Australia's new cyclist legislation the world's toughest

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(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s newest piece of criminal legislation is among the toughest in the world. The target: cyclists.

In a week, riders in Sydney and the rest of New South Wales state will be subject to a package of new laws aimed at cutting deaths and the more than 1,000 serious injuries a year among cyclists.

The penalty for cycling without a helmet more than quadruples to A$319 ($229), stiffer than many speeding fines for drivers, and riders jumping a red light will get a A$425 fine. Adult riders will have to carry identification, or face a A$106 penalty from March 2017.

Cycling advocates say the crackdown will deter people from saddling up and worsen motorized congestion that’s already grinding down Australia’s biggest cities. Without better planning, the economic cost each year of such gridlock will quadruple to A$53 billion by 2031, according to government agency Infrastructure Australia. 

‘New Lows’

“This legislation is reaching new lows,” said Chris Rissel, a professor at the University of Sydney’s school of public health who has researched the benefits of cycling for 15 years. “There are many things that could be done to make cycling safer and to encourage more people to ride. These things are not it.”

Tougher rules, which come into force March 1, are needed because on average 11 cyclists die and 1,500 are seriously injured each year in New South Wales, said Bernard Carlon, executive director of the government’s Centre for Road Safety.

“If one cyclist chooses to now wear a helmet because of the new penalties, we consider that a win for cyclist safety,” Carlon said in an e-mail.

Australia is already going to miss its 2016 target of doubling from 2011 levels the number of people who cycle, according to the National Cycling Participation Survey. Riding among children hasn’t grown at all and in the wider population, the proportion of people who said they’d ridden the previous week dropped to 17 percent in 2015, from 18 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, cycling has soared in popularity across Europe. There are more bicycles than inhabitants in Copenhagen and about half of all commutes in the city are by bike. In Amsterdam, 63 percent of residents ride daily and bikes outnumber cars three to one. 

Running a red light in London risks a fine of just 50 pounds ($72). Paris last year even allowed cyclists to ride through red lights after a pilot program found it might lead to fewer accidents.

Helmet Law

Groups including Safe Cycling Australia blame the dwindling numbers at home partly on the country’s compulsory helmet law. Australia was the first country in the world to make cycle helmets obligatory in the early 1990s, although the Northern Territory now allows adults to ride without a helmet on sidewalks and separated lanes.

While some European countries require children to wear them, there’s no nationwide all-age helmet law anywhere on the continent, European Commission data show.

In the suite of new rules, only one targets motorists. Drivers who fail to leave a gap of at least a meter when they overtake a cyclist face a A$319 fine -- less than a cyclist gets for skipping a red light.

“Fines should reflect the consequence of the offence,” said Ray Rice, chief executive officer of Bicycle New South Wales, the Sydney-based lobby group with about 15,000 members. “There’s no logic in this automatic equivalence. You can hardly say these measures are an incentive to ride.”

Winding Drivers Up

Australia’s biggest drivers group, the  National Roads & Motorists’ Association, denied tougher penalties will put people off cycling. Riders who jump red lights wind up drivers -- as well as law-abiding cyclists -- and should pay bigger fines, said Peter Khoury, a spokesman for the Sydney-based motoring group.

Rather than larger fines, better cycling infrastructure is more likely to produce obedient riders, said Julie Hatfield, a senior research fellow at the Transport and Road Safety Research group at the University of New South Wales. Hatfield co-authored a 2014 report that found cyclists skip lights or mount pavements chiefly to avoid danger.

“We really need to examine if the road system is designed to accommodate all road users,” Hatfield said.

‘No Thought’

Just ask Andrew Renwick, who commutes from his home in Sydney’s northern beaches.

“I’m forced to ride on single carriageway roads, with no bike lane, without even a road shoulder, where you’ve got traffic at up to 80 kilometers per hour,” said the 34-year-old information technology manager. “No thought has gone into the infrastructure to allow for cyclists to cycle safely.”

The new fines are so stiff that cyclists who are caught might never get on a bike again, said Rissel at the University of Sydney.

