Cyclists are outraged a jury this week found a truck driver not guilty of dangerous driving causing the death of a cyclist. It’s time the law stopped treating cyclists as mere obstacles to motorists.

Queensland cyclists want the road rules to be changed so that motorists are required to maintain a minimum safe passing distance when they overtake riders. This follows the death of cyclist Richard Pollett in 2011 in Kenmore, in Brisbane’s western suburbs. Pollett was killed when he was struck by the rear wheel of a cement truck driven by Luke Michael Stevens.

Pollett can be seen in this video performing the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto Op 14 in the grand final of the 2010 Australia Young Performers Awards with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. “For a year I haven’t heard you say a word, now I understand all you needed is a violin to speak with. Rest in peace,” one comment on the video reads. Recordings of his work can be heard here.

Stevens attempted to overtake Pollett in the left-hand lane of Moggill Road and was effectively “boxed in” by other cars as he approached the cyclist.

The Crown prosecutor told the jury a heavy vehicle could be more difficult and take longer to manoeuvre; Stevens therefore should’ve “put his foot on the brake” as he approached the cyclist. The defence barrister said Stevens was under “the honest and reasonable belief” there was enough room to overtake Pollett safely; there were “any number of reasons” why Pollett might have fallen off his bicycle.

Responding to 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 … 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.”

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.

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

“The underlying issue is most motorists don’t view cyclists as legitimate road users.”

Provided there’s no deliberate contact, it seems it’s lawful in Queensland 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 3.1-3.6 metres (VicRoads’ recommended width for busy off-road bicycle paths is 3-3.5 metres).

This isn’t just a Queensland problem. Drivers elsewhere are not 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.

The law needs to change to require motorists to “fit in” with the characteristics — including limitations — of bicycles, especially where there’s a risk of death or serious injury.

Motorists 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.

Cities 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. Cars will be with us for decades yet. It’s important to re-position driving as a highly conditional privilege, not a presumed right.

In the case highlighted by this trial, greater safety for cyclists might be achieved through a “one-metre rule” or possibly even a requirement that motorists have to change lanes to overtake cyclists. This might initially apply only to large vehicles since they’re over-represented in serious cycling collisions. There’s likely a place for better education, 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.

Peter Fray

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