Cyclists and motorists in Australia – how we can all get along

Seems like some motorists don’t think cyclists should be allowed to ride on the road… Hmm. I love cars and I’m all in favour of cyclists sharing the road…

THIS IS A MOTORING WEBSITE, albeit one aimed at the everyperson rather than the enthusiast.  Still, this writer is a car enthusiast of the first order.  I spend a lot of money and time on my 4WDs, write books about them, own a sportscar and compete in it, go driving just for fun, almost all of my friends are into one car scene or other, my phone ringtone is a Jaguar V8 and I write articles here mourning the loss of the manual transmission.

So, you may think the take on cyclists would be predictable.

I’m all in favour of promoting cycling.  One hundred percent.

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The reasons are simple.  Cycling doesn’t pollute, doesn’t cause congestion, is a highly personal transport, is fun, social and offers a great effort-to-speed ratio.  We should do more of it, so we as a society become fitter and perhaps get on better with each other.  For the enthusiast, bikes can be endlessly personalised and there’s lots of interesting tech stuff to learn for people that way inclined.  I can’t really think of a downside for a cycling-based society.

You might find it odd that a petrolhead takes such a view.  But your average car enthusiast like me loves using their car for actual driving… not for sitting in stop-start traffic which is no fun at all.  For trips into the city I typically cycle to the train station and then its rail all the way.  Cheaper and easier than driving, and I can do something productive on the train.

But Australia is a long way away from where it could be, and should be with cycling.  If I look at the European cities in which I’ve lived, driven and cycled then I think they represent the way forwards for Australia, which has three basic problems with bikes.  

First, the helmet rule.  That’s typically nanny-state Australian, which is ironic given the fact that we like to project an image of ruff, tuff, disrepect-authority larrikinism.  In fact, Australia is an over-regulated country of prudes nervously adhering to rules nobody needs.

It is absolutely true that it is a good idea to wear a helmet when cycling.  No argument there.  It’s also a good idea to wear one while walking.  And we should wear one inside cars too, along with a five-point safety harness.  Also, economy tyres should be banned as they’re low grip.  We should also get rid of pedestrian crossings in favour of tunnels or bridges.

You see the point – where do you draw the line?  In the case of cycling if you’re hammering around the road on your drop-handled speedster you’d be mad not to wear a helmet.  Same deal if you were mountainbiking downhill.  But what if you’re on a gentle afteroon bimble at all of fifteen km/h with the family, on an easy riders?  The two situations aren’t equivalent, just like racing a car requires a helmet, fireproof overall and various other gear which we don’t feel necessary for roadcars, and dirtbike riders strap on full body armour that moped rides don’t need. And if we flicked helmets then the bikeshare schemes might stand a chance of working instead of being expensive, embarrasing blue elephants.

The next issue Australia has with cycling is the perspective that cycling is for elites.  For some reason here people are either appalled or disbelieving when I cycle in a suit or business attire.  And when I went to buy cycle clips I had to try three shops before I found them.

Dear Australia…bicycles are just a form of easy transport.  Take a look a Europe, everyone just hops on and rides in whatever they’re wearing.  Women in heels and skirts of all types, men in suits with briefcases.  No need for lycra, special shoes or the other junk people wear even for a short ride when it’s more appropriate to a race.   Cycling can be casual transport or a fitness programme.  Australia gets the latter, can’t comprehend the former.  I think motorists would be more forgiving of cyclists if they could see the cyclists were out just for daily transport, as opposed to fun.  It’s kind of the same way people tell me they don’t like 4WDs, but what I do is ok because I actually use it to take my family camping so they cut me some slack.

Not finished with the cyclists yet.  Quite a few are rather bloody minded and have a real I-own-the-road mentality.  For example, how often do you see a cyclist giving way to a car?  I frequently turn left with many cyclists wanting to go straight on, and stuffed if any let me turn.  I’ve actually had to wait a complete green light cycle while they all streamed past, then more build up during the next red.  This of course did nothing for the frustrations of the motorists behind me, and cyclists wonder why they don’t get a good rap.  There’s road rules, and there’s courtesy and safety. One is not a substitute for the other.

