Fatal cycle: the rising toll of rider deaths

Cyclist deaths have risen by nearly 50 per cent since the introduction of road laws aimed at increasing their safety. Morry Bailes questions what’s gone wrong.

Jul 08, 2021, updated Jul 08, 2021
Photo supplied

Photo supplied

It is not just greater publicity that has contributed to the seeming rise in cycling deaths, it’s real. The statistics make for grim reading.

South Australia has the second highest cycling deaths per capita of any state or territory after the Northern Territory.

The figures tell us that less populated areas are more dangerous for cyclists. Sundays are the safest time to cycle, Mondays the least. Unsurprisingly, peak hour is the peak time for cyclist deaths. Seasonally, summertime records most fatalities, but March is the worst month.

Most cyclist deaths are caused when motor vehicles are travelling at higher speeds. Statistically, cyclists killed when motor vehicles are travelling between 60kms and 75kms are on average younger, and perhaps cycling as commuters on arterial roads. Nationally the average age of a cyclist killed on the road is about 38 years, although in SA it’s 44 years.

Females account for about 14 per cent of all cycling deaths, far lower than males.

The instance of trucks and commercial vehicles being involved in a cycling death is a bit higher than in other motor vehicle accidents. Boomers die most frequently in the morning, children in the later afternoon.

All of this could teach us how to best avoid deaths of cyclists on the road, but perhaps serves to inform cycling trends that we already know.

The most startling statistic though is still to come, and it relates to the rise of cycling deaths in Australia.

Turn back the clock to late 2015, and I wrote in InDaily about the then changes to cycling laws introduced in South Australia, that copied similar laws in Queensland. The amendments included the ‘distance-off’ rule (the need to be a minimum distance from cyclists when driving) and allowed cyclists to ride on pavements.

That article concluded with the view that laws in themselves would not prevent cycling deaths; only a change in culture, attitude and education combined with improved infrastructure will.

 But the roots of the problem remain; our attitudes and roads.

The latter point is critical to cyclists safety, because our cyclists ride on roads that were never designed to be shared by motor vehicles and bikes. A Sunday drive in our Adelaide Hills is enough to remind us of that. Cyclists defy death every weekend on narrow winding country roads, and motorists are regularly stunned by why a weekend cyclist would take their lives into their hands with such obvious elements of risk present.

Now to the most disturbing statistic of the lot. In spite of those 2015 legal changes that caused such an uproar at the time, cycling deaths have not decreased, and cyclists are no safer. In fact, cycling deaths over the least five years have increased a whopping 47 per cent – and cyclists are at greater risk than ever before.

That is against a national trend of deaths on roads in all other categories falling, or at least not increasing. However, the toll of dead cyclists continues to climb.

The reasons for greater deaths are likely complex. It may be that there are more cyclists on the road. Inner-city cycling deliveries have increased with the likes of Uber Eats and other cycle-based deliveries.

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But the roots of the problem remain; our attitudes and roads. Drivers who lack care and compassion, or who become frustrated or inattentive, are a danger to cyclists. And cyclists who travel at high speeds, or who cycle recklessly and without sufficient regard for their own safety while expecting motorists to anticipate their every move, become a danger to themselves. In both cases we are talking only the minority of people, but it has been enough to push up the numbers of cycling deaths.

Moreover changing laws does nothing to address the problem of the way in which we originally constructed our roads. Putting a bike lane in an already busy and narrow road does not necessarily help. Sure, cyclists can mount pavements, but neither our pavements or our roads, unlike in Europe, were built to accommodate the bike.

 The dreadful increase in cyclists dying on Australian roads demonstrates quite clearly that whilst the laws are there, we are not following them.

Given the distances we have to travel in Australia, our roads were always intended for motorised transport. Although it may be the motorist’s fault, it is foreseeable that cycling deaths will occur when for instance cyclists choose to cycle on a one lane highway with a speed limit of 110 kms per hour. Motorists just don’t expect them to be there.

There are also those urban cyclists who persist in wearing dark colours on a dreary day, making themselves difficult to see against a black bitumen road. And there are motorists who are unreasonable and fail to appreciate the danger and discomfort they create for cyclists who are doing the right thing.

This is another example of where law reform is not the cure-all. The cycling lobby was determined to get up the 2015 amendments, and we have now lived with them for over five years. Yet in the corresponding period, cycling deaths have soared. It is reasonable to conclude, notwithstanding the existence of other factors, that changing the law has achieved little except create some revenue from fines for government coffers.

We often think that piling our statute books full of further rules and regulations will change things. It often doesn’t, because it is not the law that is going to save lives. In this case it is common sense, respect for one another and driving and riding sensibly.

What is not tackled in this article is the seeming rise of hit-and-runs. It is a topic all to itself, but it does appear, anecdotally, that there is an increasing trend of driving without proper care and responsibility in Australia. That is probably contributed to by drunk and drugged drivers seeking to leave the scene of a motor vehicle accident to escape detection. No amount of law is going to stop that type of driver, having hit a pedestrian or cyclist, taking matters into their own hands in an attempt to escape legal responsibility.

The point is this; real law reform is not merely creating more law. Real law reform also involves ensuring people follow the law that is created. The dreadful increase in cyclists dying on Australian roads demonstrates quite clearly that whilst the laws are there, we are not following them.

Stopping cyclist’s deaths on our roads was never just a job for Attorneys-General and parliaments. To succeed, it was always going involve a relationship between Minsters and Departments of Road Transport and Infrastructure, and Attorneys-General, because changing the law was only ever going to be the starting point.

What we need now are adequate infrastructure changes to allow for the creation of cyclist-friendly roads, and proper education about why and how these now five-year-old changes to our cycling laws can actually save lives.

Cicero famously said, ‘the more laws, the less justice’, so if we really want justice for our cycling community we need to reach for something beyond just our road laws – or we will continue to see cyclist deaths pile up, one human tragedy after another.

Morry Bailes is Senior Business Advisor to Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, past president of the Law Council of Australia and a past president of the Law Society of South Australia

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