The death of a cycling advocate and the problem with a ‘Safe System’ approach

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Australia’s national road safety strategy is based on a so-called “Safe System” approach: the idea that people will always make mistakes — crashes will occur — and that the system should be forgiving enough that such mistakes don’t result in serious injury or death. But a spate of cyclist deaths in the past year — including that of cycling safety advocate Cameron Frewer — has called the Safe System approach into question.

Is it really working as intended? Is enough being done to protect vulnerable road users? And what more could be done, to make the roads safer? The author of the following article works in transport policy and has more than 10 years’ experience in the field. He has asked to remain anonymous as he is a government employee.

Forty-four-year-old Cameron Frewer was struck down by a motor vehicle while cycling on Caloundra Rd in Queensland on November 5. His tragic death sent shockwaves through the Australian cycling community and beyond. But his was not an isolated incident – recent figures showed an 80% national increase in cycling fatalities over the year.

Some caution that road cycling is relatively safe and that increased fatality figures are partly down to increased participation. Indeed, most of us continue to ride without major incident (touch wood). While it’s unclear how the risk to individual cyclists has changed, the cyclist death toll overall is increasing. For cyclists, the Australian government is failing to deliver on its own goal of reducing road fatalities by 30% between 2011 and 2020.

So what is being done? The government’s target embraces the ‘Safe System’ approach to road safety. It emphasises a four-pronged approach: safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and safer road users. An important principle is that the transport system works around human mistakes to ensure that collision forces do not exceed what the body can withstand.

Instead of tree-lined highways, we have more wire rope barriers. Instead of cars with steering columns that are pushed back into the driver, we have now have a dazzling array of airbags and crumple zones. Instead of wobbling home from the pub behind the wheel, we have booze and drug buses – and societal intolerance of impaired driving.

And it mostly works. The road toll has fallen steadily over previous decades. But what about cyclists? We now have a growing network of off-road bike and shared paths, and on-road bike lanes. And … well, not a whole more than that.

How does the ‘Safe System’ measure up for cyclists? Building a road system that doesn’t expose vulnerable cyclists to high collision forces is a tough ask. We’re a long way from realising that objective.

Studies show that serious injury risk for vulnerable road users climbs rapidly once the speed differential between the involved vehicles/people reaches 30 km/h. Cyclists are routinely exposed to motor vehicles travelling at speeds that expose us to much higher changes of speed. The odds of survival are slim once that figure approaches 50 km/h.

Graph excerpted from “Speed limit setting and the Safe System principle” by Lori Moorena, Raphael Grzebietaa and Soames Jobs.

But there have been gains. Lowered speed limits and the often unpopular use of speed cameras have reduced speeds on many urban roads. Some governments have embraced that more than others. A promising recent development is in-vehicle collision warning and automated emergency braking systems. These systems are found in newer vehicles and can detect objects in their path, warn drivers, and even take part-control of the vehicle on their behalf. But current technology works best for more easily-detectable larger objects, like other motor vehicles.

Which brings us to the issue of safer road users. In the eyes of cyclists, the most discussed and controversial element of the Safe System approach is this: Stop bloody hitting us with your cars. It’s often regarded as the least effective of the Safe System’s four-pronged strategy. Advances in vehicle technology and safer roads are permanent. Influencing road users to behave safely is a never-ending battle and one that must be fought repeatedly with the latest generation of new drivers. Some drivers just refuse to behave.

Cameron Frewer was well known among cyclists for recording his rides on camera, posting footage of dangerous driving he experienced and reporting it to the police. If you’ve watched his videos, it’s hard not to wince at some of the dangerously fast and close passes he recorded. But for many cyclists, and certainly for Cameron, police indifference added insult to injury.

There were only 70 infringements issued in Queensland for close passes of cyclists in 2017. If there were suspicions that this was a small proportion of those reported, let alone the real offending rate, Cameron’s meticulous records proved it.

One of many close passes documented by Cameron Frewer on his YouTube channel.

Why are police so reluctant to take action on close pass reports by cyclists? We can only guess, but it is easy to do so. It is likely that some police resent ‘user-generated’ offences, where their workload is determined by how many complaints they receive from camera-equipped cyclists. Faithfully actioning each complaint obviously raises expectation and, likely, more complaints. It’s easy to guess that burying cyclists’ complaints is an attempt to discourage them.

Police conventionally uphold road rules by patrolling in marked and unmarked police cars. The odds of a driving offence being detected are almost negligible. For a close pass of a cyclist, even less. Camera-based compliance was introduced to overcome this limitation, for speed and red light offences only. Their automation doesn’t overload officers with paperwork.

The use of cameras by cyclists has upset this equilibrium. The police do not appear to have a coping strategy. Frustration by rank-and-file police with ‘pesky’ cyclist complaints is probably a symptom and not the cause of command having yet to develop a strategy for managing civilian-generated offence detection in a technology-enabled world.

So how does this all plug into our Safe System? It’s clear that safer road users (read: more patient, careful driving around cyclists) are an integral part of the approach. Sadly, it’s also clear that more needs to be done on that front for cyclists. Personal use of cameras by cyclists is not the whole answer, but it can be remarkably effective … if police take action on the evidence.

Causing this shift in attitudes — both by police taking cyclists’ complaints more seriously and ultimately by motorists viewing cyclists as legitimate road users — were major goals of Cameron’s. His tragic death has prompted an inquiry into police enforcement of Queensland’s overtaking laws and we can only hope that that’s the start of real, meaningful change.

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