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Change road rules to enable increased cycling


20 May 2009

If a Motorist (4 wheel motor vehicle or 2 wheel motor bike) runs a red light, the transgressor, if caught should expect a penalty, because a third party could be seriously injured.

If a Motorist exceeds 40km/h between 8am and 9:30am or 2:30pm to 4pm in a school zone on a school day, the Motorist would likely be penalised, because a school child is viewed as vulnerable and could do something unexpected, and a Motorist is expected to be able to react.

Below is an extract from RTA Road Users Handbook which explains road rules (for NSW - similar rules in other states) which warn Motorists, that a cyclist ahead could unexpectedly veer to miss a pothole, drainage grid or debris, and Motorists should allow for that:

“At times bicycle riders may need a full width lane to ride safely due to rough road edges and gravel. Be prepared to slow down and allow the driver to travel away from the kerb.”

Amongst English speaking countries, The Netherlands with a population of 16.5m, has easily the highest per capita usage of bicycles for commuter transport and the 2nd lowest per capita road fatalities across 24 EU nations. So can we learn from the Dutch?

* 15b kilometres cycled annually in Holland, equating to 900km per capita

* In 2005, 182 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents across Holland and 7,742 were hospitalised

* In 2006, 811 road fatalities (incl cyclists) in Holland, falling from over 3,000 in 1972, compared to 1,601 across Australia in 2006, falling from 3,400 in 1981

* 26% of all trips in Holland are by bicycle

The cultural mindset amongst the Dutch is that cyclists always have presumptive right of way. A Motorist who hits a cyclist is assumed to be at fault for at least 50%; onus falls upon the Motorist to prove he/she did not materially contribute to the accident, because a bicyle may unexpectedly alter its path. That prospect of contributory negligence necessiates a conscious, pronunced check, “Are there any cyclists in sight?”. The Netherlands is now propagating its Advancing Sustainable Safety 2007 programme throughout the EU because many partner nations identify it represents “cost beneficial expenditure”.

Governments throughout Australia are now inviting their constituents to try and leave their car in the garage and walk, or ride a bicycle, to work or to public transport. Some road rules and penalties need to accompany this changed government mindset, and those inviting residents to try cycling need to provide a risk warning. Otherwise the “Casualty Ward” in our hospitals is going to be in greater demand.

Mindful of Australia’s strict penalties enforced to protect pedestrians at traffic lights, and school children near Motorists, as well as the remarkable success that Holland has achieved in replacing motor car journeys with bicycle trips where a Motorist who hits a cyclist is assumed to be at fault for at least 50%, it is incongruous for Australian road rules to patently protect human life when pedestrians are at risk of injury from motor vehicles. Yet if a person is travelling on a few kilograms of bicycle on our public roads, the same regard for safeguarding human life is ignored.

Cognisant of the obvious dangers when driving near cyclists, the below RTA Road Users Handbook (for NSW and similar road user tips in other states) are now unsatisfactory:

“When overtaking give bicycle riders enough space. This means at least 1m to the side in a 50km/h zone. If the speed limit is higher, bicycle riders need more space for their safety.”

At times bicycle riders may need a full width lane to ride safely due to rough road edges and gravel. Be prepared to slow down and move away from the kerb. ”

In addition, politicians and government agencies, who are encouraging residents to commute by bicycle, are in breach of their obligations, pursuant to Civil Liability Acts 2002 to provide a risk warning, when inviting persons to participate in a recreational activity which involves risks.

Politicians and governments need to –

(a) warn the people, that they are inviting to try cycling, of these risks, and

(b) take action to mitigate the likelihood of the invitees suffering these risks.

Presently, the vast majority of seasoned cyclists will thankfully not commute to/from work on busy roads during peak hours, because it is akin to Russian Roulette, whereupon a Motorist eventually travels too close and too fast when passing a cyclist on such main arteries during peak hours and may not have allowed for a cyclist being confronted by a pothole, drainage grid, debris etc.

Road authorities need to adopt more stringent road penalties and fines, including more severe jail sentences if a trauma accident results by applying the same presumption of at least 50% negligence applicable in The Netherlands.

For multiple lane roads traffic laws and the RTA Road User Handbook (for NSW) should patently establish that –

(i) a cyclist ahead of a Motorist in the kerbside lane has legal right to the entire lane;

(ii) if the driver of a 4 wheel motor vehicle in the same kerbside lane behind the cyclist wishes to pass the cyclist, the driver should signal with a right blinker and change to the lane on its RHS prior to such vehicle encroaching within 50m of the cyclist’s rear wheel; and

(iii) a motor bike rider in the same kerbside lane behind a cyclist who wishes to pass a cyclist, may opt to not change lanes if it

(a) provides at least 1.5m clearance within 25m of the cyclist’s rear wheel; and

(b) reduces its speed to at least 10 km/h below the speed limit when passing the cyclist.

