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Dec 5, 2013

Cycling: is the one metre overtaking rule good policy?

Qld's new one metre overtaking rule has been welcomed by most cyclists but some reckon there's no evidence it'll reduce casualties. Is there still a case for changing the law?

Van driver gets far too close to cyclist

When the Committee for Transport of the Qld Parliament recommended last week that the Government introduce a law requiring motorists to give cyclists at least one metre clearance when overtaking, it was conscious of criticisms levelled at the many similar schemes in other countries.

So as part of the package, the Committee also recommended motorists should be compelled to use their indicators when overtaking a cyclist and be permitted to cross double white lines if safe to do so. It proposed drivers who contravene the law should be subject to a penalty of up to $4,400 and 8 demerit points.

The Committee also recommended the new law be accompanied by a high profile marketing campaign to draw drivers’ attention to their obligations.

What the Committee didn’t give much attention to though was whether or not the one metre law would actually improve the safety of cyclists. It relied mostly on the fact that other jurisdictions had similar laws, not on objective evidence showing they’re effective.

The largest cycling organisation in Australia, Bicycle Network, reckons there’s no reliable data showing minimum overtaking laws work. Garry Brennan, Bicycle Network’s Government & External Relations Manager, is quoted in this article by Matt de Neef (A metre matters: but will it improve cycling safety?) as saying the organisation:

Won’t support the push to introduce a minimum passing distance into law because there’s no evidence such a law will work; that is, that it will increase cyclist safety and, ultimately, reduce the number of cyclists injured and killed on the roads.

The conscientious Mr de Neef got a counter view from Marilyn Johnson, Research Manager at the Amy Gillett Foundation. She didn’t dispute Mr Brennan’s claim, but argued it’s an area where the research hasn’t been done.

Bicycle Network’s proposition has to be taken seriously. It’s not good policy to make laws if we’re not confident they’ll work.

Ineffectual laws means we’re paying the cost but not getting the outcome we think we are. Worse, they can distract attention from other solutions that might work better.

Politicians don’t care because even useless laws make them look like they’re doing something, but the rest of us should. Some of those who oppose the mandatory helmet law might well be thinking this could be a repeat of that experience.

So does the Qld Government’s decision to implement the one metre rule from next year make sense given there’s no objective evidence it’ll reduce the number of cyclists killed or injured? I think there are a number of possible arguments that should be considered.

One is that it’s a two year trial. If it turns out to be a fizzer or even has negative consequences there’s an opportunity to revise it or abandon it.

Another is that the Committee recommended the rule be supported by higher penalties for motorists and a marketing campaign. It believes these complementary actions will make a considerable difference to the success of the law.

Or it could be argued that what’s really lacking is evidence about the efficacy of the law as it currently stands; it says motorists must leave “a sufficient distance” when overtaking. The proposed law is an incremental refinement that merely codifies what “a sufficient distance” means.

Yet another possible argument is that while there’s no evidence the rule would work, there’s no evidence it wouldn’t either; the necessary research simply hasn’t been done. However the potential benefits might be high enough to make the “experiment” worthwhile.

And if it doesn’t work, there are no real downsides for cyclists. Overseas experience suggests the downsides for motorists aren’t large either.

In fact research by Dr Ian Walker from the University of Bath indicates the vast majority of motorists already leave at least a metre clearance when overtaking cyclists. Only a small group leave less (1).

That leads to what I think is the strongest argument: the primary justification for the law isn’t to reduce fatalities and serious injuries (although it’s hoped it will deliver on that score), but to make cyclists feel safe.

It should do that in part by discouraging the minority of motorists who drive too close. But most of the value should come from the confidence it will give cyclists that there are rules designed to protect them.

This report by researchers at Rutgers University cites evidence that fear of being hit from behind by a motorist is a key reason travellers don’t cycle. If there’s a greater sense of subjective safety the number of cyclists is likely to increase.

We can’t be sure the one metre rule will reduce casualties, but I think we can be reasonably confident it will increase cyclists’ sense of subjective safety. We don’t need to wait for evidence on that score.

Even if it ultimately proves to be a placebo effect, the new law signals loudly and clearly to both riders and motorists that cyclists have a right to be on the road.

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  1. Dr Walker’s purpose was to test if motorists drive closer to cyclists wearing a helmet. His findings are unconvincing on that score, but useful on the simpler question of how much clearance drivers give cyclists.

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13 thoughts on “Cycling: is the one metre overtaking rule good policy?

  1. Tom the first and best

    12

    The law should be correctly worded to prevent loopholes.

    Signs saying “bicycles may use full lane” are not the way to mark such lanes. It implies that bicycles cannot use the full lanes elsewhere, which is incorrect. The proper signs to use say “narrow lane change lanes to overtake bicycles”.

  2. Roberto

    Will the new law apply to vehicles passing cyclists who are riding in a shoulder or shared car parking lane? This is not strictly “overtaking” as defined in the ARR, so motorists, particularly bus drivers and drivers of large vehicles, may get away with passing very close to cyclists riding in a shoulder as at present.

    Further, overtaking is defined as coming from behind in the same lane and moving to an adjacent lane, or to part of the road where there is room for a “line of traffic”, to pass. If all motorists did change lanes to pass there would be a sigh of relief all round, but many just squeeze by in the same lane. Under the one metre law, and assuming a bike envelope is 1 metre wide, a lane has to be over about 3.8 m wide for a 1.8 m wide typical car to comply, or more for a wide vehicle, say 4.2 m for a bus. In the US some states use 14 ft (4.27m) as the width that it is safe to share a lane side by side with a cyclist. On lanes narrower than this they can erect a sign “bicycles may use full lane”. This may be a useful sign for Australian authorities to introduce.

