This article was originally submitted to Pedal Power in April 2010 for inclusion in it's magazine Canberra Cyclist. It was unpublished. Because it deals with the issues of safety and the visibility of cyclists on Australian roads we have decided to include it here.
Over the last 3 weeks I have been working my way through a pile of magazines which have been accumulating at home for the last 12 months whilst Denise and I have been cycling around Australia. It’s an interesting way to read a set of journals as you become more aware of the chronology of events being discussed than you would when you receive each edition 1 to 2 months apart.
In the most recent edition (April/May 2010) of Canberra Cyclist, John Widdup makes mention of the media’s attention on the perceived hostility between cyclists and motorists encouraging all of us to do our bit to make life pleasant on the road.
I suspect the media attention John was commenting on was similar to the story we saw in the The Mercury the day after we arrived in Hobart, (Saturday, 6 February, 2010). Titled “Cyclists seen as hazards” and leading with “MORE than 60 per cent of Tasmanian drivers believe cyclists are a road hazard.” the story was reporting on research undertaken by insurer AAMI and definitely caught our attention.
The story got me thinking about a podcast from Richard Fidler’s ABC radio Conversation Hour that I had been listening to earlier in the trip. To break the monotony on the long remote hauls we both would often turn to our iPods, (using only a single ear piece). One thing I particularly enjoyed was listening to the diversity of people being interviewed. On this particular occasion Richard Fidler was interviewing 70-year-old Grant Page who has the reputation of being one of the most fearless movie stuntmen in the world.
Grant was explaining how much more dangerous getting to work was than actually doing the stunt itself. “The biggest danger you have on a stunt day is getting to the location to do a stunt and then getting home afterwards. Those roads out there Mate, they’re hell, and you have no control. ….. at a closing speed of 120, 140 k’s; you don’t know anything about the drivers; you don’t know anything about the condition of the vehicle. …. So it is inevitable that there will be all sorts of risk taking on the road in general that we would not handle in a stunt. Wouldn’t think about it.”
So with Grant Page uncomfortable about driving to work each day and AAMI finding “two-in-three drivers (66%) say they find cyclists hard to see and a similar proportion (65%) qualify them as a road hazard outright. One-in-four (26%) say they have had an accident or a near miss with a cyclist.” How safe is it on Australian roads for bicycles?
Well after completing a loop of both the Australian main land and Tasmania and riding in the CBD’s of each capital city we both believe it is reasonably safe on Australian roads if the cyclist takes ‘control’ of their on-road environment.
Although many think riding a bike around Australia is a unique, challenging and a “very brave” journey to undertake there are in fact a great deal of touring cyclists doing it. As we passed or caught up with others we would mostly stop for a chat and exchange information. But before Denise and I reached Cairns we were noticing that most of the cyclists we met all had a number of ‘close shave’ stories to tell us. Overseas cyclists in particular talked about how scary the trucks and cities were. In contrast we had no ‘close shave’ stories.
In Cairns we put this down to just good luck but by the time we reached the Northern Territory we became convinced our lack of ‘close shaves’ was because we were more visible on the road than other cyclists.
We always wore high visibility shirts, usually long sleeved. Our BOB trailers had a custom made high visibility ‘bib’ that covered the black end of the BOB yellow bags. We replaced the yellow BOB flags with our own made from high visibility vests, yellow on one face and orange on the other. (The flickering change in colour definitely draws the eye). We had red flashing rear lights turned on during the day. Each trailer had two Tioga style “Big Eye” rear-flashing lights and the bikes each had a Cateye 5 LED flashing rear light. (To keep the rear light intensity we recharged or replaced the AAA batteries every 3 days).
Mostly the first comment we got from motorists was that we stood out from a long way away. Across The Barkly and along the Stuart Highway we would get comments that the red flashing lights would emerge from the heat haze before we did and on a few occasions we were told we could be seen from up to 2 km away. But the most memorable comment was from an Adelaide Metro Bus driver. As we were leaving the Adelaide CBD a bus pulled up beside Denise at the traffic lights and the driver thanked her for being so visible!
We complemented our high visibility with custom built mirrors that we mounted in front of our handlebars so the mirror was always in our field of view. Unlike all (most) bicycle mirrors on the market the position of ours did not require us to consciously look for it, and then at it, to see what was behind us. The mirror was always in front of us.
We never stood our ground insisting we had equal rights to our piece of the road. If we were on a crest or curve and saw something large coming behind us like a road train or a logging truck we got out of the way. We received too many toots of thanks from trucks and road trains to count. Generally most vehicles gave us a wide berth when passing, although I must admit to mumbling about caravan owners who seemed to forget they had a van behind them.
After 12 months on the road we can only recall three bad experiences and only two were ‘close shaves’, (one involved a Leopard Tank and the other a road train near Broome). But we saw both of them coming and took evasive action! When we drive long distances in our car and camper trailer we can have more than this in a couple of weeks.
Was this good luck? We do not believe so. It may sound indulgent but on reflection we believe, as Grant Page discussed with Richard Fidler, we took control of the situation and minimised the risks. We addressed the “two-in-three drivers” concern and made it easier for them to see us. We assume the remaining one-in-three always see cyclists, as they are the cycling motorists and truckies to whom John Widdup referred in his column.
I, therefore, come away from our 12 month journey with some, perhaps controversial, suggestions.
Occupational Health and Safety legislation requires certain occupations – road workers, miners, truck drivers, postal workers, construction workers, etc – to wear high visibility clothing whilst at work. Even politicians like to put it on in front of cameras. We already have bicycle helmet laws. Why do we not have legislation in place to require cyclists to wear high visibility clothing?
Many of the cyclists we saw on our journey wore cycling jerseys but many were far from highly visible. Some tops were nearly totally black. Why don’t we legislate in Australia that cycling clothing must include a minimum coverage of a high visibility colour?
Taking this to the next level, how many times do we see a bike on the road in the evening with the rider wearing reflective high visibility colours and a dark rucksack covering it all up? It just does not make sense. Some argue that Australia is too risk adverse and there is already too much “Nanny State” legislation but surely there is a good argument for more prescriptive safety laws for cyclists given some do not seem to be thinking about their own safety.
As I understand it every bicycle ridden on the road must have a bell. Why not also include a well designed mirror to minimise the surprises that come from behind?
I have discussed these ideas with other cyclists and some argue that in Europe motorists recognise cyclists without mandated high visibility clothing so it should not be necessary in Australia. Rather, I am told, we should educate Australian motorists to recognise and anticipate cyclists so they become more bicycle aware. If education of drivers is to be our only approach I wonder how many cyclists are willing to be sacrificed as part of the learning process?
Each time I go out on the road I remember a comment from an advanced motorcycle riding course I did more than 25 years ago. The instructor was stressing the importance of defensive riding explaining there was no benefit in arriving at the Pearly Gates in the right.
AAMI Media Releases
The Conversation Hour