Saturday, June 21, 2008

The hazards of cycling

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).


Rob's Blockhead Blog said...

I firmly believe everyone should cycle for a year or two before they drive regularly (although I don't think this should be compulsory).

The reason is simply that cycling for a while improves your driving. You learn to read the traffic far more accurately because you have to think a step or three ahead about where cars are likely to go.

RobiNZ said...

I'm a recreational cyclist and a driver. I agree with your post but, as this incident shows, no matter who is right or wrong it's the cyclist who'll loose.

Mutual respect is the answer, wonder if it will ever happen.

Deborah Coddington said...

In the last three weeks I've taken to cycling with friends around Wairarapa roads (thanks to your blog about Lamberts - I got a bike on TradeMe and Lamberts brought it up to speed). Certainly it's not as scarey as cycling in Wellington. When I was in Cambridge, UK, I cycled everywhere and the traffic were incredibly respectful of cyclists. However, you should try riding a horse along the road! It's frightening these days that the majority of drivers in the country do not know what to do when they encounter stock of any kind on the road. They toot, they speed up to get past, they wave - anything, it seems, to frighten the horses. And like cyclists, it doesn't matter in the end who's at fault, the horse rider will come off worst - literally - as your horse bolts down the road and into the traffic.

Karl du Fresne said...

There are few better places to ride a bike (at least on the road) than the Why Were Wrapper. I regard the roads around here (Masterton) as proof that there is indeed a God, and He's a cyclist. Just watch for psychopathic magpies in spring.

Vaughan said...

Biking seems to me to be a hazardous activity for middle aged and older i.e. boomers.

After both my brothers suffered broken bones from biking accidents, I started asking around fellow boomers-- with amazing results.

Nearly everybody reported having had bad accidents.Others told me of serious biking accidents suffered by relatives.

Perhaps the official statistics by bike lobby groups are not accurate. How many recreational cyclists tell the authorities about their injuries? Motorists are obliged to by law.

I sold my bike after a slight scraping. I rejoice every time I think of that decision.For me, walking is the best exercise.

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