Cars vs. Bikes: The Battle for Supremacy on Australia’s Roads

Originally published on 20 January 2014 by Aphra.

As a cyclist you need to have a thick skin – this will not necessarily protect you from the physical assault that may be launched on you by motorists, but will help deflect the stream of verbal insults and abuse that will be thrown at you on an all too regular basis. Should you decide to get about on two wheels instead of four, whether for exercise, commuting purposes or leisure, I guarantee that before too long you will be reminded that on Australian roads, there is a pecking order.

The supremacy of motor vehicles on our roads was made evident to me during a recent visit to Tasmania with my bike over Christmas. While riding through Hobart’s bay side suburbs I had abuse hurled at me by drivers and lost count of the number of middle fingered salutes I received. What actions had I undertaken, you may ask, to deserve such abuse? Absolutely nothing, it seems, except take up space (very little) on the road. Time and time again, drivers made it explicitly clear that roads are for cars and bikes are not welcome.

The tumultuous relationship between bike and motor vehicle escalated on my final day of riding when a bus drove me off the road. Upon overtaking at speed, aforementioned bus forced me to hastily dismount and dive onto the footpath due to the proximity in which it was closing in on me. In that moment I made a split second decision in order to save my life – I was convinced the bus was going to squash me. The driver either did not see this take place or chose to ignore the incident and sped off down the street.

The bus driver’s actions are indicative of a broader problem on Australia’s roads at present. A large percentage of motorists lack awareness when it comes to interacting with cyclists on the road. It appears that as the number of people riding bikes increases there is a corresponding growth in resentment directed towards cyclists by those in motor vehicles. A dichotomy exists between cars and bikes, or ‘us’ and ‘them’, and it is this underlying attitude that shapes relations between road users today. Such attitudes are perpetuated in the media by conservative commentators like Miranda Devine who in 2010 claimed ‘we are sick of the dangerous fiction that the road is there to share. In fact, the road is there for cars. Bicycles are there only under sufferance.’

It is difficult to make sense of the depth and extent of vehemence directed towards cyclists by motorists, simply because they are on a bike. Motorists alone are not entirely to blame for this toxic relationship. Cyclists who show complete disregard for road rules do little to placate driver rage. I commonly see fellow bike riders run red lights, roll through stop signs and fail to wear lights at night. These transgressions are often singled out by cycling opponents when seeking to alleviate their own culpability with regard to incidents that occur on the roads between cars and bikes.

This culture of victim of blaming however only serves to demonize cyclists, reinforcing the supremacy of motor vehicles on the roads. Regardless of whether a cyclist runs a red light or not, they do not deserve to be injured. Motorists are protected inside a metal capsule that has a powerful engine and as such, have a duty of care towards cyclists, who are exposed and unprotected on their bikes, rendering them highly vulnerable to harm from other vehicles. Cars have the potential to kill and along with buses and trucks, are responsible for the vast majority of cyclist deaths on Australian roads. To this day, I am yet to hear of a cyclist causing serious injury to a person in a car.

Despite the annual death toll on Australian roads decreasing in 2013, the number of cyclist deaths increased, with 48 people killed in total last year. Without a change in driver attitudes, this number is likely to grow. In Europe, these debates, by and large, do not exist. This is due to the culturally entrenched tradition of cycling in many European countries. I was lucky enough to spend a year living in Denmark where the relationship between cars and bikes starkly contrasts that which exists in Australia. Not only does the country boast extensive cycling infrastructure, but also an ingrained respect for those on two wheels.

In order to stymie unnecessary deaths and change attitudes, a cultural shift needs to occur within Australian society. All levels of government – federal, state and local – must play a greater role to facilitate this change. Primarily, more effort needs to be directed into building cycling infrastructure on roads. The presence of bike lanes not only designates a safe area for cyclists but also forces drivers to acknowledge and accept that roads are to be shared. Relevant legislation must also be passed in all states to ensure that motorists provide one metre between themselves and bikes when overtaking. These laws have already been brought into place in Queensland after successful lobbying.

Another central ingredient to enhance awareness and change beliefs and behaviours is education. There needs to be a greater emphasis on bike safety when teaching learners to drive and this knowledge should be tested in order to gain a provisional drivers licence. In the same vein as the now well-known drink driving advertisements that have successfully circulated on television, bike awareness campaigns could also be aired regularly.

The result of altering motorist attitudes towards cyclists is twofold; not only will it enhance safety for cyclists but will also encourage more people to take up bike riding.  In a country where two thirds of the population is overweight, this is surely a positive – not to mention the proven mental health benefits that are associated with exercise due to the release of endorphins which aid in stress reduction. There are economic perks too – riding to work, uni or simply to the shops is free which reduces spending associated with petrol and public transport. In the wake of human induced climate change, there are also significant environmental benefits associated with increasing the number of bikes on Australia’s roads and reducing the prevalence of fossil fuel chewing, greenhouse gas emitting vehicles.

It is clear that there are many incentives for Australia to evolve into a respectful, road-sharing nation. With a concerted effort by governments, cyclists and motorists alike, attitudes and behaviours can change in order to save lives.

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