Earlier this year, Adrian Emilsen was cycling home on a Sydney street.
He’d stopped at a set of traffic lights. The lights had turned green and he was already through the crossing and moving swiftly when he was hit directly from behind by a car that had come through the intersection behind him.
In some ways he was incredibly lucky. The impact sent him clean over the car that hit him. He landed on his shoulders and the back of his head in the street; the driver of the next car, who witnessed him flying through the air, managed to avoid running over him.
As people tended to him on the street, he could hear the driver of the car shouting, “he swerved in front of me!” Emilsen is a qualified cycling instructor and, concussed as he was, knew he had done no such thing.
His bike was destroyed, but after an evening in hospital and some time spent recovering, including wearing a neck brace, he was OK.
The next blow he received, he told me, was when the police said that since he and the driver had given conflicting accounts of the incident, and there were no independent witnesses, they weren’t going to take action against the driver.
It got worse when he received the police report – which said his bicycle had moved in front of the car, which had tried to swerve but still hit him. In other words, they appeared to be accepting the driver’s account of the incident.
Do cyclists get a fair go from police when they’ve been involved in a collision with a car?
Last year, I wrote about Craig Cowled, who was hit by a car that shattered his leg, with the driver being given a fine and one penalty point for “following too closely”.
After that blog, I got a string of emails from cyclists telling me of the difficulties they’d had in trying to get the police to act against drivers that had crashed into them.
I've been involved with the police on two occasions as a cyclist, and both times I was happy with the police response and the outcome. One motorist was fined, while the other was spoken to.
But I know people who have been met with disdain, lack of knowledge of the road rules as regards cyclists, and general reluctance to take any action. One described the attitude he received as one of, “well, if you’re going to ride a bicycle on the road, what do you expect?”
Write-off: Adrian Emilsen's bicycle after he was hit from behind in Sydney.
There are a few things to remember here. Firstly, make it easy for the police. Go directly to the police and make a statement (I’ve written before on what to do after an accident), and give them as much material to work with as possible. Witnesses are key, so recruit any you can find. Since any action the police take may be challenged, they have to be confident it will hold up in court.
Secondly, be persistent. If you feel you are being fobbed off, ask to speak to a superior. Keep calling back to see how the matter is proceeding. A case can take months, even years, to resolve, so be patient. Craig Cowled is still pursuing the Queensland Police over the handling of his incident, some nine months later.
Part of the challenge for cyclists in Australia is that police can only act within the confines of the law. It's especially frustrating when a collision can often mean a paint scratch for a vehicle but a life-altering injury for a cyclist. Many European countries have a better approach – the Dutch have one of the world’s best cycling cultures, and it helps that any motorist hitting a bicycle rider is going to face serious scrutiny.
In Australia, the battle for a minimum passing law is gaining momentum in different states, and might provide at least some legal redress in cases where cyclists are dangerously skimmed or side-swiped by vehicles.
The ongoing challenge is, of course, increased acceptance of bicycles on our roads. One person who has been a breath of fresh air on this matter is the Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay. By his own account, he gained “far more sympathy for cyclists” once he joined the ranks of the two-wheelers.
Last week, Fairfax Media published a video clip of Lay laying down the law on cycling issues (you can see it at the top of this page).
''Bikes are classified as vehicles, and like cars, they have the right to use our roads,'' he says. ''The vulnerability of cyclists does put the responsibility on motorists to drive safely and in a way that doesn't risk the life of cyclists.''
''Our roads are paid for by our taxes and rates,'' he continues, skewering the endemic misperception that motorists pay for the roads (and therefore have greater rights).
''Cyclists may ride two abreast legally. Be patient when you're driving and give bikes at least one metre clearance when passing, more if you're travelling over 60km/h.''
It’s curious that some might consider such common-sense statements to be brave or controversial. But it’s heartening to see a senior officer take such a stand, and similar leadership is sorely needed in other states.
As for Emilsen, whose saga started this blog, I’ve just learned that after registering a complaint with the Police Ombudsman, he received a call saying police intend to take action against the driver. He may have been knocked down, but he didn’t stay down.
Have you ever had to report an incident to the police? Do you feel you had a good or bad outcome, and what advice do you have for others?