Is It Safe To Cycle In Australia?

Published by Triathlon and Multisport Magazine – August 14 2014

With debate heating up, we look at the issue of cycle safety in Australia and what is being done to make our roads more bike friendly.

After purchasing a new rear light for her bike, Sydeysider Gabrielle Vassallo remembers thinking that it was so bright no one could miss her. She was wrong.

In August 2009, a driver on a provisional licence collided with Vassallo from behind as she rode into the city on Southern Cross Drive. It is the same stretch of road where a 4WD recently struck six cyclists.

Vasallo suffered a broken neck, a broken back, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs and a punctured lung. She suffered a torn aorta and one of her legs was almost separated from her body. Doctors put her in an induced coma for five weeks while they worked on her. All up, she spent close to seven months in hospital.

Remarkably, she is now back riding and competing in triathlons. Granted this is not in the same capacity as she once did. She now walks the run leg with crutches and rides a three-wheeled bike. She has varying degrees of paralysis in each of her legs. As a result she is susceptible to rolling her ankles and has to think constantly about where she places her feet. “I always have to anticipate what other peoples’ moves will be,” she says. “I generally steer clear of places with dogs and children as their actions are so unpredictable, they can easily knock me over.”

Spinal damage has also left her susceptible to bladder infections. At one point she was suffering from an infection, which would knock her off her feet for around three days, almost monthly.

Despite the permanent damage and ongoing heath injuries that resulted from the accident, Vassallo maintains a positive outlook. Time spent on a brain injury ward left her thankful that her ability to think and communicate had not been impaired. She is also thankful she did not become one of the, on average, 40 people who lose their lives on Australian roads each year. The true tragedy of her accident, however, is that is should never have happened.

Safer roads

For cyclists, the roads and thoroughfares of Australia’s main cosmopolitan areas feel increasingly like a battlefield. Heated exchanges between motorists and cyclists are increasingly common. And while some of these are taking place through the windows of cars and trucks, the majority are being waged on various social media platforms, in newspaper articles and in online chat rooms. Motorists are aggrieved that cyclists are inconveniencing them and flouting the road rules while cyclists complain that they are being bullied, injured and even killed by aggressive and careless drivers. Something has to give.

Dave Sharp is the director of Safe Cycling Australia (SCA), an organisation that was established to help make the country’s roads a safer and happier place to ride.

Unlike the stance most state-funded cycling organisations take, SCA is concerned with making the existing roads safer rather than building new infrastructure for cyclists. “When I started with SCA I thought we already had the necessary infrastructure for cyclists and they were called roads,” he says. During his time with the organisation he’s rethought that opinion and now believes the best way to reduce the number of cycling related accidents on Australian roads is to take a three-pronged approach incorporating safer road-user legislation, education and infrastructure.

Legislation, however, has been the main focus of SCA for the last four years.


‘Minimum safe passing’

 On Monday 7 April 2014, the Queensland state government introduced new legislation that requires motorists to allow a minimum distance when passing a cyclist. Under the law, which has been instituted on a two-year trial basis, motorists travelling under 60 kilometres per hour are required to gives cyclists a one metre berth when overtaking while those travelling at more than 60 kilometres per hour are required to allow 1.5 metres when overtaking. The failure to do so can incur a fine of $300. If a motorist disputes the fine in a court of law and loses, they can be fined up to $4400.

SCA is celebrating the new legislation, which it has spent almost four years lobbying for.

Sharp says the push to institute a minimum safe passing distance received new impetus following the death of Brisbane man Richard Pollet, who was knocked from his bike and killed when a concrete mixer failed to allow sufficient room overtaking him. A jury later found that under existing laws the driver had no case to answer in regard to Pollet’s death.

On receiving the verdict, Pollet’s family contacted Sharp to see what could be done.

“His (Pollet’s) mother Patricia called me from the courtroom immediately after the verdict was read out and asked ‘what can we do to help?’ She felt her son’s life had to mean more than a not-guilty verdict.”

Sharp says SCA decided to have another shot at petitioning the state government to institute a minimum safe distance. The organisation approached the MP for Moggill, Bruce Flegg, to sponsor the petition. “Richard was actually killed around two kilometres from Bruce’s electorate office and Bruce is also a pretty keen cyclist himself, so it was a subject that was pretty close to his own heart,” says Sharp. “On the night the petition first went to the parliamentary website, he had his staff stay back until midnight issuing press releases and doing all they could to get the petition off to the best start possible.

