tip off
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What are governments prepared to do to improve cycling?

Qld will trial a law next year requiring motorists to provide at least one metre clearance when overtaking cyclists. There’s a suite of other potential changes too, but the helmet law looks set to stay

Image from the cover of Report No. 39, A new direction for cycling in Qld, an Inquiry into cycling issues, by the Qld Parliament Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee

The outlook for the legitimacy of cycling on roads improved greatly on Friday when the Qld Government announced it will introduce a minimum safe overtaking distance rule for motorists.

Transport Minister Scott Emerson announced a two year trial will start early next year:

This will mean that motorists must maintain a minimum distance of one metre when passing a cyclist in a 60kph or less zone, and 1.5 metres when travelling above 60.

Mr Emerson was responding to the newly released report, Inquiry into cycling issues, written by the Qld Parliament’s Transport Committee. Earlier this year he asked the Committee to look at safety issues following a number of high profile cycling fatalities in the State (e.g. see Are cyclists “mere obstacles” to motorists?).

The Minister also announced his support for bringing penalties for traffic offences by cyclists into line with those for motorists, but will take time to consider the rest of the recommendations.

The Committee’s findings were applauded by a surprised and frankly amazed cycling community. Its 68 recommendations address improvements in cycling infrastructure, regulation, education and monitoring.

The ‘one metre rule’ reform has naturally attracted most interest but it’s only one of a number of gob-smacking recommendations. Those that have garnered most attention include:

  • A 2 year trial exemption from the mandatory helmet law for cyclists 16 years and over when riding on streets with a speed limit of 60 kph or less, and on footpaths and off-road paths
  • Cyclists permitted to treat Stop signs as Give Way signs
  • Cyclists permitted to turn left on a red traffic light after stopping
  • Cyclists permitted to enter and leave a roundabout in the centre of the lane
  • On-road bike lanes to be Clearways between 6-9 am and 3-7 pm on weekdays
  • Motorists who contravene the safe passing distance rule to be liable for a penalty of up to $4,400 and 8 demerit points.
  • Management of road space to be based on a vulnerable road user hierarchy with pedestrians and cyclists at the top
  • Cyclists required to ride in a bike lane where it exists and to display a light at all times

The Committee has put together an extraordinary set of proposals. If implemented, they could usher in a step-change in the way cycling is viewed in Qld and, in due course, in the rest of Australia.

But Parliamentary Committees have a history of proposing radical ideas (1). They’re highly politicised and aren’t renowned for their standards of scholarship and objectivity.

They’re usually multi-party committees with a range of views to be accommodated. Members are often ambitious and either aren’t Ministers or aren’t in the Government party.

Governments in turn have a history of ignoring them. So it’s to the Newman Government’s enormous credit that it’s decided to proceed with the ‘one metre rule’. Yes, it’s a two year trial but Governments don’t do experiments unless they’re already committed to the idea.

Now it’s time for the cycling community to encourage the Government to implement the most plausible of the remaining recommendations. This is a rare opportunity to negotiate worthwhile but politically realistic improvements.

Yet much of the comment over the weekend in on-line cycling forums focusses on Mr Emerson’s lack of enthusiasm for implementing the recommendation to remove the mandatory helmet law.

The Minister went out of his way to indicate he personally opposes the proposed exemption:

I’ve put a lot of thought into this issue since it was first raised six months ago and I’m yet to be convinced of its merit. Personally I’m a big believer in the benefits of helmets and I believe the evidence shows helmets reduce the risk of serious injury.

He appeared to moderate his view somewhat on ABC Television on Friday night, indicating he’s still prepared to look at the evidence.

Irrespective of the merits or faults of the helmet law (2), I think it’s highly unlikely the Government will change it; indeed I expect it’s already made up its mind it won’t. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

From the perspective of a State Premier of any political persuasion, there’s simply no “politics” in repealing the law or granting exemptions.

When Essential Economics asked a national sample of respondents last year if they “approve or disapprove of governments making laws to regulate wearing bike helmets”, 94% said they approve. Only 1% said they strongly disapprove.

It’s a “no-brainer” to the vast bulk of the population that helmets protect against injury. The majority who don’t cycle or only ride occasionally are quite comfortable with cyclists being compelled to wear helmets.

There’s also a number of key cycling organisations that either actively oppose changing the helmet law or are conspicuously silent on the issue.

The constituency for change is neither big enough nor weighty enough to bother political leaders. And even the tiny minority that strongly favours helmet choice doesn’t seem like it’s prepared to die in a ditch over the issue.

A helmet-free rally held in Melbourne last year to oppose the law attracted good publicity in The Age and elsewhere. Yet it only drew around 60 attendees of whom just 30 chose to cycle (on an off-road path) without a helmet.

It might seem that if the Newman Government is prepared to wear the political fall-out from introducing the ‘one metre rule’ then it might also be prepared, if pushed hard enough or cleverly enough, to implement the recommended trial helmet exemption.

