How does learning to drive and the driving test need to change to help cyclists?

Learner drivers should be more rigorously trained and tested on how to behave round cyclists.
Learner driver
Learner driver

How does learning to drive and the driving test need to change to help cyclists?

Cycling UK believes learner drivers should be more rigorously trained and tested on how to behave round cyclists, and incentivised to take Bikeability training.

Cyclists depend heavily on responsible behaviour from drivers, their understanding of cyclists’ vulnerability and how to interact with them safely. For this to be ingrained, routine and enduring, it needs to be a much stronger element of the driver training and testing process.

Without a much firmer assurance that the system will, as far as possible, produce and maintain safe and compliant drivers whose behaviour is respectful towards cyclists, the two-thirds or so of the adult British public who think it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads are unlikely ever to see cycling as a natural - let alone healthy and fun - choice for any trip.

This article explains why Cycling UK believes that:

  • The Department for Transport should commission a formal study of the long-term effect that Bikeability training in school/college has on road safety, learning to drive and driving standards.
  • Driver training and testing processes should give greater weight to cycle safety awareness, hazard perception, and to understanding why traffic rules matter.
  • Trainee drivers should be incentivised to complete Bikeability training to Level 3, e.g. through discounts on insurance and on the conditions imposed under any future ‘Graduated Driver Licensing’ system.
  • Bikeability Level 3 training should be mandatory for the drivers of large vehicles, and for driving instructors.

Drivers’ behaviour towards cyclists

Cycling UK has identified a range of actions from drivers that put cyclists at risk or are known to cause injuries and fatalities, particularly:

  • failing to look before turning at junctions and/or roundabouts;
  • speeding;
  • distraction (e.g. by mobile phones);
  • close overtaking (including on bends); and
  • opening car doors without looking.

Also, we know that the police are less likely to assign ‘contributory factors’ (CFs) to cycles in reported collisions than they are to motor vehicles (the only exception to this is buses/coaches, which tend to attract a lower percentage of CFs than any other vehicle type, including cycles).

Cyclists, of course, suffer not only from impact collisions, but are regularly subject to off-putting and scary ‘near misses’ too.

This suggests that much more effort should be made to instil in drivers a better understanding of cyclists and how to drive safely round them. We go into more detail about what this means in practice in a separate article explaining what drivers need to know, and why.   

Drivers and ‘Bikeability’ cycle training

Arguably, Bikeability training (or practical cycle training to the National Standard) offers an insight into vulnerability and why it is so important to drive in a way that protects cyclists and pedestrians from intimidation, risk and danger. Also, those who have personal experience of cycling are far less likely to be mystified by cyclists’ behaviour or see them as an ‘out group’.

As far as the National Standard for Driving is concerned, cycle training would help drivers appreciate “the importance of predicting the likely actions of other road users, especially vulnerable road users such as cyclists […],” as required of them by Element 4.1.1.

Indeed, research shows that ‘cyclist-motorists’ are likely to have fewer collisions with cyclists, and detect them at greater distance in all situations, irrespective of cyclist visibility. There is also evidence to suggest that cycling experience could make drivers safer in general because it is associated with “more efficient attentional processing for road scenes.”

There is also evidence that Bikeability has a positive impact on children’s road user skills as cyclists: those trained to Level 2 seem to be significantly better at hazard perception quizzes and in practice than children who have not received the training. The effect is sustained for a while afterwards (although their ability to put the knowledge into practice seems to decline over time if the skills are not practised).

Hazard perception, of course, is an essential driving skill as well, and we hear from driving instructors that learners with cycle training and regular cycling experience behind them seem to be better prepared for safe driving. This is only anecdotal evidence, though, so Cycling UK believes it would be a valuable exercise for the Department for Transport (DfT) – who have backed Bikeability for years – to commission research into the effect that cycle training in school or college has on driving competence and standards in later life.

The exercise would also be timely, now that a fair proportion of the children who received the first Bikeability training in 2005/6 are of driving age.

It would thus make sense for Bikeability Level 3 to be far more widely available for all students approaching the legal driving age. Ideally, this should build on Level 1 & 2 Bikeability training given earlier in their school career, at an age when their attitudes to road safety are easier to influence.

We advise Level 3 because it takes place on the roads, covers complex road junctions and road positioning, and provides direct experience of how all road users behave. As such, it is a useful head-start for driving. In terms of instilling responsible attitudes, in fact, it is likely to prove superior to ‘pre-driver training’ which tends to emphasise vehicle handling skills above all and, as a result, may help teenagers qualify more quickly, but lead to over-confidence and the risks associated with it.

Incentives and discounts

As an incentive to take Bikeability training, we believe those who have passed Level 3 should enjoy certain discounts on, for example, driver insurance, and be subject to less stringent conditions/discounts should 'Graduated Driver Licensing' (GDL) be introduced (see our separate article on GDL).