“Without Bruce’s help I don’t think we would have seen the inquiry launched that led to the recommendation of the two-year trial,” Sharp adds.

While some interest groups, such a the police, have argued the legislation will be difficult to enforce, the reality of the situation is that drivers, such as the one who knocked Vasallo from her bike, are now more accountable for their actions.

Sharp highlights the well-publicised case of Brisbane PhD candidate Craig Cowled, whose leg was badly broken when a white Jeep knocked him from his bike while he was riding to work. The incident was captured on Cowled’s helmet-mounted camera.

“That driver, considering it had buzzed him earlier, would have been fined at the very least $4400 and lost eight demerit points under the new law. And it could quite possibly have been a heck of a lot worse, as once they’ve been found guilty of an offence they can then be charged with other offences in addition.”

Under the existing laws at the time, the driver was charged with ‘following too closely’ and fined one demerit point.

Cyclists will now also be able to lodge complaints to the police provided they have supporting evidence in the form of signed witness statements or video footage.

While the main focus of SCA has been instituting new legislation to make the roads safer for cyclists, Sharp says this is just one of several approaches that needs to be taken. “Minimum safe passing distances are just part of the puzzle. You’re always going to have to look at infrastructure and education as well. No one of those things is going to solve everyone’s problems on its own.

Enforcement is also important, he adds. “There is no point having these laws and the education in place if you’re not prepared to get out there and enforce it. Unfortunately, the people that you really need to educate are the ones who are the least likely to listen, and that’s where the problem is.  These people need the carrot and the stick – and without the stick there, you’re really going to have no impact.”

The hope now is that the two-year trial will be a success and that other states and territories will also introduce similar legislation.

Unfortunately, a number of state-funded cycling organisations, such as Victoria’s Bicycle Network and Bicycle Queensland, have not come out in support of minimum passing distance legislation.  

“With government funding, these organisations pretty much have to toe the line and push the government agenda. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t really like us riding on the road,” says Sharp.

Among the other voices opposed to the legislation is the RACQ. The association’s Paul Turner told the Cairns Post the new law would add to anxiety and road rage.

“Courtesy between motorists and cyclists is essential, and we’re worried this law may prove more divisive,” he told the newspaper.

Divisions between the two road-user groups, however, are largely a result of irresponsible reporting in the conventional media and on social media platforms, says Sharp.

“I think they (newspapers) love to try and make something out of this. I think if they just left it alone, you’d find in a few years that no one was really talking about it anymore.

“Every time you see a cycling story in the print media, they always invite comment, and lately, with a lot of the comments not being moderated, and especially on Facebook pages, some of the stuff that is being said is just absolutely horrendous.

“It’s got to the point now where you can equate it to a form of racism or homophobia – it’s just an irrational hatred; there is just no explanation for it. It never used to be this way, and we need to ask ourselves why that hatred is there now – I don’t think it’s anything to do with what cyclists or motorists are doing. I genuinely believe it comes back to the part the press are playing in all of this.

What else can be done?

Vassallo is an advocate for both improved infrastructure and education for both parties.

“We need dedicated lanes, and if there are speeds in excess of 60 kilometres per hour, there should be a buffer zone between vehicles and cyclists.”

She also stresses the importance of making yourself more visible to drivers.

“You have to make yourself more visible as a cyclist, because, if you have an accident, even if you’re in the right, you’re going to come off second best.

If you can have more than one light on, then do it – if the battery goes then you’ve got one that will be going. Also, when there is a lot of traffic, make yourself more visible. Sit up on your bike rather then being low down on your bars.

Cyclists should also wear brightly coloured clothes, she adds. “I will often see a group of cyclists in the morning all wearing black and one will have a light on. I’m sorry, but that is an accident waiting to happen.”

Vassallo stresses that if cyclists take all reasonable means to stay safe, then if the worst does happen, they’ll not be left with regrets.

“If you do everything right, then hopefully everything will fall into place, but if it doesn’t, then there is nothing that you could have done to change that.”