As we chat, Mike van Erp keeps glancing at the line of vehicles queueing on the road in Hyde Park, London. Suddenly, he spots something. “Here we go,” he says, swinging around his sensible-looking blue touring bike, and pedalling away from the traffic lights. He edges along the stationary vehicles until he is parallel to a car. It is well over a minute before the driver looks up and spots him – and the camera strapped to his baseball cap.
When he returns, a grinning Van Erp tells me the man reacted badly to the realisation he was being caught on camera. Why the fury? The driver was using his phone as he waited for the traffic to move – and Van Erp recorded him doing it. In the coming months the man will most likely face a fine and six points on his driving licence, in turn triggering a significant jump in his insurance premium.
Van Erp, a 49-year-old professional carer, says he has now reported close to 1,000 law-breaking drivers to the police, with about 80% facing prosecution. After any court proceedings are finished, he posts the footage on his YouTube channel. There have been some famous faces among the drivers he has reported. In early December, Van Erp allegedly filmed Frank Lampard using a phone while driving – the former footballer has denied the offence. Footage shot by Van Erp, however, has resulted in court action against ex-boxer Chris Eubank and Guy Ritchie, with the film director banned from driving.
All of this has led to headlines, occasional TV appearances and made him the semi-reluctant public face of a new era of road crime enforcement, one in which police forces are being encouraged to accept online complaints about offences, backed up by video footage. Many of the complaints come from cyclists, who view such footage as one of the few ways they can push back against endemic levels of dangerous driving.
It can be a controversial area. Van Erp regularly features in news articles as a “vigilante cyclist”, a description he dislikes intensely and which he has, on occasion, managed to have altered after complaining.
Van Erp’s 65,000 subscribers to his CyclingMikey YouTube channel have been enough to earn him a modest extra income as a result of his actions. Yet, he says, far from selecting prominent targets, he did not recognise any of the celebrities when he approached them. (The footage of him challenging Eubank for holding a phone at the wheel of his convertible Rolls-Royce sees him ask the clearly unimpressed former world champion, “Are you famous?”). And, he insists, a media profile was never his aim. His motivation is much simpler: trying to make the roads safer, one driver at a time.
A Dutch national, who grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to the UK in 1998 to work in IT, he has a particularly personal stake in this. When he was still living in Zimbabwe, his father was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorbike. Van Erp, then 19, was called by a local shopkeeper about the accident, and went straight to a suburb of Harare, where they lived, to find the mangled wreck of the motorbike and his father’s body covered by a blanket.
“It was his birthday on the day, and in the morning I’d begged him to come gliding with me,” Van Erp recalls. “I had a pretty awesome upbringing and was close to my dad. He taught me to ride a bike, to fix punctures, to ride a motorcycle, and to drive a car.”
It’s this memory, he says, that “really gives me that extra ounce of determination to cope with the hassle of admin of reporting drivers – I don’t like admin very much.”
There is, he adds, a wider motivation: “I just like to think that with the power of one I’m trying to change a little bit of road safety. Most people who cycle realise that bad driving is largely tolerated by society. It’s not considered a really serious thing. Yet it’s claiming 1,800 people’s lives a year in the UK alone, and 27,000 are seriously injured. That’s a quite serious toll, isn’t it?”
It is not only a serious toll, but one that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable road users. While the UK has better overall road casualty statistics than most nations, the risk of injury or death per mile is 25 times greater for cyclists than for than those travelling in cars. The UK is also one of the few European countries where fatalities among pedestrians have risen in recent years.
The sort of law-breaking captured by Van Erp and his fellow camera cyclists undoubtedly plays a part. On 20mph-maximum roads, an average of 86% of drivers break the speed limit. And to understand the sheer extent of motorists using handheld phones while at the wheel, you only need to watch Van Erp at work.
He began taking his on-the-road shots in 2006, using an early bike-mounted camera. “I started filming because I felt a little powerless,” he recalls. “I couldn’t do anything if a bad driver gave me a close pass, or risked my life in some way. On the various cycling forums we started talking about cameras, how they were miniaturising and getting better – even though they’re terrible compared with now.”
Initially, police forces had very little interest in following up his footage even of the most dangerous incidents. Yet, very gradually this has changed – Van Erp’s first successful prosecution followed an incident in 2018 when a taxi driver overtook him very closely.
Today, many forces allow footage and complaint details to be uploaded via the web, making it easier – and possibly more likely – that cyclists and other road users with dashcams will bother reporting bad driving. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) recently recommended that all forces in England and Wales set up such systems, a move instigated by DCS Andy Cox, the NPCC’s lead on traffic casualties and a pioneer in efforts to tackle them.
But the ease of reporting road offences online for citizen volunteers such as Van Erp – who provide many more eyes on the road than would be possible for even the best-resourced police force – remains notably patchy. Camera users in Scotland, for instance, are still obliged to put their footage on to a DVD. Many people also complain that by submitting video they are treated only as witnesses, not potential victims, and so are not kept up to date about action taken.
