Queensland has decided that when it comes to cyclists, a metre really does matter.
From January 1, motorists in the Sunshine State will be legally required to leave at least a metre of space while overtaking a cyclist when travelling under 60km/h, and 1.5 metres when travelling faster than 60km/h.
In some ways, this is hardly controversial. Most states and territories in Australia recommend that motor vehicles leave a metre when overtaking a bicycle. But it's a recommendation, not a law - although it might soon be.
Queensland's journey to this decision has been a long one, at times spurred by tragedy. Two years ago, a brilliant young violinist, Richard Pollett, was run over by a truck while cycling in Brisbane. Earlier this year, a jury found that the truck driver had no case to answer under the available laws.
In the wake of this ruling, the Pollett family's local MP, Dr Bruce Flegg, armed with a 6000-signature petition, asked his LNP colleagues to tackle the issue. An inquiry into all aspects of cycling and safety in Queensland was commenced; after five months of work, the multi-party committee last Friday released a comprehensive report containing 68 recommendations.
By lunchtime, the Queensland Transport Minister, Scott Emerson, announced that while he would take some time considering all the recommendations, the minimum passing law would be enacted within a month. However, cars would be allowed to cross a dividing line, if safe, in order to give space to cyclists while overtaking (which many motorists do anyway, in my experience). The committee's recommendation is that passing too close will carry a maximum fine of $4400 and a loss of eight demerit points.
When this was reported in the Brisbane Times and the Courier Mail on Friday, the comments sections drew hundreds of disbelieving responses from people who seem incapable of accepting that bicycles require additional consideration on our roads.
"How do you give one metre clearance to a cyclist on a narrow bridge with a truck coming towards you?" was one anguished plea. Presumably, their standard practice would be to skim past the bike rider with millimetres to spare.
Others wanted to know whether the law worked both ways, and cyclists would have to leave at least a metre when passing cars. Of course, the situations are not comparable, and here are a few things to consider:
- Cars are liable to pass bicycles at a far greater speed differential. They also tend to weigh more than a tonne, while most bicycles weigh less than 15 kilograms.
- If a car hits a cyclist while passing, that cyclist will most likely be injured or even killed. It's a major cause of cyclist deaths. I've yet to hear of a driver being killed by a passing cyclist.
- Different laws apply to cyclists and motorists. Bicycles already have legal permission to overtake on the left. It's one of the reasons why many commuters find it quicker to cycle than ride, and allowed this bloke to pass 589 motorists on his way to work. (And if motorists find themselves repeatedly overtaking the same cyclist, they're probably being held up by traffic lights ... and other cars.)
Another question is – how will the law be enforced? Will the police be chasing after cars with rulers or laser measuring devices?
As Emerson told ABC Radio on Friday, most people are already very sensible when it comes to road safety, but having a defined law would encourage road users to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, having a legal stipulation would certainly have been useful in the case of Craig Cowled, a Brisbane rider whose leg was shattered in July when he was hit by an overtaking car, with the driver losing one demerit point for "following too closely".
So, if Queensland has the law (joining almost half the states in America, and European countries such as France and Spain) – what about the rest of Australia?
Greens politicians Jamie Parker and Greg Barber have told the Amy Gillett Foundation they intend to seek similar laws in the NSW and Victorian state parliaments, respectively. The ACT is busy conducting its own inquiry into cycling.
It's uncertain if all these initiatives will succeed – and it's notable that many cycling advocacy groups don't support a minimum passing law, including the Victoria-based Bicycle Network Australia and Bicycle Queensland (the petition in Queensland was championed by a small organisation called Safe Cycling Australia).
Still, the Sunshine State has shown how road safety issues should ideally be approached – as a multi-party inquiry, with no political axes to grind, and input from relevant organisations and the public.
"It's an outstanding bit of committee work," Flegg told me with delight, and it still has a long way to run. The recommendations yet to be considered are wide-ranging, and while few people would agree with all of them – and many are unlikely to be implemented – they create a template for a road culture that many of us have enjoyed while cycling in Europe, but which is sadly denied to Australians at home.
Still, my favourite has to be No. 26: "The Committee recommends that the registration of bicycles not be introduced in Queensland and, if this recommendation is supported, the Minister for Transport and Main Roads make a public statement clearly outlining the reasons for making the decision."
I know of no significant organisation or government agency in Australia that supports the registration of bicycles – you can read a neat take-down of the idea on pages 102-106 of the report. Yet people still obsess about registration, and use it as a reason to hate cyclists.
It's time that our politicians did the responsible thing and publicly buried the issue, while encouraging us to respect one another as human beings on the roads.
Do you support a minimum passing distance law for cyclists?