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While the majority of Australian states and territories have now made changes to their overtaking laws with the goal of improving rider safety, Victoria has lagged behind. But thanks to a state government inquiry, it seems such a law might now be on its way.
So what might that law look like? Where’s the process up to? And why have some cycling advocacy groups attracted criticism for their recommendations for the proposed law? CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef investigates.
In April 2014, Queensland became the first Australian state to begin a two-year trial of a minimum passing distance law. During that trial, motorists were required to give cyclists a minimum of one metre when overtaking, or at least 1.5 metres on roads where the speed limit was higher than 60km/h.
Those developments in Queensland prompted other Australian states and territories to follow suit. South Australia introduced its own law in September 2015, the ACT began a trial a couple months later, and New South Wales did likewise in March this year, controversially introducing higher fines for cyclists at the same time. Tasmania, too, has made changes to its overtaking laws, with the aim of improving rider safety.
Earlier this month the initial Queensland trial came to a close with the state government announcing the law would be kept. Victoria, meanwhile, has lagged behind. But thanks to proposed legislation a state government inquiry — which was prompted by action in other states and territories — it looks like the south-eastern state could be set to follow suit.
As the inquiry unfolds, however, there’s consternation among the local cycling community about the recommendations made by one of the country’s largest cycling advocacy groups.
The Victorian Government’s Economy and Infrastructure Standing Committee announced its Inquiry into the Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Overtaking Bicycles) Bill 2015 in February, calling for public submissions in the process.
Among the nearly 200 submissions received by the committee were those from Australia’s two biggest cycling safety advocacy groups: the Amy Gillett Foundation and Bicycle Network.
Since 2011, the Amy Gillett Foundation has spearheaded calls for minimum passing distance laws (MPDLs) in Australia via its ‘A Metre Matters’ campaign. The organisation is now turning its attention to Victoria.
“We’re very keen to see the Victorian parliament take action,” Amy Gillett Foundation CEO Phoebe Dunn told CyclingTips. “There’s momentum for change across Australia and we’re looking to Victoria to be the next state.”
Until only recently, Bicycle Network had come out against the introduction of MPDLs in the form proposed by the Amy Gillett Foundation. The organisation’s concern was a lack of evidence that such laws actually help to reduce rider injuries or encourage more people to ride.
But as CEO Craig Richards told CyclingTips, Bicycle Network’s approach has now changed.
“Some of the others states and territories in Australia have made moves so we decided it was time to have a really good review of it all,” Richards said. “We did that both by gathering up all the evidence we could find, both in Australia and around the world, [and] we also went to our members and outside our membership and said ‘Please come to us with anything you’ve got’ — we called for submissions and we also held a public debate.
“So we took all of that, sat down and combed through it. We had a careful look and what we found, interestingly, was the evidence about the impact of the laws is still pretty inconclusive.”
But while the research still doesn’t show clear benefits for MPDLs there were other factors at play for Bicycle Network.
“While there was always anecdotal evidence that riders in general support this law, now that evidence is strongly in favour that they support the law,” Richards explained. “And now the evidence that’s been gathered over the last two or so years that there’s been trials in Australia, is that riders feel like vehicles are giving them more distance so they feel better.
“Our end conclusion was recommending the trial for that reason.”
Where Queensland, the ACT and NSW all opted for two-year trials of MPDL legislation, Bicycle Network is calling for a five-year trial period in Victoria. For Craig Richards and the organisation he fronts, it’s about gathering enough data.
“[While the Queensland trial has now made it to law] there was always the risk that someone could say ‘Well we don’t have enough data to make a decision.’ So that’s the length of data you need,” Richards said. “It gives a chance for the law to come in, to actually see what happens; to get research done that will hold significant weight. If it works, happy days.”
The Amy Gillett Foundation, on the other hand, is pushing for immediate action.
“We think that it is important that there’s ‘A Metre Matters’ legislation here in Victoria without delay and we’ll be seeking the introduction of such laws from the parliament without a trial,” CEO Phoebe Dunn said. “We’re happy to accept some form of a trial too, as is happening in the ACT and NSW and as happened in Queensland, but given the success of the Queensland trial there’s good sense in implementing it without delay.”
While Bicycle Network now supports the introduction of a MPDL in Victoria, it does so with several caveats and exceptions. Among the organisation’s requests are: for it to be clear that 1 metre and 1.5 metres are minimum passing distances; that the law should be accompanied by a driver behaviour-change program; and the need for a pre- and post-impact study.
But undoubtedly the most contentious aspect of Bicycle Network’s submission is its call for an exemption to the minimum passing distance law when overtaking cyclists who are riding in a bike lane on roads with speed limits of 50km/h or less.
Concerns with this particular condition prompted the creation of an online petition which has since attracted nearly 400 signatures and the support of some state parliamentarians, including Victorian Greens Party leader Greg Barber.
