Flaw on The Floor?

by
March 29, 2017

If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly well aware of West Midlands Police’s Operation Close Pass (if you’re not, here’s a primer).

You may also be familiar with the photo that’s appeared on the majority of media reports concerning Operation Close Pass. It shows one of the officers who conceived the operation, a colleague on a bike, and a car—all positioned on the mat which is used as a tool when educating drivers who have been pulled over for making a close pass.

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West Midlands Police close pass education mat
West Midlands Police close pass education mat

The mat wasn’t cheap at £900, but it was paid for by Birmingham Cycle Revolution, part of Birmingham City Council, whose remit is to make cycling a more popular mode of travel. (Operation Close Pass is largely founded on the principle that threatening behaviour from drivers plays a major role in discouraging people from cycling.)

Naturally, if Operation Close Pass is to spread nationwide then other forces need to be able to deliver the educational element of it, and if the mat is central to that then it is central to making this a national scheme.

Enter Cycling UK, who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mat at £300 a pop for every police force in the UK (what a good idea). The mat is essentially a carbon copy of the original; only the styling and branding have changed.

The full view of the mat is as follows. It’s very simple: a kerb, two marked distances, and the “overtaking clearance” annotation.

Cycling UK close pass mat

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Both the mat and the crowdfunding campaign attracted much criticism on the Cycling UK forum. That won’t come as a surprise anyone who visits any forum even occasionally, but there are some points in there which also crop up elsewhere.

One of the key concerns appeared numerous times on Twitter, which was that when taken out of context the mat could be taken to imply that people should stick to riding 0.75m from the kerb.

There’s plenty of evidence on social media to suggest that this concern is not unfounded. Naturally a number of individuals interpreted the image predictably, but arguably its most significant realisation was in a Telegraph article, which incorrectly stated that “the mats display the 0.75m width from the curb [sic] that cyclists are asked to keep to”.

WMP said they would put the Telegraph straight. But if they have, then the article hasn’t been corrected in the ten days since, and—let’s face it—everyone knows that newspaper corrections are rarely read anyway. Brandolini’s law is utterly compelling.

At one point, WMP made a bold claim in defence of the mat:

“The mat as an educational tool is exceptional, and couldn’t be bettered in any way.”

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Now, I like the clang of gauntlets hitting the ground, so I started sketching. I dismissed the first draft myself, showed WMP the second (“Lose the markings and it’s getting there.”), and then ended up with this.

btk-mat-v2
Bez’s mat

I figured that it included the original measurements, allowing the same education process (and I thought that adding the wheel tracks, which WMP frequently reference, would help), but I also figured that it would stand up a little better out of context: the width of the person we’re trying to protect is accounted for, and multiple positions are illustrated. It’s a little harder to look at this in isolation and immediately assume that people are supposed to stick to riding 0.75m from the kerb.

Is it actually better, though? Arguably it helps prevent people getting the wrong end of the stick when they see it in the paper, but if it hinders the education process in any way then it’s not necessarily a wise trade-off.

Of course, WMP went through some sort of design process themselves. The design may have started on a beer mat, but it wasn’t created completely arbitrarily.

“We did exactly what you and others have done 12 months ago. We came up with all sorts, but realised that two multi-representative distances for various scenarios and key learning triggers that would change driving behaviour were all that was needed.”

It’s important to note that the design was a product of a perspective that most of us don’t have.

“If people who are giving feedback could go through the process, they would immediately understand the mat design. It works very well with non-cyclists. Remember, you are trying to enable a driver to leave with the ability to deal with any given scenario involving a vulnerable road user in a safe manner.”

That perspective is important. None of this is designed to educate the people who are riding the bikes. Nor is it even designed to educate people who already drive safely. This is designed for just one group of people: those who drive without the competence and care that the law demands.

“Offending and incompetent drivers get it, because it’s geared towards their behaviour. Cyclists don’t, because they are already equipped with the learning and so it confuses them.”

That specificity of “offending and incompetent drivers” is important, because it defines the message that has to be conveyed. Notably, this isn’t an appeal to people’s kind-heartedness so much as it is to their selfishness: there’s a recognition that when it comes to the people who really need to heed a message, the motivating factor is one of not getting nicked.

“The overriding message to drivers is achieved: take care around cyclists or you might get prosecuted. Once drivers get that concept, whether in person or through the media, they don’t drive towards a cyclist thinking about the relevance of the cyclist’s position, they drive towards the cyclist planning an appropriate overtake that won’t see them prosecuted. Which, as you see, is why labelling and context don’t become an issue.”

When it comes to designing the mat, it’s crucial to consider how the education is delivered. It’s not a matter of standing in one place, looking at a static arrangement of road users, and leaving it there.

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“Offenders have to do a fair bit of conceptualising on the mat and then tell the educator what they would do in given circumstances and why. They are also asked what the cyclist would do in given scenarios to keep safe, so they understand that behaviour and build it into their driving plan.