This cyclist attitude may be an overreaction from the fact that the average Aussie motorist is not used to dealing with cyclists, but nevertheless it really doesn’t help matters.  I have seen more aggressive and passive-aggressive cyclists here in Australia than I ever have anywhere else in the world.  Another example is cycling at speed up the inside of cars when people are likely to get out, then blaming the car passenger. How about taking an advanced driving course where you get taught about risk identification and management, plus your mindset is shifted so you take responsibility for the accidents you could have avoided (regardless of “fault”) instead of blaming everyone else?  In advanced driver training we like to say there’s little point having “I was right” engraved on your tombstone, and I think many cyclists would do well to consider that perspective too.  I can assure you that if heavy vehicle drivers used the same “I’m right” mentality as cyclists the road toll would be quadrupled overnight, but instead the big truck drivers do everything they can to avoid accidents.  The few times they don’t are conspicuous, and you’ll never see the thousand other times they anticipated and avoided.

Finally, the motorists.  Simply not used to cyclists, and overreacting to the overraction of the cyclists. Aggression feeds aggression, and they’re prone to coming up with dumb ideas like cyclist registration.    As someone who cycles most days on public roads I could again list plenty of examples of motorist sins, and I’m very glad my old BMX skills are still there – must have been a sight to see a besuited middle aged bloke on a commuter bike bunnyhop a kerb to get out of the way of a van.  But you know what?  I wondered to myself what I could have done to have anticipated and avoided the situation so I wasn’t nearly squashed.  Not absolving the van driver of blame, but simple self-preservation and acknowledgment that we all make mistakes from time to time.  And thanks, guys in the old Commodore, I needed that whack on my back as you went by.  Yes, you scared me more than I’ve ever been scared on anything with wheels or wings, and the reason I was so scared was because it was an act of dangerous aggression I could neither foresee nor prevent, unlike the incident with the van.  Sometimes I wonder if I should continue to take the risk of commuter cycling, if I’m not doing a disservice to my family  – and this from a guy that gets off by doing apparently dangerous things in cars.

So, what should we do?  Here’s a plan.

1. Ditch the helmet rule.  Other countries manage without it and so can we.  If we must have one limit it to speeds over 25km/h or something.  This will certainly improve  cycling use.  Make helmets recommended.

2. Start a campaign about cycling for everybody.  Show photos of Joe Average, wearing Joe Average clothes jumping on a basic bike and crusing to the pub or for a coffee.  Where are you, bicycle groups?  Too busy slipping into the toestraps or looking for another few grams off the dérailleur?  Focus on the bicycle as cost-effective transport, not just recreation.  The bicycle is a tool, not just a toy.  Then people will be more accepting of recreational cycling.

3. Make normal cycling gear available.  Bike shops are full of top-end gear.  Stock some more cheap, comfy commuter bikes with big mudguards, cycle clips, starter packs, panniers, shell clothing and the like.  Make up basic starter kits.  

4. Educate motorists.  It’s not too late.  We do this for alcohol, speed and motorcyclists.  The more motorists that cycle the better it is for all.  Talk about giving way. Show them the human side of cycling.

5. Educate cyclists.  Explain the concept of defensive cycling (just re-use all the ideas we already teach in low-risk driving) and courteous cycling.  Like giving way occasionally and not running red lights.  Not everyone does it, but enough do for it to be a problem.

6. Invest in cycling lanes.  And public transport.  It’s interesting that Australia has just sooo much space everywhere compared to say narrow-laned Europe, yet we can’t seem to divide up the roads a little bit for cycling lanes.  Still can’t get over the amount of space left between parallel parked cars in Australia compared to Europe.

7. Have the police come down hard and fast on aggression towards cyclists. I don’t mean honest mistakes, I mean actual, premediated attacks like the heroes that belted me from behind as they drove by.  Publically flog them or something.

Then we can have lots of people happily cycling where they can, using cars where they must or when they want to.  That’s the sort of society we need in the future.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!