I have always had a healthy fear of riding my bicycle on the road. At first it was because I was under-confident about my skills. Riding in the city traffic, up a big hill, down a hill, fitting through a narrow gap; these were all scary and stressful. It was only after I got a cross country bike and was riding it regularly that I gained confidence in my control of the bike and started feeling comfortable riding on the road. My fear was always related to my skills and knowledge, to whether I was fit to be a safe road user. Unfortunately, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. Last Friday I was involved in a terrifying run-in with a driver that has awoken me to my own blindness. I trusted that other road users, specifically the ones controlling the large and dangerous motorised vehicles known as cars, were interested in looking out for my safety. Now that trust has been broken and I have a section on my to-do list entitled ‘Douche driver’.
A lot of people have reached out to me since I shared my story on Saturday, and a lot of them have shared their own horrifying stories with me. These events are literally life-threatening, sometimes deadly and always traumatic. They range from seeing friends dragged 200m down the street, to cars literally swerving in order to bump riders off course.
I understand that anecdotal evidence hardly proves a point, but it seems there may be a growing problem which deserves to be considered (Cars vs Bikes is a good article written on the subject). It is a patent truth that people inside cars are powerful and protected, while those on bikes are vulnerable and weak. There are very few mechanisms by which cyclists can seriously harm drivers, yet the potential for drivers to harm to cyclists is huge. Where a similar discrepancy in power exists between pedestrians and cars the law is very clear that the onus is on vehicles to give way to pedestrians, even when the pedestrian is committing a violation of the road laws (more information). I would like to see a similar rule protecting bicycles, along with a positive campaign aimed at educating drivers about how the benefits of cyclists on the roads outweigh the negatives of being briefly stuck behind one in traffic.
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859
Recent research backs up cyclists’ fear of drivers – in the overwhelming majority of incidents between cars and bikes it is the driver who is at fault. This South Australian study found that 80% of collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles are caused by drivers, with 85% of the cyclists having more than three years experience of ‘serious road cycling’. None of the riders in this study were listening to personal music at the time of the crash.
Similarly, this 2010 study conducted in Melbourne found that drivers were at fault in 87% of incidents. In eight out of ten of these incidents the driver did not slow down, stop, or otherwise recognise its occurrence. The authors note that the drivers tended to be totally unaware of bikes travelling in their vicinity – in contrast the cyclists were constantly scanning their environment to maintain a situational awareness.
Therefore, it is no surprise to read that the Cycling Promotion Fund’s 2011 survey Riding a Bike for Transport found that 67% of respondents chose not to use their bike more frequently because of unsafe road conditions.
There is no doubt that travelling via bike is a smarter and more economical choice for both individuals and society. Yet aggressive drivers threatening cyclists effectively deters people taking up the activity. How is Melbourne’s infamous bike share scheme ever to take off if even locals can’t navigate the city’s streets with confidence? The law needs to catch up with reality, and drivers who commit offences on cyclists need to be pursued, prosecuted and punished.
My boyfriend and I made statements to the police about our experience last Friday. It is Wednesday and we are yet to hear that the driver has been found, the CCTV footage has been looked at, or that the police have any intention of pursuing him. Yet it has become clear to me that he, and individuals like him, need to be reprimanded before they cause someone serious injury – I will be chasing up the police as often as I can afford.
In the meantime my message is simple: it is to the benefit of drivers to make the safety of cyclists a priority.
I love riding my bike, and I intend to continue promoting cycling as a healthy and fun lifestyle choice. It saddens me to have to write such a negative post, but until we point out the very real consequences of careless and malicious driver behaviour, it is a discussion that needs to be had.
Now it seems safer that I always carry my camera around with me, some people GoPro every second of every ride. The meMINI is a wearable camera currently on Kickstarter that promises to make getting video footage of incidents much easier.
A number of grassroots organisations advocate to protect the safety of cyclists on the road, AusCycle has been the one most helpful to me so far. Cyclists and drivers are friends off the road, it is about time they looked out for each other when they are on it. Ride safe.