The tragically ironic death of police superintendent Steve Fitzgerald in a cycling accident is a reminder that, for all the rhetoric about the benefits of cycling, roads can still be a very hazardous place for people on bikes.
Steve Fitzgerald was killed when he was struck by a truck at Petone while cycling home from work on Thursday. What made his death ironic was that as the officer in charge of road policing from the 2000 to 2005, he was credited with helping to bring the road toll down from about 600 to the low 400s.
On the TV3 News on Thursday night, Wellington city councillor Andy Foster was up-front about Wellington not being the safest city on earth for cyclists. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has ridden in Wellington failing to agree.
Significantly, the New Zealand cities where cycling is most popular – such as Palmerston North and Christchurch – are flat, with relatively wide, straight streets. Wellington is the reverse: hilly, with narrow, serpentine streets that are often choked by parked cars. I have great admiration for the fortitude of Wellington cyclists who ride to and from work each day (and also, incidentally, for the skill of the bus drivers who navigate the same streets without incident).
The zone surrounding the Petone roundabout where Steve Fitzgerald died is a particularly notorious danger spot that cycling activists have been trying for years to get rectified. It’s a while since I’ve ridden in Wellington, but getting across the point at which several busy roads intersect at Petone was always nerve-wracking.
Cyclists in Wellington, probably more than in most places, intuitively adopt the tactics of defensive driving. They learn always to expect the unexpected, such as a driver’s door opening without warning in front of them (the cause of another cycling fatality at Upper Hutt on the same day Steve Fitzgerald died) or a vehicle suddenly cutting across their path. They learn never to assume that a driver has seen them unless they make eye contact.
I don’t buy the line that motorists and cyclists are natural enemies; after all, most cyclists drive cars too. It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I believe that if cyclists show consideration for motorists, such as by trying to make room for them to pass, they will generally respond in kind. There’s undoubtedly a sub-species of cyclist who views cycling as some sort of macho competition for territory, and arrogantly asserts his (or far less often her) right to take up more space than they need. But I'm certain Steve Fitzergald would not have been one of these.
Most of the close calls I’ve experienced have been simply a result of motorists under-estimating how fast a bike travels. A car will pass you then turn left across your path assuming that you’re 100 metres behind, when in fact you’re hard on its tail; or a car will make a right-hand turn across your path as you approach, thinking they have more time in which to executive the manoeuvre than they actually have.
The good news, notwithstanding the sad events of the past week, is that according to the Cycling Advocates Network, about one in 1000 New Zealand cyclists are involved in on-road injury accidents every year, compared with three in 1000 motorists. And there is research which suggests that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the lower the accident rate becomes – the so-called “safety in numbers” effect (the rationale being that motorists are more likely to be considerate toward cyclists when there are more of them).