Four wheels good, two wheels good
Modest suggestions to end the “war” between motorists and cyclists in Australia

At 4.10 pm on Friday, 27 February 2015, Alberto Paulon was “car doored” while cycling down Sydney Road, in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburb of Brunswick. Had Paulon been hit by the car door a second or two later, he may have suffered only minor injuries. Yet the precise moment of impact pushed the 25-year-old into the path of a truck. Alberto Paulon died at the scene.

The lethal dooring draws our attention to the consequences of inattention and the fraught nature of sharing crowded urban spaces. Where cyclists and motorists meet, it’s also worth dwelling on how this vulnerability is disproportionately borne by cyclists. In 2013 across Australia, 50 cyclists were killed in accidents (although not all involved cars).

The most common causes of accidents? Drivers changing lanes and turning left without indicating or looking. The leading cause of bike accidents? Inattention by motorists. A study by the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide showed that in 79% of accidents involving bicycles and cars, motorists were to blame.

The general pattern of collision, its causes and its effects, begs us to make cyclists’ vulnerability paramount every time we use the road, no matter what kind of vehicle we’re using. If you’re the commuter cyclist who barrelled past me at 40km/h on a blind corner near Macaulay station just the other day, I’m also talking to you.

The challenges of sharing the road are often framed as being related to infrastructure and traffic, and these are valid and important factors. But we don’t need special equipment, expensive infrastructure or different kinds of cities in order to “fix the problem”. Taking responsibility for our vulnerability really just means paying attention and kindly sharing space by making a daily effort to be civil and skilled road users. Be careful, be considerate, pay attention, and slow down a bit. Why do these modest suggestions seem utopian in Australia at present?

These measures are well established in most parts of Western Europe and Japan. In the US, cyclists are three times more likely to be killed than German cyclists, and six times more than Dutch cyclists, whether compared per-trip or per-distance travelled. Road conditions are cultural conditions; utopia and dystopia are the eventual expressions of our collective actions. The bad news is the problem is us. The good news is this means we can change.

The precise circumstances of Alberto Paulon’s death are under investigation, but we do know the accident occurred against the background of a shrill rhetorical war between motorists and cyclists: four wheels good, two wheels bad – or vice versa. This context is not causal in relation to Alberto Paulon, but it does tell us something important about how our roads have been framed as a kind of battle zone. Individual accidents between road users may be directly caused by any of the parties, but the war staged between motorists and cyclists has been engendered by sections of the mass media.

Have a look this Media Watch report on the Daily Telegraph’s campaign against Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s bike lanes, and, if you dare, this Daily Telegraph column, entitled ‘Today I saved a cyclist’s life. Not that he cares’. Here’s the opening:

“Hand on heart. I stopped him from dying.

He has no idea of this. In fact, if I passed him on the street right now, he wouldn’t recognise me. He would just give me the finger and ride off.

And that’s because a lot of cyclists are, basically, ungrateful dickheads. They have absolutely no idea – and no desire to educate themselves – that all day, every day, motorists are actively saving them from appalling deaths.”

Consider, moreover, how Derryn Hinch’s use of the phrase “cockroaches on wheels” has resonated, to the point where a Queensland Senior Sergeant allegedly wrote on advocacy group Cycle.org.au’s Facebook page: “Cockroaches on wheels. Should have to pay rego, insurance and adhere to road rules and single file only.”

By authorising the least vulnerable to feel the most incensed, by justifying anger as proper and excusing aggression as necessary, media shock jocks and those who disseminate their provocations help to destroy what enables people to share space.

Encountering a driver who’s been incited in this way is a frightening experience. In traffic, they’re full of hot, impotent rage; on an open road, they'll drive close, yell, throw stuff at you, even run you off the road. Everyone I know who rides has been on the receiving end of these kinds of threats. Anecdotally, it’s worse in Sydney than in Melbourne, and it’s worse in Brisbane than in Sydney. Cyclists across Australia are using the roads with the ambient fear of a group of road ragers who appear not only to feel justified in their actions, but, in some cases, to draw perverse enjoyment from them.

Cyclists have responded to these experiences in a number of ways: altering their routes, buying better LEDs, head checking obsessively, riding defensively. Unfortunately, some have joined in with the rage, and in doing so they have succumbed to the tactics of the righteously wronged. They've become responsible for perpetuating one of the most needlessly deadly conflicts imaginable.

Rhetorical wars are signs of cultural change, and culture is held together by sanctified repetitions, doing the things we bless over and over. This produces norms and values, blessing the blessed repetitions as good and proper. Transgressions of upheld norms are initially perceived as unbearable outrages and violations, and they can provoke deadly violence: lynching, gay bashing, offshore detention. But as time goes on the transgression is downgraded, and eventually it is tolerated, or accepted, even celebrated.

My young son witnessed an accident just two weeks ago. A ute was making a right-hand turn uphill onto Mt Alexander Road, in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington. It’s a nasty right that the locals avoid: the traffic is heavy, gaps are rare, and few keep the way clear. The driver lost patience, accelerated into a small gap, and clipped a cyclist coming down the hill. The impact knocked the cyclist to the ground, and then the driver, trying to avoid oncoming traffic, reversed back over the bike. The shocked cyclist was well enough to jump up and exclaim, “First you run me over, then you run over my bloody bike!” Witnesses were mobilised, the driver was good about it, and the cyclist, unlike his bike, was ultimately OK. It could have been so much worse.

Witnessing the accident left a lasting impact on my son. Some recent evenings around bedtime he calls to me, his cyclist, motorist father: “Daddy, can you come in and sit on the chair?” I go in and sit by his bed. He’s silent for a moment, then says to me: “Cars are very convenient. But they’re so dangerous. They’ll squash you flat as a pancake.” Shared space, vulnerability: simple enough for a child to understand, but difficult for so many to remember.

Pete Chambers
Pete Chambers writes about border security and the politics of public space and teaches criminology at Deakin University.

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