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Laws to better protect cyclists badly needed

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The recent report commissioned by VicRoads concerning potential changes to bicycle related road rules have caused a stir within the cycling community of Australia.

Of course, after all these years, I’ve developed a somewhat cynical attitude towards such reports and associated suggestions of rule changes or new regulations.

Australia, and let’s be honest here, has a well-deserved reputation both home and abroad as being a rule-obsessed nanny state.

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An example of a rule to prevent cyclists. What about some to help them? Photo: Shutterstock
An example of a rule to prevent cyclists. What about some to help them? Photo: Shutterstock

So do we really need more rules in our society? Surely less is more, no?

I’m a strong supporter for logical, rational thinking, courtesy, empathy and self-responsibility.

In an ideal world we shouldn’t need so many rules. People would all ensure that they conducted themselves in a safe, reasonable manner. But they don’t.

I mean, seriously, should we really need a law to say that drink driving, for example, is illegal and dangerous?

But, the fact is, there are many selfish, moronic, dangerous and irrational people in the world, although, thankfully, not all of them are in Australia.

So, given this fact, our society has decided, for better or worse, that rules and regulations are the best way to dissuade and penalise those who lack general sense and respect for others.

Road rules for bicycle riders are especially interesting.

Not many people are aware of how many there are and they vary somewhat in each state and territory.

Added to the sheer number, there’s also many rules that are confusing, complicated, antiquated or downright stupid.

For example, a cyclist having to stop and give way to exiting motorists whilst travelling through a round-about.

Rules, especially road rules, where life and limb are at stake, need to be logical, rational and clearly understood.

Those on motorcycles are also vulnerable. Photo: Shutterstock
Those on motorcycles are also vulnerable. Photo: Shutterstock

If policy makers really wanted to make the life of cyclists safer and easier, and therefore help to increase participation, then strict liability laws for all vulnerable road users (VRU) is one of the most important rules that needs to be implemented.

The proposed introduction of strict liability laws is one of the most contentious and important proposals and is one of the least understood by Australian motorists.

Such proposals have been bouncing around for years, and have once again been brought up with the report commissioned by VicRoads.

Ironically, the idea has already been shelved by VicRoads, most likely because it falls in the “too hard” basket to actually implement and enforce.

VRU include pedestrians, people riding bicycles and motorcyclists. Laws protecting VRU are common throughout Europe and are in effect in all cycle-friendly countries to some degree.

Essentially the principle is simple: motorists are in control of a large, heavy and dangerous vehicle, and, therefore, are required to operate said vehicle with extreme caution and care, to the extent that they may avoid colliding with, or otherwise causing damage or injury, to a VRU.

This includes driving at slower speeds in areas of high activity or near infrastructure, giving way, providing ample passing space, anticipating erratic movement, and so on.

When I talk to people about this type of law they usually say something like this “Why should I be at fault if some cyclist veers into the lane to dodge something in the bike path and I hit them?”

To me, it’s painfully clear.

Such a situation would be avoided if motorists always anticipated such an event and made efforts to avoid it.

Motorists can be selfish and aggressive in Australia. Photo: Shutterstock
Motorists can be selfish and aggressive in Australia. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s common sense that if a car hits a VRU, even at a low speed, it won’t be much fun for the vulnerable person.

Battles of flesh and bone versus steel usually results in a trip to the emergency ward or the graveyard.

I know this from experience; a fractured clavicle, two sessions of surgery and months of physiotherapy all because a motorist failed to stop and look for a cyclist (me) in the lane before crossing.

Would such law have stopped this from happening? Possibly.

I argue that if motorists, due to fear of strict liability and reprisal in the event of an collision, started to drive more carefully and courteously, then the outcome could only be positive.

This has already been tested and proven in countries with similar laws in effect already.

The motorist culture is currently very selfish and aggressive in Australia.

We’ve got a long way to go here before cycling will be a normal, practical and safe form of transport for everyone.

A law requiring strict liability of motorists in regards to VRU is a step in the right direction to get the message across: driving a car is a privilege and a great responsibility, not a right.

We’ve still got a long way to go to make Australia a safe and easy place for people to get around on bicycles, but the introduction of strict liability laws to protect VRU in all states and territories will be a big step in the right direction.

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