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Cycling and vulnerability: an issue of inequality


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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Lucky escape: the buckled rear wheel.

Lucky escape: the buckled rear wheel. Photo: Michael O'Reilly

As the car hit my bicycle from behind, a strange, dispassionate thought flashed through my mind.

"You know that thing you've been trying so hard to avoid?" the thought went. "Well, it just happened."

Until then, my ride had been unexceptional. It was a sunny, blustery afternoon three weeks ago, and I was travelling up a two-lane, 60km/h suburban street.

It's a popular route for cyclists and in the past eight years I must have travelled the same way several hundred times without incident.

In truth, I was incredibly lucky. As the car struck my rear wheel, I was flicked out of the path of the vehicle - possibly because it was a glancing blow, assisted by the buckling of my wheel.

I didn't even fall off, but instead found myself stopped in the gutter, with an unrideable bike and a scratch on my right ankle. Soon, I was having to control my emotions as the driver gave the eternal excuse: "Sorry, mate, I didn't see you."

I knew it was likely to be of little use, but I still visited a police station later in the day.

Yes, the motorist had stopped. Yes, we exchanged details. No, I wasn't injured. The forces of the law would not get involved – it was up to me and the driver who hit me to sort out payment for the damage.

The frustrating thing about this everyday transaction is the perception that the stakes are identical. It was an accident, no one meant to harm anyone, so let's just sort out the money and move on – as is usually the case when one car hits another from behind.

But when a driver and a cyclist collide, there is only one person whose body is on the line.

Bicycles are defined as vehicles, and given similar rights to cars when on the road – but little legal recognition is given regarding their disproportionate vulnerability.

This issue was tackled this week by Alan Davies on the Crikey website, who asks, "Can cyclists live with traffic bingles?" His article followed on from a detailed (and provocatively titled) report by Greg Bearup in The Australian, "Are cyclists fair game?"

Bearup points out that, all too often, motorists receive little or no punishment for maiming or killing cyclists. If it's judged an accident, well, that's that. These things happen.

Davies writes that there is an urgent need for more separated cycling infrastructure and redesigned roads – and he's absolutely right. But it's near impossible to run a cycle path from the front of each bike rider's door to their every destination. Bikes and cars will have to share space for a long time yet.

So, is there also a legal approach to the issue? A law that recognises the vulnerability of cyclists, and accords them extra protection?

It could be argued that Queensland is attempting one, after commencing a two-year trial of a minimum passing distance law last month. Motorists must give a bicycle rider at least a metre's space when passing at 60km/h or less, and at least 1.5 metres when passing at greater speed.

The law's implementation caused an outpouring in the media (and social media) of some of the more hysterical poppycock you're likely to read. It was if the four horsemen of the apocalypse had swapped their steeds for treadlies.

The law would result in a deadly outbreak of head-on car collisions, went the cry. What on earth would you do if you were bearing down on a cyclist at 60km/h on a narrow road, with a car coming the other way?

Umm ... apply the brake and wait until it's safe to pass? The fact that so many motorists appear to think it's acceptable to skim past a cyclist with centimetres to spare, suggests that this law is sorely needed.

Indeed, consider a current inquest into the death of a cyclist in Queensland in 2011, where a truck driver has admitted he could see the cyclist some 100 to 200 metres ahead, but tried to pass in the same lane; the rider was hit by the truck and killed. The incident compares with the tragic fate of Richard Pollett.

Many Queensland cyclists have told me, and others, that the overall change in driver behaviour was palpable from the first day. While some organisations said a preferred option would be increased awareness and education, the media and advertising blitz meant that awareness was massively heightened – with the fact that a penalty was attached no doubt adding to the education.

I could have used some of that heightened awareness three weeks ago, but the laws don't exist anywhere else in Australia – at least, not yet.

The Amy Gillett Foundation is campaigning for minimum passing laws in other states, and nationally – their petition closes this week. It'll be interesting to see what the federal politicians make of it later this month.

As a cyclist, what measures do you think will help to keep you safer? If you ride in Queensland, have you noticed a change in road behaviour?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated, so please stay on topic.

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.


  • a duty to yield to cyclists and pedestrians. a collision is therefore deemed an offence. drivers will scream and motoring clubs will shriek that it's a nonsense and unworkable, but curiously this law is already applied to cyclists on shared paths, with respect to pedestrians. and it's a good rule..

    eddy the cannibal merckx
    Date and time
    May 01, 2014, 12:16PM
    • I feel exactly the same way about cyclists poor behaviour towards pedestrians in the CBD.

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 12:40PM
    • +1 Seriously

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:15PM
    • I agree and then we can let cyclists back on the freeways and highways as well. Then it will be motorists that need to yield to cyclists no matter what the speed differential, mass, agility and ability to stop as they will be at fault.

      I bet motorists will then expect trucks to be at fault no matter what the circumstances of an accident!

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:19PM
    • I just saw a cyclist in the city on Macquarie Street with no helmet ride the wrong way down a one-way street against a red light. Whose fault is it is he had been hit by one the cars she sailed past in the wrong direction?

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:20PM
    • I don't mind this for people who actually know how to ride a bike however there are too many average joes just deciding that riding home from work is a good idea. Just last night I passed an obviously overweight individual who feel off his bike as he was trying to adjust his backpack while still moving because he didn't have it on properly. Lucky for him he hit the grass but if he had of hit a car it should not have been the drivers fault.

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:32PM
    • + 1 Seriously.

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:43PM
    • I agree Eddie - not seeing a cyclist should never be an acceptable excuse. And yes in the same way if a cyclist hits a pedestrian they should also be charged. Except that this is not only rarer but also causes less damage. And before anyone says that they saw a cyclist go close to them as a pedestrian do you have any idea how often cars go close to cyclists? Whether that is because they don't care or don't look sholdn't make a difference

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 1:50PM
    • @CyclistSteve. "not seeing a cyclist should never be an acceptable excuse" is one of the silliest statements I have ever read. There are many reasons why a cyclist cannot be seen. Statements such as yours are based on the stupid notion that drivers have some sort of vision filter that makes cyclists invisible. The reality is that cyclists have a much smaller profile than other road users that does make them hard to see. They travel slower, making them even less visible due to the lack of movement. While the fluoro outfits worn by many cyclists does help, there are many who camouflage themselves well. The other evening, I saw a cyclist wearing a bitumen black top with a white stripe up the middle. Talk about wanting to blend into the roadway!

      Cyclists ARE difficult to see. That is just a simple fact. Everyone needs to take this into account. Mindlessly blaming one side is futile.

      By the way, yes, I am a cyclist myself. Unfortunately, the behavior of many of my fellow cyclists is a constant source of embarrassment. Self-righteousness is their worst behavior.

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 2:33PM
    • One question - why? Why should motorists have to yield to cyclists? It is we who decide to take the risk, why put it all back on the poor motorist? Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances, as the saying goes. Part and parcel of that is the knowledge that you can be seriously injured or killed at any moment by the inadvertent actions of someone else. It just goes with the territory and if you don't like it, don't ride. It is beyond ridiculous to expect the state to give you special consideration for your own choices. (Surely we have enough of that already?)

      Date and time
      May 01, 2014, 4:27PM

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