GUEST OPINION BY JUSTIN YIM, OF STREET RESET
Twenty years since its last revision, the Transport Department (TD) gazetted the latest Road Users’ Code on 24 April. The code is required reading for all new drivers, forming part of the driving test in Hong Kong and while it is not legally binding, breaking its rules can be taken into account when deciding if a road user was at fault or whether a driver was driving carelessly.
TD has responded to campaign groups’ long-standing appeal to update its contents regarding cycling, with three new instructions for drivers (page 60):
“If you are driving behind a cyclist, be patient and do not attempt to overtake until there is sufficient room to do so without forcing the cyclist to move towards the kerbside.”
“Cyclists may ride in the centre of the lane, especially when on a narrow road or approaching a junction. Watch out and be patient with them.”
“Do not overtake a cycle before turning left. Instead, follow the cycle and then make the turn behind it.”
Some may argue these amendments tilt towards cyclists. However, cyclists are vulnerable road users: the fatality rate of cyclists is amongst the highest over drivers of all other modes. Many serious collisions involving cyclists occur when motorists turn or overtake. By giving up-to-date advice on how to keep a safe distance in different scenarios, the latest edition of the code clarifies the rules of interaction between motorists and cyclists, theoretically making conditions safer for all by preventing such collisions.
Riding in the centre
In the last edition of the Road Users’ Code, published in 2000, cyclists were advised to “Ride along near the kerb or side of the road — about ½ metre away.” However, in the latest draft, such advice has been substituted with “In general, keep to the left side of the road in single file and move at a steady speed.”, with the following exceptions:
“When you are about to make a turn or come to a narrow road, you may ride in the middle of the lane if it is safe to do so and without causing serious disruption to traffic.”
“As you approach the left turn at a junction, keep to the left or you may move to the middle of the lane, if it is safe to do so.”
Cyclists are most prone to collisions when turning, approaching junctions or on a narrow road. The latest amendment establishes that cyclists can ride in the middle of the lane (also known as the “primary position”),to make themselves visible to and to prevent dangerous overtaking. Such a defensive driving technique is also practised by motorcyclists and should not be considered arrogant or selfish by motorists following behind.
No definition on “minimum passing distance”
The latest edition of the Code specifies that motorists should only “overtake when there is sufficient room to do so”.
However, it does not give a clear definition of what “sufficient room” means. Many countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Australia, and over half of the US states, have already passed laws that clearly define a Minimum Passing Distance.
In reference to the practice in Germany and Ireland, motorists would be advised to give at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists (equivalent to half a lane of space). Overtaking too close not only intimidates the person on the bike, but could also cause them to lose control, fall, or swerve into overtaking traffic, resulting in serious or even fatal injury.
The UK has yet to pass laws regarding minimum passing distance, but some police forces have set 1.5 metres as a benchmark for “Close Passes.” West Midlands Police led the way, launching “Operation Close Pass” in 2017, which has seen plain-clothed officers pedalling along busy roads on the lookout for motorists who pass too close. As a result of the campaign, serious collisions involving cyclists dropped 20% over the year.
In Hong Kong, although there’s no clear definition in the new Road Users’ Guide, drivers who come too close can still be prosecuted. Indeed, there have been many cases of drivers being convicted of Careless Driving based on helmet cam video evidence of close passes. However, to further enhance the safety of cyclists, and for the sake of clarity to motorists, TD should clearly define a minimum space – and 1.5 metres would be recommended – as the minimum room to overtake cyclists. Police should also regard overtaking with less than 1.5 metre clearance as a benchmark of “Close Passes” and enforce accordingly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Yim is a transport planner from Hong Kong, currently with PJA in Birmingham, UK. He graduated in Urban Planning, Design and Management from University College London in 2018, including Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is passionate about making Hong Kong’s planning model more people-focused, and in January 2020 founded Street Reset (街道變革), a lively and informative forum to discuss and inform how to best manage the city’s space.