“We’re probably going to become the worst state in the world in terms of how we treat cyclists -- if we’re not already,” he said.

  • Owen Harris on 22/02/2016 11:07:00 AM

    For Safe Cycling Australia to argue that they dont ride because in part because they are forced to wear a helmet is a worry. Wearing a helmet is for the cyclists own protection and they should do it voluntarily because it is the sensible thing to do. As a frequent cyclist as a child and now as an adult motorcycle rider I have personally experienced how hard concrete is. And as a lawyer I have seen the photographic evidence of those who have fallen off and travelled along the concrete - its not for the faint hearted. Wearing a helmet should be a no brainer (pardon the pun).

  • Safe Cycling Australia on 22/02/2016 11:32:29 AM

    We have also seen the aftermath of pedestrian deaths which may or may not have occurred if they had been wearing similar head protection. The numbers of pedestrian fatalities far outnumber those of cyclists, so by that logic crossing the street is inherently more risky. To suggest they be legally forced to start doing so probably wouldn't go down well.

  • Les Majoros on 22/02/2016 1:23:15 PM

    As a paramedic of over 20 years experience, I tend to agree with Owen. A quick straw poll of my friends & family would suggest that helmets have nothing to do with a reluctance to ride a bike compared to lack of cycling infrastructure & the fear of getting clobbered or even just abused by a motorist. The fines for cyclists are, however, way too harsh. For example, how does one trigger a green light at an intersection whilst riding a carbon fibre bike? Duncan Gay should start getting infrastructure up to speed. For starters, improve breakdown lane cycle ways along main roads. In too many spots there are soft shoulders or gravel pathways. And would it hurt the RMS to sweep these breakdown lanes of rubbish and glass occasionally?

  • Vincent on 22/02/2016 1:24:52 PM

    The changes should be tougher. I don't know how many cyclists I see choosing which laws they obey. Some are using pedestrian laws, some vehicle laws, some cyclist laws and mostly all cyclists are using any law to circumvent the laws they are meant to obey. What would call a group of people that abuse a resource they don't have to pay for? It's about time cyclists start paying for the use of the roads just like motorcycles, scooters, cars and trucks do.

  • Lee on 22/02/2016 2:37:53 PM

    This is even worse than the numerous pieces of intrusive nanny state legislation that we are forced to endure in this country. I don't see any basis for this legislation other than to pander to the car driving majority who feel outraged by the sight of scofflaw bareheaded / red-light running cyclists.

    Never mind that cycling participation rates are lower than anywhere in the world (and obesity rates inversely proportional); that there is no evidence that helmets prevent serious head injuries or that red light running cyclists are a danger to anybody but themselves.

    It's particularly galling that the fine for not wearing a helmet is greater than the fine for not passing safely and yet the cyclist is "endangering" no-one but themselves whilst the driver is in control of a piece of machinery that can (and does) kill hundreds of people each year.

  • Lee on 22/02/2016 3:39:34 PM

    @ Vincent - the roads are not paid for by owners of motor vehicles. Most of the cost is sourced from general revenue - which we all contribute to. I also note that the current laws do not seem to stop drivers breaking road rules and killing people.

  • Malcolm Heath on 22/02/2016 8:44:00 PM

    Cyclists for years have wanted cycling to be taken seriously as a major form of transportation. "The Metre Matters" legislation in NSW is a wonderful step in that direction. But now cyclists are not happy with "draconian" penalties for breaches of road rules.
    As a cycling commuter and road cyclist I throw it out to my fellow riders to, as we cyclists say, "harden up". The growth in commuter cycling over past decades is wonderful. A true "turning point" has been reached in Sydney in particular recognising the value of cycling to the community.
    Cyclists now have to accept change and increased responsibility - as motor cyclists did when helmet laws were introduced in the 1970's. As motorists had to when RBT was introduced in 1980's. Each thought these were draconian infringements upon freedom and civil liberties.
    Too many commuter cyclists break the road rules and, for one example, run red lights. It's got to stop.

