A middle-aged man is driving the Volkswagen Convertible in a smart, modern Volkswagen. He’s so distracted by his phone that he doesn’t see the cyclist coming towards him on the right.
In fact, it’s nearly a minute before he spots Mike van Erp, the cyclist, who has been filming him texting and has now drawn up to point out that he’s breaking the law.
What’s more, Mike explains, he’s recorded him doing so on the small professional camera strapped to the top of his bike helmet.
Angering, the man launches a torrent of insults and almost mounts the kerb. As he steams away, he crans his neck in an attempt to keep up his tirade.
It’s little wonder he’s cross; when Mike uploads the footage to the Metropolitan Police’s online crime reporting forum, it’s likely he’ll be prosecuted, given a six point penalty, £200 fine and hike in his insurance premiums.
When he was 19, his Zimbabwean father, who was his mother’s brother, was hit by a drunk motorist while riding his motorbike. Mike arrived at the site to see his father’s body in the road, covered by a rug
He wouldn’t be alone: since Mike, a genial 50-year-old, started using his ‘helmet-cam’ back in 2006, he has snared about 2,000 offenders — mostly people illegally using their mobiles.
Since it was easier for citizens to report crimes via the internet, around 1,000 people have reported crime in the past three years.
600 cases have already been filed, while many others are still in progress. What’s more, some of them are well-known.
Mike caught Frank Lampard holding his phone as he drove along with former England footballer Frank Lampard.
Lampard was filmed driving his £250,000 Mercedes G-wagon holding a cup of coffee and his mobile but escaped prosecution because the CPS said there was ‘insufficient evidence’.
The ex-Chelsea midfielder had employed the services of Nick Freeman — the lawyer known as ‘Mr Loophole’ due to his success at getting famous clientele off — to defend him.
He’d denied a charge of ‘using a handheld mobile phone/device while driving a motor vehicle on a road’ and Mr Freeman successfully argued that it could not be proved that Lampard was interacting with his phone.
It left a sour taste in Mike’s mouth. Of Mr Loophole, who has also represented stars including Ranulph Fiennes, Van Morrison, Jimmy Carr and Jeremy Clarkson — he said: ‘He’s a smart man but if I met him in person I might ask him how do you sleep at night,’ he says.
‘I believe in the legal system even with all its flaws, but even so I wonder if it’s being pushed too far.’
Some have had less luck. Guy Ritchie (film director) was penalized six times and suspended from driving for six consecutive months. This happened after Mike, also known as CyclingMikey on YouTube, recorded him using his cellphone while driving his Range Rover through Hyde Park.
Since Mike, a genial 50-year-old, started using his ‘helmet-cam’ back in 2006, he has snared about 2,000 offenders — mostly people illegally using their mobiles.
‘I respect him more than most as he was very calm, he wasn’t rude and he didn’t deny what had happened,’ Mike recalls.
Chris Eubank, an ex-boxer was given three points in September and fined $350 for running a stop light while trying to flee Mike. Mike had also challenged Eubank about trying to get to Mike’s hands-free phone system.
‘Apparently he said he was worried that I was a stalker,’ Mike reflects. ‘Although I can’t imagine Chris Eubank really being scared of anyone, can you?’
As for Mr Lampard — he drove off without engaging with him at all.
Either way, Mike insists he’s an ‘equal opportunities’ crime fighter; it’s not celebrity profile but behaviour he’s interested in.
That’s why, after his day job working as a carer for a boy with Down’s syndrome, he patrols areas of central London close to his commute home, which is also in the capital.
His only ‘equipment’ is the GoPro attached to his helmet.
It happens sometimes multiple times per day and others only once a week. ‘It’s as the mood takes me,’ he says.
He’s one of a new breed of ‘cycling vigilante’ pushing back against what they say are endemically dangerous levels of driving on Britain’s streets.
Father-of-two Mike vehemently dislikes the term vigilante — ‘I’m not dealing out punishments, just trying to highlight behaviour,’ he insists — instead seeing his efforts as doing his bit to improve road safety.
These statistics are quite alarming. Each year, 1,800 are killed and 24,000 are severely injured. DVLA statistics also show that over 90,000 drivers were caught distracted driving in the last four years.
‘Studies have shown that phone driving is worse than drink-driving in terms of the way it delays your reaction time,’ says Mike.
That said, Mike claims he has spoken to police officers who admitted cases are being ‘binned left and right to reduce the massive backlog’ in courts caused by the pandemic.
So what drives, as it were, a man to devote hours each week, putting himself at risk on congested roads, to police motorists’ behaviour?
A friendly person, he claims he doesn’t cycle obsessively. He doesn’t seem to be interested in fame. However, he uploads footage to his YouTube channel which boasts 71,000 subscribers.
Mike, however, is more personally involved in his crusade. He has seen firsthand the destruction caused by negligent motorists.
He was raised in Zimbabwe and, at 19 years old, his father was struck by a drunken driver on his motorcycle. Mike arrived at the site to see his father’s body in the road, covered by a rug.
‘I dealt with the grief a long time ago and I didn’t think much about road safety at first,’ he tells me. ‘But, of course, it stays with you.’
