Angry and inconsiderate drivers have no place on our roads.
Following last weekend’s carnage in which three cyclists were killed by cars, the chief coroner is reportedly considering an investigation into cycle safety. Judge Neil MacLean’s willingness to look into the issue is welcome. An inquiry by a member of the judiciary might just jolt motorists into awareness that bikes are entitled to be on the roads, and remind them how vulnerable cyclists are to a tonne or more of speeding metal.
These things should be obvious to competent drivers but, sadly, many motorists seem to need it spelt out in black and white. When a car collides head-on with a cyclist, or mows down a cyclist from behind, or turns across the path of a cyclist, chances are the driver will be unhurt but the cyclist will be killed or seriously maimed. If the car is travelling at 70km/h or more, the cyclist has virtually no chance of survival.
On average, 10 cyclists are killed every year on New Zealand roads, and hundreds are injured – and the number of casualties is rising. Although cyclists across the land will be glad to hear of Judge MacLean’s interest in their safety, there is no great mystery behind these figures. According to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), in 70% of crashes involving cyclists and cars, the driver is at fault.
New Zealand doesn’t have a problem with cycle safety; it has a problem with bad driving. In one of the latest tragedies, the driver crossed the road and ploughed into a group of riders, killing two and seriously injuring one. In the other, the driver hit and killed a cyclist travelling in the same direction.
Such incidents are just a small part of a much larger problem of driver inattention, impatience, aggression and lack of respect for the place of cyclists on the roads – evidence of which cyclists see every time they get on their bikes. It’s no wonder the number of children biking to school has plunged in the last two decades. And although recreational cycling for fitness is booming, commuter cycling has halved.
Yet New Zealand has pretensions to being a destination for cycle tourists. Cyclists are pictured getting along cheerfully on pretty streets and scenic roads. In reality the environment for cyclists here is dangerous. Indeed, it can be downright intimidating, as evidenced by the story earlier this year of the Christchurch businessman who threatened to “nail” cyclists with his Hummer. This incident and others were later reported in an article in the Berliner Zeitung, warning tourists about Kiwi drivers’ appalling attitudes to cyclists. The paper also reported that six days before she was killed cycling in New Zealand in January, German tourist Mia Pusch blogged about aggressive Kiwi drivers, describing them as “beasts in human form”.
Cyclists are not without fault, of course. Motorists get particularly riled by large packs of riders, which can be difficult to pass. It needs to be stressed that pack riding doesn’t cause cars to crash into cyclists, but the fact that motorists may have to slow down and wait for the opportunity to overtake is a source of irritation. In the interests of improved road relations, cycling leaders should encourage small bunches – perhaps no more than 10 – particularly on busy roads.
But the most effective way to make cycling safer is to get more people cycling. Research shows there is safety in numbers: the more cyclists on the roads, the more accustomed drivers become to looking out for them (and the more likely they are to be cyclists themselves) and the safer cycling becomes. But this won’t happen by chance: parents won’t send their kids to school by bike until there are cycle lanes and safe crossings; commuters won’t cycle until they feel confident motorists will give them space and respect. Yet planners refuse to take cycling seriously – particularly in Auckland. The cycleway alongside the Northwestern Motorway is commendable, but the NZTA’s primitive attitude towards a cycleway on the Harbour Bridge virtually guarantees that commuter cycling in the city will continue to suffer.
It has never been more important to get people on their bikes – the transport sector is the fastest-growing contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas profile, and inactivity is at the root of our most pernicious health problems. University of Auckland researcher Alistair Woodward calculates that if we made just 5% of short commutes by bike, 22 million litres of fuel and $193 million in health costs would be saved annually.
For every cycle commuter there is generally one less car, and one more healthy citizen. How many more deaths must there be before New Zealand’s angry, inconsiderate and distracted motorists appreciate that cyclists, and cycling, are good for everyone?
From the Listener