'We are not do­ing enough’: why is Aus­tralia fail­ing its cy­clists?

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Kieran Pen­der

Mark Ren­shaw should be in Ade­laide. The pro­fes­sional cy­clist was sched­uled to be­gin his 2019 UCI World Tour cam­paign at this week’s Tour Down Un­der. In­stead, he is at home in Bathurst, re­cov­er­ing from a frac­tured pelvis af­ter be­ing hit by a car in De­cem­ber.

“I was out on a train­ing ride and about three-quar­ters of the way through a round­about when a mid­dleaged driver en­tered the round­about into my path,” Ren­shaw re­calls. “I didn’t even see her – I just went straight over the bon­net.” He frac­tured his pelvis and is ex­pected to miss sev­eral months of rac­ing.

The Team Di­men­sion Data rider’s in­juries have re­opened de­bate about the safety of cy­clists in Aus­tralia. Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion, 40 cy­clists died on Aus­tralian roads in the 12 months to Septem­ber. De­spite the stated in­tent of the gov­ern­ment’s 2011 Na­tional Road Safety Strat­egy to de­crease cy­cling-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties, the death toll has re­mained largely static. Cy­cling ca­su­al­ties as a pro­por­tion of all road traf­fic causal­i­ties have even risen.

Ren­shaw might be a high-pro­file ex­am­ple, but his cir­cum­stances are alarm­ingly com­mon. A study in the Med­i­cal Jour­nal of Aus­tralia found that in­juries to cy­clists in Vic­to­ria dou­bled be­tween 2007 and 2015, with $700m in as­so­ci­ated health costs.

“I have been hit sev­eral times,” says Lau­ren O’Neill, a uni­ver­sity stu­dent in Syd­ney who rides ev­ery day. “I can’t count the num­ber of in­ci­dents I have been in­volved in, and when you go to the po­lice they just aren’t in­ter­ested. It is as­ton­ish­ing how dif­fer­ently you are treated when you are on a bike. Cy­cling is not in­her­ently un­safe, but driv­ers make it un­safe.” O’Neill says she was re­cently knocked to the ground by a driver, who yelled: “That wouldn’t have hap­pened if you were in a car.”

Scott McGrory, an Olympic gold medal-win­ning for­mer cy­clist, trav­elled around the world dur­ing his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. When­ever he re­turned home, he was shocked by what he saw. “We are not do­ing enough,” he says. “I sus­pect most Aus­tralians would con­sider our road in­fra­struc­ture to be bet­ter than, say, In­dia. But I felt safer rid­ing on the ridicu­lously busy streets of Mum­bai than I do in any Aus­tralian cap­i­tal city.”

Death of promis­ing young cy­clist Twelve months ago, Aus­tralia’s tight-knit pro­fes­sional pelo­ton was shaken by the death of Ja­son Lown­des, a promis­ing young rider who died af­ter be­ing hit by a car near Bendigo. The driver, whose pros­e­cu­tion is on­go­ing, was al­legedly us­ing a phone.

Mid­way through Cy­cling Aus­tralia’s 2018 Road Na­tional Cham­pi­onships in swel­ter­ing Bal­larat, the pelo­ton con­ducted a lap of hon­our in Lown­des’ mem­ory. Tears mixed with anger as the rid­ers, many of whom are based in Europe and only ex­pe­ri­ence Aus­tralian road con­di­tions spo­rad­i­cally, won­dered why more was not be­ing done. “We’re not just bike rid­ers, we’re hus­bands, broth­ers, sons, daugh­ters,” says pro­fes­sional cy­clist Bren­ton Jones.

These elite ath­letes are, para­dox­i­cally, one rea­son why peak body Cy­cling Aus­tralia has not played a more prom­i­nent role in the cy­cling safety de­bate. The vast ma­jor­ity of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s rev­enue comes from Sport Aus­tralia and is linked to per­for­mance out­comes, in­clud­ing Olympic gold medals. While Cy­cling Aus­tralia’s stated vi­sion is to fos­ter “the world’s lead­ing cy­cling na­tion” through “per­for­mance, par­tic­i­pa­tion and ad­vo­cacy”, the ma­jor­ity of its bud­get is spent on the first of those ob­jec­tives.