The trouble with that argument is the one metre rule is a direct response to the deaths of cyclists. That’s the same reasoning that resulted in the helmet law being enacted in all States in the first place; pardon my cynicism, but doing away with it would expose the Government to the political risk of being blamed for head injuries and deaths for no obvious political payback (3).

By all means keep the helmet debate alive, but I hope the potential of the other recommendations for improving cycling doesn’t get lost because cycling activists are off fighting battles they have zero chance of winning, at least in the short to medium term.

______________________________

  1. The Qld Parliament has produced some surprises too e.g. the only Communist Party member elected to an Australian Parliament.
  2. Although it felt helmet-wearing should be encouraged, the Committee says it wasn’t “convinced there is sufficient evidence of the safety outcomes of compulsory helmet wearing to justify the mandating of helmet wearing for all cyclists of all ages regardless of the situational risk”. It goes on to say that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws “may have had an unintended, adverse impact on cycling participation rates in Queensland and therefore the overall health of the state”.
  3. Removing the helmet law might improve health outcomes, but that’s the sort of longer term, dispersed benefit that Governments don’t see any advantage in.
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  • 1
    hk
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    There is an acknowledged existing attitudinal problem between some cyclists and some motorists. Statements by the Transport Minister that: “I’ll also support recommendation 31 – bringing fines for cyclists into line with those imposed on motorists. For example, currently the fine for entering a level crossing with a train approaching is $110 for cyclists and $330 for motorists.” These proposed changes place cyclists and motorists on a more equal and balanced footing wrt to enforcement and fines.

  • 2
    Nik Dow
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Alan makes the point that helmet laws are supported by non-cyclists and occasional cyclists. This is supported by Prof Rissell’s study that found that reponsdents’ support for helmet law was in inverse proportion to their amount of cycling.

    The points about the political unpalatability of helmet law reform are well made. It’s my belief that helmet law reform will only be pursued by government when encouraging cycling becomes an urgent issue, for example when a binding international treaty on carbon emissions is signed, or the price of petrol becomes a problem for the trade deficit. Increasing numbers of cyclists will also increase community support for law reform, but ironically the increase in cycling needed for this is held back by the existence of the law.

  • 3
    Alan Davies
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    A good report on the for and against positions re the ‘one metre rule’: A metre matters: but will it improve cycling safety? Bicycle Network opposes the rule change. Here’s another good report: Cyclists win battle for a metre passing law.

  • 4
    Michael Fanning
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s always been my understanding that penalties should reflect the seriousness of the offence. For that reason I strongly disagree with the proposition that a cyclist should pay the same penalty as a motorist for disobeying a red light. The potential consequences of a motorist’s going through a red light could be catastrophic. The same cannot be said of a cyclist’s doing the same except possibly (but not likely) for the cyclist.

    What’s this bit about having to ride in a bike lane where it exists? That is already the case. As for having to display a light at all times… what?

  • 5
    Tom the first and best
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    4

    There is undoubtedly a much higher chance of catastrophic injury from a car running a red light compared to a cyclist. There is not however no risk, or risk only to the cyclist. There is chance of catastrophic collision with pedestrians, other cyclists and the risks of swerving and/or sudden breaking by crossing traffic. This does however have a lower likelihood of occurring because of the greater rider visibility compared to a driver and the shorter braking distance.

    The fines probably should not be the same on that basis.

  • 6
    arnold ziffel
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Interesting that anyone would quote the Rissell ‘research’ – I thought it was discredited about 5 minutes after it came out.
    Rissell is a strong advocate against helmets, so was trying to prove his own viewpoint – nothing unusual about that.
    I’ve been a cyclist for many decades and I strongly support helmet wearing.
    I reckon the helmet ‘issue’ is a red herring which suits the arguments of certain protagonists but gets undue media attention, a bit like the opponents bagging ‘MAMILS’ or complaining about people wearing lycra.
    On reason why people are reluctant to ride is that the roads are dangerous – Australian drivers might be the least considerate in the world.

  • 7
    Gerard
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Relaxing helmet laws would make cycling more dangerous. In other words it would kill people, and make many others subject to the terrible after effects of severe brain injury. Any airy-fairy notions that one or two more people just might ride bikes if they just didn’t have their heads protected has to be balanced against that. Coupling anti-safety laws like a relaxation of the helmet rules with sensible road rules designed to make cyclists (and, even more importantly, other road users) more careful and considerate is slimy and obscene.

  • 8
    The Pedanticist
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    My friends and I have all taken a tumble from our bikes and, at one stage or another, we have all been saved from a potentially VERY nasty head injury by our helmets. Driver’s have to wear seat belts, motor cyclists have to wear a much more heavy duty helmet. I think mandatory helmet laws are very sensible. I must admit to feeling slightly annoyed by the self righteous hypocrisy of some of my fellow riders. We struggle to have our voice heard at the best of times. We demand equal road rights with drivers. But then we come out with comments about how certain road rules shouldn’t apply to us, or how if we do run a red light, we shouldn’t have to pay the same fine as anyone else. We can’t have it both ways!

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