  3. suburbanite

    I’d second the 30 k/h speed limit, but even 40 k/h would be an improvement on 50 k/h that seems to be the norm in Melbourne. Ages ago Alan wrote about suburban areas being better suited for bike infrastructure development than the inner city, or at least that is my fuzzy recollection. A good place to start building some separated bikes paths would be leading to schools and civic facilities. The fact that kids can’t safely ride to local schools is an indictment on a generation of car obsessed planners.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    25 mph (40 k/h) is too fast for most residential streets – certainly not enough time to stop if kids run out on to roads unexpectedly. In many residential streets in Europe, especially countries where bicycles is used by a significant number of people to get around, the limit is 30 k/h. I’d have to say I’d vote for 30 k/h in residential streets before the 1m rule, but it will be interesting to see if it has much impact, particularly on those who currently would like to ride more but feel roads aren’t safe enough.

  5. Last name First name

    Parker alan OAM.

    In the USA there are 21states with 3-foot laws are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia (July 1), Illinois, Louisiana, Kansas (as of July 1, 2011), Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin. (Connecticut, New Hampshire enacted in 2008; Colorado and Louisiana in 2009; Maryland and Mississippi in 2010.) See links below.

    Note the urban residential street system in the US has a 25 Mph speed limit with priority to pedestrians oon all residential streets intersections.

  6. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM
    The Amy Gillett Foundation has been working on this campaign for four years, but the campaign really goes back much further. In my experience, the first two community organisations that I joined when I came to South Australia in 1989 were the South Australian Touring Cyclists Association, now called Bicycle SA, and the Cyclists Protection Association (CPA), now called the Bicycle Institute of South Australia.

    The CPA—and I am glad they changed their name—sold a T-shirt, which I still have and occasionally still wear, which has a picture of a cyclist and a car with the caption ‘Give Cyclists a metre’, and this is what we were wearing on the streets of Adelaide in about 1993. So this campaign certainly goes back a long way. Whilst the campaign is not new, the idea of introducing into parliament an amendment to the Road Traffic Act is new, and I am glad that South Australia is the first state whose parliament will be debating this measure.

  7. lomlate

    (he had Ortlieb panniers on in the study, so you could argue the distance would be wider because of this than a rider with a back pack)

  8. lomlate

    The study you base your overtaking assertions measured from the centreline of the bike. So the figure from the edge of the bike is ~30cm off.

  9. Nik Dow

    Like Hi-viz (and even lights) a one-meter rule is a patch that tries to ameliorate the fundamentally wrong approach to cycling in Australia. Anything that relies on motor vehicle drivers to see and avoid hitting a cyclist will always fail because of human error. That’s why protected bike lanes are by far the best solution where vehicle speeds are over 30km/hour.

    Having said that, it will be a while (quite a while given government attitudes to cycling in Australia) before we have protected cycle paths on all arterial roads. So the safe passing distance law is worthwhile as an interim step.

    It’s right of Alan to point to “subjective safety” as an important element in this.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the effect of the law on prosecutions where a motor vehicle hits a bicycle. It should be possible to use a tape measure to demonstrate that there wasn’t space to overtake and leave the required clearance in some cases, and this would establish that the motor vehicle driver was breaking the law when overtaking. One problem with getting conviction of drivers who injure or kill cyclists is that if the driver wasn’t breaking any law at the time, it’s difficult to prove careless driving – SMIDSY is the usual defence. Proving a breach of the passing distance law removes this as a problem and opens the way to more serious charges like culpable driving, careless driving or manslaughter for example.

  10. Professor Tournesol

    Whilst I support the law because at very worst it will do now harm and if properly implemented may do some good, the problem is those motorists who either ‘didn’t see’ the bike, or did see it but don’t care. There is clear research evidence now that it doesn’t matter how visible the cyclist is for the first group, the second group see cyclists as a personal affront. An appropriate response should be removal of driving license and being forcibly required to commute by bicycle.

  11. hk

    “We can’t be sure the one metre rule will reduce casualties, but I think we can be reasonably confident it will increase cyclists’ sense of subjective safety. We don’t need to wait for evidence on that score.”
    Perception of safety is a real challenge to quantify in research.
    So we strongly support the attitude “That (the proposed regulation) leads to what I think is the strongest argument: the primary justification for the law isn’t to reduce fatalities and serious injuries (although it’s hoped it will deliver on that score), but to make cyclists feel safe.”

  12. suburbanite

    The sad reality in this bogan culture is that the life of a cyclist just isn’t more important than some fat slob’s compulsive urge to get to the next red light at a minimum speed of 10% over the speed limit. It’s just hardwired.

  13. James Steward

    There’s more to it. The current overtaking laws have quite soft penalties for causing a crash, regardless of the fact that in the case of a bicycle rider crashing, the result is most likely a serious injury or death – as in the well publicised case of Richard Pollett. The cement truck driver claimed he thought he had enough room to safely pass, and was acquitted by a jury of his peers (fellow motor vehicle drivers I suspect) on a charge of dangerous driving causing death. With the proposed law changes, there is a clear message of what is a minimum acceptible passing distance, and a better suited penalty for failing to pass a bicycle rider safely – that may have dire consequences. The punishment far better fits the crime, and “I thought there was enough room” will not cut it.

    What is obvious is that the state roads authorities recommendations on safe passing distances have gone unheard by some motorists. Perhaps with a law change and publicity to follow, those people will hear the message.

    Following on, what is required is better education of all road users on what is proper and acceptible vehicle use – and harsh penalties for disobedience.