Having moved to the UK in 1998, aged 26, with his then-wife — they have since divorced — to work in IT, he became acutely aware of dangerous motorists as he cycled to work.
‘I was commuting in from Kent to London and there would be at least one incident a day where my personal safety was at risk,’ he says. ‘People driving right up behind me or within a whisker of me.’ So, by 2006, when chat on cycle forums turned to the availability of helmet cameras, he decided to buy one.
Mike caught Frank Lampard driving his PS250,000 Mercedes G-wagon holding a cup and his phone, while he was behind the wheel. Lampard was filmed driving his £250,000 Mercedes G-wagon holding a cup of coffee and his mobile but escaped prosecution because the CPS said there was ‘insufficient evidence’
Reporting an offense was difficult back then. ‘You’d have to burn a DVD and go to the police station to fill out a long form, so you only did it for the really serious ones,’ he says. ‘For a long time, it was purely to try to stop people from driving recklessly around me.’
With the advent of online reporting, this changed in 2018. ‘It made things much easier — you just edit footage and upload it with a few more details,’ he says. ‘I got a few of those to court and I thought “wow I can really make a difference”. That’s when I started focusing on people more generally.’
Just an hour on my bike in Mike’s company reveals almost too many offences to count. We’ve met at a busy thoroughfare cutting through London’s Hyde Park (the very spot where he caught Guy Ritchie) and as we head off down the slow-moving queue there is plenty of evidence of what Mike calls the ‘WhatsApp gap’ — the tell-tale delay when moving forward in traffic because people are engrossed in text messaging.
One of our group spots a woman in a BMW blue with her head down. We are not aware that there is a lot more space than she realizes in the line ahead. Mike draws up alongside her to find she is busy sending emails — meeting what he calls the ‘gold standard’ test for prosecution, which currently requires proof of interaction communication with a phone.
‘She was tapping away, so that’s pretty much a guaranteed hit,’ he says.
What becomes abundantly clear, as he moves down the queue of traffic, is that most people don’t seem to think they are breaking the law if they are using their phone while stationery.
You can legally interact with the handset if your vehicle is parked.
Mike also points out that research shows it takes up to 30 seconds to get back to your normal attention when you use a smartphone.
‘I see it all the time — they drive off still looking at their phone and they don’t see people,’ Mike says. ‘If you imagine these people only use their phones when queuing at traffic lights you’re terribly naive — they’re constantly using their phones, but it’s easier to catch them when they’re in the queue.’
‘I’ve seen it all,’ he adds. ‘People eating and texting while the car is moving, women applying make-up. A man was even seen driving a Rolls-Royce as he looked at a site about people who have a shoe obsession. He had his kid in the passenger seat.’
Of course, drivers are not the only offenders and many motorists — and pedestrians — have tales to tell about dangerous cyclists ignoring road safety rules.
‘I do tell off cyclists as well,’ Mike insists. ‘I bray like a donkey at them if they run a red light. But the reality is that cyclists are less law-breaking than drivers.’ (Indeed, a 2019 Danish study showed that fewer than five per cent of cyclists broke traffic laws while riding, yet 66 per cent of motorists did so when driving.)
‘Moreover, drivers are far deadlier to others: the risk of injury or death per mile is 28 times greater for cyclists than for those travelling in cars.’
However, he feels that many motorists fail to tackle road crimes seriously. ‘People die, or are grievously injured all the time because of it,’ he says. ‘That’s what I am trying to get people to understand.
I am doing this so others don’t have to experience that death in the family — although they don’t see it that way, of course.’
‘They certainly don’t. The actions of “cycling vigilantes” have split public opinion, with many uncomfortable with the idea of such ‘citizen patrols’.
Mike says there’s a growing tribe of like-minded souls.
‘I don’t think I’m even in the top ten most prolific cycling camera guys in London,’ he insists. ‘And there’s tens of thousands of us throughout the UK.’
It’s a risky undertaking. Red-handed motorists often use verbal abuse to get away with their crimes.
Mike was attacked at least four times.
Mike was attacked last week by a white Transit van owner in Hyde Park. He had told Mike to put his cell phone down at the wheel.
‘He leaned out to grab my helmet camera then got out of the van, dragged me off my bike and onto the bonnet,’ he recalls. ‘He was a very big guy, so it wasn’t nice.’
Mike was able wrestle but was still severely shaken. He also sustained deep grazes in his legs.
This footage was sent to police. A case involving a well-known person who drove his car into him and then lifted him onto the bonnet of his car is currently underway.
‘I can’t identify him as proceedings are ongoing, but he has been charged with dangerous driving and assault by beating,’ says Mike.
Hence, why are drivers so aggressive behind the wheel of a car?
‘I think it comes down to “I pay road tax, therefore I pay for the road, therefore I own the road — so know your place”,’ he reflects.
Mike doesn’t believe there is any typical profile for a reckless driver who uses his phone to communicate. Even though he acknowledges that the worst offenders often are those in high-end cars.
‘I think there is a sense of entitlement there,’ he says. ‘Range Rover drivers in particular are pretty bad.’
He believes that women can be better drivers overall. ‘But they can still be crazy too,’ he says.
‘The reality is that something bad seems to happen to people when they get behind the wheel.’