Feb 15, 2016

Is NSW’s one-metre cycling law a good idea?

NSW's new law requiring motorists to leave a minimum distance when overtaking cyclists is a welcome initiative but it's only the first step in much-needed change to protect vulnerable road users

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Even in the centre of Amsterdam there are times when cyclists have to use roads
Even in the centre of Amsterdam there are places where cyclists share roads with vehicles

The big news just before Christmas was the decision by the NSW Government to introduce a one-metre minimum distance law (1.5 metres above 60 kph) for motorists overtaking cyclists. Like similar initiatives in Qld and the ACT, it’s a two year trial.

Unfortunately this important reform got a little lost because it was packaged with some controversial changes the Government felt were politically necessary to sell it to motorists i.e. riders must carry photo ID, as well as higher fines for cyclists who break the law on red lights and helmets.

One critic reckons these other initiatives are “a cost too high” for the one-metre law. Another maintains the law is a “token indulgence” that protects only “pack-riding sports cyclists”.

Whatever one’s view of these other initiatives (and the topic is too complex to discuss now), I think it’s important not to overlook or demean the importance of the overtaking law.

It’s a significant change in it’s own right in my view, in part because it might prevent some injuries and even deaths; and in part because it gives prospective riders greater confidence to take to the roads. Here’s what the NRMA says about the trial in Qld:

Three-quarters of our northern neighbours support the one-metre rule – compared to only 13 per cent opposed – and two-thirds of cyclists reported car drivers giving them a wider berth when overtaking after the law was introduced.

Sending a signal

All that’s fine, but at least as important in my view is the signal it sends to motorists; it does two important things.

First, it reinforces to them that cyclists have a legitimate right to the roads; they’re valid road users.

You only have to look at the comments sections on articles about cycling in the tabloid press to see that many drivers don’t regard cyclists as having an equal right to use the road; they merely suffer them because they have to.

A lawyer told me a revealing story recently. About 30 years ago Victoria introduced a law of culpable driving (20 years max) because juries were reluctant to convict drivers charged with manslaughter (20 years max). Apparently they took the view “there but for the grace of God go I”.

But juries were still hesitant to convict motorists so a new law of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury (10 years max) was brought in about five years ago. Yet even so juries still find it hard to convict drivers (also see Are cyclists mere “obstacles” to motorists?).

Second, the one-metre law makes explicit to motorists the idea that cyclists are a lot more vulnerable than other road users and therefore warrant special consideration.

The problem here is that from the driver’s point of view, most driving “mistakes” merely result in bingles (see Can cyclists live with traffic bingles?).

Motorists are used to bingles; there are a few dents, a few paint scrapes, details are swapped and the insurance company usually pays for most of the damage irrespective of who’s at fault.

Speeds are usually low and no one gets seriously hurt. There’s no obligation or need to notify the Police. It’s all pretty low level stuff.

This bingle mentality is powerful; it shapes motorists’ attitudes to risk and the level of attention they give to other road users.

It puts a floor under their level of awareness and concentration; they drive in a way that minimises a major collision that might injure themselves, but treat bingles as a necessary inconvenience that’re part and parcel of driving.

Of course what’s merely a minor scrape to a motorist – perhaps a “car park” level incident – can be a tragedy for a cyclist; it can very easily cause serious injury.

So I welcome the new law. Segregated infrastructure is the gold standard but even in Amsterdam a lot of cycling is done on roads; riders need to be safe and feel safe when they’re in traffic. The change should increase cyclists’ sense of subjective safety (see also Cycling: is Qld’s one metre overtaking rule good policy?).

It must however be accompanied by a serious marketing program to be effective and my understanding is the NSW Government intends to run a major campaign this year.

Just the first step

The one-metre law is only a start though; it’s a first step. When I was a learner driver back in the day, it was drilled in to me that a driver has to give way to pedestrians at all times, no matter how unlawfully, foolishly or inconsiderately the pedestrian behaves.

I think we should be aiming for a road use culture where motorists are required to give extra attention to cyclists (and pedestrians) at all times in light of their greater vulnerability and the fact that some are children.

They must drive with the expectation that something might go wrong and provide room and time to take avoiding action e.g. the rider might swerve or fall in their path due to some unexpected circumstance like loose gravel, tram tracks, or a car door that’s opened unexpectedly (see What to do about cyclists getting doored?).

Moreover, if a cyclist fails to give way at an intersection (say) it shouldn’t be acceptable for a driver to assert his right of way if it risks a collision as he might do if the other party were in a car. He must feel obliged to concede the point because of the greater susceptibility of the cyclist to serious injury.

Even in a collision where the cyclist doesn’t get hurt – like this one journalist Michael O’Reilly was in a couple of years age – it worries me that the police treat it as an administrative problem for the insurance companies to sort out. Unlike a bingle between two cars, the distance to serious injury for a cyclist is incredibly small; such incidents demand active police attention.

