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Here’s why the recent changes to NSW cycling laws may be a good move

Cycling in Newtown, Sydney. Flickr/Steven Lewis, CC BY-NC-SA

This week the New South Wales Baird government, as part of its “Go Together” road safety campaign, launched a series of new rules and increased fines for cyclists for some on road offences.

The increased penalties are for offences like riding without a helmet (from $71 to $319), running a red light ($71 to $425), dangerous riding ($71 to $425), holding on to a moving vehicle ($71 to $319), and failure to stop at a child or pedestrian crossing ($71 to $425).

This won’t be a popular thing to say amongst my cycling friends, but it is my view that the recent changes to NSW cycling laws may be a good move for cycling safety. Here’s why.

Policy messages

Messages and perceptions are vital in public policy. Regardless of what you might think about the content, the NSW Go Together campaign sends a strong message about what is expected of drivers when passing cyclists. It is also unambiguous about the behaviour expected of cyclists on the road.

In essence, the message is that safer road use is the shared responsibility of all road users, cyclists included. It is the right message.

Evidence, of course, is important in public policy too. As a public health researcher I hope there will be a well designed and independent evaluation conducted on the impact of the NSW approach – not just the minimum passing rule. This could be conducted alongside the intended two year evaluation planned by Transport for NSW “in consultation with NSW Police, the Department of Justice and road user stakeholder groups.”

Such a study would provide the best evidence to assess the various claims currently being made (positive and negative) about the new rules and penalties. To do so the evaluation should focus on short and longer term impacts for cyclists and drivers, in areas including but not limited to:

  • Cycling participation and commuter trip mode share particularly in city areas
  • Cyclist and driver attitudes and experiences
  • Number of fines issued and revenue raised

The fines and revenue data won’t necessarily be a reliable indicator of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ driver or cyclist behaviour is in relation to the new rules – the figures will largely be driven by the relative law enforcement effort, capacity, and focus over time. Such data could, however, provide important evidence on the way these new rules have been enforced – i.e. equitably across groups of drivers and cyclists, or otherwise. And these data might also be a useful indicator for cycling advocacy groups of new resources potentially available for reinvestment into cycling infrastructure and promotion.

In the meantime, while we await whatever research and evaluative evidence is being gathered, it is worth considering the public perceptions that exist around this issue. We need a better understanding of the possible impact of public messages about cycling and road use, and how different road user groups perceive and act towards one another.

Public perceptions

Predictably, the cyclist fines and other rule changes in NSW have been criticised by cycling advocacy groups and other activists, who claim that cycling participation rates will drop as a result, and perceive the increased fines as unfair. There have been protests, petitions, and much anger and frustration vented publicly.

And judging from what is often expressed in the mainstream and social media, there is clearly also a perception amongst some drivers that cyclists are not taking enough responsibility for the way they ride in certain situations. Drivers often also claim that cyclist numbers on busy city roads can have a negative impact.

Of course, the fact that ‘some’ cyclists break the road rules doesn’t necessarily reflect the riding behaviour of all cyclists. Neither do the on-road actions of ‘some’ drivers reflect all driver attitudes and behaviour. Perceptions don’t always reflect the full truth, but they are a crucial consideration nevertheless.

As noted in a 2011 UK RAC Foundation report on the psychology of road user interaction, “Typifying ‘rival’ road users allows us to take mental shortcuts when we encounter them, maximising the speed at which we anticipate what is going to happen around us. The trouble is our assumptions might well be wrong. This is because stereotypes are generalisations, yet we all retain traits and characteristics that dictate how we behave.”

So, every time I ride on the public roads the nearby drivers see me as just another ‘cyclist’. They see everyone pedalling two wheels as a cyclist – just another road user group competing for space and position in an already busy environment.

Driver perceptions and behaviours towards cyclists are informed by how they define the group ‘cyclist’, not the human facts or truths about individual riders. This clearly matters on the road if those other road users equate ‘cyclist’ with rule breaking and dangerous riding.

In that way, even if you are riding safely and within the law as a cyclist you are being tooted for the rider who ran that red light yesterday. You are being verbally abused because the rider last week bumped that driver’s mirror or door. You are being squeezed into the gutter because of all the other riders weaving recklessly through traffic. You are seen as an arrogant nuisance because of the riders who are seen abusing other drivers, or speeding through intersections and crossings close to pedestrians.

As simplistic and objectionable as this may be, the main point is how other road user groups perceive us effectively means that the way you ride in public represents all cyclists. So too, the way you drive comes to represent the driver group other road users see you in. Although we see ourselves as special individuals while driving or riding in traffic, to other road users we’re just part of another group that is generally regarded as different, less skilled, and more dangerous.

If you doubt this, think for a moment about your own perceptions of road user groups like taxi drivers, motorbike riders, truckies, tradies, P-platers, ‘hoons’ and so on. Add to that different cyclist groups like MAMIL’s, roadies, fixie riders, triathletes, commuters etc. If you’re honest, you’ll be able to identify a list of generalisations (largely negative) you make about the road user behaviour of those groups.

Think individually but act collectively

How different road user groups perceive one another, and the impact of this for on-road behaviour, is an important consideration in the cycling safety area. Again, policy messages and public perceptions are key here.

My hope is that the strong message around the new laws in NSW has already set in motion some subtle attitudinal shifts that help take the heat and prejudice out of the public debate about the ‘drivers versus cyclists’ issue. In time this might also change behaviour.

As a driver, if your perception is that cyclists regularly break the road rules with impunity, you will applaud the increased fines, and the law enforcement action in this area. You may even think that the NSW changes have balanced the matter now - cyclists are finally being held to account. In turn, you might be more likely to accept the new minimum passing rules when driving. Hopefully, you will drive a little differently when you’re next behind the steering wheel and encounter a cyclist.

As a NSW cyclist, you will most likely support the trial of the minimum passing distance rule. Even if you disagree with the other rules and fines, presumably the fact that police are enforcing these will cause some of you to think twice about running that red light, or riding without a helmet, or riding dangerously. Reflecting on the way you ride in traffic surely can’t hurt. Is there any real cost and inconvenience from observing the rules?

Whatever the outcomes, the positive message we can take now from the recent NSW changes is that policy makers in that State are at least trying to address the cycling safety challenge. There is no such thing as perfect public policy, and the transport and roads policy area is certainly a hotly contested space where cycling is concerned. But it is surely better to have some government-supported action that aims to improve cycling safety than no action at all.

Rules are rules

Not all cyclists break the road rules, or ride in a fashion that might be regarded by some as ‘dangerous’ or ‘unsafe’. But the reality is those cyclists who do are amongst the most visible and memorable to other road users.

When riding in traffic, like it or not, the way other road users see us means we are effectively representing other cyclists. The actions of individual riders reverberate for all cyclists. In my view this means we have to care about the public perceptions around our cycling behaviour as individuals and group members, and we should think very carefully about our public responses to the road rules and reform in this field.

The public politics of this issue in Australia now also means we have to be prepared to own our behaviour as ‘cyclist’ road users, and take responsibility for what we can influence in the road safety area. The views of other road users towards cyclists, and on-road cycling safety is unlikely to improve if all we’re prepared to say publicly as cyclists is: ‘the driver’s are worse, they cause more damage and are most at fault in accidents, it’s not up to us to change anything.’

If you ride a bike on Australia’s public roads in traffic there is no excuse for cycling outside of the road rules. No justification exists for riding in traffic without a helmet, for riding through lights that have just turned red, or for riding dangerously.

In Australia today, if you are a cyclist who insists on ignoring the road rules, you are actively making the roads worse for other cyclists.

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