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Cyclist's death highlights grave deficiencies in road safety system

Alia Parker's picture
Cycling safety campaign. Cycle Traveller

The recent decision by a Queensland jury to acquit a truck driver for dangerous operation of a vehicle causing the death of a cyclist has sparked outrage among the cycling community and reignited the push to have a one-metre overtaking distance written into law. It also demonstrates a major deficiency in educating all road users – including cyclists themselves – about the road and safety rules pertaining to cyclists, a failure in the system that is creating more frequent misunderstandings, road rage and resentment between motorists and cyclists.

Earlier this month, 29-year-old Luke Stevens was cleared of causing the death of 25-year-old musician, Richard Pollet, who died in 2011 when the rear tyre of Stevens' cement truck struck him while overtaking Pottet on Moggill Road in Kenmore, Brisbane.

The driver was cleared of wrong doing because he was under the “honest and reasonable belief” the cyclist had enough room on the road. The driver said he was boxed in by traffic and unable to give Pollet more space as his vehicle overtook the bike. The jury was told that the situation would have been avoided if Stevens had been patient and instead of attempting to overtake Pollet, who was using the road within his rights, had been patient, applied the brakes and slowed down. This did not sway their decision and an unclear definition of what exactly a 'safe' distance for a car to overtake a cyclists proved to be critical. Without a formal definition and law enforcement of what constitutes a safe speed and distance, Stevens left the court room cleared of wrongdoing. However, Pollet was also within his rights to be cycling on the road and was not in breach of the law. If a vehicle attempts to overtake another vehicle and consequently clips it as it moves back into the lane, the driver of the overtaking vehicle would certainly be held responsible for reckless driving. But hit a cyclist with your vehicle and be cleared; what went wrong?

A broken system

Some commentators suggest the decision reflects the division between motorists and cyclists and the predominant view by drivers who don't cycle that cyclists are not legitimate road users and thus nuisances. This point is very valid, but the real issue is the cause inflaming this attitude. The tragic death highlights the critical deficiency in road and safety knowledge among those that use it and the inability of the country's road and transport systems to keep pace with changes in society. Just as road rules evolved to cater for the growth in motor vehicle traffic over the past century following an era where roads were predominantly used by pedestrians, horse and carts and cyclists, the rules need to continue to evolve to allow for the fair use of these public thoroughfares amid the resurgence of cycling as a legitimate means of transport. 

The education of road users has been so skewed towards motorists that most drivers do not understand the road rules pertaining to cyclists and a good number of cyclists themselves only know some of the rules, which is also a grave problem. With such a high proportion of road users unaware of the rules and safety guidelines amid a growing number of cyclists, there is little wonder that a stark 'us against them' mentality is growing. Sadly, this very attitude only serves to limit the ability for motorists and cyclists to co-exist side-by-side. A clear understanding of the rules on both sides would reduce road rage from motorists as a consequence of mistakenly believing cyclists are breaking the rules, while a campaign for cyclists to follow a code of conduct on the road would also improve respect from drivers.

Rules of the road

One major misconception by motorists is that cyclists who cycle two abreast are rude and breaking the road rules, often causing incidents of road rage among drivers. On the contrary, cyclists are encouraged to cycle two abreast, filling the equivalent space of a vehicle, to improve safety. This rule is aimed at preventing a vehicle from overtaking a cyclist while sharing the same lane; the exact scenario that lead to the death of Pollet. In such circumstances, the vehicle must wait until the appropriate time to change lanes and overtake the cyclists, just as they would if they were overtaking a vehicle. The fact that most motorists (and even cyclists) don't know this rule reflects the weakness in the roads and transport system: everyday millions of people take to the roads and the vast majority of those people are unaware of how cyclists and motorist should safely interact.

Lives are at stake. Motorists and cyclists need to stop playing the 'us against them' card and open the lines of communication to solve this issue. Legislative bodies need to establish clear rules and ensure that everyone knows those rules. Without clarity, the situation will only continue to get worse and more lives will be lost.

Clearly, a greater focus needs to be placed on education and recognition of cyclists as legitimate road users. The road rules pertaining to cyclists affect all on the road, not just cyclists, and as most cyclists themselves also drive a vehicle, a bigger focus on bicycle rules and safety during state motor vehicle exams would greatly improve the situation.

Clearer guidelines for road users are also a necessity, highlighted by Stevens' legal team's success in getting him off the charge. The Amy Gillett Foundation, a bicycle safety not-for-profit lobby group, says vague rules, such as Queensland road rule 144 that stipulates that a vehicle must keep “a safe distance when overtaking,” are insufficient. The Foundation has been campaigning for the introduction of a minimum one-metre distance between vehicles overtaking cyclists, with a greater distance recommended for vehicles travelling faster than 60km per hour. It says such guidelines exist in other countries, like the United States, without conflicting with other rules of the road.

So what are the road rules pertaining to cyclists? As roads fall under the responsibility of the states, the rules vary from state to state, however, are generally rather standard. These are the rules set in NSW:

Cyclists are allowed to:

  • Ride two abreast, no more than 1.5 m apart;
  • Overtake on the left hand side of stopped or slow moving vehicles;
  • Travel in Bus Lanes and Transit Lanes (except Bus Only lanes);
  • Ride on the footpath if less than 12 years old;
  • Ride on the footpath if you are an adult riding with, and supervising, an under 12 year old;
  • Turn right from the left hand lane of a multi-lane roundabout with the proviso that you give way to traffic exiting the roundabout before you;
  • Travel on road shoulders.

Cyclists must make sure:

  • To use bicycle lanes when provided;
  • Their bike has at least one working break;
  • Their bike has a bell;
  • Their bike has a red rear reflector;
  • They use a white front light and red rear light that are visible for at least 200m when riding in the dark.

Cyclists who fail to follow these rules may be fined.

In addition, cyclists who are travelling on the road should use hand signals to indicate turning left, turning right and stopping and must wear a helmet.

Legislation, education and communication are key to improving the situation on our roads and to preventing the deaths of our most vulnerable road users: cyclists. With the majority of our current road users unaware of the existence of these rules, nothing short of a major public awareness campaign will help salvage the situation.

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