Cyclists can do more to be safer on the road

Cars, trucks, pedestrians, trams, buses … cyclists share the road with all (and more). Jes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

ABC’s Media Watch program on Monday asked the important question: Is bicycle bashing in the media putting cyclists at risk?

As far as I know, so far there has been no published research that has looked at this question. But I suspect if you asked, most regular riders would tell you negative media about cyclists can indeed influence driver behaviour.

I have had my own experience of this, the day after the 2012 incident in Melbourne involving an altercation between Shane Warne and a cyclist.

While cycling to work I encountered a taxi driver who had obviously been influenced by the media attention around the Warne story. He pulled up next to me at an intersection, tooted his horn, wound down his window and shouted: “Warney was right! Why don’t you get off the road you idiot!”

Next to him was his passenger, an elderly lady, nodding her head in vigorous agreement. I sat there stunned as the taxi driver sped off shaking his fist triumphantly.

Needless to say, I think it is right to publicly highlight the potential risks for cyclists of biased and inflammatory media attention – as indeed the group Safe Cycling Australia did recently in their open letter to the Australian media, and the Media Watch segment did again this week.

However, at the same time, I worry when the so-called “driver versus cyclist” debate only gets as far as each group blaming the other – as it so often does. While heated public arguments attract a lot of attention to the issue, the inevitable stalemate in dialogue is no basis for change.

As someone who rides around 15,000km a year – ten hours on the road each week on average – I have certainly had my share of abuse from drivers.

If I am being honest though, in my 20-plus years of riding on Melbourne’s roads, I have found the vast majority of drivers do the right thing when it comes to cyclists. Most drivers are sensible and respectful.

Hundreds of tacks strewn on Kew Boulevard, Melbourne, in May 2014. Shane Miller, CC BY-NC-ND

This is not to minimise the fact that some cyclists do find themselves the undeserving targets of disgruntled drivers. Dangerous acts such as hitting riders with rolled up newspaper, spreading tacks and other debris on the road, and use of a vehicle for deliberate intimidation (or worse) should never be tolerated.

But, as objectionable as such examples may be, we should acknowledge that these represent a very small minority of riding experiences. The vast majority of cycling trips made each day in the world are positive, enjoyable, and worthwhile – the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks and harms.

Of course, driver-focused policy, education, and behaviour-change campaigns are an important part of the cycling safety challenge. Innovation in road and cycling infrastructure design is also needed as our populations grow. Excellent work is being done in Australia currently by organisations such as the Amy Gillett Foundation, Bicycle Network, Australian Bicycle Council, local government and others.

The cycling safety challenge on roads that are only getting busier in most cities also requires stronger legislative responses (and equivalent enforcement), such as the recent examples emerging in the ACT and Queensland.

But beyond the official policy, regulatory, and engineering solutions needed for cycling safety, there is also a key role here for cyclists.

In fact, what cyclists are able to do for themselves in defining and practising an acceptable culture of on-road riding behaviour is crucial.

My time on the road as a rider and driver has convinced me that cyclists as a group of road users can do better. Consider the following examples:

  • disobeying road rules such as running red lights
  • abuse of drivers and pedestrians
  • riding at high speeds on footpaths or shared pedestrian-bike paths
  • failing to signal directional changes or approaches to other riders and pedestrians (such as hand signals, vocal warnings, bike bell)
  • wearing earphones or headphones while riding
  • riding into tight spaces and weaving in between moving cars
  • mobile phone use while riding
  • riding without a helmet
  • riding without lights.

Ask any regular rider and, if they are being honest, they will tell you these sorts of things are all too common out on the road. These behaviours are damaging the public image of cycling.

My main point is that cyclists of all types and levels can do more to be safer on the road. As vulnerable road users we should take more responsibility for modelling safer on-road and in-traffic riding behaviour.

Sure, there is room for improvement in driver attitudes and behaviours too. But ultimately cyclists can do little to control what drivers do. What we can control are the decisions we make, and the behaviour we display each and every time we ride.

Focusing our efforts and energy on the things we do as road-users is a more positive and proactive approach than merely pointing the finger at problems caused by a minority of drivers.

It is also likely to be a quicker pathway to earning respect as legitimate road users, and making a real difference towards improved cycling safety.