A Metre Matters, but will it improve cyclist safety?

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Last Friday the Queensland Minister for Transport Scott Emerson announced a two-year trial of a minimum passing distance for motorists who are overtaking cyclists: one metre on roads with speed limits up to 60km/h and 1.5m on faster roads. It’s the latest development in the Amy Gillett Foundation’s A Metre Matters campaign, a push to introduce minimum passing distance laws all around Australia. And while the campaign might seem like common sense, there are those who question its effectiveness. Matt de Neef investigates.

In September 2011, musician Richard Pollett was riding along Moggill Road in Kenmore, Brisbane when he was hit from behind by a cement truck and killed. The case attracted headlines around Australia, not least because in May this year the truck driver involved in the incident, Luke Stevens, was found not guilty of “dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death”. Stevens had argued in court that he thought he had enough room to safely overtake Pollett. The jury agreed and Stevens was released without charge.

This decision proved to be a turning point for the Amy Gillett Foundation with the organisation deciding to ramp up its ‘A Metre Matters’ campaign — which was founded in 2009 — to push for a minimum overtaking distance to be introduced as law around Australia, rather than just a recommendation.

The ‘safe passing distance’ law

The Australian road rule #144, which is adopted in most states in the same format, requires drivers to provide cyclists with an adequate amount of room when overtaking. To quote from the Victorian Road Rules:

A driver overtaking a vehicle […] must pass the vehicle at a sufficient distance to avoid a collision with the vehicle or obstructing the path of the vehicle.

There’s a widespread belief among the cycling community that these so-called ‘safe passing distance’ laws do little to protect cyclists and don’t punish drivers that are seemingly in breach of the law. The case of Richard Pollett is one example. Another is the case of Craig Cowled, who was knocked off his bike by a driver who only lost one demerit point for “following too closely”. Here’s the disturbing vision of that incident, captured by Cowled’s helmet cam:

It’s with this broken system in mind that the Amy Gillett Foundation is pushing for a minimum overtaking distance to be pushed into law. I spoke with Marilyn Johnson, the Research Manager at the Amy Gillett Foundation to find out more.

“The outcome that we’re looking for is for cars to stop hitting bikes. We want people not to hit bike riders in their cars when they’re on the road because the reality is that the majority of crashes that lead to bike rider deaths involve a vehicle.”

On a theoretical level the amendment is simple: make it unlawful to overtake a cyclist with a clearance of less than a metre on roads where the speed limit is up to 60km/h, and less than 1.5m when the speed limit is higher than that.

International precedents

While the Amy Gillett Foundation is busy trying to get a minimum passing distance into Australian law, there are many countries around the world in which such legislation already exists. Twenty-three states in the US require drivers to leave at least three feet (roughly 90cm) when passing, Pennsylvanian drivers are required to leave four feet (1.2m) and drivers in Virginia must leave two feet (60cm). Belgium, France, Portugal and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia all have minimum passing distance laws as well.

But according to Garry Brennan from Government & External Relations at Bicycle Network, the fact these international precedents exist doesn’t mean they’ve been shown to work. While Garry acknowledges that the ‘safe passing distance’ law isn’t working, he says Bicycle Network won’t support the push to introduce a minimum passing distance into law because there’s no evidence such a law will work; that is, that it will increase cyclist safety and, ultimately, reduce the number of cyclists injured and killed on the roads.

“We never really had any problems with the Amy Gillett Foundation’s one-metre campaign but suddenly, one day, it metamorphosed and we’d learned it was now a fixed distance law campaign. We looked at the evidence and we found there were no benefits where [a minimum passing distance law] had been introduced — there’d been no benefits for bike safety.”

I put this apparent lack of evidence to Marilyn Johnson who, in addition to her role at AGF, is a cycling safety researcher at Monash University.

“I think a focus on the lack of evidence doesn’t recognise the lack of funded research in injury prevention to begin with. This is a poorly researched space and drilling down further, cycling is itself under-researched in terms of evaluating road safety programs.

The idea that the idea that there’s going to be a body of evidence we can point to is less likely because cycling safety issues are under-researched.”

To Marilyn it’s less about evidence and more about common sense.

“Evaluation or not, giving that extra bit of space, and drivers knowing that it’s not some space or a little bit of space, but it’s a metre […] is really going to help stop crashes, stop bike riders getting killed and stop them being seriously injured.”

Garry Brennan remains unconvinced:

“Giving cyclists more room is definitely better but [Marilyn Johnson] has missed the critical link: there’s no link between a law and giving cyclists more room. Where the law has been introduced and research has been done, the vehicles are not giving cyclists more room.”

Garry believes that a minimum passing distance law won’t only be ineffective, supporting it would actually be ethically dubious for Bicycle Network.

“For Bicycle Network to support a law which we know is not beneficial would be improper for us to do because we want our members and bike riders to know that if we recommend a change then it’s going to provide the benefits that are claimed. In this case it would be improper for us to pretend that a fixed one-metre law would be beneficial for bike riders when we know that it wouldn’t.”

Enforceability and education

One of the criticisms most often levelled at the A Metre Matters campaign is, somewhat ironically, one of the issues that plagues the current legislation: enforceability. How will police be able to determine exactly how much room a motorist has left between them and the cyclist in the absence of any video footage of an incident?

I put this criticism to Marilyn Johnson who pointed me towards a video created by the Austin Police Department in Texas, USA. In essence, drivers in Austin must only pass cyclists when it is safe to do so and when they’re able to give at least three feet of clearance (or six feet for larger vehicles). Police are specifically trained to enforce this law and there are regular blitzes to ensure that drivers are complying. Crucially, Austin police don’t give out tickets to drivers who need to cross double lines in the centre of the road to safely pass a cyclist.

