The slap on the wrist this week for a Victorian driver who crashed into and killed a budding pro cyclist brought home to me once again how futile this whole ‘drivers v cyclists’ really is.
A judge decided that a moment of inattention from driver Billie Rodda caused the crash that claimed the life of cyclist James Lowndes in December 2017, but the sentence of 200 hours of community service and a $2000 fine has left many people shocked.
But it’s not a surprise, sadly. Viewed dispassionately, the evidence suggested that Rodda simply looked away for a moment, and struck Lowndes around a blind curve.
Of course, there is so much more to the story, but that's not why I'm here today.
I’ve been a cyclist, both off-road and on, for the better part of 30 years, and it’s a pastime – okay, it’s a passion that, at times, clashes with my day job as a motoring journo, and I've experienced first hand the lack of care and attention - mostly intended - of drivers. And it's got to stop. And it can stop.
I started road cycling later in life, after a career as a mountain bike journo came to an end. I'd moved out of Sydney - one of the most cycling-unfriendly places in the world, according to former Tour de France winning Aussie, Cadel Evans - so it was an easier decision to make.
After 15 years of tarmac riding, though, I’ve actually recently called it a day, sold the road bikes and returned to the dirt. One too many close calls out on the road simply overwhelmed the joy I once got from pushing myself to cover a fair distance in a reasonable time all by myself.
The author on a charity ride in Melbourne
As a result of my career and (former) hobby colliding on more than one occasion, though, I reckon I’m within rights to highlight some habits that both drivers and riders of all persuasions could change when it comes to using the road. Here’s five of my most noteworthy.
Sure, we (seemingly) all have fewer hours in a day to get more done – and those days frequently now push into the weekend, as the demands of family and social lives force us into commutes on a Saturday or Sunday.
Honestly, though, waiting just two or three more seconds as you wait for a biker to clear a narrow section of road – or even a minute - will not affect your world in the least. It won’t.
A moment of misjudgement on your part trying to brush past, however, could have life-changing consequences to the rider if they’re knocked off.
Whether you agree with it or not, cyclists are part of the traffic flow. Do we all do silly things on occasion? Absolutely. Is your driving perfect? Mine sure isn’t, and I’ve tested more than 1000 cars in my career.
Take a breath, count to ten, breathe again and you’ll get past. Trust me. Cyclists are not slowing you down on purpose.
Part and parcel of my road ride must-dos included eyeballing parked cars for a couple of things; drivers getting ready to hop out without looking over their shoulder, and pedestrians hustling out between the parked vehicles.
I once came within millimetres of cleaning up a harried mum who, clutching her crying baby, charged out from between two cars without looking and directly into my path. Thankfully, I’d washed off a lot of speed and avoided her, but it was way too close.
Driving a car is relatively simple, so checking phones and supervising kids comes all too easily. The onus is on all of us to look out for each other – and if that means taking an extra second to hang up from a call before flinging open your driver’s door, or walking 20 metres to cross at traffic lights, we owe it to each other to stay in the moment when we’re around traffic.
The Dutch Reach requires a driver to open their door with their left hand, which twists the head around naturally and could help to spot a cyclist before 'dooring' them
Oh, and we can all see you talking on your mobile, especially when your chin is on your chest as you send that unimportant message to your other half about that loaf of sourdough you forgot. Stop it.
RUSHING TO MAKE LEFT TURNS
Judging the speed of other vehicles can be tricky, and it’s even more difficult with cyclists. The smaller size of a bike and rider makes judging distances harder, and speeds, too, are tougher to call.
I cannot count the number of times a car brushed past me at pace, only to brake hard, indicate late and dive into the street on my left, leaving me with just (hopefully) enough pavement to follow them around the turn – otherwise, I’d smash into their left rear door. It’s not fun.
Deciding whether to turn left in front of or behind a cyclist is no different to judging an overtaking manoeuvre; if in doubt, just wait. Don’t commit to a move that could end in disaster for another road user.
Here’s a free tip, too; look an oncoming cyclist in the eyes before committing to a right turn in front of them. Most will give you a clear ‘NO’ signal if the gap is too tight.
BEING OVERLY COURTEOUS
It sounds odd to complain about a driver being too well-behaved, but sometimes an overt act of kindness puts the driver or rider in harm’s way when the opposite is the intention.
The laws requiring drivers to give space to cyclists – a metre under 60km/h and 1.5m over 60 – are nearly two years old now, and while most drivers are comfortable with them, it’s still a bone of contention for many.
As a rider, I definitely noted that the majority of drivers heeded the rule changes – but some heeded them too much, veering over double lines into oncoming traffic in an attempt to obey the law, putting themselves in real danger.
While it’s legal to cross double lines to pass a rider after indicating, it needs to be done safely. If you can’t pass a cyclist safely, just sit back and wait until you can. You wouldn’t pass a bus or truck over double lines without leaving adequate space, would you?
WALKING IN CYCLING SHOES
Possibly the most disappointing habit of a small percentage of drivers is looking at the cyclist as someone... more accurately as something less than human.
I’ve never, ever had someone skim past me with millimetres to spare while I’m walking on the footpath, call me a ‘stupid c%%’ and throw a glass bottle of soft drink at me.
None of us is perfect, but we are all important to someone else. The day that I wondered if I would actually get home in one piece was the day that I decided to give the sport away.
If you’re getting cranky with a cyclist, please, think for a second before acting out. A bingle in a car is an exercise for insurance companies to make money. Bumping a cyclist, accidentally or otherwise, can land you in jail, and the rider – someone’s mum or dad, wife, boyfriend, brother or sister or best friend – in hospital… or in the morgue.
Finally, if you like to get onto social media to lambast ‘cyclists not paying rego and they need number plates because they run red lights’, please, just give up on that lazy trope.
Licencing of cyclists is never going to happen, nor is registration. Vehicle registration doesn’t build roads, either, so claiming that your rego gives you more rights than others is not only stupid, it’s wrong.
Bicycles form part of the Australian road network and are protected by law, and that’s all there is to it.
No matter what tired barbs are thrown out there, none of it is going to change the fact that bikes are allowed on Australian roads, and the change that needs to happen is within ourselves. Cyclists who break the laws can be fined and convicted, just like car drivers.
I also challenge you to replace the word ‘cyclist’ with another reference, just to hear how it sounds. It’s no fun being threatened with harm and death just because you happen to ride a bicycle.
It's much quieter out here!
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue in the comments below – please note, though, that the discussion will be moderated.