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Have West Midlands Police lost their way on cycling?

Social media silence, poor responses to video submissions... the signs aren't good

Time was, West Midlands Police were synonymous with excellence and innovation in protecting people cycling. 

The duo of Hudson and Hodson (that’s Steve and Mark, respectively) pioneered ‘close pass’ policing in 2016, where officers on cycles monitored overtaking drivers, and anyone conducting dangerous manoeuvres faced education or enforcement. Data helped them identify and target the riskiest manoeuvres for cyclists, and the ones likely to scare people off cycling – and the tactic was introduced just as cities like Birmingham were trying to reduce air pollution and get more people on bikes.

West Mids tweet

Officers claimed the tactic drove down cycling collision and injury rates, and later Operation Zig Zag targeted driver compliance at pedestrian crossings. 

Operation Top Deck came next, with police on buses spotting texting (or cereal-eating) drivers. On launch day in September 2018 45 drivers were caught using their phones while driving and, yes, one woman was eating cereal. One offending driver was en route to a speed awareness course. 

Op Close Pass was adopted by police forces up and down the country, and Cycling UK funded the accompanying educational mats (see main image). 

With record numbers cycling since the start of the pandemic, you might think protecting cyclists would be paramount for a roads policing force. 

However, in February one man submitted footage of a head-on collision with a driver who was on the wrong side of the road, only to be told by West Mids the matter wasn’t for investigation. This turned out, after some emailing by the victim, to be an error, that video footage and a collision report given over the phone were treated as separate cases, and one part of the force initially said it wasn’t in their remit. 

This certainly doesn’t sound like the West Mids police of old. We know the pandemic has heaped on the pressure for police, but we also know collision rates haven’t declined proportionately with quieter roads; they seemed to inspire the worst drivers to behave more recklessly.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on behind the scenes, but we know the two driving forces of these initiatives have since moved on, with Steve Hudson sadly off long-term sick, and Mark Hodson now working on main roads and motorways. 

We also know in July last year the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner response to a report on roads policing rejected the recommendation ‘Operation Snap’ measures, where the public submits digital footage, should have “enough resources and process to support its efficient and effective use”. The Commissioner’s concern was, by raising the profile of such schemes “we would be inundated with responses which we would not have the back office capacity to deal with”, adding their method of administering Op Snap was instead “targeted and focuses on the highest harm offenders”.

It’s a long way from Hodson and Hudson’s 2018 blog post, that said: “Over 350 successful prosecutions later the work stream, that most said could never be done, just like many said #OpClosePass could never be done, now sits with the West Midlands Police Traffic Process Office. They are taking it to even greater levels that should see 3rd party reported prosecuted offences become an integral part of our plans to create a safer road going environment for all the residents of the West Midlands region.”

There are clues on social media. Promotion of these tactics was a key part of their effectiveness, police believed, on social media and in the news – it was about reminding drivers any cyclist could be an officer.

You’d see the @trafficwmp account sharing general information about the rules of the road relating to cycling and how to drive safely around people cycling. At times they intervened to clarify misperceptions, including among other police forces. They were so proactive on driver awareness and attitudes, when a Channel 5 production crew went to the force looking for ‘people who didn’t like cyclists’, they couldn’t find any.  

Things have changed. Operations on buses aren’t practical with current restrictions, but standing at a pedestrian crossing, or cycling, are still eminently possible. 
The force’s Traffic Investigation Unit account hasn’t tweeted since November 2020. The main Twitter account was renamed from CMPG [Central Motorway Police Group] – Road Policing, to West Midlands Police Traffic Policing, so the Road Harm Reduction Team’s account is blended into traffic policing. This matters; traffic police are like the general public, some have good attitudes towards vulnerable road users, some less so.

This means a risk of errors and the wrong messages being sent out, not to mention an absence of messaging.

It’s unclear if West Mids is still running Op Close Pass on a regular basis, but their Twitter account is certainly patchy. @TrafficWMP last tweeted about #opclosepass in August last year, in conjunction with a regional poster campaign on ‘sharing the road’. In the previous two years to August 2018, @TrafficWMP published just two tweets with #opclosepass – or at least those are the only two left. Are they still running close pass? If they are, they have ditched the social media awareness part. 

#OpZigZag or #ZigZag hasn’t fared much better, with two @TrafficWMP tweets with that hashtag since June 2020, nine months ago. In January the Road Harm Prevention Team tweeted detection of 236 offences on three of the most dangerous roads in the West Midlands. It’s no insignificant impact. 

It seems the Road Harm Prevention Team has similarly shrunk on Twitter. There was a flurry of #RHPT hashtags in February 2021, including on mobile phone operations, then just one since the previous February. Are they only operating one month a year now? 

West Mids press office says they’ve “continued to carry out regular operations to maintain the safety of vulnerable road users and pedestrians across the region over the last year”, investing in extra officers to their Road Harm Prevention Team who are “often active doing road safety initiatives”; but they weren’t specific, and they didn’t answer my questions about whether they were still running Close Pass, Zig Zag or Top Deck, or whether they’ll resume at any point. They didn’t explain what went wrong with the February incident, or why their social media presence has changed, only that they still find time to use social media and offer advice through the @TrafficWMP account. 

