Extraordinarily dangerous and deliberate overtake of a cyclist (language warning)

Writing in the Herald Sun on the weekend, 3AW drive time host Tom Elliott argued that because cyclists can’t be identified, they ignore red lights; ride between tram tracks; congregate in pelotons that hold up motorists; put pedestrians on shared pathways at risk; and cycle illegally on footpaths (Make cyclists pay for their sweet ride).

In short, cyclists often break the rules of the road simply because they can get away with it. Because of that, many Melbourne motorists detest bike riders.

Mr Elliott is a cyclist as well as a driver but he wants to see all-round better behaviour from riders. His big policy idea is that “cyclists should pay a form of registration in return for being allowed to use the road”.

However he doesn’t run the customary line that motorists pay for roads and cyclists don’t. He acknowledges that revenue generated by road vehicle registration fees and the 38.5 cents/litre excise tax on petrol isn’t hypothecated for road construction and maintenance.

Like most government expenditure, the construction and maintenance of highways, streets, lanes, etc, occurs out of the same giant pot as most other public sector activities.

Rather, he advances two other arguments in support of his proposal.

First, fees collected as part of the registration process go to Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC) which, he says, “funds the treatment for all people injured in transport accidents, something from which cyclists are most certainly not immune”.

I think that’s a weak argument. Compulsory TAC insurance covers other parties – including cyclists – in the event they’re injured by the drivers of large, heavy and speedy vehicles i.e. cars, vans, trucks, buses.

Compared to vehicles with engines, cyclists travel relatively slowly and are extraordinarily light i.e. they don’t bring anywhere near as much kinetic energy to a collision. Even a tiny two-door car like a Fiat 500 weighs around 900 kg and can easily travel well over 100 km/hr; a Mazda 3 weighs around 1300 kg. The robust bikes used by Melbourne Bike Share, on the other hand, weigh about 18 kg; road bikes are almost always under 10 kg.

It’s true that from time to time there are cases where pedestrians are killed or severely injured by cyclists but they’re uncommon. According to this study, the risk of a pedestrian being killed in a collision with a cyclist in Australia is lower than the risk of being struck by lightning.

Further, the risk of “a pedestrian being injured as a result of an impact with a cyclist is a low risk event and of the order equivalent to being killed in an airline crash”. In neither case does the risk warrant the sort of bureaucracy implied by a mandatory third party insurance/registration scheme.

Mr Elliott’s second argument is that registration “allows vehicles using public roads to be identified by the authorities”. He contends that red light and speed cameras:

exist to fill gaps in road rule enforcement that a constantly stretched police force cannot always manage…there is little doubt that the implicit threat of a fine causes most motorists to improve their behaviour behind the wheel.

I think that’s a questionable rationale for a number of reasons. One is that most driving offences are for speeding (a leading cause of road casualties). In the case of bicycles, however, excessive speed on roads is simply not a serious problem.

Another reason is that cyclists who ignore red lights rarely present the sort of danger to other road users that a motorist who “runs a red” does. They exhibit extreme care at intersections because they’re aware of their own vulnerability; they’re the ones most likely to get seriously hurt in a collision with a vehicle.

In fact cyclists who disobey traffic signals don’t commonly “run” red lights; it would be more accurate to say they “negotiate” them.

As a matter of practicality, making bicycles identifiable to cameras (e.g. via a licence plate legible at a distance) while maintaining a reasonable level of utility for cyclists would be a big challenge. Perhaps there’ll come a time when both cars and bicycles can be equipped with tiny transponders, but that seems a long way off.

A further practical issue is how a registration scheme would be administered. The amount that governments could realistically charge would be modest; families with multiple bicycles would be unhappy with high fees.

Others would point out that, compared to motor vehicles, an appropriate fee for bicycles should be small because they use little road space and impose no damage on roads and paths.

There’s a distinct possibility that any plausible fee would be so small it wouldn’t even cover the administrative costs of a registration scheme.

Finally, even if registration were “free”, it’s likely the burden of compliance would make cycling a less attractive choice for many people. That’s at odds with the stated policies of all governments in Australia to promote cycling.

It’s true that those who’re deterred would have other options for exercise, but there’d be some for whom cycling is the best fit. It’s also true that at present most cycling doesn’t replace car trips; it’s either done for recreation and/or fitness, or it’s a substitute for public transport.

However the potential to increase the use of bicycles in lieu of cars – given appropriate policy settings e.g. better infrastructure – would undoubtedly be weakened by registration.

I’ve no doubt that many cyclists disobey the road and shared path rules from time-to-time, as Mr Elliott contends. So do many motorists when they exceed the speed limit on residential streets, or roll through stop signs, because they know the chances of being caught are infinitesimal.

Those sorts of offences aren’t likely to be prevented or detected without a massive increase in surveillance. At this time it’s not clear if enough of the population regard them as a problem big enough to warrant that sort of intervention.

As I noted here, the real problem for advocates of bicycle registration is political. Many households at all income and wealth levels have multiple bicycles. Many of them are children’s bicycles and a lot aren’t worth much. Charging even $40 p.a. registration (which is around what my council charges for each spayed dog) would be a very hard sell.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.