How can motorists safely pass cyclists in Australia?

It's a sunny day and I'm rolling up a steady, tree-lined incline on my bicycle.

Behind me, I hear a car approaching. It's a quiet, narrow road and even though I'm riding to the left of the lane, there isn't a lot of space for overtaking.

The driver slows his vehicle, sees that the way is clear, and overtakes me, leaving a healthy space between us in the process.

And as the car passes, I note that the wheels on the right side of the vehicle have crossed the continuous line in the middle of the road.

He's broken the law and could be liable for a fine.

Or has he? Like so many of the road rules pertaining to cyclists in Australia, it depends where this interaction takes place.

Queensland became the Antipodean pioneer of "metre matters" passing laws 18 months ago, with trial regulations stipulating that motorists must give one metre of space when passing a cyclist in a speed zone of 60km/h or less, and 1.5 metres when travelling faster.

To facilitate this, motorists were given permission to cross continuous centre lines and drive on painted islands in order to overtake cyclists – so long as this was done safely.

South Australia adopted similar regulations last Sunday, while the ACT will adopt them this Sunday. In Tasmania since late February, motor vehicles have been allowed to cross centre lines to overtake cyclists.

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When the laws were announced in Queensland, permission to cross the white line was one controversial issue, with much prediction that an exemption for such a time-honoured practice would lead to road carnage.

To quote the famous Yogi Berra, it's been "deja vu all over again" in South Australia, with the issue running hot in news reports and on social media. The white line exemption has been cited by many as a particular concern.

Of course there are many situations where the white line should never be crossed  - which is why the legislation states that safety is paramount.

But in an article in the Adelaide Advertiser headlined "Changes in road rules for cyclists are for the better", Charles Mountain, the Royal Automobile Association of SA's senior manager of road safety, wrote:

"The new law that allows motorists to cross a solid single line, double lines and painted islands when the road is clear is great as this really reflects what motorists are doing already to safely pass cyclists, particularly through the Adelaide Hills."

Unconscious act

He's absolutely right. I've noticed this time and time again, even when riding in such states as NSW and Victoria, where there is no white line exemption for overtaking a cyclist. It happens on narrow, shoulderless conduits in national parks, on city streets and suburban backroads. I'm sure that motorists often don't even realise they're doing it. They're just focusing on leaving a safe margin while passing.

Of course, to avoid breaking the law, the motorist would have to wait until the continuous line ends or the lane widens.

Meanwhile, squeezing past the cyclist with little room to spare in order to stay inside the line could be ruled as dangerous driving – even in states where there are no "metre matters" laws in place. The law allowing vehicles to cross continuous lines benefits drivers as well as cyclists.

As a driver, I've found that it's usually a lot easier to overtake a bicycle. When a car doing 80km/h is overtaking another vehicle doing 70km/h, the passing car will spend a significant amount of time on the opposite side of the road. This won't happen when overtaking a bicycle that is travelling at a slower speed.

Secondly, a bicycle isn't as wide or as long as a motor vehicle, meaning cars can often leave a safe margin while only crossing the line with two wheels, and spend less time on the other side of the road.

And unlike overtaking other slow vehicles, such as trucks, a motorist can have a clear view of the road ahead of a bicyclist – and any possible upcoming corners or oncoming cars.

Initial hyperventilation

Ray Rice of Bicycle NSW, which is pushing for metre passing laws in its home state, also notes that "motorists are already able to cross unbroken lines in other circumstances – for example, while making a right turn. The legislation will benefit all road users."

So how's the trial been going in Queensland, after the initial hyperventilation? I certainly haven't read of an outbreak of head-on collisions by motorists circumventing cyclists.

This week, the state's Transport and Main Roads department told me they were still collating data for a full evaluation, while Mark Textor, the chairman of the Amy Gillett Foundation, told me "there has been no evidence of any major issue with the legislation, and the AGF's polling in Queensland continues to show strong community support".

Meanwhile, as law changes aimed at making the roads safer for cyclists take hold in half of Australia's states and territories, one simply hopes that people will calm down, educate themselves about the regulations and use courtesy and common sense.

What has been your experience of motorists passing cyclists? Let us know in the comments section. Submissions will be carefully moderated and only those addressing the topic will be considered for publication.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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