Moggill Rd Kenmore in the vicinity of the fatal collision between a cement truck and a cyclist (click)

Cyclists in Qld are calling for the road rules to be changed so that motorists are required to maintain a minimum safe passing distance when they overtake riders (e.g. see here and here).

Their call follows the death of cyclist Richard Pollett in 2011 in Kenmore, in Brisbane’s western suburbs. Mr Pollett was killed when he was struck by the rear wheel of a cement truck driven by Luke Michael Stevens.

According to the report in the Courier Mail this week, Mr Stevens attempted to overtake Mr Pollett in the left-hand lane of Moggill Rd and was effectively “boxed in” by other cars as he approached the cyclist.


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The transcript of the proceedings isn’t available yet but fortunately the Courier Mail on-line provides a surprising amount of detail in its reports on the trial (here and here).

During the hearing, the Crown prosecutor told the jury a heavy vehicle could be more difficult and take longer to manoeuvre. He said Mr Stevens therefore should’ve “put his foot on the brake” as he approached the cyclist:

The accused should have had an appreciation for how vulnerable Mr Pollett was and insight into how unsettling his vehicle could be.

The defence barrister said Mr Stevens wasn’t driving erratically or speeding and was under “the honest and reasonable belief” there was enough room to overtake Mr Pollett safely. He said there were “any number of reasons” why Mr Pollett might’ve fallen off his bicycle.

Responding to news of the jury’s decision, Paul French from the Brisbane CBD Bicycle User Group, said it now seems drivers can pass as close as they like to cyclists:

It’s difficult to imagine another situation in which a driver needs to exercise greater care and wait for a safe opportunity to pass – a truck weighing at least 20 tonnes, and apparently boxed in by other vehicles so the driver couldn’t change lanes, bearing down from behind on a cyclist riding along a narrow, winding road. Yet under the law it now appears motorists can treat a cyclist with the same disregard as they would a witch’s hat and leave no margin for error by passing as close as they like.

Mr French said motorists have a ‘duty of care’ toward cyclists and can’t treat them as “mere obstacles”. He called on the State government to legislate a minimum one metre overtaking distance:

How many more innocent people who just want to ride their bikes while going about their daily lives will be mown down before the government acts on this pressing safety issue? The State Government’s continuing out-of-hand rejection of the ‘one metre rule’ is sending the wrong message to irresponsible motorists – that when wanting to drive from Point A to B in the shortest possible time bike riders can be treated as mere obstacles.

It’s important to bear in mind that, as the defence barrister told the court, there’s no evidence Mr Steven’s truck caused Mr Pollett to come off his bike. The jury found Mr Stevens not guilty of the charge of dangerous driving causing death.

Provided there’s no deliberate contact, it seems it’s lawful in Qld for a truck to overtake a bicycle within the confines of a single lane even if, as in this case, it varies in width between 3.1 to 3.6 metres (VicRoads recommended width for busy off-road bicycle paths is 3.0 to 3.5 metres).

The exhibit above shows Moggill Rd just after the intersection with Blacon St, close to where the collision – in the left hand lane – reportedly occurred (click to look around in Google Streetview).

This isn’t just a Qld problem though. Drivers elsewhere aren’t legally required to leave a ‘safety buffer’ in case the cyclist, for whatever reason, unexpectedly falls or steers into their path either.

Close proximity might lead to a minor scrape or touch where two vehicles are concerned, but where one is a cyclist it’s likely to have severe consequences.

The underlying issue is most motorists don’t view cyclists as legitimate road users. The slower speed and greater vulnerability of riders isn’t acknowledged, accepted or duly allowed for by drivers.

I suspect the jury’s decision reflects that widespread perception. Nevertheless, the law says cyclists are in fact legitimate road users.

In my view, the law needs to change to require motorists to ‘fit-in’ with the characteristics – including limitations – of bicycles, most especially where there’s a risk of death or serious injury.

Motorist almost universally assume they’re entitled to travel at the speed limit at all times. Our cities would be better places if instead there was a culture of driving according to prevailing conditions.

They would be more liveable if the driving culture also included consideration for the welfare of all other road users, and of those who live along or use adjoining land uses.

As I’ve said many times before, cars will be with us for decades yet. It’s therefore all the more important to ‘re-position’ driving as a highly conditional privilege not a presumed right.

In the particular case of the issue highlighted by this trial, greater safety for cyclists might be achieved by way of a ‘one metre rule’ or possibly even a requirement that motorists have to change lanes to overtake cyclists.

It might initially apply only to large vehicles since they’re over-represented in serious cycling collisions. There’s very likely a place for better education and training too.

I know the law is a complex beast, but I hope a student of the contemporary relevance of the jury system looks at this case and shares their thoughts.

Update: “24 year old Australian violinist Richard Pollett performing the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto Op 14 in the Grand Final of the 2010 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Awards with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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