Image from the cover of Report No. 39, A new direction for cycling in Qld, an Inquiry into cycling issues, by the Qld Parliament Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee

The outlook for the legitimacy of cycling on roads improved greatly on Friday when the Qld Government announced it will introduce a minimum safe overtaking distance rule for motorists.

Transport Minister Scott Emerson announced a two year trial will start early next year:

This will mean that motorists must maintain a minimum distance of one metre when passing a cyclist in a 60kph or less zone, and 1.5 metres when travelling above 60.

Mr Emerson was responding to the newly released report, Inquiry into cycling issues, written by the Qld Parliament’s Transport Committee. Earlier this year he asked the Committee to look at safety issues following a number of high profile cycling fatalities in the State (e.g. see Are cyclists “mere obstacles” to motorists?).

The Minister also announced his support for bringing penalties for traffic offences by cyclists into line with those for motorists, but will take time to consider the rest of the recommendations.

The Committee’s findings were applauded by a surprised and frankly amazed cycling community. Its 68 recommendations address improvements in cycling infrastructure, regulation, education and monitoring.

The ‘one metre rule’ reform has naturally attracted most interest but it’s only one of a number of gob-smacking recommendations. Those that have garnered most attention include:

  • A 2 year trial exemption from the mandatory helmet law for cyclists 16 years and over when riding on streets with a speed limit of 60 kph or less, and on footpaths and off-road paths
  • Cyclists permitted to treat Stop signs as Give Way signs
  • Cyclists permitted to turn left on a red traffic light after stopping
  • Cyclists permitted to enter and leave a roundabout in the centre of the lane
  • On-road bike lanes to be Clearways between 6-9 am and 3-7 pm on weekdays
  • Motorists who contravene the safe passing distance rule to be liable for a penalty of up to $4,400 and 8 demerit points.
  • Management of road space to be based on a vulnerable road user hierarchy with pedestrians and cyclists at the top
  • Cyclists required to ride in a bike lane where it exists and to display a light at all times

The Committee has put together an extraordinary set of proposals. If implemented, they could usher in a step-change in the way cycling is viewed in Qld and, in due course, in the rest of Australia.

But Parliamentary Committees have a history of proposing radical ideas (1). They’re highly politicised and aren’t renowned for their standards of scholarship and objectivity.

They’re usually multi-party committees with a range of views to be accommodated. Members are often ambitious and either aren’t Ministers or aren’t in the Government party.

Governments in turn have a history of ignoring them. So it’s to the Newman Government’s enormous credit that it’s decided to proceed with the ‘one metre rule’. Yes, it’s a two year trial but Governments don’t do experiments unless they’re already committed to the idea.

Now it’s time for the cycling community to encourage the Government to implement the most plausible of the remaining recommendations. This is a rare opportunity to negotiate worthwhile but politically realistic improvements.

Yet much of the comment over the weekend in on-line cycling forums focusses on Mr Emerson’s lack of enthusiasm for implementing the recommendation to remove the mandatory helmet law.

The Minister went out of his way to indicate he personally opposes the proposed exemption:

I’ve put a lot of thought into this issue since it was first raised six months ago and I’m yet to be convinced of its merit. Personally I’m a big believer in the benefits of helmets and I believe the evidence shows helmets reduce the risk of serious injury.

He appeared to moderate his view somewhat on ABC Television on Friday night, indicating he’s still prepared to look at the evidence.

Irrespective of the merits or faults of the helmet law (2), I think it’s highly unlikely the Government will change it; indeed I expect it’s already made up its mind it won’t. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

From the perspective of a State Premier of any political persuasion, there’s simply no “politics” in repealing the law or granting exemptions.

When Essential Economics asked a national sample of respondents last year if they “approve or disapprove of governments making laws to regulate wearing bike helmets”, 94% said they approve. Only 1% said they strongly disapprove.

It’s a “no-brainer” to the vast bulk of the population that helmets protect against injury. The majority who don’t cycle or only ride occasionally are quite comfortable with cyclists being compelled to wear helmets.

There’s also a number of key cycling organisations that either actively oppose changing the helmet law or are conspicuously silent on the issue.

The constituency for change is neither big enough nor weighty enough to bother political leaders. And even the tiny minority that strongly favours helmet choice doesn’t seem like it’s prepared to die in a ditch over the issue.

A helmet-free rally held in Melbourne last year to oppose the law attracted good publicity in The Age and elsewhere. Yet it only drew around 60 attendees of whom just 30 chose to cycle (on an off-road path) without a helmet.

It might seem that if the Newman Government is prepared to wear the political fall-out from introducing the ‘one metre rule’ then it might also be prepared, if pushed hard enough or cleverly enough, to implement the recommended trial helmet exemption.

The trouble with that argument is the one metre rule is a direct response to the deaths of cyclists. That’s the same reasoning that resulted in the helmet law being enacted in all States in the first place; pardon my cynicism, but doing away with it would expose the Government to the political risk of being blamed for head injuries and deaths for no obvious political payback (3).

By all means keep the helmet debate alive, but I hope the potential of the other recommendations for improving cycling doesn’t get lost because cycling activists are off fighting battles they have zero chance of winning, at least in the short to medium term.

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  1. The Qld Parliament has produced some surprises too e.g. the only Communist Party member elected to an Australian Parliament.
  2. Although it felt helmet-wearing should be encouraged, the Committee says it wasn’t “convinced there is sufficient evidence of the safety outcomes of compulsory helmet wearing to justify the mandating of helmet wearing for all cyclists of all ages regardless of the situational risk”. It goes on to say that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws “may have had an unintended, adverse impact on cycling participation rates in Queensland and therefore the overall health of the state”.
  3. Removing the helmet law might improve health outcomes, but that’s the sort of longer term, dispersed benefit that Governments don’t see any advantage in.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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