What's the definition of "riding dangerously" on a bicycle? Well, in NSW, it might depend on which government department you ask.
Last week, Fairfax Media reported that from March to September this year, cyclists in NSW were fined a total of $225,310 for "riding dangerously".
This figure was obtained from a response in Parliament to questions on notice regarding cycling fines issued since March.
Among a series of questions, Labor MP Penny Sharpe asked how many fines had been issued for "riding dangerously".
In all, 1711 infringements were issued from March to September, the information tabled in Parliament said.
But in January, in a report on new fines being brought in for "riding dangerously" and four other cycling offences, figures supplied by the office of Roads Minister Duncan Gay using Transport for NSW data stated that an average of 120 cyclists a year had been fined for "riding dangerously" since 2012.
This would mean that, in just seven months this year, 14 times more cyclists had been fined for that behaviour than is the previous yearly average – a difference of 1325 per cent.
Had the police vastly increased their enforcement since March 1? That was the date when, according to Transport for NSW, the penalty for "riding dangerously" – referring to Road Rule 245-1, which covers riding "negligent", "reckless" and "furious" riding – was raised from $71 to $425.
The figures provided to Parliament were supplied by the Office of State Revenue.
There is no specific offence called "riding dangerously", and a spokesperson for the office explained to me that they used a broader category of offences for their data.
"Offence categories have been grouped by the Office of State Revenue based on the offence code and description," the spokesperson said. "Rule 245-1 offences of riding 'furiously', 'recklessly' and 'negligently' are included under the 'riding dangerously' category."
There are more than 100 offences in the category covering a wide range, from disobeying road signs and not having lights to not riding in a bike lane and not having a "working warning device", such as a bell. The majority carry a $108 penalty.
So how many fines in the region of $425 were issued in those seven months to cyclists riding "furiously", "dangerously" or "negligently"?
That would be 75 fines, for a total fine value of $32,147. A considerable distance from 1711 penalties and $225,310 in fines.
Controversy and cycling
It may all sound like nit-picking to some – "so, people got fined, who cares what it was for?" – but I feel there is an issue at stake.
Bicycle riders are controversial at present, and prejudices and stereotypes about the dire risks to society of "law-breaking cyclists" abound, often out of all proportion to the realities involved.
So when there are reports about more than 1700 cyclists being fined for "riding dangerously", it would help if it was clear what that behaviour entails - especially when the figures are so out of scale with previous reports.
Recklessly, negligently, furiously
But what about enforcement on the road?
Asked about how one can get fined for "riding dangerously", Bernard Carlon of the Centre for Road Safety at Transport for NSW told me: "While enforcing these offences is a matter for the NSW Police Force to determine given individual circumstances, examples of when bicycle riders could commit an offence against Rule 245-1 could include:
- "Bicycle riders causing accidents with other riders, pedestrians or cars.
- "Bicycle riders demonstrating risky behaviours such as riding in and out of traffic and onto footpaths, especially when pedestrians are present.
- "Cycling behaviour that could be put the rider or other road users at the risk of injury, such as riding at high speed on shared paths."
Asked if you could be fined for, say, riding on the footpath as well as "riding dangerously", Carlon said issuing multiple fines was up to the discretion of the officer.
The question that always concerns me is: how subjective is the notion of "dangerous" when it comes to bicycle riding?
For example, adults riding on the footpath. Now, it's absolutely true that people on bikes can wreak catastrophic injuries on others, especially pedestrians, who should always be given due care and priority.
But it's worth noting that it's legal for adults to ride on footpaths everywhere in Australia except Victoria and NSW (where the fine increased by 50 per cent in March, to $106).
While South Australia and Western Australia recently changed their laws – as a safety measure, so that riders could avoid intimidating road conditions – it is seen as undesirable in NSW.
It's also worth noting that Rule 245-1 is unique to NSW – there is no corresponding rule in the Australian Road Rules, and other states get by without it.
The government also plans to force adult riders to carry ID from next March - although no legislation has yet been passed.
Meanwhile, the state has enacted minimum distance passing laws, so that motor vehicles must leave a metre when overtaking a bicycle in a speed zone of 60km/h or less, and 1.5 metres in higher speed zones.
In the seven months from March to September this year, 15 motorists were fined a total of $4827 for passing too close to riders.
In the same period, 3171 people were fined $319 to $325 for not wearing a helmet, for a total of $1.02 million.
So how is cycling prospering in NSW? A report this month noted that the government last year scrapped its target of doubling the number of trips made in Sydney by bicycle, and cycling rates in the city are now below where they were in 2013 and 2014.
The government says statistics on cyclist injuries since the new penalties were introduced will be finalised in the coming weeks, to provide an insight on the effect of the laws.
Are the new measures making things safer for cyclists? Or are they simply putting people off riding bikes? Like the definition of "riding dangerously", it can depend on who you ask.
Have your say in the Comments section.
Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.