    Obey the road rules and the percentage increases in fines = 0. It's as simple as, um, riding a bike.

  • john on 23/02/2016 4:30:54 AM

    Typical action by lazy, spineless politicians who think every problem can be fixed by rules, regulations and taxes

  • Michael on 24/02/2016 12:08:34 AM

    Seems to be some confusion over why people do not want to wear bicycle helmets, so here goes:
    Freedom, right to choose – please don't single me out when you won't ban cigarettes, won't ban fatty foods, particularly when riding a bike with or without a helmet has a positive health outcome (have not been able to find any positive outcome for cigarettes or fatty foods)
    Statistically riding a commuter bike (note – not road racing bike in the traffic) is notably safer than being a pedestrian in the city, so if you in any way think commuter cyclists should wear helmets then to be fair you should be saying pedestrians should wear helmets.
    British Medical Journal article, last week or so, Google it, clearly states/result from long-term study in Canada – no benefit to hospitalisation rates in helmet mandatory areas compared to non-helmet mandatory areas – suggest you read it and carefully consider what that study says, because Canada has Provinces with the law "each way", it is a unique opportunity to have a definitive study, it's now been done and there is no benefit – get it - no benefit so far as serious head injuries are concerned.
    Australia has the lowest bicycle participation rate of any advanced nation, and we are getting worse – no matter how much money is thrown at the problem less and less people are riding bikes (as a percentage of population which is the only realistic measure), they are missing out on the health benefits and the environment is missing out on a reduction in motor vehicles.
    Australia's overall approach to road safety and bicycles and pedestrians is just muddleheaded, in a European city if a pedestrian even looks like stepping out to cross the road the vehicles come to a stop and they do not complain they do not glower they do not toot their horns the pedestrian has absolute right-of-way, here you take your life into your hands trying to cross the road. On the sidewalks in European cities pushbikes give way to pedestrians, pedestrians have "priority" on sidewalks in European cities.
    For a New South Wales minister/politician to comment that if the new rules make one person wear a helmet/get saved et cetera is foolish, because the logical extrapolation of that statement is if you lock up all men there will be no more domestic violence, agreed but just foolish. Or try this - if we make all motorists wear helmets and make the open road speed limit 50 km an hour we might just get to 0 road deaths.
    So please go and read the British Medical Journal article and then think about how in Australia since helmet legislation 25 years ago we have seen in almost 100% loss of the commuter cyclist to be replaced by the "sport commuter" cyclist who rides what is essentially a competition pushbike and wears Lycra and gets out and on occasion even beats the traffic, ditch helmets and you will see what Europe has, large numbers of ordinary people getting good easy to achieve health benefits whilst doing their day-to-day commuting, we have absolutely lost that and it is a tragedy.
    And the next time I hear an ambulance driver or a doctor say "I have seen someone with serious head injuries because they were not wearing a bicycle helmet" I will say to them "I have seen my neighbour who used to ride his pushbike regularly to work but stopped 20 years ago because he was fined for not wearing a helmet and riding on the footpath slowly but surely gain weight and then the week before last Christmas suffer a fatal heart attack", and I was the one who found him collapsed in his front driveway. and if you care to do some reading you will see that the generally accepted ratio of lives saved through the healthy aspects of writing pushbikes compared to lives lost because helmets were not worn is about 20 to 1 – and a good place to start reading about that is a British Parliamentary enquiry into bicycle helmets.

  • Owen Harris on 24/02/2016 12:11:19 PM

    Much of the angst from motorists comes from the seemingly unlawfulness of a FEW pushbike riders. They ride on the road (and if an accident occurs they often cant be sued because they cant be identified); they duck and weave amongst the traffic; they ride on the footpath often with little regard for the pedestrians (no European respect here); they ride across pedestrian crossings without slowing down to see where the cars are; they run red lights and even ride the wrong way down the street. They give the average cyclist a bad name. But again, my main point is you should wear a helmet if you want to ride on the road - because concrete is harder than skull - its not rocket science.

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