None of this is clear, and Twitter is only a window, it isn’t the full picture. However, there are concerns things may have rolled back years in what was once the forefront of evidence-led roads policing. No doubt they are still doing great job catching criminals on the streets, but that surely shouldn’t be instead of policing people who directly endanger those who cycle and walk on those streets. It is certainly concerning if safety initiatives for cycling may have hinged on just one or two officers, instead of being embedded into everyday roads policing.  

Update: is delighted to see not one but two 'close pass op' updates from West Mids Police in the three days since this blog was published. That gets a thumbs up from us.

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NOtotheEU | 2 years ago

I regularly send videos of dangerous driving to West Midlands Police through the Nextbase website & occasionally hear from one officer to update me on a particular case and encourage me to continue to send in videos. He tells me that the majority result in Police action and the drivers that end up in court plead guilty when shown the video evidence. Of course this could just be BS but in my communication with this officer I believe they, if not the force as a whole, genuinely care about improving road safety and cyclists in particular. 

dabba | 3 years ago
1 like

Why does the police mat show the distance of 1.5 metres from the bike rather than 1.5m from the edge of the cyclist? In Australia it's 1m from the cyclist at speeds below 60kph and 1.5m at speeds above 60kph. The pic below shows the difference in interpretation.

wtjs | 3 years ago

Maybe there's something to be said for Lancashire after all: you know where you are! From the outset they're going to file the most damning of evidence straight in the bin, so you can prepare the complaint without fear of being deflected by any proper traffic policing.

AlsoSomniloquism | 3 years ago

Thanks Laura for following it up. I do wonder if Mark was transferred because he was very vocal here and on Twitter. But at least my fears have been confirmed. 

EddyBerckx | 3 years ago

Can't help thinking it was less West Midlands Police doing all this, it was 2 individuals who cared and made a difference for the time they were there. 

And now they are maybe just a standard force?

AlsoSomniloquism replied to EddyBerckx | 3 years ago

Mark is still trying though and this youtube podcast from 56 mins tells the history of it.


Steve Cooper | 3 years ago

For the last few years (not much in the last year though) I've submitted videos via the Nextbase portal to WM Police - never heard anything back from any of them.  My latest one I followed up with an email - again nothing.   So I just stick them YouTube now.  One from Jan this year.

I'm not having a go at the Police as no doubt they've been hammered by cuts. 

Inspector Kevin... | 3 years ago

It's been a very "interesting" year and I'm sure all forces have had some of their activities changed due to the overhead cost of policing Covid regulations. I know that it meant that my teams have had to change their plans frequently. As a neighbourhood team (rather than traffic) we've had a lot of work from this unexpected quarter and I am certain it will have reduced capacity for proactive operations in other force areas too. 

Although you can't underestimate the importance of leadership I would imagine the good practices and culture will be more embedded with WMP than some other forces. I guess what I'm saying is : Don't write them off yet. 

As someone who greatly admires the approach of WMP and still has plans to utilise their approaches more often in future, the officers you mention will have a legacy. But I wouldn't be surprised if they get back to usual over the next year or so. 

AlsoSomniloquism replied to Inspector Kevin Smith SYP | 3 years ago

The trouble is they seemed to have taken this approach well before Covid hit. The WMP Road Harm Reduction team twitter disappeared in Sept 2019. They used to post Op Close Pass footage everyday as well as the other things like Op Safe parking(?), Speed Cameras in the most unsafe areas AND the Mobile phone one. 

So unfortunately I am writing them off now as I have for the last 18 months. 

Richard D | 3 years ago

In my experience, West Mids Police never REALLY found their way when it came to cycling.  Steve and Mark were able to influence the culture of the Roads Policing Unit to an extent, but you could still submit very clear evidence, or be the victim of very poor driving, and get the brush-off from other officers in the unit.

And now they're on other duties, it seems like WMP have gone back to the usual default mode for police forces everywhere - tweet about helmets and hi-viz, ignore reports of bad driving, and achieve the sum total of sod and all.

lukei1 | 3 years ago

It is quite telling that a police force chose not to publicise it's traffic reporting more because it knows the standard of driving is so poor that it will be totally swamped by responses

ktache replied to lukei1 | 3 years ago

And without people sending in evidence,how can they make sure they have “targeted and focuses on the highest harm offenders”.

hawkinspeter | 3 years ago
1 like

It'd be interesting to hear from someone who works there for what's really happening rather than just the usual Press Office non-specific noises.

Awavey replied to hawkinspeter | 3 years ago
1 like

is that not covered by the two people most closely associated with promoting the scheme at WMP, are no longer directly involved with it anymore ? which cant be helped unfortunately, but the police/PCC have then decided there are other priorities to focus on.

and I think thats a similar story across a number of police forces in the country not just at WMP with close passes.

hawkinspeter replied to Awavey | 3 years ago

Well yes and no. It certainly implies that WMP have scaled it way back, but it'd be enlightening to hear from one of them or their colleagues.

RoubaixCube replied to Awavey | 3 years ago

I clicked on this article to say the same thing ... I had heard the same story from others that the main people involved are no longer involved so there is no captain at the helm as far as direction and motivation goes for the WMP cycling campaign.

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