Professional drivers and driving instructors

Bikeability Level 3 training is, we think, essential for instructors and all other professional drivers, particularly of lorries and other large vehicles because of the disproportionate threat they pose to cyclists. This should be a compulsory part of the qualifying process, although suitable alternatives should be offered to people with disabilities that prevent them from cycling.

Evidently, the above would result in many more adults and children requiring Bikeability training in the best interests of road safety for cyclists, and all road users in general. We therefore call on the DfT to allocate higher levels of funding for it. We discuss Bikeability further in a separate article.

Unfortunately, Level 3 cycle training is not yet routinely available in many schools/colleges.

Training and testing 

References to vulnerable road users are scattered throughout the DVSA’s ‘Car and Light Van Driving Syllabus’, but Cycling UK believes that both it and the ‘National Standard for Driving’ need to go further, particularly by focussing more on understanding cyclists’ behaviour and how to act accordingly.

Given our views on the driving test below, we were pleased to note a DfT minister saying in 2017 that the DVSA was taking steps to put a “greater emphasis on increasing safety for cyclists”.

Cycle safety awareness

Cycling UK believes that cycle awareness modules should be developed for all trainee drivers, with a set amount of time devoted to them. These modules should be a compulsory component of both the initial qualifying process for the drivers of large goods vehicles, and the maintenance of their licence thereafter. We were therefore disappointed to learn that, while the DfT has said that it is working with the freight industry to encourage trainers to include “relevant content” on vulnerable road users, it has not imposed a mandatory requirement on the basis that it “would require a legislative change and […] would be overly burdensome to the industry.”     

Nowadays, however, accessing cycle awareness training is increasingly easy for fleet operators: many courses have already been developed for professional drivers of lorries, buses etc.

Also, when large development projects are proposed, early plans should be made to supply and mandate cycle awareness training to the drivers of all construction vehicles, as happened with the Crossrail project.

The driving test

Theory

While the theory test for car drivers already poses some questions on what to do when encountering a cyclist or pedestrian in a particular situation, or the rules of a cycling facility etc., Cycling UK believes it should include more questions about driving around cyclists, based on the key messages for drivers set out in 'What drivers need to know'.

Also, it should examine candidates not simply on what the rules of the road are, but on the reasons behind them, especially on mobile phone use and speeding. After all, passing a multiple-choice test is no real guarantee that a candidate is a considerate driver – it may merely mean that they have learnt the correct answers in advance, but still have no genuine understanding.

It is to all road users’ advantage that everyone is thoroughly examined on the theory behind the rules: it makes them easier to remember and follow, not just for the immediate purposes of the test, but whilst driving afterwards.

Hazard perception

Cycling UK believes that far more weight should be given to hazard perception. This is because it demonstrates that a candidate actively thinks about and appreciates the likely impact of their driving manoeuvres and the safest way of carrying them out.

Moreover, it may be especially valuable for young drivers. After all, they tend to exhibit good vehicle control skills and fast reaction times, but are not so proficient at spotting and assessing potential risks, something that makes a material difference to their interaction with vulnerable road users. They are also more susceptible to sensation-seeking and peer-pressure, while over-confidence can make them think that they are better able to avoid hazards than they actually are.

According to an IAM report on collision types, for example, young drivers are much quicker to learn how to avoid ‘single vehicle loss of control collisions’ than how to deal with vulnerable road users. The authors found that: “Collisions with vulnerable road users (e.g. pedestrians, pedal cyclists and motorcyclists) decline less quickly than the trend for all collisions, suggesting that more could be done to improve novice drivers’ skills for identifying vulnerable road users.” One of the report’s conclusions was that this could reflect known shortfalls in their hazard perception skills.

Practical

Driving at lower speeds: now that 20 mph limits are proliferating in the UK, often for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas, Cycling UK believes that candidates should be tested not only on their ability to interact with cyclists safely, but on driving at lower speeds.

Opening car doors: given the dangers that ‘car-dooring’ poses to cyclists, examiners should also ask all candidates to demonstrate the safest way of opening a car door, i.e. the ‘Dutch Reach’, which makes it more likely that drivers and passengers look over their shoulder first. This should have been clearly explained to them by their instructors during the learning process.

  • The above recommendations were one of over 80 we made in our 'Cycle safety: make it simple' response to the Department for Transport's Cycle Safety Review (June 2018).

Costs, bureaucracy and impact on safety

We know that some people are concerned that a number of the changes we advocate above could make the system more costly to administer and use. There are also fears that the added expense combined with making the test more rigorous could tempt more people to drive unlicensed and/or uninsured.

However:

While it is true that some measures could expand the work of the motoring agencies, the extra costs may well be offset by savings in terms of casualties. DfT figures suggest that preventing just one fatal road incident in 2016 could have saved over £2 million, and preventing just one serious injury incident over £237k.

To pass a more rigorous test, learners would have to put in more supervised practice. This could reduce their crash risk and help lower their insurance premiums, making it less of a temptation to drive uninsured.

In any case, unlicensed/uninsured driving is just one of several driving offences that should be tackled by more effective traffic law enforcement.

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