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Time for government to act on crazy cocktail of bicycles and cars

For a while it was getting safer for cyclists on the roads but now there’s evidence riding is getting more dangerous again, says guest writer Jeremy Dore. Governments are responding much too slowly

The Dutch PM travelling to work (Source: @GernotWagner)

Guest writer Jeremy Dore is a lawyer with Aboriginal Carbon Fund and a lifelong cyclist:

Okay, let’s get it out of the way: 1. Bikes can overtake on the left, as long as the car is not indicating and turning left (Australian Road Rules regulation 141). 2. People getting out of cars must not cause a hazard to anyone (regulation 269).

So dooring incidents, like the one in Collins St, Melbourne last week, are nearly always the car occupants’ fault. Editors at The Australian who think blame cannot be apportioned take note.

For over 20 years now I’ve pushed the pedals for freedom and fitness – something the prime minister, Tony Abbott, would understand – and also to visit my mum for dinner. Every time I ride around my worrywart mother panics this will be the time I won’t make it over. Oh she loves to worry! I threaten to buy her a violin. Occasionally I take the train.

But she’s right.

The Urbanist keeps on top of the numbers. Kilometre for kilometre cyclists riding on the roads of Melbourne are about 4.5 times as likely to die as a car occupant. And the risk of serious injury is about 13 times the risk for car occupants. It’s sober reading for unavowed cyclists (the risk is reduced by looking from a time basis as bikes are slower to go places).

I fly, I swim in the ocean and occasionally I even walk down Lygon St. But cycling is by far the riskiest thing that I do. My catalogue of lunatic near misses is testament to this risk.

But there’s more.

Since the 1970s, road safety measures have ensured that the road toll has plummeted even as car numbers have skyrocketed – that is, road safety measures have managed to decouple risk of death from the increasing number of road users. Using the federal government’s Australian Road Deaths Database, in 1990 the road toll was 2,331 and last year it was 1,196. In about 20 years it’s basically halved and it’s still dropping.

What about cyclists? The numbers jump around a bit more than for the total road toll, but in the 1990s, there were on average 52 cycling fatalities per year and in the 2000s 36 per year. So far this decade, the average has crept up to 39 (only on 4 years) and last year the total was 50 – the highest total since 1997. Locally here in Victoria, police have reported a 125% increase in dooring incidents between 2000 and 2010. And the rate of serious injuries is also on the move – up 109% in eight years.

So for a while, it was getting safer for cyclists too, although not as much as for cars. But now there is evidence it is getting more dangerous again. Time for action?

Doug Hendrie made the call on the ABC this week to separate cars and cyclists to reduce risk. His call is backed by a 2006 Australian Transport Safety Bureau report which found the most common cause of death for cyclists was being hit from behind by cars. These days I certainly take the bike path to the folks’ place a lot more than I used to. More separation makes sense.

Ultimately, it is the job of governments to identify risks and respond to them. Are they helping?

The previous federal government made a start with the Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport report released in 2013. It acknowledges cycling as an important mode of transport that promotes healthy living. It notes the lack of continuous, convenient connection as a key barrier. But it is just a report. The new federal government’s Improve Road Safety policy “shares the concerns of cycling bodies across the nation that the increased participation in cycling, for health, recreation and transport, has not been matched with the same degree of improvements in infrastructure and community information about sharing the road environment.” Yes!

But this concern has not yet been matched by spending commitments. The government’s mid year economic statement, MYEFO, found an extra $8.2 billion over 6 years for major infrastructure projects, but no money for cycling infrastructure – it’s all about highways and roads cyclists can’t even use.

In my state of Victoria, things are no better. Here the current government spends a miserly $30 million per year on new cycling projects (I don’t have to tell you how much is spent on roads – some of which cyclists can use).

The fact is people want to ride. But it’s dangerous. And it’s starting to get worse. It’s time for governments to step up and do a lot more to assist this important transport option. Otherwise the menace of power elites will continue to write revolting editorialsand cyclists will die at increasing rates.

More politicians out cycling this week in the Netherlands. Where's Julie Bishop? (Source: @KentsLundberg)

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  • 1
    vicki-claire macDonald
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I love my car! I love my bike! I find drivers and riders incredibly courteous except for those having a bad day – and taking it out on everyone!

