The big cycling news just before Christmas was the NSW government’s decision to introduce a one-metre minimum distance law (1.5 metres above 60 km/h) for motorists overtaking cyclists. Like similar initiatives in Queensland and the ACT, it’s a two-year trial.

Unfortunately, this important reform got a little lost because it was packaged with some controversial changes the government felt were politically necessary to sell it to motorists, i.e. riders must carry photo ID, as well as higher fines for cyclists who break the law on red lights and helmets.

One critic reckons these other initiatives are “a cost too high” for the one-metre law. Another maintains the law is a “token indulgence” that protects only “pack-riding sports cyclists”.

Whatever one’s view of these other initiatives (and the topic is too complex to discuss now), I think it’s important not to overlook or demean the importance of the overtaking law.

It’s a significant change in its own right, in part because it might prevent some injuries and even deaths, and in part because it gives prospective riders greater confidence to take to the roads. Here’s what the NRMA says about the trial in Queensland:

“Three-quarters of our northern neighbours support the one-metre rule — compared to only 13 per cent opposed — and two-thirds of cyclists reported car drivers giving them a wider berth when overtaking after the law was introduced.”

All that’s fine, but at least as important in my view is the signal it sends to motorists. It does two important things.

First, it reinforces to them that cyclists have a legitimate right to the roads; they’re valid road users. You only have to look at the comments sections on articles about cycling in the tabloid press to see that many drivers don’t regard cyclists as having an equal right to use the road; they merely suffer them because they have to.

A lawyer told me a revealing story recently. About 30 years ago Victoria introduced a law of culpable driving (20 years max) because juries were reluctant to convict drivers charged with manslaughter (20 years max). Apparently they took the view “there but for the grace of God go I”. But juries were still hesitant to convict motorists, so a new law of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury (10 years max) was brought in about five years ago. Yet even so juries still find it hard to convict drivers.

Second, the one-metre law makes explicit to motorists the idea that cyclists are a lot more vulnerable than other road users and therefore warrant special consideration. The problem here is that from the driver’s point of view, most driving “mistakes” merely result in bingles. Motorists are used to bingles; there are a few dents, a few paint scrapes, details are swapped and the insurance company usually pays for most of the damage irrespective of who’s at fault.

Speeds are usually low and no one gets seriously hurt. There’s no obligation or need to notify the police. It’s all pretty low-level stuff. This bingle mentality is powerful; it shapes motorists’ attitudes to risk and the level of attention they give to other road users. It puts a floor under their level of awareness and concentration — they drive in a way that minimises a major collision that might injure themselves, but treat bingles as a necessary inconvenience that’re part and parcel of driving.

Of course what’s merely a minor scrape to a motorist — perhaps a “car park” level incident — can be a tragedy for a cyclist.

So I welcome the new law. Segregated infrastructure is the gold standard, but even in Amsterdam a lot of cycling is done on roads, and riders need to be safe and feel safe when they’re in traffic. The change should increase cyclists’ sense of subjective safety.

It must however be accompanied by a serious marketing program to be effective, and my understanding is the NSW government intends to run a major campaign this year.

The one-metre law is only a start, though. When I was a learner driver back in the day, it was drilled into me that a driver has to give way to pedestrians at all times, no matter how unlawfully, foolishly or inconsiderately the pedestrian behaves.

I think we should be aiming for a road culture where motorists are required to give extra attention to cyclists (and pedestrians) at all times in light of their greater vulnerability and the fact that some are children.

They must drive with the expectation that something might go wrong and provide room and time to take avoiding action, e.g. the rider might swerve or fall in their path due to some unexpected circumstance like loose gravel, tram tracks, or a car door that’s opened unexpectedly.

Moreover, if a cyclist fails to give way at an intersection (say) it shouldn’t be acceptable for a driver to assert his right of way if it risks a collision as he might do if the other party were in a car. He must feel obliged to concede the point because of the greater susceptibility of the cyclist to serious injury.

Even in a collision where the cyclist doesn’t get hurt — like this one journalist Michael O’Reilly was in a couple of years ago — it worries me that the police treat it as an administrative problem for the insurance companies to sort out. Unlike a bingle between two cars, the distance to serious injury for a cyclist is incredibly small. Such incidents demand active police attention.

I don’t know that replicating exactly the so-called strict liability system that applies in the Netherlands is the solution, but something that produces a similar “culture of road use” — where the welfare of the more vulnerable is privileged — is what we need in Australia to promote cycling and walking.

Yes, any change that really improves the environment for cycling will inevitably disadvantage and annoy motorists. That’s true of many actions needed to improve cities.

So the one-metre passing law is a first step in a necessary program of change to make cycling safer and more popular in Australia.

Peter Fray

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