When a car and a bicycle collide, who is more likely to have been at fault – the cyclist or the motorist?
If you keep an eye on news media or public commentary about cyclists in Australia, it'd be easy to assume that cyclists were largely responsible for accidents.
While driver perceptions are of cyclists being mavericks on the road, the crash data does not support this position.
Stories about "Lycra louts" abound, while people who comment on social media are always quick to heap scorn on bike riders, sometimes quoting anecdotes about behaviour they've observed.
But is cyclist error or even lawlessness the major cause of collisions between bikes and cars?
I've often referred to an Adelaide University report which found that motorists were at fault in 79 per cent of the cases studied where cyclists had been seriously injured in collisions with cars. That's almost four out of five times.
It's interesting to note that comparable results have been obtained by studies in other nations with arguably similar road cultures and conditions.
Research by the New Zealand Ministry of Transport found that, in car/bike injury collisions, cyclists were primarily responsible 23 per cent of the time, and had some responsibility 14 per cent of the time. No cyclist fault was identified in 63 per cent of cases.
A study by the UK Department of Transport found that, when adult cyclists were in collision with cars, the driver was solely responsible in about 60-75 per cent of all cases, and riders were solely at fault 17-25 per cent of the time.
A recent study of central London drew similar conclusions. One interesting aspect was that pedestrians were found to be at fault in 60 per cent of the cases where riders and walkers collided.
Do these studies mean that all cyclists are blameless? Absolutely not – there are inexpert, risk-taking and law-breaking bike riders out there, and some of them come to grief solely as a result of their actions.
Nor does it mean that motorists don't care about the safety of cyclists - they often simply do not see cyclists, or make errors of judgement.
Research in Melbourne by Dr Marilyn Johnson of Monash University used helmet cameras on cyclists to explore the difficulties experienced by riders trying to stay safe in traffic. Analysis of some 54 "events" – two crashes, six near-crashes and 46 "incidents" – showed that drivers tended to focus on other motor vehicles.
"The role of driver behaviour in cyclist safety was found to be more significant than previously thought," Johnson found. "Previously, the emphasis was on how cyclists needed to improve their behaviour to improve their safety. While cyclists certainly need to obey road rules and be courteous to other road users, my study shows that cyclists' behaviour alone is not the answer."
Johnson wrote to me from Europe this week: "Typically, cyclists are hyper-vigilant, hyper-alert and make sure they stay safe. When a crash does occur, it can be due to the driver's behaviour (most likely) or the cyclist failing to be hyper-vigilant and failing to avoid the situation (sometimes) or it's due to the cyclist's own unlawful behaviour (rarely)."
Similarly, a study of "the role of traffic violations in police-reported bicycle crashes in Queensland" by CARRS-Q concluded that: "While driver perceptions are of cyclists being mavericks on the road, the crash data does not support this position … this research demonstrates a cyclist is unlikely to commit a traffic violation that results in a single vehicle crash, or collision with another road user."
Meanwhile, a recent survey showed that cyclists say they often break laws in an attempt to keep themselves safe in challenging environments. Such behaviour could include riding on footpaths to stay off busy roads - which is nevertheless legal in half of Australia's jurisdictions.
Of course, no one is advocating open slather on our roads. And bike riders are part of the general populace – they can be as arrogant, impatient, inept and foolish as anyone else.
A 'safe system' approach
But what is the best way to keep cyclists safe? Johnson says infrastructure changes such as separated bike lanes, driver education and enforcement of laws designed to protect cyclists "will prevent more cyclist fatal and serious injury crashes than focusing on cyclist behaviour".
The physical environment is key, however. "A system that is tolerant of human error is fundamental to a 'safe system' approach and we have not yet achieved that."
Chris Carpenter of Bicycle Network says: "Separated bike infrastructure is one of the greatest ways to improve the riding environment," while safety for cyclists on the road could be improved by lowering traffic speeds, improving roundabout designs and changing driver habits.
"I believe the roads budget for cycling should be equal to mode share," says University of NSW Associate Professor Jake Olivier, a co-author of several studies on road and cyclist safety. "Australia would greatly benefit as it would make cycling more attractive and improve safety."
Cycling round table
In Sydney, cycling issues have been in the news lately, with the announcement that the College Street cycleway – which carries as many people in the morning peak as the traffic lane next to it – will be removed. A previous government undertaking to replace it with a bike lane in Castlereagh Street will not be met.
Meanwhile, Roads Minister Duncan Gay, who last year said he was "increasingly persuaded" that cyclists should be licensed, is conducting a "Round Table on Cycling Safety and Compliance", involving groups including the police, cycling advocates and government agencies.
"This round table is key for the ongoing safety of cyclists and all road users," Gay has told the media. "We want to get this right."
It will be interesting to see the outcome.
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Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly is one of Australia's leading cycling bloggers.