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Cycling

Mar 27, 2014

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

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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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