Metre passing laws for cyclists: Queensland trial, proposal in Victoria

"But our roads aren't wide enough!"

It's a common response whenever the issue of the "metre matters" law for motorists overtaking cyclists is raised.

To me, the response underlines the need for such a law.

Many of our roads are narrow, and yet some people think it's acceptable to leave little space when squeezing past cyclists, often at speed - which can be terrifying and sometimes fatal.

In fact, giving at least a metre when overtaking a cyclist is a recommendation by almost all state transport authorities.

A year ago, on April 7, Queensland made it a law, with penalties attached. 

The basic rules are simple. Motorists must leave a metre when passing a bicyclist at 60km/h or less, and 1.5 metres in speed zones greater than 60km/h. To make this easier, drivers are allowed to cross centre lines, when safe, while passing bikes.

Nevertheless, social media posts and a welter of news reports predicted dire consequences, including that motorists would be trapped behind dawdling cyclists, or forced into head-on collisions with other cars while overtaking.

"Someone will die under the new bike laws," one report warned, while another article concluded that the law was "hostile and unworkable".

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Progress report

So, one year on, how is Queensland's two-year trial going?

Officially, it's too early to tell - a scientific evaluation of the trial will only commence next year.

Anecdotally, I've heard an overwhelmingly positive response, with many Queensland cyclists saying that increased awareness of safe passing has led to better road behaviour (of course, there are still close passes – and some feel the laws have had little effect).

Meanwhile, an independent study last year, commissioned by the Amy Gillett Foundation, obtained some interesting results. Of 800 people surveyed, 67 per cent of all road users agreed with the legislation, while 16 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

The cyclist fatality rate in Queensland has declined - 13 deaths in 2013, seven last year and one to date this year - although these statistics deserve closer analysis. 

As for enforcement, 33 fines for failing to maintain the required distance were issued in the nine months of last year, a Queensland Transport and Main Roads spokesman told me this week. Yes, it's a low number – and many cyclists have complained that the law is not being enforced, even when video evidence is produced – but it nevertheless shows that police are able to take action.

Others have argued that enforcement isn't the sole metric for success.  "The point of this rule has never been to fine people," said then Transport and Main Roads minister Scott Emerson last year. "It's to change attitudes on the roads."

In many ways, Queensland's metre law has been an awareness campaign - with the possibility of fines, and the aforementioned media outrage, heightening the awareness.

The law catches on

In the ACT and South Australia, similar measures are due to commence. In Tasmania, a law allowing motorists to cross barrier lines to overtake cyclists has been passed, and improved separation is being encouraged, although not enforced. A passing law bill was tabled by the Greens in Western Australia last year.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, a passing law bill was tabled in the state Parliament by the Greens last month. 

"We're starting to see out of other states that it makes a real difference to cyclist safety," Greens MLC Samantha Dunn told the Age. "There is a huge community of cyclists in Victoria and they should have similar protections." 

The social media response was pretty much identical to that observed in Queensland a year ago, while one media report stated that "the Greens have reignited their war with motorists".

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy described it as a Greens "thought bubble", and asked: "How would you penalise people in a car for being too close to a bike if the bike pulls up next to the car?" (The law is only for cars passing bikes; after all, motorists aren't likely to be killed if a cyclist passes too close to them.)

Passing laws are a topic of debate even within the cycling community. They are supported by Cycling Victoria, which focuses on sports cycling. Chris Carpenter of Bicycle Network told me that "our priority is to get more people riding and for governments to invest in bike infrastructure", while they would "monitor the [Queensland] trial to determine its viability once reviewed by government".

But what use are the laws? Here are a few key points to consider:

Collision courses: "The data in our research in Victoria shows that the most common circumstance resulting in a bike rider fatality through interaction with a motor vehicle is being hit from behind – about 25 per cent of fatalities," Amy Gillett Foundation CEO Tracey Gaudry told me this week. "It stands to reason that if drivers are consciously leaving space when overtaking, they're consciously considering how to pass that bicycle rider safely."

It's not just about collisions: A close pass by a speeding vehicle is a terrifying thing, and can put one off cycling for good. Unlike collisions, such incidents seldom turn up on official statistics (in the UK, an attempt is being made to document them through "The Near-Miss Project"). 

We still need bike lanes: The gold standard for cyclist safety will always be separated infrastructure - but it will take time to implement. Drivers and riders will have to share space for many years to come – hence the need for greater consideration.

Can you measure a metre? There are many distance requirements in road rules. In NSW, drivers are expected to park 10 metres from an intersection without signs or traffic lights and leave a minimum "three-second" following gap. If anyone is unsure of a metre, just leave a greater margin. It won't be illegal.

Evidence and opposition: It has been argued that there is little evidence that metre passing laws improve safety for cyclists. In reply, the AGF's Dr Marilyn Johnson says that there is little evidence that they're not effective – it's an under-researched area. And there's also no proof that they are a negative.

The best approach

Victoria's new Premier, Daniel Andrews, said he would consider the proposal. "We have to have a debate and a discussion, in a respectful way, and find the best way to make sure that we keep all road users safe," he said.

The ideal way to conduct that debate is to make it non-political – because cycling, and road safety, cuts across all social and political lines.

For all the rhetoric about "war on our roads", the vast majority of people want to do the right thing - and to know what that is.

In Queensland, a 6000-signature petition following the tragic death of musician Richard Pollett led to a multi-party parliamentary inquiry into cycling issues, and resulted in the metre passing law trial.

In South Australia, a specially convened Citizens' Jury backed the implementation of passing laws, while the ACT also conducted an inquiry that recommended a trial.

Other jurisdictions, including Victoria, should tackle the issue in the same way.

Do you support minimum distance passing laws? 

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated. Please stay on topic.

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