The enforceability of any future law is only one part of the issue. Ideally you stop drivers from passing cyclists too closely in the first place and for that you need driver education.

The Amy Gillett Foundation is proposing a change to how new drivers are tested when going for their driver’s license, as Marilyn Johnson explains.

“At the moment in all states the driver’s license test that people sit is generated from a large test bank. And the test is generated from questions that are randomly selected and may not include anything about cyclists at all. The legitimacy of bike riders on the road and minimum overtaking distance, I would say, should be added to every single driver license test and also be in the driver license training.”

In its report on cyclist safety the Queensland Government’s Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee tabled a 200-page report in Parliament, the result of a five-month inquiry into cycling in Queensland. It was the tabling of this report late last week which prompted Transport Minister Scott Emerson to announce the minimum passing distance trial.

The inquiry’s report contained 68 recommendations including the call for “mandatory inclusion of at least 5% (or 2 questions, whichever is higher) about road rules relating to cycling in the theoretical/written component of driver’s licence testing and mandatory inclusion of interaction with cycling related infrastructure in the practical component of driver’s licence testing.” It remains to be seen whether the Queensland government will adopt this particular recommendation.

But educating new drivers is only one part of the equation: there are millions of drivers around the country who already have a license. Educating existing drivers about the importance of giving cyclists enough room is easy when those drivers are cyclists themselves (or when they have a friend or relative that rides), but for the many drivers who don’t and never will ride a bike on the road, the challenge is considerably more difficult.

I asked Marilyn Johnson what a public driver education campaign would look like, should a minimum passing distance be brought into law.

“One of our calls to action is that we have a higher allocation in the communications budget for messages that are directly related to bike rider safety. Given that 18% of everyone who’s injured on our roads is on a bike, that’s a massive overrepresentation of serious injuries. We need to increase the actual spend when it comes to public education campaigns. That needs to happen and that’s really going to drive what that campaign can look like. But it all really comes down to dollars in the end.”

Eight of the 68 recommendations in the Queensland parliamentary inquiry report specifically address the need for driver education, including recommendation 56:

“The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads develop proactive, comprehensive and integrated education campaigns to be funded and implemented urgently.”

While Garry Brennan and Marilyn Johnson disagree on much of the strategy behind and the execution of A Metre Matters, they do agree on the cycling community’s biggest weapon when it comes to increasing safety on the roads: getting more cyclists on the road. Here’s Garry’s take.

“There’s plenty of evidence to show that where we get the numbers of bikes up so that drivers are regularly encountering bikes on the road, they expect therefore to see bikes on the road and then they do see bikes on the road. That is the simple most powerful factor we have at the moment, working in our favour.”

The long road to legislation

While the minimum passing distance law is simple in theory, getting it into Australian law is an involved and complex process. In addition to changing the national road rules, the Amy Gillett Foundation needs to approach each of the states individually (Northern Territory and the ACT adopt the national road rules). And while there’s little doubt A Metre Matters enjoys significant support among the cycling community, it will also need support from law enforcement, from businesses and, ultimately, from politicians if it’s to become law. Marilyn Johnson explains:

“I think within different parliaments across Australia there is individual member support but to actually affect the change it’s going to need governments to support that in individual states and territories. That’s going to come down to the powers of persuasion and the pressure they have within their own parliament.”

More than 200 organisations have pledged their support for the campaign, including transport and logistics company Toll Group.

For Garry Brennan though, the Amy Gillett Foundation has adopted the wrong approach and has set itself an impossible challenge.

“The AGF have staked everything on this campaign and have lobbied and promoted it up and down the country, but they never asked the fundamental question: what would success look like? How do they measure the success of the campaign? Is it political support for a new law, or is it changes to trauma rates or road user behaviour?

Their energy and persistence is admirable, but they were asking for the wrong thing — they just didn’t seem to realise that one metre laws have never reduced trauma or improved behaviour.”

For Garry the focus should be on working out why cyclists are getting hit in the first place and finding solutions to that issue.

“Most of these collisions are not due to a simple driver error in calculating the distance from the bike. These collisions are caused by impaired drivers — that is, drivers who are drug- or alcohol-affected, or prescription drug-affected, or have physical impairments such as eyesight or macular degeneration, or simply old age and cognitive impairment. Or they’re due to a range of distracted driving causes — working on the mobile phone, having a dog in the car, talking to kids in the back seat, eating in the car, changing clothes in the car.

So the issue we have to address is […] what are drivers doing in their cars? We have situations where drivers have ploughed into the back of bikes where the passengers have clearly seen the bicycle ahead on the road but the drivers haven’t. So there’s an issue here where drivers appear to be blind to the presence of bikes on roads and that’s a major concern. And that’s where serious investigation needs to be undertaken.”

But for Amy Gillett Foundation the slow and steady grind towards nationwide legislation continues. In addition to the two-year trial announced in Queensland there’s also a members bill currently underway in South Australia, the ACT Inquiry into Vulnerable Road Users starts hearing from witnesses today and other efforts are underway at a state and national level.

“It’s a big process; it’s a process that’s underway in most states. Some states are further ahead than others. It’s just a matter now of moving through the process,” Marilyn Johnson said. “I think eventually we’ll get there.”

So what do you think? Do you support the A Metre Matters campaign? Or would you rather AGF pushed for a more evidence-based approach? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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