Cycling and vulnerability: an issue of inequality

As the car hit my bicycle from behind, a strange, dispassionate thought flashed through my mind.

"You know that thing you've been trying so hard to avoid?" the thought went. "Well, it just happened."

Until then, my ride had been unexceptional. It was a sunny, blustery afternoon three weeks ago, and I was travelling up a two-lane, 60km/h suburban street.

It's a popular route for cyclists and in the past eight years I must have travelled the same way several hundred times without incident.

In truth, I was incredibly lucky. As the car struck my rear wheel, I was flicked out of the path of the vehicle - possibly because it was a glancing blow, assisted by the buckling of my wheel.

I didn't even fall off, but instead found myself stopped in the gutter, with an unrideable bike and a scratch on my right ankle. Soon, I was having to control my emotions as the driver gave the eternal excuse: "Sorry, mate, I didn't see you."

I knew it was likely to be of little use, but I still visited a police station later in the day.

Yes, the motorist had stopped. Yes, we exchanged details. No, I wasn't injured. The forces of the law would not get involved – it was up to me and the driver who hit me to sort out payment for the damage.

The frustrating thing about this everyday transaction is the perception that the stakes are identical. It was an accident, no one meant to harm anyone, so let's just sort out the money and move on – as is usually the case when one car hits another from behind.


But when a driver and a cyclist collide, there is only one person whose body is on the line.

Bicycles are defined as vehicles, and given similar rights to cars when on the road – but little legal recognition is given regarding their disproportionate vulnerability.

This issue was tackled this week by Alan Davies on the Crikey website, who asks, "Can cyclists live with traffic bingles?" His article followed on from a detailed (and provocatively titled) report by Greg Bearup in The Australian, "Are cyclists fair game?"

Bearup points out that, all too often, motorists receive little or no punishment for maiming or killing cyclists. If it's judged an accident, well, that's that. These things happen.

Davies writes that there is an urgent need for more separated cycling infrastructure and redesigned roads – and he's absolutely right. But it's near impossible to run a cycle path from the front of each bike rider's door to their every destination. Bikes and cars will have to share space for a long time yet.

So, is there also a legal approach to the issue? A law that recognises the vulnerability of cyclists, and accords them extra protection?

It could be argued that Queensland is attempting one, after commencing a two-year trial of a minimum passing distance law last month. Motorists must give a bicycle rider at least a metre's space when passing at 60km/h or less, and at least 1.5 metres when passing at greater speed.

The law's implementation caused an outpouring in the media (and social media) of some of the more hysterical poppycock you're likely to read. It was if the four horsemen of the apocalypse had swapped their steeds for treadlies.

The law would result in a deadly outbreak of head-on car collisions, went the cry. What on earth would you do if you were bearing down on a cyclist at 60km/h on a narrow road, with a car coming the other way?

Umm ... apply the brake and wait until it's safe to pass? The fact that so many motorists appear to think it's acceptable to skim past a cyclist with centimetres to spare, suggests that this law is sorely needed.

Indeed, consider a current inquest into the death of a cyclist in Queensland in 2011, where a truck driver has admitted he could see the cyclist some 100 to 200 metres ahead, but tried to pass in the same lane; the rider was hit by the truck and killed. The incident compares with the tragic fate of Richard Pollett.

Many Queensland cyclists have told me, and others, that the overall change in driver behaviour was palpable from the first day. While some organisations said a preferred option would be increased awareness and education, the media and advertising blitz meant that awareness was massively heightened – with the fact that a penalty was attached no doubt adding to the education.

I could have used some of that heightened awareness three weeks ago, but the laws don't exist anywhere else in Australia – at least, not yet.

The Amy Gillett Foundation is campaigning for minimum passing laws in other states, and nationally – their petition closes this week. It'll be interesting to see what the federal politicians make of it later this month.

As a cyclist, what measures do you think will help to keep you safer? If you ride in Queensland, have you noticed a change in road behaviour?

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