Statistics are limited on this new era of road crime enforcement. The Metropolitan police, the UK’s biggest police force, for example, says it does not keep any relevant figures. But freedom of information requests have revealed that several smaller forces now get hundreds of video complaints a year each, and as many as half lead to action. Van Erp says he has been told “sometimes half of driver awareness courses are filled with people caught by camera cyclists”.
He became more diligent in his recording of road offences when he began seeing the results. “I started realising that real prosecutions were happening. And I thought, do you know what, it’s worth doing more than what just affects me, because that will help other people. You hope it will improve other people’s safety.”
An hour with Van Erp in Hyde Park brings too many phone users for him to report. Yet, he says, while he is organised about backing up video files and cataloguing complaints and number plates, not least to identify what he calls “repeat customers” (his record is three – the driver of a red Porsche), he does not go out looking for phone-using drivers. He encounters enough of them during his usual cycle journeys – and official statistics illuminate how this happens. In the past four years, according to DVLA statistics, more than 90,000 British drivers have been caught driving while distracted, with 932 convicted at least twice, and one motorist punished nine times.
Van Erp says he has to be mindful of how common phone use at the wheel is: “I don’t want this to consume my life. I have hobbies, and I have family. I limit how much time I spend on this.”
Riding with him, however, also highlights how distracted drivers become once they pick up their phones. Several remain completely oblivious to the fact a lanky Dutchman has spent several minutes staring at them through the driver’s window, a camera attached to his white baseball cap – and that David, the Guardian photographer, is training a longer lens on them from across the street.
Such up-close footage is needed because using a handheld phone is only deemed illegal if there is proof of interactive communication, such as sending messages, talking, or commenting on social media – although this law is due to be updated this year. “It means I have to get right up close and personal,” says Van Erp, who now uses a high-spec GoPro.
What of those who argue that using a phone in stationary traffic does no harm? Van Erp has little patience with this – noting the “WhatsApp gap” – the way phone-distracted drivers tend to jerk forwards belatedly when the queue moves, often after a toot from behind. “There is evidence that phone use is as dangerous as drink-driving. I think it’s also very naive to imagine these people only use their phone in [stationary] traffic,” he says.
Yet aside from his phone-use videos, his YouTube channel also documents an arguably more confrontational strand of his activism. A few years ago, Van Erp heard how queueing drivers at another London junction, in Regent’s Park, were impatiently darting down the wrong side of a traffic island to reach a right-hand turn – sometimes nearly hitting cyclists who were going the right way.
He began lurking at the junction, and if a car tried the manoeuvre he would step out in front of it, blocking its path, and ordering the driver to go back.
The results make compulsive viewing. In one particularly astonishing episode, currently on 1.7m views and rising, a pair of doctors in a hulking Volvo SUV are aghast at being challenged and insist that their profession means the driver should be allowed to flout road laws. But the most-watched clip, at almost 4m views, sees a driver become so incensed he bumps Van Erp several times with his Mercedes. When the police arrive the driver starts to argue with them too.
Van Erp’s resolve – what he calls “a good example of Dutch stubbornness” – however, seems as unshakeable as his good humour. “You know what keeps me the most even-tempered? It’s the camera,” he says. “I know that the consequence will come anyway, and I know that I’m filming myself, and it’ll look worse if I behave badly. And also, the kinder and calmer I am, the worse it looks for the driver.”
He regularly receives threats on social media, where he faces a near-continual barrage of anonymous insults. But again, his actions are rooted in painful personal experience of the consequences of such driving: when Van Erp was at school, he witnessed a friend being struck by a taxi driving the wrong way round a traffic island. His friend survived, but was badly injured.
It’s not all criticism, however. Van Erp also has fans. “Mikey is an inspiration, genuinely,” says Jeremy Vine, the radio and TV presenter, who also chronicles the bad driving he sees on his bike commute via snappily edited videos using a 360-degree helmet camera.
“I often bump into him around London,” Vine says. “He is not mad, not obsessed, not a vigilante, not on a crusade. He simply believes rules are there to be followed, because it was a drunk driver breaking the rules that took the life of his father. The police can’t police everything, so people like Mikey fill in the gaps.”
Van Erp uses his social media reach to spread the message that there are increasing numbers of camera-equipped cyclists, meaning that poor driving has consequences.
“I don’t really want the fame,” he says. “On the other hand I haven’t really got any choice about it. The result is I have to use it to spread the word about camera cyclists.
“Most people are really quite careful towards others. But cars do blunt that a little bit. There’s something about being in a car that takes the kind edge off us. We’re insulated in a soundproof comfort zone, and we very much see it as our personal space.”
With that, our chat ends and, camera still clamped to baseball cap, Van Erp cycles through the park towards home – not searching out dangerous drivers, but only too aware how easily one can arrive in your life, unheralded, and with devastating consequences.