Bicycles need 1m space from passing vehicles, no exception. Bicycle Network, get with it!: petition https://t.co/xjfZAzrbsM
— Greg Barber (@GregMLC) April 6, 2016
“This condition makes the proposed … passing laws irrelevant on a huge number of Victoria’s roads”, the petition says of Bicycle Network’s proposed exemption to the law. “This condition will cause confusion for people, and it fundamentally undermines what should have been a really clear safety message.”
With many motorists already unaware of the road laws as they apply to cyclists, and with a minimum passing distance law already likely to take some getting used to — as has been the case in New South Wales — adding conditions to when a cyclist does and doesn’t need a metre of space arguably confuses this issue. Add to that existing uncertainty about what does and doesn’t constitute a bike lane and it seems clear there’s potential for further confusion for motorists.
Craig Richards acknowledges there’s been significant push-back on this particular issue but believes the exemption was included with good reason.
“The concern with the inner-city areas was: ‘What do you do in these circumstances: low speed, the vehicles are in heavily-congested areas, the bikes are in the [bike] lane … Under the strict interpretation of the [minimum passing distance] law that would mean the vehicle has to wait if the bike’s going slow’,” Richards said.
“A lot of people point out correctly [that], most of the time, fortunately, bikes are going faster than cars in the inner city — which is one of the great advantages — but there are times when some of us are struggling up a hill and we’re going slowly and on those occasions then the vehicles are either expected to wait, which they won’t, or merge into the either on-coming or second lane of traffic.
“The risk then is if it causes traffic problems, then the answer is ‘something’s got to go, car lane or bike lane’ and unfortunately it’s more likely the bike lane [will go] because we still haven’t quite got to the stage where everyone’s saying bike lanes are more important than car lanes.
“Then the rider’s forced back into general traffic1.”
For those critical of Bicycle Network, this reasoning is an example of sacrificing rider safety in favour of smoother traffic flow — what many see as a concerning position for Australia’s largest membership-based cycling organisation.
“Rather than try to improve driver behaviour and public safety in such scenarios, Bicycle Network’s position encourages drivers to put their own convenience first, and endanger people’s lives,” petition founder Jenica Brooke writes. “Bicycle Network are advocating for an ‘efficient use of road space’ over the safe passing of its members.”
The Amy Gillett Foundation doesn’t support Bicycle Network’s proposed exemption to the MPDL, citing the fact that other states and territories don’t have such exemptions.
“We’ll be asking for the Victorian parliament to consider the implementation of a minimum overtaking distance laws without any exceptions,” CEO Phoebe Dunn said. “If there are exceptions it just creates more confusion about when and where the laws apply.
“We think it should just be the laws as we’ve stated them, so 1 metre and 1.5 metres over 60km/h, applying on all streets.”
Craig Richards hasn’t shut the door on a possible further change of policy.
“The issue’s that’s been raised is that it should be a metre at all times and it doesn’t matter where they are,” Richards said, “We certainly wouldn’t argue that — that’s ideal; we’d love to give space at all times — but if it’s general traffic or bike lane, on those occasions we’re saying bike lane’s better than general traffic in commuting areas for riders.
“But it’s a balance. If someone’s got a better idea we’d love to hear it and love to back it.”
The process from here
The Economy and Infrastructure Standing Committee is currently in the process of assessing the nearly 200 submissions it has received through its inquiry. From there it will be a case of calling public hearings where some of those who made submissions will be invited to present further information. The committee will then write a report and present it to parliament.
This process is expected take several months2, with the final report loosely scheduled to be tabled in parliament on August 30.
Ultimately, the decision about whether Victoria needs a minimum passing distance law will rest with the state government. That said, there’s little doubt the push for minimum passing distance laws continues to gather momentum around the country and there’s a feeling that it’s a case of when, not if, for Victoria.
Perhaps the bigger question is: what will the law look like exactly? Will it start out as a trial? And what will become of the recommendations made by the Amy Gillett Foundation and Bicycle Network?
1. Craig Richards was quick to add that being in general traffic isn’t a concern for experienced riders: “The interesting thing there is, for the experienced riders, they’re probably actually better off to take the lane — it’s advice we certainly endorse. But for the less-experienced rider, that’s an intimidating thing to do and many are not prepared to do it and it will stop them riding. We’re just trying to find this balance here.”
In this context it’s worth noting that research suggests the more people that ride, the safer things are for all riders. And when it comes to getting more people to ride — as is Bicycle Network’s goal — it’s important to cater to the inexperienced, would-be riders, rather than those who are confident and have years of experience.
2. Joshua Morris MP, chair of the Economy and Infrastructure Committee, has told CyclingTips that the “loose” timeframe for the inquiry is as follows: