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Cycling the Public Debate
2 Oct, 2009

The recent highly public and very vocal motorist versus cyclist debate should send alarm bells ringing in New Zealand’s transport and road safety agencies.  The debate highlighted the dire lack of understanding amongst some of our drivers that contribute to New Zealand’s poor road safety record.  It sends a pretty clear message that our current approach to road safety around cyclists is failing.


The tragic irony of the situation is that the debate was sparked by two shocking crashes involving cyclists that were caused by driver error, a factor common for two thirds of all crashes involving a motorist and cyclist.


A significant cause of crashes or near miss incidents between motorists and cyclists generally fall into two categories – driver inattention and a lack of understanding how to drive safely around a cyclist.  Inattention is not specific to crashes involving cyclists.  The NZ Automobile Association suggests that lack of attention may contribute to 80% of all road crashes – it is an issue that affects all road users. 


The lack of understanding of how to drive safely around a cyclist simply reflects a misjudgement about what is safe.  Drivers that do not ride a bicycle have a different perception to what is safe compared to drivers that do ride.  People that cycle and people that drive are no different.  While road rage cannot be condoned, motorists that experience a barrage of aggression from a cyclist are likely to have unknowingly endangered the personal safety and life of the cyclist.  A near miss experience with two tonnes of misdirected steel will bring out the worst in the meekest of people.


The reality on our roads is that cyclists, and motorcyclists, face a disproportional high risk of injury or death compared to motorists.  The notion that we should accept a certain level of death or injury on our roads is unacceptable and reflects thinking that was long dispelled in NZ’s road safety debate.  It would appear we still have to win over some hearts and minds on this issue as it relates to cyclists.


There is no question that all road users, including cyclists, need to respect the road rules.  Road rules exist to keep all road users safe.  What has become clear is that our existing rules and approach to road user education is failing to provide clear guidance to road users what safe driving is around cyclists.


BikeNZ are running a public campaign and petition, 1.5 To Survive, calling on the government to create a clear standard of safe driving around a cyclist by turning the current 1.5 metre passing advisory note into a road rule.  Experience from the USA, where a similar rule exists, is that police and transport officials use it as an educational tool to modify behaviour rather than to prosecute.  Prior to the law being introduced, if someone drove to close to a cyclist, officials were not able to explain or reinforce what is acceptable safe driving behaviour.


The notion that our roads are too narrow to accommodate a 1.5m passing rule reflects a misjudgement that undermines safety.  It is on narrow roads where the greatest need exists to educate road users of safe driving habits and avoid people passing cyclists with minimal clearance compromising safety.  If the lane is too narrow to allow passing with 1.5 m of space, drivers should slow down and wait until they can make a safe passing manoeuvre.  A delay of 10 -15 seconds is no way comparable to the risk of a crash and serious injury or death.

While the ideal situation would be to have wide roads with good shoulders, and dedicated cycle paths or lanes, this is not always practical, affordable or warranted.  Kieran Turner, BikeNZ’s Chief Executive, says “the idea that cyclists and drivers cannot co-exist on our roads is ludicrous.  Europe has much narrower and more congested roads than that New Zealand, yet when recently cycling in Switzerland and France I felt completely safe”.

The number of cyclists in New Zealand has been booming as people discover the benefits of cycling, yet New Zealand needs more cyclists.  Cycling is now accepted internationally as a simple solution to many significant and common issues facing western countries – reducing urban traffic congestion and carbon emissions, reducing obesity rates and the burden on our health system through promoting active lifestyles, and regional economic development through cycle tourism.  New Zealand only stands to lose if we fail to make our roads safe for cycling.

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