“We start the education with understanding cyclist road positioning—secondary and primary—and move on from there. So the educator uses the two measurements to display that, then moves onto a standard pass of the secondary position, where the offender has to show how much room they would give. The educator positions the bike on the 0.75m line and asks the offender to show where their wing mirror should be when passing. They immediately look down at the 1.5m measurement then stand 2m away from the bike. It’s simple learning that sticks and changes behaviour. This continues throughout the input, with the driver looking at the 1.5m measurement without association and using it to aid them in their positioning in the scenarios. They then carry this experience of visualisation onto the road. Basic, I know, but it works very well.”

WMP use each of the markings for multiple purposes, as they further explain.

“The 0.75m marking is used to visualise left wheel track, average secondary position, distance given around surface hazards by cyclists, distance between cyclists riding two abreast, and so on. The 1.5m marking is used to illustrate primary position, distance taken around parked cars by cyclists, etc, as well as the all-important overtaking distance.”

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So for instance, when WMP explain what cyclists do when they approach parked cars the marked measurements are used, but not in their marked location. Drivers are asked to mentally move those distances around the environment.

wmp-using-the-mat
WMP using the mat

So we should probably be reassured that the mats do their job in the field. But let’s return to the matter of the media, and those mats taking on a highly visual role outside of that education. Are WMP concerned?

“The fact that certain pictures appear in the media and inferences drawn as a result is unavoidable in any given campaign. People see the mats as an educational campaign, but they simply aren’t: they’re a tool for creating experience-led behaviour change. Nothing more, nothing less. Cyclists and campaigners have had to endure countless poor and ineffective media-only campaigns, but this is completely different in that it’s enforcement-led.

“Although it’s been mentioned occasionally over the last 12 months, that issue of context hasn’t been a problem. Our media has hit literally tens of millions internationally and everyone got it—until the Cycling UK campaign, which is bizarre.”

Whether it was a problem or not is a little subjective, but there certainly were early criticisms: a quick search of Twitter pulls up multiple conversations, involving WMP and preceding the Cycling UK campaign, which question the markings. Here are a couple of examples.

So, are the markings a problem? The jury may be out for a while: the prosecution would assert that vastly more people see the newspaper reports than experience the education; while the defence would point out that whatever you try to do, parts of the media will twist it—never mind the absolute inevitability of random people on the internet getting a bit heated about anything to do with those bloody cyclists.

But maybe it’s right to be at least apprehensive.

When I wrote an earlier article about Operation Close Pass, I remarked that “the crucial aspect of this will be how effectively the education can be delivered [by other forces]”.

In early February, WMP held a workshop day in Birmingham to which other forces were invited. The idea was to explain Operation Close Pass with a view to officers taking the knowledge back to their own forces to implement it.

I asked one of the roads policing officers at Surrey Police whether he felt that the workshop left him sufficiently informed as to able to get going with it; he said he was “reasonably confident of being able to run an operation as WMP do”. (Don’t read between the lines: the question was about skills transfer; resource allocation is a separate issue.)

But although Surrey have yet to deploy a close pass operation, Greater Manchester Police—who have been in contact with WMP on this matter for longer than most other forces—are out there doing it.

And what they’re doing is quite interesting.

GMP showing drivers a printout of the WMP PR photo
GMP showing drivers a printout of the WMP PR photo

It’s clear that GMP aren’t running anything like WMP’s model.

Judging by this set of photos from one of their tweets a week or so after the workshop, they appear to have sent WMP’s media photo to their office laser printer and are using that to “educate” drivers within the comfort of their own seats. With the best will in the world, it’s a little difficult to see anything of significance being achieved here—and it certainly looks like it confirms people’s fears about that PR photo being abused.

So, we seem to be back where we started: maybe that PR photo is making it too easy for things to go wrong. It would seem that GMP have confirmed the fear I expressed last year: that other forces wouldn’t be able—or should that be willing?—to replicate the quality of WMP’s operation.

We have to ask serious questions about how effective each of these operations are. Success criteria will be hard to measure: publicly available casualty data have a lag of up to 21 months, and figures in cycling participation surveys will generally suffer from a hopelessly low signal-to-noise ratio. WMP have been tracking before-and-after figures for submissions of close pass reports from the public, which they claim have fallen significantly, but it’s highly doubtful that most other forces are able to, let alone will, do this. (Remember that Hampshire don’t even bother looking at them.)

All in all, it’s probably naive of online commentators to be redesigning WMP’s mat or even criticising it without first being familiar with the way in which it’s used and the people it’s intended to be used with. Is the mat problematic? Probably not, no.

But, when what you’re familiar with is the absence of the mat’s intended context, it’s hard to look at that PR photo showing those measurements locked in place around a cyclist’s wheel and feel that it was the right image to use.