Richard Pollett, a 25-year-old musician, was crushed under the wheels of a cement truck while cycling in Brisbane in September 2011.
The virtuoso violinist was due to perform with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra when he was killed as the truck was overtaking him on Moggill Road, a two-lane conduit through the suburb of Kenmore.
A simple touch of the brakes would likely have spared a brilliant young man’s life.
The subsequent court case has prompted renewed calls for laws to protect cyclists on Australia’s roads.
Two weeks ago, truck driver Luke Stevens faced court charged with dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death. After several days of testimony and a weekend for the jury to consider its verdict, Stevens, 29, was found not guilty.
Reports on the proceedings detail how the prosecution argued that Stevens’ decision to overtake Pollett was "very dangerous" and "left no margin of error".
Stevens should have been "patient" and waited for a safer opportunity to pass Pollett on his bike, the court was told.
In reply, the defence said Stevens was not driving erratically or speeding and was "boxed in" by other cars as he approached Pollett.
Stevens was under "the honest and reasonable belief" there was enough room on the road to safely overtake the cyclist.
Reviewing the case this week, Crikey blogger Alan Davies pondered if cyclists are seen as “mere obstacles” by motorists.
“The underlying issue is most motorists don’t view cyclists as legitimate road users. The slower speed and greater vulnerability of riders isn’t acknowledged, accepted or duly allowed for by drivers,” Davies wrote.
“I suspect the jury’s decision reflects that widespread perception.”
It’s interesting to note that, while there was no clear evidence that Stevens’ truck knocked Pollett from his bicycle, a witness suggested that the two vehicles may have earlier come into contact.
I wonder whether a lawyer would tell a court that a driver killed when his car was crushed by a truck “had the option” of getting off the road following an earlier incident where the car and truck made contact.
Any regular cyclist will attest there are few things more terrifying than a vehicle passing close by you at speed. Especially large vehicles, which push a “bow wave” of air that buffets you away and then sucks you towards them as they pass.
In my experience, the vast majority of drivers automatically give a safe berth. But it just takes one driver who is unskilled, impatient, inattentive or deliberately intimidatory (it happens) to put you in hospital, or the morgue.
After the ruling in Brisbane, a broad range of cycling advocacy groups are calling for increased legal protection for cyclists.
Tracey Gaudry of the Amy Gillett Foundation told me: “Every state advises and recommends to drivers that, when overtaking bike riders, to leave a metre. It’s an accepted and endorsed and embraced recommendation in every state and territory.”
But it’s not law. There is no legal stipulation for a minimum passing distance under road rule 144. And that needs to change, she says.
“The recent court outcome regarding Mr Richard Pollett … acquitting a driver who thought he was overtaking safely, but unfortunately the rider was killed … demonstrates that the law currently doesn’t prescribe safety well enough.”
Last Friday, scores of cyclists rode along Moggill Road in memory of Richard Pollett and to call for a legally defined minimum passing distance.
Spare me. We are talking about people’s lives here. If you can’t give a cyclist at least a metre of space when overtaking – that’s about one and a half arm lengths – you need to exercise a tiny bit of patience. After all, you’ll be a lot later to your destination if you’re involved in a fatal accident.
In response, Queensland’s Transport Minister, Scott Emerson, said a complication was that any such law might make it “illegal for cyclists to move slowly and closely past queued vehicles”.
I’m not sure why that should be the case. There are laws specific to cycling, such as the right to pass cars on the left. We need a law specific to vehicles overtaking bicycles. Besides, motorists are hardly in physical danger when a cyclist passes them closely.
Passing distance laws exist in many European countries and some 27 states in America, Gaudry says. Not only would this mean that drivers couldn’t skim cyclists with impunity, a legal framework would help to promote and enforce safer behaviour on our roads. Such a program is already under way in one US state.
The Pollett family are hoping their devastating loss will spur action so that future incidents are minimised. If Stevens the truck driver had been thinking in terms of at least a metre’s space, by law, he might have exercised more caution. “Boxed in” or not, a simple touch of the brakes would likely have spared a brilliant young man’s life.
Recently, in the Financial Review, businessman and cyclist Andy Sheats said his one wish was "for drivers to pass cyclists with the same care and safety that they would take in passing their own son, daughter or loved one".
We shouldn’t have to legislate such a basic respect for human life. But sadly, it appears we do.
Would you support a minimum distance law for cars passing bicycles? Have you ever had any close calls or been hit while cycling?