The coronavirus crisis has reduced the deaths of drivers, passengers, motorcyclists and pedestrians across Australia over the past five years – and NSW reported its lowest road toll in 97 years, since 1923.
However, disturbingly, the national data shows a dramatic rise in the number of cyclist deaths in the past 12 months, presumably as more people in the community relied on food delivery riders during lockdowns.
A number of high profile deaths in Sydney in particular have involved food delivery riders, although recreational and commuter cyclists are also part of the fatal statistics (see table at the bottom of this story).
National figures show 47 cyclists were killed on our roads in the 12 months to the end of November 2020, an increase of 47 per cent in five years.
In 2016, 32 cyclists were killed in the 12 months to the end of November.
This comes despite cyclist helmets being mandated in most jurisdictions, and special temporary bicycle lanes installed on the roads on the fringes of our capital cities – and the introduction of distance-off rules (up to 1.5 metres, depending on the speed zone).
Road safety experts say the continued animosity from drivers towards cyclists needs to change – and governments could better educate drivers about safely passing cyclists.
“There can be fault on both sides – cyclists and drivers doing the wrong thing – and that frustrates a lot of people,” says Russell White, head of the Australian Road Safety Foundation, and an advanced driver trainer with more than 30 years experience.
“But the simple fact of the matter is that cyclists are the more vulnerable road user when it comes to cars, and drivers need to pay proper attention and give them room – in the same way cyclists should take care around pedestrians. The person in the bigger, heavier vehicle should take care around the more vulnerable road users around them. It's about being more situationally aware, being more considerate, and thinking about the consequences of our actions.”
Mr White said drivers should not only give extra room to cyclists, but also give extra space to people getting out of parked cars, truck drivers stepping out of their rigs, people at roadworks, and emergency service workers on the side of the road.
Mr White said many motorists got frustrated by cyclists because they were unaware of the legalities of passing them on tight sections of road. For example, it is legal for a car to cross an unbroken centre line to overtake a cyclist – but only if there is clear visibility of oncoming traffic and if it is safe to do so. Otherwise cars need to wait until it’s safe.
Mr White said many motorists don’t realise that driving too close to a cyclist can be a matter of life or death – and if the driver is found guilty of negligence or an intentional act, they could be sentenced to jail time.
“So it’s not just having someone’s death on your conscience, it’s also the fact that drivers are subject to fines and/or jail time if they have caused that cyclist's death through negligence or an intentional act."
James Stewart, of Driving Solutions, an advanced driver trainer with 20 years experience, fears the animosity towards cyclists has become ingrained in Australian driving culture and is concerned about how or if this will ever go away.
"If you look at the national data you could draw the conclusion that the increase in cyclist deaths has coincided with COVID-19 and the increasing reliance on food delivery riders during that time," said Mr Stewart. "It's a tragedy and it's preventable."
“Does waiting a few moments or half a minute for a safe opportunity to pass a cyclist really cost you anything?” asks Stewart. “A car is not a right, it’s a privilege and it means you can get to where you are going faster and in air-conditioned comfort. The reality is, we need to look after ourselves and everyone else on the road. We all deserve to get home safely.”
National road toll data to the end of November 2020. Source: BITRE.