The Cyclists Stay Back debate

You might’ve spotted that most of the big cycling campaign groups are fed up with the spread of ‘Cyclists stay back’ stickers on the back of various vehicles.

Cyclists Stay back sticker on a bus
Photo from the London Cycling Campaign. Click for source.

In 2012 Transport for London (TfL) asked for advice on the design of a sticker to go on the back left of long lorries, warning cyclists about the dangers of being on their inside. CTC agreed that ‘Stay Back’ is appropriate advice to cyclists when approaching a poorly-designed HGV from behind on the left hand side [when the HGV may be turning left]. Two points to bear in mind:

  • Poorly-designed is the key bit. If we avoided using trucks designed for motorways in our cities and instead insisted on something where the driver could actually see the tarmac they’re about to roll 20 tonne of machinery over, other users wouldn’t have to be extra-careful around them. Legislation to force this issue is currently grinding its way through the European Parliament.
  • Although no-one lingers alongside a truck, you’re only actually endangered if the vehicles turns left over you.

Ignore the fact that all UK road design encourages people on bikes up the left hand side of other traffic. If you’ve ridden a bike, you’ll be well aware that relying on our ‘quality’ of infrastructure to keep you safe will result in injury in short order.

TfL pondered, and eventually designed the Cyclist Stay Back sticker. It’s required on the back of any vehicle working for TfL.

Three problems:

  • The wording of the sign disguises the actual danger
  • The wording is too strong, and implies a law that doesn’t exist
  • Vehicles that don’t have the same visibility issues as artics are starting to use the sign to excuse inconsiderate driving.

The wording misses the point

Let’s say you’re driving along a fairly open country road. You’re probably sitting at 50mph. You roll up to the back of a farmer driving a dog-slow tractor and trailer.

You also notice an official-looking sign on the back of the trailer. It says ‘Drivers. Don’t pass’.

You think this is a bit strange. You know there’s no law stopping you overtaking. There’s nothing special about this tractor (unless the royal motorcade has really downgraded). Common sense (and all your training) suggests it would be dangerous to overtake if you can’t see that the road in front is clear, and that you can’t do so through a solid white line. But the sticker doesn’t say that—it says no overtaking at all.

So what do you do? You know the hazard is that you might hit oncoming traffic, but this sign implies that any kind of pass is dangerous (even if you can see that it’s safe).

The cycling sign has the same issue. In seeking brevity, TfL have lost the specifics that make the sign beneficial. Motorised traffic in cities is generally travelling at tractor-equivalent speed in comparison to those on bikes (why do you think cyclists smile so much?). To say ‘don’t ever pass this vehicle’ is ridiculous—it would be like you spending a hour sat behind a tractor in a car, despite the opposite lane being clear to overtake. In fact, given in London many roads have undertaking cycle lanes, it would be like sitting behind a tractor in the inside lane of a dual carriageway.

The danger is passing up the left of a turning lorry. The sign needs to say that, or it’s useless.

It’s too strong, implying a law that doesn’t exist

Continuing the above example, you overtake the tractor on a nice clear bit of dual carriageway. As you’re alongside, the tractor starts to indicate and immediately moves into you, crushing you against the reservation.

For this to be a proper analogy to cycling you’d now have to be dead. People on bikes don’t survive interactions with lorries. However, let’s assume that you manage to scrape through and end up in court, seeking damages to help cover the increased costs of living with your injuries. The tractor driver presents the following arguments in his defence:

  • He looked in his mirrors before overtaking. Sadly, you were in his blind spot.
  • He indicated. You couldn’t go anywhere, obviously, because he indicated too late.
  • The sign said you shouldn’t pass, so it’s your fault for putting yourself in that position. He didn’t expect you to be there.

The first two are standard things that get people out of jail all the time after killing cyclists. It’s the third one that’s interesting. The sign is being used as an excuse for the tractor driver not driving carefully. It’s so strong it implies that you have broken the law in passing the tractor. He should have checked the road was clear before moving into it, blind spots or no, but the command not to pass is starting to turn the case against you.

You didn’t need any compensation to help with your shattered pelvis and severed legs, did you? Or any real sense of justice?
This is institutional victim-blaming at its very best, and it’s already changing the attitudes of drivers:

“[The bus driver] was adamant that cyclists must stay back [because of the sign] and he was ‘within his rights’ to stop me from filtering by whatever means.”

As people see more of these signs advertising laws that don’t exist, they’ll see more cyclists ignoring them. Imagine how that’s going to affect the public perception of cycling.

It’s appearing on rigid lorries. And buses. And vans. And cars. Everywhere

The warning is relevant to the current design of long articulated lorries because as the lorry turns the nearside cab mirror moves relative to the trailer, so the driver is unable to check down the length of the vehicle during the turn. You can still see fine before the turn, and cheap cameras are available that fix the problem permanently. However, whilst turning, most artic drivers cannot confirm the way is still clear.

Any road-legal rigid vehicle should not have this problem. Full stop. If your nearside mirror does clearly not show the nearside of your vehicle, then you are a menace on our roads. You’re also in breach of a whole bunch of legislation, but that’s not much consolation to the family of the person you kill when you left-hook them.

So why on earth does every TfL bus now have the sticker? And most of their vans? And everyone else’s lorries and vans? And some taxis?

I’ve even seen a couple of imitations up in Glasgow.

If this sign is on a rigid vehicle the only logical meaning to infer is ‘Warning! This driver may kill you through idleness!’

Adjust your mirrors appropriately, and then use them when turning. If you’ve got blind spots, move your head to clear them. Be aware of cyclists undertaking on your inside—after all, it’s where the highway code, road traffic act, and all our infrastructure instructs us to be half the time.

Don’t stick silly signs on the back of your vehicle to try and shift the blame.

So what’s happening about it?

The London Cycling Campaign (LCC) are leading the fight against TfL, who are struggling to get their heads round the whole thing—their MD’s response to questioning is here. CTC are weighing in from a national perspective (although they’re pretty London-centric themselves), and their response to the aforementioned Leon Daniels is here (with CTC writing on behalf of CTC, Roadpeace and the Road Danger Reduction Forum).

You could write separately to any of the above, and get hot on the case of any similar stickers you see springing up in your area.

Don’t let governments and companies get away with claiming this is a contribution to road safety. Don’t let this be used as an excuse for bad driving in court.



Leon Daniels
Managing Director, Surface Transport.
Transport for London
197 Blackfriars Road
London SE1 8NJ

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