Latest NSW cycling safety launch misses the mark

Talk about a lesson in how not to announce a key cycling safety measure.

Two weeks ago, the NSW government announced a "new cycling safety package"

The items that drew the most attention were that cyclists would be fined if they didn't carry photo ID and that cycling fines would be increased - some by as much as 500 per cent.

Lost in all of this was the key safety measure. NSW will become the fourth Australian jurisdiction – after Queensland, South Australia and the ACT – to enforce "a metre matters" minimum passing laws on its roads. (Tasmania has also changed some road rules to allow safer passing.) 

Little coverage was given to this trial of legislation designed to protect vulnerable road users – and even less explanation was given on how the passing laws will work.

Of course, the media will focus on controversy, and the government's decision to enact what appears to be a world first (compulsory ID for people who ride bike) while massively increasing fines, got all the headlines. 

So it was all about "complaints about cyclists openly flouting the law", "higher fines for dodgy cyclists" and "cyclists put on notice".

Sadly, with cyclist behaviour being identified as "the problem", the safety message to those who need to hear it most was being severely diluted.

This is a worry.


Do the right thing

Most people on the roads try to do the right thing - and minimum distance passing laws are seen as a good way of educating drivers on how to overtake cyclists safely.

But there is an unnerving section of the populace who are extremely prejudiced towards bicycles and the human lives they carry.

Social media is awash with comments such as "I won't respect cyclists on the road until they pay rego" and the usual ranting about Lycra, law-breaking and perceptions of over-entitlement. 

The thinking appears to go like this: "I see lots of cyclists breaking the law, and I hear about cyclists getting hurt – which is no wonder, because they break the law."

But a range of studies have found that when cars and bikes collide, it is overwhelmingly the driver who is to blame.

And a study of the role of traffic violations in 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."

These perceptions are hard to counter – even more so if cyclists are being loudly trumpeted as a problem. 

The worst part is that, even as fines are increased, some cyclists will still break them and go unpunished, leading to even further fury by those who have confirmation bias against cyclists. 

An education campaign in the less than two months before the law changes are expected to take hold is being rolled out. It's going to be interesting to see how the issues are framed. 

The ID issue

Cyclists, meanwhile, have been divided over the package of legislation.

"Well, I always carry ID when cycling, so what's the big deal?" has been the response by many cyclists. 

Well, good for you – but is enforcement really necessary? 

The government's stated intention is that the measure allow cyclists to be identified "in an emergency or if they break the road rules".

But in a post on his Facebook page, Premier Mike Baird said that when it comes to ID, "a photo of your ID on your phone is OK too". This has been confirmed by Transport for NSW.

I'm not sure how the phone is going to be quickly unlocked to reveal your details if you are incapacitated.

And a week later, the ACT said it had no plans to make IDs compulsory

"In the event of a cyclist being involved in a crash or other on-road incident there are existing powers for police to request the cyclist's name and address," an ACT government spokesman said.

How come the ACT police can cope and the NSW officers can't?

The hidden impact

One concern is that this law might impact the people who are the least committed of riders – or can least afford to pay for the error. 

Sports and commuter cyclists are seen as the predominant bike riders in Australia, but it's easy to forget the unheralded, unrepresented utility riders, especially those on low incomes. 

And increased participation is a crucial element of cycling safety – not through creating more enthusiasts, but by encouraging more people who will never view themselves as "cyclists" to get on a bike. 

On Tuesday, Anthony Albanese penned an article for Fairfax Media about the benefits of cycling as a way to reduce congestion

"Smart governments should be doing everything they can to identify impediments to greater use of bicycles," wrote Labor's federal opposition spokesman on transport.

How does this square with new, unheard-of cycling regulations? 

An expensive ride

Meanwhile, consider a coastal resident cycling to the beach for a swim in the near future.

To avoid a section of busy road, he rolls onto the footpath – permitted in Queensland, the Northern Territory, the ACT, Tasmania and South Australia (which lifted the ban two months ago) – but illegal in NSW.

He's wearing a broad-brimmed hat to keep off the sun, rather than a helmet - a legal choice in almost 99 per cent of the world's nations, and even in the Northern Territory when you ride on footpaths or bike lanes. That fine will be an astonishing $319, up from $71.

When stopped by a police officer, it turns out he's not carrying ID, for fear of losing it on the beach. Another $106.

All up, he could be liable for some $500 in fines for rolling a few blocks to the beach on a bike.

Only in New South Wales.

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.

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