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Back on March 1, the Australian state of New South Wales introduced a handful of new laws that affect cyclists. Among such laws was a minimum passing distance trial, but so too were increased penalties for cyclists caught breaking the law.
So what’s the early verdict on the law changes? Have they made a difference? Or have they simply served to increase the tension between cyclists and motorists? Sydney cyclist Aidan James* investigates.
If you have an interest in cycling, chances are you’re aware that a tranche of controversial cycling-related fine increases and safe passing laws were ushered into New South Wales on the first day of autumn. That was seven weeks ago today, which makes it a reasonable time to pause and ponder: what’s happened since?
Anecdotally you could be forgiven for thinking all hell has broken loose. From the cities to the suburbs, motorists are confused, with some becoming even more aggressive and agitated since March 1. Bunch after bunch of cyclists have battened down their carbon hatches with a stubborn, siege-type mentality. Others have gone belly up and sold their bikes altogether.
Bell and reflector sales have soared at ferocious gradients. Fines have risen by up to 600%, handsomely swelling government revenue coffers. Police have reportedly been blitzing riders for everything from loose helmet straps to performing trackstands at red lights. There have been speed gun stake-outs set to catch early morning training bunches. Social media has been in a lather on a daily basis.
And then there’s the local tabloid media and talkback radio, always quick to stir up the supposed ‘war on our roads’ debate in their quest for greater audience share. Meanwhile, the man behind it all, NSW Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight, Duncan Gay MLC, has been conspicuously quiet, preferring to sit back and observe from a safe distance.
Trouble with most of this is there’s been one thing lacking even more than the Minister’s presence: facts. There’s been much talk of the state’s riders being systemically persecuted by police, for example, but far fewer verified examples of actual penalties being handed out.
Despite numerous requests to set the record straight (one way or the other) for this article, there’s yet to be any formal public statement or disclosure of statistics from the NSW Government or NSW Police surrounding the number of infringement notices or cautions issued under the new laws – for cyclists or motorists.
Given this information vacuum, rumours have led much of the early debate and we’ve been left to base our views almost exclusively on personal opinion and hearsay, which is always dangerous.
When approached for an official ministerial comment on the impact of the new laws so far, Duncan Gay offered only the following statement:
“Since our announcement, I’ve personally noticed less risky behaviour from both cyclists and drivers. I’ve been glad to see more cyclists wearing helmets, and more drivers leaving a safe distance as they go past cyclists – but there is still room for improvement. If these changes are taken as intended, motorists will be mindful of their minimum passing distance requirements and more cyclists are likely to obey the law and avoid high-risk behaviour such as running red lights.”
Now, you’d expect the people in charge to say such things. However without any meaningful data or analyses to support Gay’s personal observations, are they actually reality? Like many in the NSW cycling community I’m some way from being convinced. Whether you blame it on fear-mongering, revenue-raising or the inherent difficulty in enforcing safe passing laws, the general consensus amongst NSW riders is the initial enforcement of the new laws has been heavily skewed towards road users on two wheels, not four; a situation that’s left an already concerned cycling community feeling even further aggrieved.
Having spoken with many local riders over the past seven weeks, there’s recurring frustration the safe passing distance message has been largely lost among the mainstream media’s ongoing obsession with demonising errant cyclists – clearly a bona fide ratings winner for them. Regrettably, this has meant that at a time when something potentially positive has been occurring for cycling safety in NSW, the riding community has still come out looking like a dangerous minority of two-wheeled renegades who need to be wrangled rather than embraced.
Unsurprisingly, cyclists and advocacy groups have not taken this lightly. There have been numerous well-attended protests in the Sydney CBD, with more likely to follow. Social media has been abuzz via the usual channels, but also through an assortment of newly-formed Facebook groups allowing NSW cyclists to share reports, photos and videos of dangerous driving, close calls and questionable police operations in real-time. I’m a member of several of these groups myself and find them quite useful.
At a political level both Labor and the Greens have been active in trying to have the fine increases repealed. Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC of the Greens introduced a disallowance motion into the NSW Upper House on March 8. It failed.