“We are very mind­ful of the safety of our mem­bers and the broader cy­cling pub­lic,” says Steve Drake, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Cy­cling Aus­tralia. “Our chal­lenge in that re­gard is our fund­ing sit­u­a­tion and how we most ef­fec­tively achieve out­comes.” More than 70% of the peak body’s $16m rev­enue in the 2017-18 fi­nan­cial year came from high per­for­mance-re­lated grants, spon­sor­ship, events and broad­cast­ing, which is over­whelm­ingly rein­vested in high per­for­mance.

To date, much of Cy­cling Aus­tralia’s cy­cling safety work has been con­ducted via the Amy Gil­lett Foun­da­tion (AGF), a char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished in 2006 fol­low­ing a tragic in­ci­dent in Ger­many. Gil­lett, 29, was rid­ing with other mem­bers of the Aus­tralian team when

a car hit the bunch, in­jur­ing five and killing Gil­lett.

The AGF has since be­come a prom­i­nent voice for safer cy­cling, in­clud­ing ef­fec­tively lob­by­ing for its sig­na­ture “A Me­tre Mat­ters” cam­paign. “We have had suc­cess right around Aus­tralia at bring­ing in laws re­quir­ing mo­torists to pass cy­clists with a min­i­mum of one me­tre in speed zones up to 60km/h and a min­i­mum of 1.5 me­tres in speed zones of over 60km/h,” says AGF chief ex­ec­u­tive Phoebe Dunn.

South Aus­tralia, Queens­land, Tas­ma­nia, New South Wales and the Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory have all leg­is­lated min­i­mum pass­ing laws. North­ern Ter­ri­tory has com­mit­ted to do­ing so by May and the scheme is cur­rently be­ing tri­alled in West­ern Aus­tralia. But Vic­to­ria re­mains un­moved – de­spite Cy­cling Aus­tralia be­ing head­quar­tered in Mel­bourne and the state host­ing a World Tour race ev­ery year. “Dif­fer­ent laws in dif­fer­ent states in it­self causes safety is­sues,” says Si­mon Gil­lett, Amy’s hus­band and one of the founders of the AGF. “Vic­to­ria can’t be an out­lier for­ever.”

The AGF has also been look­ing to­wards ed­u­ca­tion as a way to im­prove cy­clist safety. “There is lit­tle to no in­for­ma­tion pro­vided to learner driv­ers on how to share the road safely,” says Dunn. “Driv­ers are be­ing failed by the train­ing and test­ing pro­cesses that are in place.” The or­gan­i­sa­tion re­cently cre­ated an ed­u­ca­tional pack­age, which has be­come a manda­tory part of driver train­ing in the ACT.

Mo­tor­ing bod­ies are sup­port­ive of this push for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. “The num­ber of cy­clist fa­tal­i­ties is very wor­ry­ing,” says Na­tional Roads and Mo­torists As­so­ci­a­tion spokesper­son Peter Khoury.

“Ev­ery road user has to play a role. Cy­cling is a rel­a­tively new trans­port mode in Aus­tralia, com­pared with some cities in Europe, so many driv­ers are sim­ply not used to shar­ing the road. But this is the new re­al­ity – more and more peo­ple are go­ing to be cy­cling in Aus­tralia. We need to build the in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port that and run the ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns to teach peo­ple how to share the road safely.”

Cy­clists, too, bear some re­spon­si­bil­ity. “It is up to rid­ers and car driv­ers to pay more at­ten­tion,” says the in­jured Ren­shaw. “Some cy­clists give cy­cling a bad name, and equally there are car driv­ers that make the roads dan­ger­ous.” ‘Burn­ing with rage for cy­clists’

While AGF “talks on be­half of Cy­cling Aus­tralia” on safety is­sues, ac­cord­ing to Dunn, the peak body ad­mits it can and should do more. “One of our ob­jec­tives over time is to be more present in the ad­vo­cacy space,” says Drake.

A ma­jor chal­lenge is the sec­tor’s frag­men­ta­tion, with more than 20 or­gan­i­sa­tions rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of cy­cling in var­i­ous states and ter­ri­to­ries. “We have a whole bunch of small voices that no­body is lis­ten­ing to,” says Drake. “Do min­is­ters wake up in the morn­ing and worry what the cy­cling lobby is go­ing to say about them? No.

