Let's stop backpedalling and improve roads for cyclists

New Zealand's cyclist crash statistics are among the worst in the developed world.

Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean's response - to consider if driving laws need to be changed - is a step in the right direction. Sadly, it has taken the lives of five cyclists to get to this point, despite more than 10 years of petitions and submissions.

Some motorists say cyclists deserve what they get, because they behave badly and take risks. However, Transport Ministry statistics show that carelessness and irresponsibility on the part of motorists cause 75 per cent of motorist- cyclist collisions.

Two factors affect motorists' attitudes. One is New Zealand's no-fault accident system, in which - although ACC knows that motorists cause accidents - levies are not increased to cover cyclists' injuries and rehabilitation. Similarly, insurance companies don't stop no-claims bonuses on motorists who injure cyclists. The message that motorists get is, "Don't worry, mate. You won't have to pay for all the mess."

A second factor behind motorists' attitudes is the compulsory bicycle helmet law. This flawed response to rising cyclist fatalities in the 1990s puts the onus for safety on to the cyclist, saying "look after your own safety". The message a motorist takes from the helmet law is, "hitting a cyclist is not my problem".

Evidence has emerged showing the problem has always been driver behaviour, so it is time to rewrite policies on cycling.

There is no silver bullet to improve road safety; a mix of solutions is needed. Here are some urgent ones:

Physically separate motorists and cyclists: This strategy pleases motorists, and is popular among newcomers to cycling. However, even with grade separation cyclists and cars must occasionally interact, so we need to clarify who is responsible for safety.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail initiative is helpful but, as planned, it will consist of disconnected paths that may not allow entire cycle journeys to be completed in safety. Also, its focus is tourism rather than everyday cyclist use. We need a network for everybody, including cities and suburbs.

While we welcome cycle tourists, let us not forget that the majority are local recreational and commuter cyclists.

Relate the onus for road safety to the size of the vehicle: Safety campaigns urge motorists to be more responsible and to take care of cyclists but their behaviour and attitudes remain unchanged. Using the Dutch philosophy, cyclists are not dangerous, cars and their drivers are.

It's time to follow countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark by adopting their dominant vehicle law, which places responsibility on the drivers of larger vehicles. For example, in a car- cycle collision, the car driver is presumed to be at fault.

Create an urban road hierarchy: European countries such as the Netherlands have road hierarchy systems that require motorised vehicles to yield to cyclists, who in turn yield to pedestrians. Drivers are not overly delayed, as the hierarchy helps urban traffic flow more smoothly.

The Dutch experience shows that improving cyclist safety also reduces car-to-car collisions - and provides more evidence to justify reducing speed limits.

The NZ Transport Agency and police are working hard to reduce these numbers without much success. Here is an alternate option they may want to try - making motorists responsible for the safety of other road users will improve their own safety.

Mandatory cycling and walking facilities: This would require transport agencies and city councils to ensure all new and existing road projects have adequate facilities for cyclists and pedestrians.

Auckland Harbour Bridge is an example where a facility for people wanting to cycle between Auckland's CBD and the North Shore would boost cyclist numbers and make a major contribution to reduce traffic congestion there.

Current funding requirements for road projects put no emphasis on walking and cycling facilities. The Government needs to urgently address this issue.

Opponents to such changes will probably claim that the dominant vehicle law goes against New Zealand's legal foundation of "innocent until proven guilty". However, New Zealand has a precedent in the Misuse of Drugs Act whereby presumption of guilt by the offender is assumed even before criminal proceedings are initiated. Countries with this law have safe cycling environments, and their citizens accept the law and the reasoning behind it.

To anyone considering walking or cycling instead of driving, safety is paramount. Dutch research also shows that safer cycling environments increase cyclist numbers.

Someone must champion the need for change. Supportive members of Parliament must take the issue and raise cross-party support. Transport Minister Steven Joyce has responded to calls for increased cyclist safety by simply stating that road users need to accommodate each other.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. It's time for hard measures to focus on motorists' behaviour.

Sridhar Ekambaram is from the Cycling Advocates Network.

From Dominion Post