How many of the exact same 'freak accidents' are needed?
Right from the outset, let me make it clear. Riding a pushbike is NOT DANGEROUS. Research based on assumptions around distances travelled indicate that cycling is more dangerous than public transport or taking the car, but not as dangerous as riding a motorcycle. However this research is based on distance travelled, which automatically skews the results in 'favour' of transport modes used for the longest distances. According to this type of categorisation, shopping centre escalators or elevators would rank as the most risky forms of 'transport'. The shorter the distance covered, the more skewed the result would be. If you wanted to take it to the absurd, loungeroom couches, movie theatre chairs, beds, and anywhere else where 'distances travelled' are small to non-existent, would appear extremely dangerous!
When measured more logically, for example in terms of time periods of exposure (i.e. how long someone spends doing a particular activity), riding a pushbike is in fact incredibly safe. Some research suggests you're 1.5 times more likely to die walking than riding a bike if you walked and cycled for the same amount of time.
Other research based on hours of exposure has found that riding a bike is twice as safe as being in a car and, when measured by numbers of participants. about 4 times safer than playing tennis and 40 times safer than fishing.
What makes cycling seem so unsafe (i.e. the perception of safety as opposed to actual safety) here in Brisbane, and in most Australian capital cities probably, is the media attention that 'cycling deaths' receive. Don't get me wrong, I certainly don't want the media to trivialise these tragedies, but a lot more coverage is given to cyclists' deaths than other forms of road carnage. Car drivers and their passengers who die are generally reported, but don't seem to get the same amount of emotive coverage as cyclist, or even pedestrian deaths.
I think there could be two reasons for this. First, it seems to me that there is a heightened media attraction to cycling issues in Australia at the moment. As a cycling advocate, I view this as a good thing (as long as it is positive, and not just drool falling onto a keyboard from the slackened jaw of a braindead moron.)
Secondly, the death of an innocent while minding their own business and going about their daily life, senselessly killed at the hands of another, or by some sort of 'freak accident', is a much more emotive story.
Unfortunately, however, there's too many deaths that are often portrayed by the media (and even some cycling advocates) as a 'freak accident' when they are not. One death in a certain set of circumstances might be considered a 'freak accident'. But how much of a 'freak accident' can it be if there's two, or three or even several deaths, all in similar circumstances?
In September 2011, 25 year old Richard Pollett was killed when a cement truck tried to pass him on a busy road. The truck driver admitted he saw Richard, and admitted he didn't bother changing lanes or slowing down, but claims he just thought Richard would have enough room even though he was driving a cement truck in a narrow lane around a slight bend. In May this year the truck driver was acquitted of dangerous driving.
In May last year, 82 year old Franco Leo was killed when a garbage truck ran over him on a 'traffic calming' roundabout on a residential road in New Farm. Looking at the scene afterwards, it appears the garbage truck was going fast enough to also hit the kerb on the opposite side of the roundabout, after hitting Mr Leo.
In the 6 months since the truck driver's acquittal for Richard's death, Tanya Roneberg, Sue Bell, Les Karayan, Myles Sparling and Michelle Smeaton have all been killed on Queensland roads.
Sue Bell, Les Karayan and Michelle Smeaton all died because of trucks attempting to pass them. Early reports suggest a piece of equipment, a crane stabilising arm, was extended from the side of the truck that struck Michelle.
Myles Sparling, 5 years old, was crossing the road with his family on a pedestrian crossing, when a truck turned the corner and killed him.
News reports suggest Tanya Roneberg was also killed by a utility van attempting to pass her.
These are not 'freak accidents'. There's just too many similarities. As a society, we need to stop trying to rationalise these deaths as 'accidents' in order to preserve our wilful blindness to the actual causes. All of these deaths need to be looked at together, in a proper coronial enquiry, with the real dangers exposed and effective recommendations made.
If we continue to allow heavy vehicles travelling at speed on the same road space that unprotected men, women and children are traversing, then these deaths will continue.
Most importantly, we need to stop calling them 'cycling deaths.' These people didn't die because they were riding their bikes, they died because they were struck by a truck or similar heavy vehicle. The police report of Michelle Smeaton's death shamefully phrased the circumstances as "came into contact with part of the truck causing her to fall from her bicycle."
It's like reporting a person who has been shot as "coming into contact with a small projectile, causing her to fall and sustain multiple internal injuries." It's a bit like people suggesting the old adage that it's not the leap off a building that kills you, it's the sudden stop at the end.
From my personal experience, there are a number of identifiable situations where dangerous interactions occur regularly between people on pushbikes and other road users. Each of these dangerous circumstances is made all the more potentially lethal, if a truck is involved.
This situation occurs where doors of parked cars are opened into the path of cyclists without proper care and attention. While this is an offence under Queensland’s road rules, it still appears to be a common occurrence. Often the result is not the cyclist hitting the opened door, but the cyclist swerving to avoid collision and instead colliding with passing vehicles. If that passing vehicle happens to be a truck, much wider than a normal car and taking up much more of the lane, then there's nowhere to go.
The close shave
In Queensland, for some absurd reason, motor vehicles are allowed to park in designated bike lanes. This means people have a choice of either keeping to the left which encourages vehicles to pass too closely, or ‘taking the lane’ (riding in the middle or in the right wheel track of the lane) in order to prevent vehicles from overtaking if there is not enough room to do so safely. If taking the lane, cars and trucks often tailgate to intimidate them into moving over, are aggressively beeped at or, when there is sufficient space within the lane or a break in oncoming traffic, overtaken too closely as a 'punishment pass'. The existence of a bike lane, even if there's cars parked in it, further infuriates the motorist. On many occasions the subsequent close overtake is accompanied with being told to “get off the f***ing road” or the dangerous and illegal blaring of a horn.
