Do Cyclists Have A Death Wish?

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Following the shocking death last week (Saturday 25 January) of one cyclist and the critical injuries to one of his companions after a concrete pump truck ploughed into them on Sydney’s M7 Motorway, my heart sank even further as I watched the crash report on the television news.

The segment briefly covered the crash and concluded by pointing out that the cyclists were travelling on the shoulder of the motorway (as they were legally entitled to do) but that “at this stage it’s not clear why they weren’t on the other side of the freeway where there’s a dedicated cycling track”. The reporter then announced that “other riders we spoke to said riding in the breakdown lane is a risk they wouldn’t take”.

What the report didn’t do was solicit comments from motorists saying that they wouldn’t usually drive in the breakdown lane as it’s likely to result in crashes, nor did the reporter ask motorists why they didn’t take a side road, rather than the motorway, where the speed limit would be lower and presumably they would be safer. Implicit in the report was the notion that the cyclists had probably being doing something risky, unlike the rest of the traffic on the road that morning.

The problem with this blame-shifting approach – sometimes known as the “rape discourse” – in reporting road crashes, is that it implies that cyclists are asking for trouble by being on the road at all.

Yet if these cyclists had chosen to take the “dedicated cycle track” referred to in the media (which was actually not dedicated at all, but in fact a dual use path shared with pedestrians) the criticism could have been that they shouldn’t be training on a shared path.

The decision to gather comments from riders who apparently feel that the M7 is too risky reinforces the idea that the cyclists behaved unsafely by choosing to ride legally on the road. Clearly a lot of riders don’t share this point of view, since the M7 is a popular training route.

This might seem like nit-picking in the face of terrible tragedy which will have a profound effect on everyone involved in the crash and its aftermath, but it isn’t. The way cyclists, and road crashes, are discussed in the media has an effect on the way they are perceived and treated by our community.

Cyclists, like pedestrians, are classed as “vulnerable road users”, however it is unusual when a pedestrian is killed in a road crash for the news reports to suggest that the person was taking a risk by walking, or to assume that they were in the wrong. Cyclists, on the other hand, are consistently framed as an “out group”, rather than part of normal society. Research suggests they are seen as likely to behave irrationally, unlawfully and selfishly; to have no legitimate right to be on either the road or the path; and to be more likely to be at fault if they have a crash with another road user.

One consequence of this prejudice is the stereotyping of cyclists, as if they were a homogenous group. Such stereotypes create false commonalities between everyone who cycles, as a subset of road users, in a way which would seem absurd if it was done in other ways. You don’t hear people say, “Oh, I saw a fool in a blue car driving terribly the other day. They shouldn’t let those blue cars on the road.” Yet this logic is acceptable when discussing cyclists.

Moreover, there seems to be a distinction, in terms of hostility, between cycling per se, and “cyclists”. In surveys people generally respond positively to the idea of cycling because it is healthy, fun, environmentally beneficial, and so on, yet the term “cyclist” frequently invokes a negative response based on the stereotype. With almost 1.5 million bicycles sold in Australia last year, cyclists are not a small subculture. A large proportion of households have at least one bike, so many of the people riding them must be “normal”.

And yet drivers who kill vulnerable road users are punished less harshly than other people who have killed without intent and seem not to be treated by the courts as “real” criminals. UK research suggests that class and social power are factors in this leniency towards motorists. The vulnerable road users who are most likely to be killed by car drivers are the young, the old and the poor. These people are also less likely to have a voice in policy or law making as most politicians, senior police officers and judges are affluent middle-aged drivers.

Perhaps we should follow the lead of those European Union countries which have different liability laws and impose a stringent duty of care upon the larger road users for the smaller, more vulnerable travellers. That is, a car would have prima facie liability in a crash with a cyclist – and a cyclist would have prima facie liability towards a pedestrian. If the more vulnerable road user is clearly at fault, then the liability changes.

Adopting this approach in Australia could mean we see less of the “SMIDSY” (Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You) defence so frequently used by motorists against cyclists and motorcyclists.

Harsher penalties might encourage the police to take cycling crashes more seriously. Bike crashes have been traditionally under-represented in police “reported-crash” statistics, particularly in states such as Western Australia where the legislative reporting requirement is for crashes involving injury or property damage over $1000.

This has two negative effects. The first is that it results in a bias in the statistics towards the more serious crashes, which reinforces the perception that cycling is a dangerous form of transport and possibly discourages people from traveling by bike. Yet research conducted in several countries consistently shows that for cyclists there is safety in numbers. For example Californian researcher Peter Jacobsen found that doubling the number of cyclists on the road tends to bring about a 30 per cent reduction in cyclist crashes with motor vehicles. Conversely, discouraging people from riding bikes makes a city’s streets more dangerous for all cyclists.

The second effect is that police data is used to set priorities for tax-payer funded crash reduction and injury prevention programs, and with cyclists under-represented except at the extreme end of crashes, less attention is given to measures that could make cycling safer. These measures could include driver education, traffic calming devices, improved cycling infrastructure such as dedicated bicycle lanes (off-road and on-road), “bicycle streets” where bikes have right of way, and seamless connections between cycle ways and public transport. Restrictions on motor vehicle use, including congestion charges, lower speed limits and limited parking would encourage people to choose other travel modes because they’re easier.

We take for granted the dominance of the car in our transport system but the might-is-right attitude is downright undemocratic, and proclaims that as a society we believe someone in a $40,000 car is more important than a person on a $200 bike.

Reporters should take note that a bicycle rider does not “collide” with a faster-moving motor vehicle that runs over them from behind. They should also be aware that gravely reporting that a dead cyclist “was not wearing a helmet” is completely irrelevant if they died from abdominal injuries when they were hit. And the fact that there was a shared path nearby does not make them reckless risk-takers when they’re still riding on a legitimate cycle lane.

Regardless of whether you see the media’s role as determining public opinion or simply reflecting it, a more neutral approach to reporting crashes involving cyclists would be a positive step towards achieving justice for this group of vulnerable road users.

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