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.