Bicycles in Amsterdam
Bicycles in Amsterdam

Last week the Infrastructure and Economy Committee in Victoria’s Legislative Council recommended motorists give cyclists a minimum one metre space when overtaking in a 60 kph or less zone, and 1.5 metres where the speed limit is over 60 kph. The committee says the rule should apply irrespective or whether or not there’s a marked bike lane on the road.

I don’t think the views of parliamentary committees should be given undue weight because they’re neither expert nor objective. After all, they’re politicians. It should surprise no one that their reports and associated recommendations are almost always highly politicised

Even so, in this case I think the upper house committee got it right in most respects. The Victorian government now has to consider its position, making it timely to revisit an earlier assessment I wrote on the overtaking law (Is the one-metre cycling law a sensible reform?).

I noted then that 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.

Bicycle Network conditionally supports changing the law in Victoria, but it also thinks the evidence 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.

Despite its recommendation, the Victorian Legislative Council committee also noted there’s little hard evidence that overtaking laws reduce the number of cycling casualties:

There is limited objective evidence as to the effectiveness of specified minimum passing distance rules in other jurisdictions.

Given the absence of hard evidence on improved outcomes, it’s reasonable to ask why the law should be changed. It’s generally not a good idea to implement laws that don’t actually deliver on the stated outcome or are too hard to enforce.

In this case though I don’t think the only purpose of the proposed law is to directly reduce casualties. As I noted here, I think it’s justified because it has a powerful role in “marketing” cycling?

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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

The existing law is no doubt broad enough and flexible enough to give police ample scope to prosecute motorists for passing dangerously close, but it doesn’t send that signal loudly enough to cyclists, motorists or police. A specific, well-publicised provision is more likely to get through to the public. The CARRSQ study indicates the downsides aren’t a big problem.

However I think the committee is wrong to argue that the overtaking law should apply even where there are marked (painted) bike lanes. There’s a risk that would quickly remove the sort of widespread public support the overtaking law enjoys in Qld, including from the RACQ.

The appropriate approach to this particular issue is twofold. First, improve on-road lanes e.g. mandate minimum widths and improve intersection treatments. Second, replace them on busy roads with segregated infrastructure – e.g. cycle superhighways – and make quiet streets shared spaces (see Should bicycle lanes be abolished?).

The key need is better infrastructure but it’s not the only action needed to promote cycling. Cyclists will continue to share road space with motorists for the forseeable future so it’s vital the culture of road use changes dramatically to support vulnerable users. Victoria, WA and the NT should follow the lead of Qld, SA, ACT and NSW and introduce the law.