Trying to make sense of the Sydney cycling crash

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A crash in Sydney yesterday involving a motorist and half a dozen cyclists has attracted significant media attention around Australia and beyond. Reports have focused on the fact the cyclists were riding on the busy Southern Cross Drive in Sydney’s south but as local cyclist John Sunde writes, the location of the incident isn’t particularly important.

The sight of a mangled carbon racing frame and wheels is a chilling sight no matter what the circumstances. The first thought is usually: “If the bike looks like that, what does the rider look like…?”

The half a dozen completely smashed bikes I saw on Sydney’s Southern Cross Drive yesterday morning were by far the most distressing carbon carnage I have ever witnessed.

The sight of the front half of a Time TVX bike under the wheels of a Nissan X-Trail was particularly disturbing. Worse was the realisation that the bottom bracket, crankset and seat tube were a further 100m down the expressway, demonstrating the sheer speed and impact of the accident. Knowing that the bike belongs to a petite, active, 60-something female cyclist makes me shake.

She and her partner, along with five other cycling friends from the Eastern Suburbs Cycling Club, were returning home from their normal Sunday roll down to Dolls Point and back — a relaxing 50km round trip.

No different than St. Kilda to Mordialloc and back in Melbourne, or any other Sunday ride for thousands of club cyclists around Australia. The only difference is that Sydney doesn’t enjoy a 50km suburban road corridor to access the southern cycling destinations of Sutherland Shire and Royal National Park.

Instead all the cycling bunches, groups, and single riders who head south every Saturday and Sunday morning do so on one of Sydney’s main southern arterial routes, Southern Cross Drive, a 90km/h, two- and three-lane expressway which connects to the airport and the M2.

Images: John Sunde
Images: John Sunde

Southern Cross Drive has changed dramatically in the 30 years I have used it almost every week to do my weekly training. It has grown from a two-lane road, with a wide shoulder/bike lane, to a high-volume traffic corridor with three lanes and a minimal shoulder/bike lane after it was widened prior to the 2000 Olympic Games. It also funnels all the traffic from Harbour Tunnel in the north and M5 in the south.

But it still remains the smoothest, safest corridor for the hundreds of riders who migrate south in bunches every weekend from 5.30am, returning between 9 and 10am. Outside these relatively light traffic volumes times, very few cyclists use Southern Cross Drive.

Apart from one incident which captured headlines in 2009, Southern Cross Drive has been largely incident free.

But yesterday’s accident has nothing to do with Southern Cross Drive. It could have happened to any group of cyclists on any road in Australia. It’s this sort of accident no cyclist is immune to. The deadly combination of a vehicle at high speed and a vulnerable group of road users.

As experienced riders we always try to justify how we would have reacted when we hear of serious accidents. I would have seen the hole, I would have seen the rock, I wouldn’t put myself in that position on the road, I would have been more aware …

Unfortunately there is no option in an accident like yesterday – an incident not dissimilar to the tragedy which took Amy Gillett’s life in Germany in 2005. Both seem to have been sudden, unpredictable, high-speed collisions, involving error or distraction on the part of a young driver, all with a horrifying outcome. It was completely random. Wrong place at the wrong time and nothing in hindsight that could have been done. Thankfully there haven’t been any fatalities from yesterday’s incident.

This has nothing to do with “drivers vs cyclists”, registration for cyclists, roads, bike lanes or any of those other tabloid journalism debates and arguments. It’s about care, attention and responsibility no matter what part of the road or footpath you are on.

We can only hope that the riders involved make a speedy recovery and that this incident serves to remind all road users of the vulnerability of cyclists and the need to share the road accordingly.

The feature image comes from Google Maps and shows the location of the incident, in the northbound lane of Southern Cross Drive. Note the visibility afforded by the long straight section of road.

Click here to read more on the issue (and the way forward) from Sydney cyclist and writer Pete Maniaty. Click here to read a statement about the incident from Cycling NSW.

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