Do we vote for stupid?

Cars rule Albury

Cars rule: kerbs bar crossing roads by bike, pram and walking frame, even in the retail area. #Albury

Do we really get the governments we deserve? If true, we’re not looking too bright, based on the latest ideas from politicians about bikes and roads.

Leading from a font of ignorance of late, they’ve promised to get bikes off roads, suggested dangerous riding and confirmed a look at registration, while finding billions of dollars (during a ‘budget emergency’) for roads that will simply fill with cars. We’ve known for a long time that building roads to fix congestion doesn’t address the cause. Even Ford acknowledges this.

So the answer to more cars is simply not to have more roads. When America began moving west, we didn’t add more wagon trains, we built railroads. – Bill Ford, 2011 

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Cyclist fatalities up 51% in 2013

I was wary late last year that reporting of the annual road toll would mask an alarming increase in cyclist deaths nationally.

The provisional road toll in Victoria was down, and that’s great. And given the level of traffic offences, a result hard won on many fronts.

But as mentioned New Year’s Day, it’s better than lousy if you consider that ‘the road toll’ is nearly 1200 people a year nationally (in a ‘good’ year) and it seems to raise little community angst. There’s usually more noise about being caught by speed cameras.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has just released the December numbers so we now have an official result for 2013 Australia wide. The total and trend are both down nationally – except for cyclists. After a bad year in NSW and Queensland and a bad December, 50 cyclists died on the roads in 2013 – up 51.5 per cent. Condolences to all involved.

BITRE 2013 road deaths screencap

Source: BITRE Road Deaths Australia December 2013 monthly bulletin

There’s still fewer cyclists in the road toll than any other type of road user so it remains a great way to get around, smell the roses and work off sedentary lives. I can’t think of a single ride I’ve regretted.

But let’s hope we see some noise about this result, to help make 2014 better.

Road toll down, for most

The western calendar marks a reset point for most people. Time to review and renew, to do a little better.

It’s also time to reset a marker that’s a media staple on the slow news days between Christmas Eve and the Times Square ball drop. Yet it’s one to which we seem inured most of the year.

It’s the road toll, that disturbing metric of our love affair with the car. Our seductively comfortable, convenient, well marketed cars.

Victoria’s provisional road toll for 2013 was a record low 242 – down from 282 in 2012 and down for the sixth year in a row. Cyclist fatalities were thankfully so low that they didn’t rate a mention in the police media release.

We’re doing better thanks partly to safer roads and cars, better policing and education/behaviour change programs. But overall, it’s better than lousy if you take a wide view.

In 2011, Australia’s leading cause of death was heart disease which claimed over 21,000 lives while drowning [PDF] accounted for 315 and Afghanistan 11. The national road toll that year was, by comparison, a large 1277.

Nationally, road deaths to November 2013 [PDF] were down 9 per cent overall to 1086 and down in all main categories of road user – drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorbikes.

But one category was up nationally, and up a massive 16 per cent, and that’s cyclists. To the end of November, 43 cyclists had died on Australian roads. NSW and Queensland were hard hit. There were at least six more in December so that number will go higher.

The equation goes More cyclists = safer because drivers learn to deal with riders and such critical mass can’t be ignored in allocating scarce road space. Clearly we’re not there yet.

Nor is our attitude to driving looking good when the pre-Christmas blitz racked up 15,000 driving offences in two weeks in Victoria alone. Top of the list were speeding (7124), driving an unregistered vehicle (2109), driving while using a mobile phone (1930) and disobeying traffic signals (1360). Handy stats next time you’re accosted at a party about scofflaw cyclists. Let alone Saturday’s reported rampage on Beach Road.

Traffic offences speak volumes about our attitudes when we’re effectively in charge of a lethal weapon. But they flag an even higher price tag to society.

What we don’t reset with the road toll each year are the costs of road funding, resource use, air pollution and injuries, nor the opportunity cost of failing to mode switch to active/public transport. And this is where cycling can make a real difference.

Cycling has the potential to deliver an enormous bottom line, freeing up road space for cars and trucks that really need it, busting obesity and nudging heart disease, improving air quality and individual mobility. Let alone getting to work on time. More careful driving is safer for drivers, passengers and pedestrians and putting people back on streets makes communities safer. It’s win/win/win/win/win …

And then there’s the fun and freedom of utility cycling, which are priceless. Only cyclists take the long way home.

But many potential riders don’t take the next step because the roads don’t feel safe. In effect, our driving constrains the potential payoff.

The Pulitzer Centre estimates 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads each year and lauds Australia’s success in curbing road deaths, so we shouldn’t sell the 2013 result short. But if we assess cars as safer than cycling, it’s time to rethink the breadth of the community costs we’re including in the risk assessment.

And then imagine the compliance we’d get from cars at intersection bike boxes if we adopted the Brazilian approach to pedestrian crossing enforcement:

Have a great, safe 2014.

Edit: The Age has some useful stats here, and the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics runs the Australian Road Deaths Database here.

More language matters

Cyclists have been a hot topic for Melbourne talkback radio and online news sites for a few years, as they mine driver angst about the new invaders on ‘their’ roads. A good anti-cyclist rant can produce over 300 comments in hours.

It’s been a rich vein for a few comedians as well. Magda Szubanski and Julia Morris thought inciting violence towards cyclists hilarious on Ten’s Good News Week.

Unfortunately, these indulgent little rants come with real consequences as they validate aggression and inflame a minority of drivers, ironically proving the case for legal protection of cyclists, tougher licensing of drivers and a major public education effort.

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The language of dooring

Doorings have been a hot topic of late as a Parliamentary committee concludes hearings on a Bill to curb injuries by tripling fines and incurring demerit points.

Doorings spiked in 2009 and 2010 but the impetus for change stems from the fatal dooring of James Cross in Hawthorn in 2010 and the subsequent coronial inquest.

So the reporting of a high-profile dooring on Thursday night was as welcome as the subtext was thought-provoking.

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