When tabling the motion, Dr Faruqi queried the lack of an effective education campaign to explain the new safety package since March 1 in NSW. “The one metre passing law is a welcome addition,” she said. “But to be effective there must be investment in an education campaign about the one metre passing rule so that all road users are aware of the rule and its effects.”
To be fair, Dr Faruqi wasn’t entirely correct. There has been an education campaign of sorts. According to a Transport for NSW spokesperson, the $520,000 ‘Go Together’ campaign has included paid advertising in bus shelters, radio, print, digital display and social media channels such as Facebook.
This has been further supported by a Go Together website, flyers and messaging across the NSW public transport system, road network and NSW Road Safety Facebook page. An online animation (see below) was also developed to help explain the new minimum passing distance requirements. Currently it has around 125,000 views on Facebook and YouTube.
While on the surface a budget of $520,000 may seem significant, it’s prudent to add some perspective. This amount would have represented barely 1.4% of the overall annual Transport for NSW advertising and marketing budget in 2014/15 (TFNSW Annual Report 2014/15, Volume 2, pg. 139).
Several experienced figures within the NSW advertising industry have also suggested such a modest level of investment was never likely to be effective for a campaign aimed, essentially, at every road user in NSW. One added, facetiously, “They’d get that (advertising spend) back from just over 1,250 fines – no doubt issued to hapless cyclists.”
With an education budget spread so thinly it’s not hard to see why many NSW road users remain unsure of their new obligations. The compulsory ID laws for adult riders are a good case in point. They were the subject of fierce debate and conjecture in the lead-up to March 1. But as things turned out these ‘laws’ won’t actually be enforced until March 2017 at the earliest. Yet you’ll still hear people arguing about them.
Turning to the new safe passing distance requirements, a quick scan of the comments on the NSW Road Safety, NRMA and Traffic & Highway Patrol Command (NSW Police) Facebook pages suggests a not-insignificant number of motorists are still dangerously unaware of the new road rule exemptions (see image below). These exemptions also introduced on March 1 to help drivers give cyclists more space when passing, such as being able to legally cross double lines if safe to do so. Clearly the word hasn’t reached everyone just yet.
Further uncertainty has stemmed from the open-ended wording – coupled with a lack of official explanation – associated with some of the increased penalties, such as what actually constitutes ‘Riding furiously, recklessly or negligently’? It’s already been intimated in legal circles such charges may struggle to hold up in court should they ever be tested. Time will tell.
Off the record, several NSW police officers have also indicated real reservations about their ability to enforce the safe passing distance laws, a concern backed up by their colleagues in Queensland and officially documented in the recent Evaluation of the Queensland Minimum Passing Distance Road Rule: Final Report, released on February 22. This may well explain the current dearth of enforcement data in NSW – perhaps there is none?
Yes, it’s only early days. Emotions remain high and much work is still to be done on all sides of the kerb. But while the new cycling laws and penalties will continue to come under scrutiny for some time yet, one question rightly stands above all others: Are cyclists actually any safer?
Personally, I can’t say I feel any more or less safe when out riding. In fact it doesn’t seem much has changed at all since March 1, other than I now have a $5 bell hidden discretely under my stem and a small square of 3M reflective tape stuck on my seat post to avoid being slugged with a $106 fine. I must also confess to feeling more than a touch anxious whenever I see the police. ‘Will I be harassed?’ ‘Are my helmet straps tight enough?’ ‘How much money is in my bank account if I receive a fine?’
Some drivers do seem to be providing a little more room, which is very much appreciated. But equally that hostile minority of motorists is still out there and, new laws or not, it only takes one moron to ruin your day, year or life.
That’s my current view on things as a bunch rider, commuter and occasional racer. If you’d like to know more, click here to see what three other Sydney-based cyclists had to say recently about the new laws and penalties.
Are you a NSW-based cyclist? Have you noticed a difference in driver and cyclist behaviour since the new laws were rolled out? And have you noticed a change in the way police are treating cyclists?