“That frag­men­ta­tion wastes time and money, which could be bet­ter fo­cused on de­liv­er­ing ser­vices to all rid­ers – in­clud­ing a bet­ter ef­fort on the ad­vo­cacy front. When you have a larger body with a larger mem­ber­ship base, politi­cians will have to pay at­ten­tion.”

An even big­ger ob­sta­cle for Cy­cling Aus­tralia, AGF and the en­tire cy­cling com­mu­nity, is Aus­tralia’s mo­tor­ing cul­ture. A sur­vey found that one in five Aus­tralian driv­ers had acted ag­gres­sively to­wards cy­clists. Al­most ev­ery recre­ational rider has anec­dotes about abuse from mo­torists.

“I of­ten get told to get off the road,” says psy­chol­ogy aca­demic An­drew Flood, who cy­cles to his of­fice in Can­berra’s north. “One day a guy ba­si­cally climbed out of his win­dow to abuse me. The funny thing was that he was trav­el­ling in the op­po­site di­rec­tion – I wasn’t even in his way. I can only as­sume on that par­tic­u­larly lovely morn­ing he was just burn­ing with rage for cy­clists.”

While Gil­lett be­lieves “we are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion” with only a “very vo­cal mi­nor­ity still of the opin­ion that cy­clists do not be­long on the road”, his chief ex­ec­u­tive is less op­ti­mistic. “We are a long way be­hind in Aus­tralia in re­la­tion to at­ti­tudes to cy­clists,” says Dunn. “We are try­ing to ad­dress the us ver­sus them rhetoric and move to­wards a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect all road users.”

Dunn points to Queens­land as the “stand­out state” with a “very ac­tive cy­cling safety agenda”. But Queens­land’s cy­cling com­mu­nity was sent into mourn­ing by the death of Cameron Frewer, killed in Novem­ber af­ter be­ing hit by a car while rid­ing.

Frewer’s death came just days af­ter he had penned an open let­ter to Queens­land politi­cians, Cy­cling Aus­tralia and the AGF be­moan­ing in­ad­e­quate en­force­ment of min­i­mum pass­ing laws. In the let­ter he as­serted “it is be­yond rea­son­able doubt that a ma­jor­ity of po­lice are us­ing their [statu­tory] ‘dis­cre­tion’ as a smoke screen for their own anti-cy­clist prej­u­dice and ig­no­rance of the very laws they are en­trusted to up­hold”.

Among the com­ments shared on so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing Frewer’s death were sug­ges­tions that “cy­clists have a death wish”, “bike rid­ers are ar­ro­gant and should be banned on roads” and “they never take their share of blame when some­thing aw­ful hap­pens”.

The AGF’s stated com­mit­ment is zero cy­clist fa­tal­i­ties. While the lack of progress may make that as­pi­ra­tional tar­get sound un­re­al­is­tic, Dunn re­mains hope­ful. “In 15 years’ time I am hop­ing that the Amy Gil­lett Foun­da­tion’s work is done,” she says. “Aus­tralia will be a safe place to cy­cle.”

Un­til then, there will be hun­dreds more deaths and in­juries on Aus­tralian roads. Ren­shaw knows that he is among the lucky ones. He may have missed the be­gin­ning of his World Tour sea­son, but it could have been much worse. As he tweeted af­ter the in­ci­dent: “Cars vs bike never ends well for the bike.”

I am hop­ing that Aus­tralia will be­come a safe place to cy­cle

A photo taken at the scene of an al­leged al­ter­ca­tion be­tween a NSW po­lice of­fi­cer on amo­tor­bike and a cy­clist at a ma­jor in­ter­sec­tion in Syd­ney. Pho­to­graph: Bi­cy­cle Net­work

Aus­tralian women’s road cy­cling teammem­ber Amy Gil­lettt was killed in an ac­ci­dent in July 2005 while the team was ona train­ing run at Zeu­len­roda, 80km southof the city of Leipzig, Ger­many. Pho­to­graph:cy­clingnews.com/AIS/EPA

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