I don’t know that replicating exactly the so-called strict liability system that applies in the Netherlands is the solution, but something that produces a similar “culture of road use” – where the welfare of the more vulnerable is privileged – is what we need in Australia to promote cycling and walking (see Are Dutch motorists strictly liable if they collide with cyclists?).

Yes, any change that really improves the environment for cycling will inevitably disadvantage and annoy motorists. That’s true of many actions needed to improve cities (see Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in cities?).

So the one metre passing law is a first step in a necessary program of change to make cycling safer and more popular in Australia.

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23 thoughts on “Is NSW’s one-metre cycling law a good idea?

  1. Dylan Nicholson

    Frank, define “present”! It’s already a law that when a bike lane is available and safe to use you must use it. But there’s very few places in Melbourne at least where there’s a bike “path” that follows a road closely enough that it’s reasonable to force cyclists onto it (Docklands maybe, but most cyclists are sensible enough to use the path if they judge the road to be unsafe. I don’t think I ever seen a cyclist hold up a car along the road for more than a few seconds though). Also many bike paths are arguably less safe than the roads, due to the presence of pedestrians/dogs etc. (who are far less predictable than cars).

  2. dke

    So Frank, what were the problems you saw so many times, caused by cyclists riding on roads where nearby there was a cycle path? I ride on roads when it’s more convenient, as is my right. Similar to your right to drive when nearby there’s a perfectly useable footpath you could be walking on.

  3. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #18:

    Please, please don’t mention the helmet law!

    P.S. That article you linked to hasn’t generated much “lively discussion”. Mainly commenters agreeing with each other.

  4. Frank Johansen

    One other amendment I would like to see is that where a bike path is present it is illegal to ride a bike on the road. I’ve seen many times bikes causing problems on roads when there has been a perfectly good bike path available.

  5. Dylan Nicholson

    graeme – I’m open to the idea that allow cyclists to weave any way they like between traffic is not really in anyone’s benefit (I do it, and I know it’s dangerous) but I don’t think I’ve ever held up traffic by doing so (in fact, the only time I’ve ever held up traffic is when riding on single-lane roads with no shoulder).
    The only workable solution is to ensure all roads have enough dedicated space for cyclists so there’s no need to do so. In many cases that’s simply a matter of laying asphalt down on the existing shoulder.

  6. Alan Davies

    Don Willoughby #16:

    Point taken. What I’m referring to are motorists who think that because drivers wanting to enter (say) a roundabout must “give way” to traffic that’s already on the roundabout, the latter have a “right” or priority. OK, so it’s not a legal “right” but plenty of motorists bloody-mindedly assert the give-way rule when it’s in their favour e.g. bus drivers pulling out into traffic are notoriously hard-headed about insisting drivers give way.

  7. Don Willoughby

    I don’t know where Alan Davies gets this idea of drivers “asserting their right of way.” There is no “right of way.” Traffic Acts and regulations clearly provide plenty of culpable liability on drivers doing so whether it be described as dangerous, reckless, negligent or other offenses prescribed under various State Laws. Back in my police traffic days it was said, right of way is something you can exercise only if it is yielded to you. All drivers must take due care to avoid any collision. I have never heard of it being used as a successful defense against failure of due diligence.

  8. Scott Grant

    I echo that statement on red lights from Quoll. On busy roads lights are likely to be on a timed cycle, and if not, one would not have to wait long for a kindly car to trigger the change. But out in the sticks there are many intersections where the lights are triggered by the vehicle, and in my experience, they rarely, if ever, detect a bicycle. I doubt that even the threat of a big fine is going to cause me to wait for a light that will never change.

    As for helmets, I wear one, but I have a friend who refuses on the grounds of claustrophobia. I somehow survived a childhood of cycling without a helmet. I recall an American visitor once being aghast at what he described as “communism” when confronted by helmet laws.

    As for photo-id, there are some people I know on low incomes who have neither a drivers license nor a passport and have never needed any photo-id. I cannot see any justification for this law. This is really over-the-top moronic overbearing authoritarianism and ought to be resisted by any sane person.

  9. bushby jane

    Tasmania has a 1.5 metre rule.

  10. graeme higgins

    I’d like one wee change to the rule so I can get home.

    Cyclists must also obey the 1 metre rule when passing a car stopped at an intersection.

    Sick of passing the same cyclist 10 times on my way home and each time all of us driving cars hold up the traffic in two lanes, wait. look, swerve into the other lane, swerve back, one car at a time.

    and…… at the next set of lights the blighters pass me on the inside and we do the cyclist dance again.

    Simple change to the rule solves all.

  11. Trelevn

    An excellent article making the important point about asymmetry of risk. The motorist risks scratches or dents; the cyclist injury or death. Too many times motorists have insisted on squeezing past dangerously, risking my skin to save seconds of their time. Too early to say if it’s the metre rule, but on a recent ride in country NSW I was delighted by the courteous behaviour of all the motorists, passing respectfully wide and waiting where they couldn’t.

  12. Hart Di

    South Australia has had these laws for some time.

