Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership dangerously misrepresent the Highway Code

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In the last few days, a particular tweet and Facebook post from the Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership (WRSP) has caused a stir due to misrepresenting the updated Highway Code in favour of drivers wanting to pass cyclists – a furore that was picked up and reported on by cycling news site road.cc, in which yours truly was quoted. The tweet has since been deleted, although the Facebook post remains up at the time of writing. So, what is the problem?

The tweet posted at 7pm on Saturday 22 April read, “Cyclists need to be considerate of motorists who are trying to pass them, by moving from a central ‘Primary’ road position to a Secondary road position to invite a vehicle to pass. If there is insufficient room they should stop when safe to do so to allow vehicles to pass them.”

This was accompanied by a graphic including an extract from the Highway Code: “Riding two abreast; Advice for riders when cycling in groups has also been updated. Cyclists may ride two abreast. It can be safer, especially when riding in larger groups, or with children or inexperienced riders. Be aware of drivers trying to overtake from behind, and allow them to overtake (for example, by riding single file or stopping) when it’s safe to do so.”

Tweet from Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership (@WarksRoadSafety) that reads: "Cyclists need to be considerate of motorists who are trying to pass them, by moving from a central 'Primary' road position to a Secondary road position to invite a vehicle to pass. If there is insufficient room they should stop when safe to do so to allow vehicles to pass them."

There are contradictory points in the two statements given here.

First, the Highway Code update quoted specifically targets people riding in groups. However, the WRSP message targets all cyclists.

Second, the WRSP message leads to an inference that riders should get out of the way of all drivers who wish to overtake, but the HIghway Code specifically notes that it can be safer to rider two abreast in certain situations. Drivers overtaking a group of cyclists riding two abreast have less forward distance to pass than the same group riding single file.

Third, the WRSP message suggests that cyclists should be facilitating an overtake by a waiting driver. Yet it is that driver’s responsibility to ensure they pass safely with appropriate distance. If they cannot do that, they must wait patiently for a safe opportunity.

It is right that people (everybody) should be aware and considerate of other road users, and cyclists will only be too aware of drivers waiting behind. However, cyclists have the right to use the road as they see fit for their safety and to make progress on their journey. Taken to an extreme, the inference of the WRSP post is that on busy roads, every time a driver approaches from behind and wants to pass, the rider should pull over and stop to allow them to do so. This is obviously an impractical and ridiculous suggestion. It also puts drivers’ needs ahead of cyclists, contrary to the road user hierarchy.

Drivers must expect to share the road with slower road users, especially given the woeful state of dedicated cycling infrastructure in Warwickshire and further afield. This may mean waiting behind a cyclist (or group of cyclists) for a short while until a safe passing opportunity arises and this should be factored into journey times. The trouble with the message as given is that it may lead to a driver expecting riders to yield to them, to get out of the way because they are bigger and faster – a suggestion that the driver’s journey is more important or worthwhile, that the roads are for cars and other users are simply guests that must defer to the machine. This cannot be further from the truth, yet this is the clear inference from the post – whether intentional or not.

Since the tweet was deleted, a spokesperson for the Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership has been reported as saying:

“We acknowledge that one tweet cannot always explain the complex rules of the Highway Code. Our aim is to try to educate all road users to be considerate of everyone else to avoid collisions and make the roads safer for everyone to use. We are regularly raising awareness of the hierarchy of road users. This makes it clear that drivers and motorcyclists have the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to cyclists and other vulnerable road users. We are also advising drivers to wait behind a cyclist until it is safe to pass them, that it is not acceptable for drivers to squeeze past cyclists when it is not safe to do so, and encouraging cyclists to submit headcam footage of careless or dangerous driving to Op Snap. Drivers should wait until the road is clear, there are no obstructions, and it is safe to pass and allow at least 1.5 metres when overtaking a cyclist.”

Inspector Dave Valente, Warwickshire Police’s Road Safety Unit (as quoted in road.cc)

It is extremely important to take care and pay attention to the wording used in social media posts that may be seen only in isolation and not as part of a broader campaign or series of posts. Accuracy is essential, even if it is not possible to explain everything in one post. Sadly, that was missing here. Saying “one tweet cannot always explain the complex rules of the Highway Code” feels like an excuse, where it would have been better to apologise and to acknowledge the WRSP got it badly wrong here.

A better post was surely possible that would communicate the idea behind it without the dangerous risk of increasing driver-cyclist conflict on the roads. The following fits into the limits of Twitter, but it’s also worth noting that Facebook is not subject to the same character limits, so why was that post not worded better?

“Cyclists may use the entire lane as they see fit to ensure their safety; drivers must wait patiently for a safe chance to overtake. Where cyclists consider it safe to do so, they may decide to pull in to allow drivers to pass where they’ve been unable to overtake for some time.”

It was clear from discussions arising from the original tweet that there are some drivers who do believe that cyclists must get out of the way of drivers, and that tweet on its own may have reinforced that view. Even if the intention of the Partnership was good – and they have made other posts which are more positive – the communication fell far short of the standard necessary here.

Hopefully the WRSP learns from this incident and will do better going forward, because words matter – words that can reinforce dangerously mistaken driver expectations and misconceptions to the detriment and potential harm of vulnerable road users.

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