    My issue is being a pedestrian. I have a neck injury and while I look perfectly ‘normal’ I just can’t hop out of the way of speeding cyclists on footpaths. I’ve been knocked into shop windows/displays 7 times this year!! That’s only 3 months!!

    There’s just no need to take out road aggression on the footpath!

  • 2
    Jon
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Your statistics are somewhat unscientific. The bald number of deaths or injuries is no basis for a conclusion about the danger of cycling without knowing how the participation in cycling has changed. You have assumed that the participation has stayed static. As another cyclist of 20 years, my view (admittedly from Adelaide) is that participation has boomed.

    I have also found that most drivers are great. Yes, there are idiots, but there are idiot cyclists and idiot pedestrians as well. Unfortunately it only takes one idiot driver or a moments inattention to result in death.

  • 3
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Jon he did make the point that while car usage has increased dramatically in the last several decades, being a driver or motor vehicle passenger has never been safer. It should be the same for bicycles – usage should be able to increase dramatically while safety actually improves.
    At any rate, there’s no excuse for the current statistics, especially once you realise that virtually all fatalities on bicycles are causes by motor vehicles (and I’d even suggest most relative minor accidents occur due to a poor infrastructure – I’ve managed to come off twice in the last month, both due to unexpected changes in the road/path surface).

  • 4
    Persia
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Time for government to act on the obesity epidemic that is already and will increasingly, carry off way more citizens than get ironed out while cycling.

    Also, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the cyclists getting run over from behind are out on country roads somewhere.

    It’s all very well to go on about separation, but this is very hard to do outside the old, pre-motor vehicle, inner suburbs, because of the plethora of driveways. If you really want separation then, you’re going to have to completely sacrifice some whole roads to bikes and you can imagine the foaming, drooling, frenzy that would put the idiot majority into. Can’t see any politician going that “courageous” route any time soon.

    Probably easier to traffic calm the kazoo out of selected roads, so they are so slow and hopeless to drive along that cars go elsewhere – this has worked a treat in Canning Street, which is not separated.

  • 5
    Jeremy Dore
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jon – the stats are only a snapshot but, as Dylan points out, just trying to make the point that global bike does not appear to be following car risk downwards any more. More investigation warranted.

    Persia – fair point, looking again at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau report, 38 of 58 cycling deaths from behind were in the country. These stats are worth looking at more, certainly more than I did for a quick blog post. But other ways of measuring risk appear to be increasing and the point I really wanted to make is governments really aren’t doing much.

  • 6
    matt quaid
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    This blog is getting very dull, every second post is about bike riding.

  • 7
    Alan Davies
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    matt quaid #6:

    Not quite. Six articles on cycling out of 25 so far this year. Cycling has been a topical issue in the MSM In the last two weeks though, so most of them have been published quite recently.

  • 8
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    (BTW the picture at the top of this article is a few years old and definitely not of Prime Minister Rutte cycling to the G7 summit, just in case anyone was a little sceptical).

  • 9
    Harry Becher
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    When you’re riding at a small fraction of the traffic around you, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get hit eventually. If people started regularly walking on highways or skateboarding across wide city streets, they’d probably get killed pretty often too. Some cyclists seem to think that since they can only do 30 km/h, cars that are much faster and safer should be crippled at 30 kmh/h too. It’s completely selfish.

  • 10
    Persia
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    #9

    Harry, 30kmh is an aspirational speed for most motorists in peak hours in the inner city.

  • 11
    chpowell
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    @ harry becher: I’m guessin’ you don’t have a Colnago in the garage, n’est ce pas?

  • 12
    Alan Davies
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Dylan Nicholson #8:

    Thanks, have amended caption on first photo to remove reference to President Obama.

    Harry Beecher #9:

    My average cycling speed is well below 30 kph (although I’m pretty speedy downhill).

  • 13
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Actually Harry I generally feel quite safe on roads where cars are smoothly moving along at 50-70 kph, providing there’s sufficient room. But recently I’ve traded commuting in peak hour on roads for bike paths instead, despite the latter being almost 5km longer, as it’s just too dangerous trying to maintain 30 kph with traffic always stopping and starting and turning and parking, drivers and passengers getting in and out of cars, pedestrians criss-crossing the roads etc. etc. There are certainly roads where I think 30 or 40 k/h speed limits make sense, but it’s certainly not because of a limit on the speed cyclists can maintain – it’s for everybody’s safety, including my own when I’m driving/walking/cycling on/around such roads.

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