I've been chased down a narrow 40kph road, at 45 kph, by a man driving an articulated heavy crane revving the guts out of his engine and blasting me with his air horn.
Even if a passing truck driver means no animosity, getting passed by such a large vehicle in the same lane is such a frightening experience that I've known a number of people, men and women, who have given up cycling immediately.
The intersection overtake
Current on-road bike lanes in Queensland are continued to roundabouts and curve left in parallel to the kerb:
As a result of this, people often have to stop to the left of vehicles, where drivers are looking to their right (away from cyclists) for any traffic already on or approaching the roundabout.
The end result is that people on bikes and other vehicles will often enter the roundabout at the same time, with motorised vehicles accelerating quicker than bicyclists. This type of road treatment also encourages the driver’s expectation that the bicyclist will continue to keep to the left allowing them to overtake on the roundabout, whereas in reality both will take the same natural line through the roundabout resulting in collision.
Similar conflicts can occur in intersections, where both people on bikes, pedestrians crossing the road and cars will either slow or stop at approach, and then attempt to cross the intersection at the same time.
Approaching the roundabout in the above picture, I've had trucks overtake me then stop to give way, with their rear wheels sitting in the middle of the bike lane.
The left hook
This situation occurs as a result of the bike rider keeping to the left of the carriageway approaching a side road or driveway. Motor vehicles will overtake them and then immediately turn left, cutting off the rider who may collide with the side of the vehicle.
The pinch point
Pinch points are created in a stupid effort of traffic calming, and in some instances to facilitate pedestrians crossing the road (because drivers tend to ignore zebra crossings so our response is to just get rid of them, and let pedestrians take their chances standing in the middle of busy traffic, with a few inches of kerb to protect them from both directions). Pinch points are created where the lane narrows through the use of kerbing extending into the roadway, or a traffic island or refuge being created in the centre of the lane.
In most instances, any bike lane or safe shoulder evaporates leading up to the pinch point.
The result of this type of road treatment is that cyclists are required to move into the line of traffic. This often results in cars passing cyclists too closely as described above, or attempting to ‘beat’ them to the pinch point by accelerating dangerously (MGIF or 'Must Get In Front' syndrome).
SMIDSY (or 'sorry mate I didn't see you!") occurs most commonly where a vehicle entering the road from a side road or driveway, fails to give way to the person riding a bike already on the road.
This situation often occurs for four reasons:
1. A driver will look for oncoming traffic before pulling out, but is expecting to see another automobile or heavy vehicle and therefore fails to register a person on a bike. This is a symptom of low levels of cycling within our community, resulting in a general lack of awareness of cyclists by other road users.
2. The driver underestimates the speed of the person riding, thinking they can turn into the road before the person reaches the intersection. This can also be attributed to a lack of awareness of cyclists’ needs and behaviours.
3. The ‘A' pillar of the driver’s vehicle (the roof pillar adjoining the windscreen) conceals the person riding from the driver’s view. This situation is exacerbated by drivers turning in the direction of the corner as they approach the intersection, and slowing their vehicle but not stopping. These actions often result in the A pillar continuing to align with the driver’s sightline to the slowly approaching person. Drivers who are expecting to see fast moving automobiles will expect an approaching vehicle to approach at sufficient speed to overcome this alignment. This situation is also exacerbated by the punctum caecum blind spot.
4. Lastly, and most disturbing, a driver may just choose to take the 'might is right' approach, or simply act on the view that anyone not in a car is an illegitimate road user and doesn't deserve consideration.
All these circumstances are intertwined, and all are made much more dangerous if the motor vehicle in question is a heavy vehicle, like a truck.
What needs to be done is no mystery. I've mentioned most of them before (see earlier posts). Other countries around the world are doing it:
If we can't severely limit where heavy vehicles go in our neighbourhoods, then we need proper funding and world best practice design, even if it means taking space away from moving and parked cars, to ensure wherever possible people on their own are separated from people in heavy vehicles. This doesn't mean separated Copenhagen-style paths on every street. It means useful, connected, planned bike routes and walking with separated infrastructure where necessary, on key routes.
We need to lower speed limits to 30kph on local streets that connect people to the separated infrastructure, when those streets are to be shared.
We need changes to the road rules so that cyclists don't have to pretend to be cars or trucks, or are at least don't have to try to compete with them. We also need changes to the offence provisions so that, in the event a person is struck by a vehicle, the onus is on the vehicle's driver to show they were taking all required care and precautions.
We need to start prosecuting drivers for dangerous driving offences, and increase the punishments that can be given when that dangerous driving results in serious injury or death. We need to change the laws so that people who do stupid things on the road don't just get minor traffic tickets, so that people in control of vehicles, including cars as well as trucks, start taking extra special care around people. In the last week, I've heard two separate stories where a driver has knocked someone from their bike, and received a small fine and lost one demerit point.
We need to get rid of mandatory helmet laws. Riding a bike is safe, and wearing a helmet will make no difference whatsoever if you're hit by a truck. Every one of the above people killed was wearing one. What helmet laws actually do is discourage everyday, utility cycling, leaving us with an aggressive, male dominated sport, not a legitimate form of transport. Helmet laws tell people that cycling is dangerous, that people riding bikes are responsible for their own safety, and that people riding bikes are using 'valuable' road space and delaying 'important' journeys for the 'illegitimate' purposes of sport and recreation. But worst of all, helmets allow governments to say they take safety seriously, instead of admit that nothing of consequence is being done despite all the 'freak accidents'. If this is done, then more people will hop on their bikes, and there's more chance that a jury will identify with the deceased, or their family, and not the driver.