vehicles of 3.5t and above,
- tacitly, presumably all the fleet operators who don’t put such stickers on cars,
- and, evidently, HSS Hire.
HSS Hire gave the following statement:
“As a national tool and equipment hire company with thousands of different items of equipment we have a large fleet of vehicles that can cater for everything from small dehumidifiers and heaters, to huge industrial air conditioning units, power generators and scissor lifts. Safety is one of the core values on which our business is built and it is an essential part of the fabric at HSS. As part of this commitment to safety our fleet has a standard set of safety stickers that must be present on all vehicles. Previously this had included the cycling safety sticker however as you know, these are being removed from our small Corsa vehicles.
“We made that decision based on a conversation between our Fleet Manager and our Health and Safety team. Both agreed that the sticker did not need to be present on our small Corsa vehicles and given the appetite from within the cycling community to have it removed, we were happy to oblige. Whilst your tweet was not the first to question the sticker on our small Corsa vehicles it did confirm to us that this particular policy needed to be reviewed. As a sponsor of the Aprire Women’s Cycling Team we are a big supporter of cycling and the cycling community as a whole.”
So, HSS’s fleet manager and health and safety team agree with TfL and numerous cycling and road safety groups: these stickers are not appropriate on small vehicles.
Rule 151 is the order of the day, and the stickers are appropriate where a vehicle fails to give its driver sufficient visibility to be able to ensure that he or she can adhere to that rule.
The fundamental problem, of course, is that these vehicles are constantly brought into spaces occupied by the general public on two wheels and on foot. The real aim is to do away with this whole contention of space: first and foremost to provide greater spatial separation through infrastructure, or—where that’s not yet achieved—to provide temporal separation with advanced greens and to ensure that the vehicles with true visual blind spots have sufficient technology allow their drivers to adhere to Rule 151 with the same ease that a car does.
Because if those aims are achieved, there’s no perceived need for stickers at all.
the real reason they don’t like us ‘undertaking’ is because it means they have to overtake us all over again….
bravo for the clarity and reasonability.
Excellent analysis. Thank you for this.
Thanks for referencing the RDRF with our post which goes into detail about the history of the stickers.
Since that post we updated with the follow up http://rdrf.org.uk/2015/03/02/update-cyclists-stay-back-stickers-and-hgv-safety-in-london/ and then: http://rdrf.org.uk/2015/03/05/cyclists-stay-back-stickers-something-you-can-do/ followed up by
http://rdrf.org.uk/2015/05/06/cyclists-stay-back-stickers-is-transport-for-london-doing-what-it-can-to-get-wrongly-used-ones-removed/ as we are not satisfied with TfL’s lack of progress in enforcing its own requirements for its FORS (Fleet Operators Recognition Scheme) – we believe this lack of purpose adversely affects TfL’s commitment towards HGV (and other fleet vehicle) safety.