On single lane roads presently a Motorist driving behind a cyclist on any of the below three types of centre lines is not permitted to cross the centre line in order to pass a cyclist:

1. Single unbroken centre line

2. Double unbroken centre lines

3. Double centre lines with an unbroken centre line on the side of the cyclist/Motorist, and a broken centre line on the other side of the double centre lines

On a Sunday, it is not uncommon for more than 50 Motorists to pass a cyclist over roads with an unbroken centre line during a 100km (ave) recreational bicycle ride on roads on/near the perimeter of Sydney. Casual empiricism indicates that hundreds of thousands of Motorists annually break the above road rules in order to pass cyclists who often slow to say 10km/h when pedalling up a hill.

Due to governments’ enthusiasm to encourage road cycling, Road User Tips relating to 1. 2. and 3. above are outdated because road rules do not differentiate between crossing unbroken centre lines, when the roadway ahead is clear –

(i) in order to pass a slow cyclist often travelling less than half the speed of the Motorist; and

(ii) in order to pass a much wider slower Motorist which may be travelling at or approaching the maximum speed limit.

Patently, the 50+ Motorists mentioned above believed there was little practical alternative but to slip across the other side of the unbroken centre line – (i) above –when the road ahead was clear, because the cyclist was travelling much slower.

However, there is not the same justification for a Motorist to cross an unbroken centre line to pass another Motorist.

Another failing of current Road User Handbooks are some drivers of 4 wheel vehicles who, when the way ahead is clear, will not cross an unbroken centre line, but pass a cyclist sometimes exceedingly close ie. 200mm apart. Fortunately these Motorists are in the minority. Cyclists view that behaviour as spineless because it is more dangerous and results in cyclists unnecessarily being hit from behind.

Hence, road rules need to differentiate between a Motorist passing a cyclist and a Motorist passing another Motorist; to allow a Motorist to pass a cyclist by crossing for 1. 2. and 3. above (provided the way ahead is clear), because such rules would then be in accord with current driving behaviour. As turning a blind eye to outdated road rules renders the rules ineffective and the rule makers inept.

Below is another RTA Road User Handbook guideline which requires action:

“Check in your rear view and side mirrors to avoid opening you car door into the path of bicycle riders. This can be dangerous and your fault.”

The RTA should run an advertising campaign to alert that a Motorist that fails to check for upcoming traffic and therefore negligently opens their car door on a cyclist, and materially impairs the cyclist’s quality of life and future income opportunities, could be litigated in the civil courts for millions, which whilst presently likely covered by CPT Green Slip insurance, would prove exceedingly stressful for several years.

CTP Green Slip funds are not a bottomless pit. Motorists have to pay premiums to cover projected third party claims. If claims increase, premiums increase accordingly. It is probable that the ratio of bicycles to Motorists will increase in the future, as will the frequency of Motorists injuring cyclists. Mindful of the “personal responsibility” approach adopted in Civil Liability Amendment (Personal Responsibility) Act 2002 No 92 consideration should be given to Motorists being covered by their CTP Green Slip for only 50% of damages/costs from negligently striking a cyclist if the cyclist did not have CTP Green Slip cover from not having registered a motor vehicle.

If CTP Green Slip covered only 50% of damages from negligence to a cyclist who did not have a Green Slip insurance, an injured cyclist would have to sue the personal assets of the negligent motorist for the other 50% of his/her damages/costs. The prospect of a Motorist’s personal assets being threatened from their negligence which injured a cyclist would likely render Motorists much more cautious of cyclists.

The above proposed changes to road rules would facilitate the same mindset that prevails in Holland. Whereupon a lot more Australians would be comfortable cycling on major road arteries during peak hours.

Separately, politicians and bureaucrats need to also identify practical ways and means to assist their constituents to safely learn cycling.

Local community bicycle groups, several of which display the label Bicycle User Group, provide a vital role to –

(a) assist enthusiastic rookies to gain cycling confidence/skills;

(b) find out safe ride routes; and

(c) learn repair maintenance, so reaching journey’s end is more probable.

Seasoned cyclists within these local community bicycle groups will also point novices towards the most suitable bike for them, depending on the gradient, road surfaces and intended purpose of cycling, as well as where to source the best price. Hence, governments need to identify which local community bicycle groups observe robust risk management protocols, and then facilitate interested constituents towards these groups.

On the other side of the ledger, what is the wisdom of –

(a) allowing cyclists to cycle two abreast on roads where there is only one lane either way which is divided by an unbroken centre line; and

(b) not limiting the number of rows of cyclists who can ride in a two-abreast Peloton, which seemingly allows for a Peloton to be considerably longer than even the longest semi-trailer which could be an irritation to a motorist caught behind it.

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