'Punishment passing': Cyclists claim some drivers overtaking too close on purpose

‘Gardaí won’t take action unless you go in to the station and make a formal complaint’

Bus

‘He then hurtled by my elbow while the outside lane was totally empty. I realised that punishment pass thing exists... it’s a deliberate close pass in order to intimidate or cause fear for a cyclist’. Screengrab from video reported to Dublin Bus for dangerous driving

 

Before cycling home one evening recently, Suzanne switched on the small video camera she attaches to her helmet when cycling around Dublin. Shortly after 7pm she turned on to Blackhall Place and headed towards Stoneybatter.

“I used to take that route all the time so I know it well. It was 7.05pm so the bus lane wasn’t operational, any traffic could use it. The traffic was light and there was another cyclist behind me.”

The camera footage, which Suzanne later posted on Twitter, shows a Dublin Bus pulling in sharply in front of the cyclists to reach a stop. Suzanne then overtakes the bus but moments later the same vehicle speeds by, passing dangerously close.

“As I passed his window the first time I told him I was recording and would report him to gardaí,” says Suzanne, who prefers not to give her surname.

“He then hurtled by my elbow while the outside lane was totally empty. I realised that punishment pass thing exists; it’s the first time it’s happened to me. Lots of cyclists recognise it, it’s a deliberate close pass in order to intimidate or cause fear for a cyclist,” she says.

“Under new legislation it’s an offence to cause an inconvenience or endanger a cyclist when overtaking. The first time he passed me it was an inconvenience, the second time I was endangered.”

I cycle lawfully anyway but I’d be extra careful now because I’m recording my own journey

Suzanne made a complaint to Dublin Bus and received a response from the company’s data protection unit that they were aware of her camera footage and following up on the incident.

A Dublin Bus spokesman confirmed the incident was under investigation and said all complaints reported to the company were taken “very seriously”. If a breach is found, appropriate action is taken internally, he said.

Suzanne, however, remains sceptical that anything will come of her report. Late last year, she submitted camera footage and made a report to gardaí of dangerous driving by another motorist but has had no response.

She is a regular cyclist and bought her camera last year after five years of “close calls” with vehicles on the road. “I cycle lawfully anyway but I’d be extra careful now because I’m recording my own journey. So I’m actually policing myself. It improves cyclist behaviour if more journeys are being filmed.”

Conn Donovan, secretary of the Cork cycling campaign, says the Garda should follow the lead of the Welsh police who introduced Operation Snap in 2017. This allows the public to upload camera footage of driving offences and has resulted in hundreds of motorists being fined and prosecuted. A similar online reporting tool has since been launched across a number of English counties.

“Gardaí won’t take any action unless you go in to the station and make a formal complaint,” says Donovan. “The two times I did this the guards asked would I be happy to go to court with the complaints. It’s almost like they’re trying to dissuade you bringing it forward. A lot of people give up at that stage. They think I’m not hurt, nobody’s dead and I don’t want to go to court to give evidence. In the UK you can just upload the footage on to a data portal.”

It really depends on the attitude of the individual member of An Garda

Donovan says he has experienced reluctance from gardaí to follow up on complaints from cyclists. On one occasion, he says, he was told that if motorists received fines for driving in cycle lanes it could negatively affect police community relations, while another time he says he was told the resources simply were not available to follow up on his complaint.

“It really depends on the attitude of the individual member of An Garda. If you have someone with experience of cyclists being knocked over they can be quite understanding, but others do not have an appreciation for the risks we face.”

Cyclist Sam McCormack, who regularly tweets photos of vehicles parked in segregated cycle lanes across Cork city, also believes gardaí do not take reports of illegal parking seriously.

McCormack has contacted the authorities and city council numerous times about taxis waiting for customers in cycle lanes but says they rarely follow up.

“It’s got to the stage where we’re being treated like second-class citizens. We’re really frustrated at the lack of action, especially when it’s from gardaí.”

Eight cyclists died on Irish roads last year, including 19-year-old UCD student and chairman of Labour Youth Cormac Ó Braonáin who died after colliding with a late-night Luas at Peter’s Place near Charlemont Bridge in south Dublin shortly before Christmas.

In early November, Indian data analyst Neeraj Jain died after his bike collided with a cement truck at the junction of Dublin’s South Circular Road and Brookfield Road, near St James’s Hospital.

People in vehicles are in charge of machines that with the flick of their ankle could end someone’s life

While the number of cyclist deaths last year dropped from nine in 2018 and 14 in 2017, cycle lobby groups continue to warn of the many dangers facing cyclists, primarily because of the lack of cycle infrastructure. This, they argue, is further aggravated by the failure of many motorists to pay attention to vulnerable road users.

Messages disseminated by the Road Safety Authority and An Garda Síochána are also problematic, says Kieran Ryan from the Dublin Cycling Campaign. “There’s this false equivalence with sharing the roads and because of that we all have an equal responsibility. But we don’t all bring the same level of risk. People in vehicles are in charge of machines that with the flick of their ankle could end someone’s life.”

The focus of campaigns on high-vis cycle gear and helmets has created a “victim-blaming culture”, Ryan believes. “It’s a culture where the vulnerable road user is the first person to be blamed while the attitude towards drivers seems to be more of sympathy.”

When we apply the law we apply it equally. Everybody is supposed to be paying attention 

Supt Eddie Golden of the National Roads and Policing Bureau agrees all cyclists should be protected, but underlines that members of the force have an “unbiased view in relation to all road users”.

“When we apply the law we apply it equally. Everybody is supposed to be paying attention and has to look out for themselves,” he says. “It’s all about defensive cycling. You must try to predict where the danger would be and not put yourself into danger.”

Supt Golden admits the number of “distracted drivers” using their phones is on the rise, but noted that pedestrians and cyclists can also be distracted by electronic devices.

He says gardaí who carry out patrols on bicycles must undergo a week’s training before taking to the road. There are 177 mountain bikes used by gardaí and 800 members have completed this training since 2016.

The Garda has not yet concluded the investigations into the deaths of Jain and Ó Braonáin but say the circumstances of each collision will be fully examined, including “roadworthiness of vehicles, road conditions, weather conditions and driver actions” and have continued their appeal for witnesses to get in touch.

“The victims and the victims’ families are the priority,” says Supt Golden. “If we could re-educate some drivers in the way they drive, it would help. But from An Garda, it’s equal enforcement against everybody. With every road user it’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”