  13. Donald Kay

    These passing laws were introduced in South Australia and I have to say I have stopped riding a bike as a result.
    If I turn left onto a road with a bike lane I used to only have to check the bike lane was free. Now I have to make sure any traffic on the road will have 1.5m clearance after I have entered. If I do not I have the potential to cause a crash when the car has to swurve to give me 1.5m clearance and that would be my fault (failing to give way – T junction).
    Where there are two lanes in the same directions and cars park in the left lane I have to make sure the right lane is clear as well where as before I could just get through in the meter of so of left lane remaining. Now I can not overtake the car until I ensure the new clearance is available.
    And for what – these are like the SA govt reducing the speed limit from 100 to 90 after a truck crashed at 140 on the SE Freeway as if the different speed limit would have made a difference. The ‘them and us’ that these rules create undermine what could be a mutually respectful relationship.

  14. Norman Hanscombe

    What you apparently don’t understand, St Etienne, is that few Laws are likely to be perfect but doing nothing tends to be worse.

  15. St Etienne

    I have to say I don’t share the same enthusiasm for a passing law. Apart from the usual anecdata there’s little evidence that it actually works. The AGF page on this topic also provides little evidence apart from stating that a handful of US states have introduced a similar law. Apart from the obvious fact that a passing law is far more beneficial to AGF-style sports riders on open roads, it’s hard for me to understand why this organisation has spent so much of its energy pushing for an unproven law when (in my opinion) there are far more important issues to address.

    I’d also add that a passing law would have little impact on more risk-averse utility riders because these people usually avoid open roads without any kind of dedicated cycling infra. The AGF’s acceptance of a harsh package of punitive laws in exchange for a passing law would have to represent the greatest sell-out of everyday cycling in this country’s history.

  16. Alan Davies

    Today’s SMH on the other changes packaged with one-metre law: New cycling laws, helmet enforcement will affect suburban amenity, advocate warns.

  17. Joshua Saunders

    Alan – that’s a great analysis of risk compensation by motorists, who don’t anticipate that sending a text, not indicating a change in lane or running a stop sign, could actually kill someone.

    Anyway, the minimum passing law is not for sports cyclists, who are (mostly) competent, confident and experienced cyclists. They might get some benefit from it, but the real benefits are for less confident and experienced cyclists, who may hopefully find their early experiences of riding on roads slightly less intimidating.

    The value of the law is not in enforcement (of which I understand there is very little, at least in Qld), but in establishing, however slowly, norms of behaviour for motorists.

    Ultimately, and it may be 50 years, self-driving cars will prevail, at which time cyclists will become much less likely to become involved in collisions with vehicles. In the meantime, any law that strengthens the reasonable expectation that one needs to change lanes, or wait till safe and legal, to pass a cyclist, is a good thing.

  18. Quoll

    @Saugoof Some drivers do indeed pass closely on purpose. Passengers throw objects, spit, and yell abuse. The good news is, in my experience, that the new one metre passing law has already had a positive impact on driver behaviour, although I still don’t understand why some drivers seem to think it’s safe to pass on a blind corner, just because they can’t wait a handful of seconds to see if the road is clear.

    It would be nice if such legislation, fines and enforcement were proportional on the frequency of violations by all types of road users, and the potential impact of those violations on other road users and pedestrians. If a 500% increase in the fine for a cyclist running a red light is acceptable to mitigate the risk caused by cyclists, then a 500% increase in the fine for illegally using a mobile phone while driving shouldn’t be a problem to justify.

    And, if traffic signals could reliably detect my bicycle when I’m stopped at the stop line of an intersection I may be more sympathetic toward the 500% increase in the fine for running a red light.

  19. Saugoof

    I’m a bit dubious on the one metre rule purely because I can’t for the life of me imagine that drivers pass bikes too closely on purpose or that drivers who do try to squeeze past too close would heed a law that can’t be measured. That said, from all I’ve heard about this in QLD, it does appear to be working to great effect, so maybe I’m wrong.

    That said, in the case of NSW, I totally agree that it is not worth it if it’s being bundled with those other idiotic changes that only a professional contrarian like our friend Norman or the Daily Telegraph doesn’t see as the crackpot ideas that they are.

  20. Norman Hanscombe

    The so-called “controversial changes” that riders must carry photo ID, as well as higher fines for cyclists who break the law on red lights and helmets were so clearly a sensible decision that there’s scant point pandering to those opposing them.

  21. Robert Merkel

    In responding to objections to his proposal for a “free software” operating system, GNU, Richard Stallman pithily noted that “GNU does not eliminate all the world’s problems, only some of them”.

    That simple point – a proposal is a good one if the benefits outweigh the cost, even if it doesn’t solve every peripherally related problem – is one that seems to elude the objectors who (probably correctly) predict that road sports cyclists will get the greatest safety benefit from meter passing laws.

  22. Keto Vodda

    As a daily bike rider in Queensland, I noticed that the 1 meter rule resulted in almost no close passing by cars or trucks.

    Some give 2 meters now if the road is wide enough and I don’t recall that before the rule.

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