Voices

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.

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.


8 Comments

  1. will
    March 8, 2015 at 1:29 am — Reply

    Pretty good article, thanks. We live in an impatient and aggressive culture where bullying is normalised unfortunately. I have suffered both mental and physical damage whilst cycling in Australia, and I wonder whether people even realise how traumatic it can be to be tailgated by a bus at 45 KPH with only an inch or two to spare? I hate my own country now, and am hoping to leave as soon as possible. I’ve lived in five different countries across Europe and anywhere would be more civilised than Oz.

    • March 8, 2015 at 7:42 am — Reply

      Hi Will, I haven’t ridden a bicycle on the road since my uni days after similar experiences. Didn’t enjoy it and I turned to walking, running and driving.
      Sorry to hear you’ve had such a traumatic time on the roads, and I’m sorry to hear that you want to leave. We’re not all morons behind the wheel, but the vast majority of drivers think they’re the most important thing on the road and that what they’re doing, or where they’re going is more important than anyone else. Cheers Isaac.

    • Robert
      March 8, 2015 at 8:13 am — Reply

      Will I don’t think bullying is normalised here, but I do think Australia is behind the times with cyclist/motorist relations as per my article. I know what it’s like to be tailgated too and it is terrifying. Must admit never been chased by a bus though!

      In times of stress like this I have found what helps is skills and knowledge – not just in cycling but in any potentially stressful situation. If I’m out in a 4WD and I get stuck it’s not really a worry because I know what to do, and if I’m on a racetrack and the car gets loose again I’m comfortable.

      With cycling it’s the same. The sort of techniques used in low-risk driving – scanning, anticipation, observation – will really help avoid situations. Then combine that with advanced bike skills so you can get out of the way quickly or recover skids. But the idea is that, as the aviators say – “above average pilots use their above average airmanship skills so their above average piloting skills are never needed”.

      I am not aware of any bike training courses for people nervous about riding on roads (which, frankly, is everyone me included). I checked Bicycle Victoria’s site and there’s nothing.

      • will
        March 14, 2015 at 1:45 am — Reply

        Sorry – you misunderstand. As a cyclist of 30 years’ experience – podium placing in international competition – I am not in need of cycling training. I am just explaining my experience of cycling in Australia. You are also wrong about Aussie culture – it does promote and condone bullying. Sorry to correct you, but you are just plain wrong!

