Australia and America Road Safety

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My mate Adrian Vlok (President of the St Kilda Cycling Club) is travelling around the US on vacation and has some insights and opinions to share on road safety and similarities between Australia and America.

With a grand tour before us I am three weeks into my own grand driving tour of the United States of California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. When the five week tour is over I hope to have clocked over 3500 miles in an “RV” and seen and experienced as much as the western US can offer from a natural and cultural perspective.

Along the way I have been keenly observing how the US treats and caters for road cyclists, compared to Australia. Today I came across some mind numbing statistics while enjoying the comfort of a glass of red in the RV and perusing the local Russian River Times, which amongst other things claims to be the “The alternative uncensored Northern California Newspaper”. Apparently the League of American Bicyclists Fair Share for Safety from the Highway Safety Improvement Program report and Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report documented that between 2000 to 2009, 47,700 Americans were struck and killed by vehicles while either walking or cycling, and another 688,000 were injured. Well that’s a dead pedestrian or cyclist every 2 hours or a vehicle hits a pedestrian or cyclist either killing them or injuring them every six seconds. Since 2009 only six of the fifty US states have apparently accessed dedicated Highway Safety Funds specifically for bicycle and pedestrian safety projects, bizarre considering that 67% of deaths and injuries occurred on rural roads and highways.

These are rather sobering stats and I suspect on a per capita basis they are comparable to Australia. Why? Well from my observations the US has followed the same policy toward cyclists that Australia has, that is cyclists must “share” the road with parked and moving trucks and cars. The problem with this policy is that a car or worse a truck and a cyclist can’t occupy in most cases the same carriageway without either the vehicle moving to the wrong side of the road or as the statistics show, hitting the cyclist or pedestrian. My point is on country roads and highways there is no space to “share” at the best of times and a cyclist is aways going to loose out. The lack of space is made worse by speed. In the US not unlike Australia people generally do 10 mph more than the posted speed limit, 75 mph being the maximum in the US. The cocktail becomes quite literally more lethal when you add fatigue, driver distractions, alcohol, an ageing population and the dramatic growth in trucks on rural roads and highways. It also has to be said that the US takes an equally lenient view of killing a person with a vehicle as Australia does.

The interesting aspect of the US strategy is to put “Share the Road” signs on every section of road and highway where there is actually no room to share. That’s about as successful as asking a flock of seagulls to share a chip. Cyclists being the chip. No doubt it’s a measure recommended by lawyers when road authorities and local government have no intention of providing a extra meter of bitumen and a white line. It has become one of those crazy road trip Eye Spy games to spot the “Share the Road” sign with the least space to share and the longest drop off from the edge of the carriageway.

The irony is the coastal roads and highways north of Los Angeles through San Francisco up to Oregon are simply stunning and breath taking. Think of 1500 kilometres of diverse scenic landscapes comparable to the Great Ocean Road. Whole towns have been listed on the US National Trust. Along the way the state, national and private park network is amazing, with five star ‘hiker biker’ facilities and camps every 50 kilometres. It is no surprise that 2,350 cyclists recently road from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a mere 545 miles and raised $13 million for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

While difficult to comprehend these figures didn’t come as a surprise to me and I suspect for any cycling enthusiast reading this blog it’s not breaking news. After all everyone of us has personal experience or knows of somebody killed or injured by a motorist while riding. What made me really really wake up was the realization that as a community we accept it and I can’t figure out why.

In Australia and the US we have some outstanding organizations who do excellent work. We are collectively well organised with large clubs, state and national associations and local advocacy organizations like Amy Gillett Foundation and Bicycle Victoria. But I challenge you to think of any other community group, race, ‘minority’ or religion anywhere which would tolerate being consistently and predictably killed or injured every six seconds without a full scale and militant civil or human rights campaign.

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