Cycling safety solutions - infrastructure or attitudes?

I was cycling through Preston the other day, riding to the left of a lane shared with cars as the “bicycle lane” was full of parked cars. A motorist in a four-wheel drive overtook me at some speed with less than a foot between us. I came up to his window at the next red light, tapped on it, and asked him whether he was aware that he’d passed me so narrowly.

“Nah, I gave you plenty of room.”

“You should have been in the bike lane.”

“You f***ing cyclists think you have all the rights.”

Although this person didn’t raise his voice at me (nor did I to him) or threaten me – this was not the worst encounter I’ve had while cycling – at no point did he apologise or even concede that it was important to be considerate of other road users and their safety. When I made the point to him that he would not want to be responsible for somebody’s death, he told me “not to be so dramatic”.

Tell that to the families of the 33 cyclists killed across Australia in 2012, the last year for which road fatalities were available from the Australian Government’s Road Deaths Database. While this figure is small compared to the total fatality figure of 1303, the fact that more people travel by car than bike means that cyclists have a higher injury and death rate than motorists and their passengers. A 2010 study by researchers from Deakin University and the University of Sydney found that cyclist fatality rates per kilometre between 2002 and 2008 were anywhere from 4.5 to 18.6 times that of car occupants.

We as a society tend to fix these kinds of problems through legislation or physical infrastructure. Councils across Melbourne have been installing more bicycle lanes, including physically-separated lanes, such as in Albert Street in East Melbourne and Swanston Street in Carlton. The Queensland Government is soon to pass legislation requiring motorists to leave a metre gap when passing cyclists, increasing to 1.5m when travelling at 60km/h or more. Do these solutions address the whole problem, however, when it is impractical to install best-practice bicycle infrastructure all over the city or to always enforce road rules?

In my opinion, a large part of cyclists’ safety problem is that of some motorists’ attitudes relating to how and where cyclists should ride, and what rights should be afforded to them. The man who narrowly overtook me had no issue doing so presumably because he assumed he posed no threat to my safety and because I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Had he considered me as a fellow human being foremost (rather than a member of a different “road user type”), acknowledged my right to share a lane with cars where it was impractical to travel in the bicycle lane (Australian Road Rules Regulation 247) and been cognisant of the hazard that his vehicle posed to my safety, he would have likely been happy to wait an additional five seconds to overtake me safely.

One solution towards this attitude problem could be more education campaigns for motorists in relation to vulnerable groups such as cyclists. These would need to include the rights and responsibilities of various parties, such as the legal position on where and how cyclists may ride, and who gives way to whom in various situations. While some members of any road user group would continue to break the law, correcting misconceptions on road rules would help decrease situations where a motorist’s mistaken outrage at a cyclist sharing the road blinds him or her to compassion and common sense.

Another would be greater awareness that cyclists are not a fundamentally different type of animal life, even when dressed in spandex, but fellow human beings. Too often, we categorise others into rigid out-groups – even when the basis for these groups cease on alighting from our vehicles. Family members have told me that they have begun driving more carefully around cyclists since I began cycling, having greater empathy and awareness of the risks involved. It is my hope the increasing numbers of cyclists will mean that more people will know one and see them as somebody’s family member or friend, rather than an obstacle to getting through the next set of green lights. However, we may need safety campaigns reminding us that people – however they travel – have lives and aspirations that can too easily be extinguished by carelessness or impatience.

In a perfect world, technological and infrastructural solutions would remove the all-too-present element of human error from transportation. Although we continually strive to fix accident blackspots and physically separate vulnerable road users from threats, these solutions alone cannot be the answer. Greater compassion, awareness and patience on our roads would make a world of difference.

Alexander is a member of Students Linking Melbourne Sustainably.

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