Plain-clothes police on bicycles to enforce safe passing laws in the ACT

Minimum distance passing laws for motor vehicles overtaking cyclists have been rolling out across Australia in the past five years.

But the issue of whether the laws are being enforced - and how to enforce them - has generated ongoing controversy. 

News reports have regularly shown that few fines have been issued in jurisdictions where the laws are in place, and cycling organisations have been urging police to conduct specific enforcement operations.

Last week, the Australian Federal Police in the ACT announced an initiative to target drivers who don't leave sufficient room for cyclists.

The "compliance activity" will involve police officers in plain clothes riding bicycles.

"Canberra: you're on notice.The next cyclist you drive past could be a police officer, and fines and demerit points may be issued if you do not leave enough room," said detective acting station sergeant Marcus Boorman.

A police statement said "this important initiative will proactively enforce the requirement for drivers to leave at least one metre between their vehicle and the bicycle rider if the vehicle is travelling up to 60km/h, and at least 1.5 metres if the vehicle is travelling at faster than 60km/h".

The police are also conducting public awareness exercises, with officers setting up an educational display in a Canberra shopping centre car park at the weekend, joined by members of Pedal Power ACT.

Standout campaign

Some overseas police forces have found innovative ways to enforce cyclist safety. In 2016 I reported on the development of the C3FT, an electronic device strapped to a bicycle that measures passing distances, and used by police in the US state of Tennessee.

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But the standout campaign has been Operation Close Pass by West Midlands Police in the UK, in which officers in plain clothes cycle along a road monitoring overtaking behaviour. If a pass is judged to be too close, a message is sent to officers up ahead to stop the driver, who then receives a lesson in safe overtaking – and possibly a fine.

In a two-year period, police also prosecuted more than 400 drivers using video footage supplied by the public.

The campaign "coincided with a 20 per cent reduction in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured on West Midlands roads", police said.

'Level of confusion'

ACT Pedal Power CEO Ian Ross says his organisation obtained an ACT government grant to buy educational material that explains safe passing, including ground mats that accurately display minimum distances. These materials are being shared with police as part of the operation.

Class of 1995: Saadiah Freeman today.

Mat being used by ACT Policing to educate drivers on safe passing.

"I think there's a general level of confusion about 'what is a metre and what is a metre and a half, and how do I overtake properly'," Ross says, "As well as confusion about whether people can cross a dividing line to overtake a cyclist. So we like the fact that the campaign is about education as well as enforcement."

Ross says it's the first campaign of its kind in Australia, and "moves from something that police might do on an ad hoc basis – if they see something going wrong – to something that's being done as a direct exercise."

In a recent study of passing distances in the ACT, one in 10 drivers failed to leave the stipulated 1.5 metres when overtaking bike riders in speed zones above 60 km/h.

"Close passes are scary experiences," Ross says. "Often the first warning you get is this 'whoosh' at your side, and depending on how fast the car is going, the wind force of the car can buffet you as it passes – you can be literally sucked towards the vehicle, and the larger the vehicle the more scary it is."

The national exception

"Metre matters" laws were first trialled in Queensland in 2014, and subsequently passed into legislation. Since then, all Australia's mainland states and territories have adopted or are trialling similar rules, with one significant exception – Victoria.

In 2017, a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry recommended the laws be implemented, but the government said it would first conduct and then evaluate a 12-month, $1.2 million education campaign, which concluded at the end of last year.

The Victorian Department of Transport is "currently considering the evaluation of the education campaign," a spokesperson said this week: "We are also reviewing the effectiveness of this road rule in other states to see if it could be rolled out in Victoria."

(Meanwhile, Victoria recently made minor changes to rules for cycling on footpaths, including increasing the age at which cyclists are banned from riding on footpaths from 12 to 13.)

Mixed response

As is so often the case, social media commentary on the Canberra campaign has been divisive. A post on ACT Policing's Facebook page has drawn more than 1800 comments, ranging from applause for the police initiative to uncertainty about the laws and the usual complaints about how cyclists don't pay registration.

Police have stressed that "cyclists who are seen to be doing the wrong thing will also face consequences".

Sarah Dalton of the Amy Gillett Foundation, which has championed safe passing laws in Australia, described the development as "terrific".

"We are hoping that other jurisdictions in Australia will watch the ACT and see how they go, and hopefully adopt similar operations in their areas," she said.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.