  2. Darren
    March 8, 2015 at 2:12 pm — Reply

    Interesting article. I would suggest before you ditch a helmet try having one save your life. Secondly, ditching a helmet for a child riding to school is irresponsible. I agree things have to change, on by both sides of the fence. I drive and I ride (casually). Walking along a path I have been assaulted by a cyclist who was riding far to fast for the conditions and lost control when he had to avoid 2 elderly people and ran into me. As he tried to take off again I took his photo (as bike riders we have no registration or identification) which he didn’t like, came back and then he tried to have a swing. Didn’t quiet work out the way he planned. When I ride I am a recreational rider and as such I tend to stay away from as many roads as possible as I am conscious that my speed is not the same as a group on expensive bikes and with drag assistance. Recently I waited at a red light for it to turn green. Obviously a young P plater was not interested in waiting the 20 seconds for his green light and tried to run me down.
    .
    This morning though, 4 rides all riding abreast and at a fairly casual rate (but in their high end gear and bikes), out of the bike lane that would have accommodated at least 3 of them and then expecting the width rule to apply. Problem was the way they were riding, to give the necessary width a car would have needed to be in the middle of a landscaped traffic island. Agreed, need more bike lanes, but we also need to start using the ones we have.
    Casual riding is great, problem is speed difference in many instances and again, the lack of riding safely to areas. I could drive to watch my nephew play football each weekend, I choose to ride.
    Driving to work last week I gave a rider a clear way and then we got caught up at a red light together and he thanked me for the space. He unclipped and stopped and then shook his head in disbelief as another rider, dressed the way you would like in shorts and t-shirt, went straight through the red light and then abused the driver with the green arrow that nearly cleaned him up. The rider next to me looked at me, smiled and said that there is the problem.
    Also this is Australia and not Europe and unfortunately in Queensland our weather can make it particularly unpleasant to ride in. Would have loved to seen you on a lovely Autumn day last Thursday riding to work in your suit – a pleasant 37 would have brightened up my day no end. I had a bike seat on my bike for the 2 girls and I would ride to the park with them to feed the ducks and play on the swings It was fantastic and I agree more families should try it.
    I agree about police involvement but lets make sure it is both ways. As I said, I have been assaulted by a bike riding for nothing more than walking along a shared path, and well and truly to one side of that path, and likewise, tried to have a driver hit me while on my bike. The bogun element is well and truly alive in the Australian motor scene, it is also well and truly alive in biking circles as well. My brother in law, who regularly does 100k plus rides (and is president of a national group that has riding as a critical party of their sport) was riding across a bridge with a couple of friends. This bridge has a wide bike/walking path. A group of weekend wannabees (as he described them) came flying past them, obviously not happy with the decent speed he was riding at and as 1 rider went past my brother in law copped a wack in the back of the head. He caught up to these weekend cowboys and they then wanted to punch on with him. Luckily he is not a small fellow or a shrinking violet and he more than adequately pointed out that what they did and the way they were riding with pedestrians around was outright dangerous.
    This is a 2 way problem.
    Heading to golf early 1 Saturday morning. Travelling along Coronation Drive, 3 lanes and you know that the riders will be in a large group along the inside lane as the shared area along the river at that time of the morning is packed with pedestrians. It is 3 lanes wide and it is pretty much a no brainer – and they ride at a pretty decent clip and if you do get stuck at a light every one respects the space. There are 2 lanes left and not a lot of traffic and everyone plays nice. Go a couple of kilometres down the road and there is a hill coming down to a roundabout. The riders come down there at break neck speed with no intention of yielding to the give way sign or the traffic that have the right away.
    I came through the roundabout and then had to break hard and swerve to miss a rider clearly barely in control as his speed was far too high to safely negotiate the corner with traffic – in their words it is a great corner to sweep onto. Not too smart with a couple of ton of car. I was able to miss the rider but he hit the roundabout and had a very serious fall. I stopped to make sure he was ok and then was surrounded by his group threatening me and pushing me around. I pointed out that I had the right away yet their only concern was they wanted to be able to come down the hill at speed and take the corner and that I should have stopped in the middle of the road to allow it. They all pointed out I was on film, which was music to my ears but I also had it on tape as the corner is notorious. I also pointed out than rather than wanting to belt me they might actually want to check on their mate bleeding and moaning in the garden – no one had given him a thought. Their entire focus was on an aggressive response to me.
    The problem, the very next roundabout I have seen cars go through it when the riders have the right away and have nearly been cleaned up. Having to break so hard and then trying to unclip before they crash to the ground. At one the driver wants the right of way and then 100 metres down the road the bike wants it (and has it), both thinking they deserve it no matter what.
    As a casual bike rider I would be more than happy to pay a annual registration and be identified. There is an increasing number of incidents of bike versus pedestrians and their needs to be recourse. However if you have the necessary lighting, visibility gear, ride to a place of employment, etc then you receive a discount to that.
    I saw a bike rider kick the rear vision mirror off a car simply because the driver had the audacity to stop at a red light too close to the kerb for the rider (despite a rather large truck being in the other lane forcing her over) who then as he “squeezed” pass gave her mirror a belt (and breaking it so that it hung down) and disappeared around the corner, against the red light. What does she tell her insurer – it was a dude, on a bike in lycra.
    I think all young drivers should be forced to do a defensive drivers course (similar to Mt Cooton in Queensland) that includes a rider aware section. Show them how quick things can go wrong and the damage their car can do to a rider and a bike. There is a great add out that I have seen (I think VW) about the dangers of using a mobile phone. The shock value drives the message home – maybe that’s what we need. We have graphics adds about smoking, why not the dangers of hitting a bike rider.
    I read after the rider was killed last week that a mother who lost a son in a bike v car accident has been campaigning for safer roads. A simple thing – try opening the drivers door with your left hand. It forces you to turn your body and at least try to make you aware. Simple, effective.
    Sorry, this has rambled on way way too long but it is not a simple solution nor a quick one. Drivers need to be far more aware but so do a large number of bike riders – education and common sense is the answer (I think) but unfortunately common sense is something that disappeared a long time ago.

    • Robert
      March 8, 2015 at 6:54 pm — Reply

      Of course helmets can save lives, but the point was there’s different types of cycling with different risks. Not all types of cycling require helmets.

      Registration…you can be assaulted by someone on foot. What’s next, registration of shoes?

      Australians have nothing to complain about with weather compared to Europe.

      I ride in all weathers. I have a waterproof shell oversuit that goes over my work clothes and keeps me totally dry even in a thunderstorm. Heat isn’t an issue either, I just ride slower…cycling is less effort than walking and you are cooler due to the wind.

      Thanks for the considered comment, all welcome!

  3. mich
    June 16, 2015 at 9:51 am — Reply

    I think that when you go for your drivers license you also need to spend X number of hours bike riding with an instructor so that you understand, learn, realise how exposed cyclists are – Regardless of whether they are wearing lycra or otherwise. Education on both sides of the coin would make a difference.

    • June 16, 2015 at 10:07 am — Reply

      Hi Mich, that sounds like sensible advice. Too many people moan about cyclists sharing the road with motorists. Education and greater awareness is good, but there are some rabid drivers out there that you can’t just convince. Indeed, when we first posted this article, Twitter erupted with plenty of ‘motorist’ groups from the UK writing to us to say the only we can get along is if cyclists don’t ride on the road… Hmmm.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper