Even in downtown Amsterdam, cyclists share road space with cars
Even in downtown Amsterdam, cyclists share road space with cars. Australian cities need dedicated cycling infrastructure but they also need a redefinition of “who owns the roads”

France, Belgium, Spain and a number of US states have laws that require motorists to leave a safe distance when overtaking cyclists on roads. NSW, Qld, SA, ACT, and Tasmania have similar laws in place on either a permanent or trial basis.

But not Victoria, WA or NT. The Greens introduced a bill in the Victorian Parliament last year calling for a minimum one metre overtaking distance in 60 kph speed zones and 1.5 metres in higher speed zones. The Parliament’s Economy and Infrastructure Committee is currently examining the proposal.

Cyclists are generally keen but the police, road authorities, insurers and some cycling bodies are less enthusiastic. The main objections are:

  • It won’t materially reduce the number of casualties suffered by cyclists.
  • It’s difficult for police to enforce because it’s hard to measure.
  • It increases danger for drivers by requiring them to move into the oncoming traffic lane.
  • The law already has provisions that require motorists to overtake cyclists in a safe manner.
  • It might be seen by governments as a substitute for providing dedicated cycling infrastructure.

The Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety Queensland (CARRSQ) evaluated the two-year trial of the law that commenced in Qld on 1 April 2014. Due to data limitations, CARRSQ was unable to say if the average overtaking distances had changed.

It concluded, though, that the number of cycling casualties fell significantly following the introduction of the trial law, but couldn’t be confident if this was due to the law or to some other factor.

While the disaster scenario forecast by hostile opponents didn’t come to pass, CARRSQ provided lukewarm support in its final report in February 2016:

It is premature to draw conclusions regarding the road safety benefits of the road rule at this stage. There is a need to wait for detailed official crash and hospital data to allow identification of passing too close crashes (bicycle-car) and crashes due to crossing centre lines (car-car). In addition, lack of suitable data prevented an analysis of the potential impacts of changes in cycling participation and rider behaviour due to changes to other cycling rules.

The Qld Government adopted the passing law at the end of the trial. No doubt the support of the top drivers’ organisation, the RACQ, helped. The public seem to like the law:

Three-quarters of (Queenslanders) 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.

The Victorian-based national cycling organisation, Bicycle Network, has misgivings about introducing the law in Victoria. In its submission to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry, Bicycle Network said it came to the conclusion that the available evidence on the impact of the law is inconclusive.

There was no strong quantitative evidence to prove that a minimum passing distance law will be transformative for rider safety or rider numbers, but likewise, no strong evidence that it will be detrimental.

Nevertheless, Bicycle Network now supports the introduction of a minimum passing distance in Victoria provided it’s on the basis of a properly evaluated five-year trial.

I appreciate the principle that it’s poor policy to implement a law lacking evidence that it will deliver the stated outcome. Similarly, it’s generally a bad idea to introduce a law that’s difficult to enforce.

In this case though I don’t think the only purpose of the law is to directly reduce casualties. I think it’s warranted because it has a powerful role in “marketing” cycling. It can do that in three ways.

First, it unambiguously signals to motorists that cyclists have a legitimate right to the road; the law recognises they’re valid road users. Anyone who cycles knows there are far too many motorists who simply don’t accept that basic fact.

Second, it reminds motorists that cyclists are extraordinarily vulnerable to serious injury if they’re in even a minor collision with a car. A mere bingle for a motorist can very easily be an incapacitating injury or death for a cyclist.

Third, it tells cyclists that motorists are obliged to respect their vulnerability; that should help to reduce their anxiety and increase their confidence to use roads

If the association identified by CARRSQ between lower cycling casualties and the introduction of the trial law can be shown to be causal, then the case for the law is strengthened immeasurably. That would be a clear direct benefit for cyclists; they’re safer.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if the anecdotal and provisional evidence of behaviour change in Queensland is primarily down to the intense focus on the responsibilities of motorists toward cyclists – and the consequences that latter might suffer – that came with the public debate on the legislation.

Cycling is a bit like an “infant industry”. It has enormous potential but it needs help to break through barriers – old modes of thinking – that prevent it from fully realising its potential. PR campaigns only go so far; the law is a much more powerful way of sending the message that cycling matters, is here to stay, is going to get bigger, and motorists must adapt their behaviour and attitudes.

Even if a causal link between the law and lower casualties can’t be shown, the increased sense of subjective safety enjoyed by cyclists as a result of the law can potentially increase the number of travellers who choose to cycle rather than use other modes. It’s one of many steps needed to increase the attractiveness of cycling.

The overtaking law is in no way a substitute for dedicated infrastructure; rather, it’s a recognition that even under optimistic infrastructure expenditure scenarios, cyclists will necessarily continue to share road space with motorists for a long time yet. Accordingly, safety needs to improve dramatically.

The Victorian Greens are on the right track with this one; the Victorian, WA and NT governments should follow the lead of the other states and territories.