The following article was actually slated to appear in the upcoming issue of Bicycling Australia. But as sometimes happens, there were too many articles and not enough pages. It’s a fair bit longer than the usual posts here, but if you’ve ever tried to get a handle on exactly what is happening in the Sunshine State right now, well, reading this summary of events might be a reasonable place to start. There are links to the actual Government report at the bottom too. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes I’m a Queenslander.
It may be beautiful one day and perfect the next. But when it came to cyclists Queensland’s lawmakers realised they were no more immune to tragedy than the rest of the nation. Rather than tuck in and let others face the breeze, in early 2013 the Sunshine State moved to the front of the Parliamentary peloton to do something about it. April 7 of this year saw the first fruits of their labour as a 24-month trial of new laws and penalties began that has the rest of Australia watching.
Riding in a maroon slipstream
Well, well. Who’d have thought? Queensland, the state so often maligned as our nation’s banjo-playing heartland, would be the one to show others the way in the struggle to make our roads safer for all roads users – not just those in V8 utes and b-doubles.
Like the rest of Australia, Queensland’s cycling community has experienced its share of heartache and on-road animosity in the past decade. In the last year alone several of Australia’s highest profile cycling incidents have occurred north of the Tweed. These include the tragic deaths of Richard Pollett, 25, Michelle Smeaton, 31, Mardi Bartlett, 21 and Les Karayan, 40, as well as multiple close passing incidents such as that involving Craig Cowled, 38, who was captured in graphic video (and harrowing audio) being struck by a 4WD whilst commuting in Brisbane in July 2013 – footage that made it difficult for police, politicians and media to ignore. The pressure for something to be done became inescapable for the Newman Government and, fair play, that’s exactly what happened under the watchful eye of the Minister for Roads, Scott Emerson.
But what has Queensland actually done? How have they done it? And perhaps most importantly, what might the implications be for the rest of Australia?
On 7 June 2013, the Legislative Assembly in Queensland agreed to a motion that a Parliamentary Committee look into ways to improve the interaction between cyclists and other road users. Less than six months later the result was a 202-page document formally known as “Report No. 39 – Inquiry into Cycling Issues,” released under the more palatable title of “A new direction for cycling in Queensland.”
Led by Committee Chairman Howard Hobbs MP, Member for Warrego in the southwestern corner of Queensland, 106 formal submissions were received from individuals, bicycle user groups, local councils, the RACQ, Amy Gillett Foundation and other interest groups. Somewhat surprisingly, while Cycling Queensland was involved in the process few – if any – submissions are listed as coming from a registered cycling club.
Over the ensuing six-month period the Parliamentary Committee conducted forums in communities throughout Queensland, examined a significant amount of evidence from formal submissions and witnesses, and reviewed large volumes of research data sourced from Australia and overseas to establish its relevance for road users in the Sunshine State. Ultimately the process culminated in 68 specific recommendations which were presented back to State Parliament in November 2013. Significantly there were just two official dissentions registered by Desley Scott MP on behalf of the State Opposition (pertaining to Recommendations 16 and 59) suggesting a bipartisan appreciation of the gravity of the issues at play.
Now bureaucracy being bureaucracy not all of the recommendations will be adopted. In fact, whilst Minister Emerson’s official response at the end of May suggested 28 would be fully supported, with partial support for a further 22, by early June only two had been forged into legislation as part of a two-year trial that began on 7 April 2014. Much to the frustration of several stakeholders many suggestions with genuine merit will never see the light of day. But nevertheless a line has been drawn and real-world Australian learnings are being gathered right now for all to dissect; if nothing else surely a quantum leap forward in a conversation that is frequently besieged by rampant hypothesising and self-serving generalisations in social media, rather than facts.
The recommendation that generated the most immediate action, and therefore attention, was undoubtedly that relating to the introduction of trial laws applying a Mandatory Overtaking Distance, or MOD. Effectively this sees the adoption of the Amy Gillett Foundation’s ‘A Metre Matters’ guidelines; a significant feather in the cap of the tireless Victorian-based organisation.
Within just hours of the Parliamentary Report’s release last November, Minister for Roads Scott Emerson threw his full support behind the recommendation that was launched to the Queensland public under the marketing banner ‘Stay wider of the rider’.
“I will take the next few months to consider the full report but I will be supporting Recommendation 8, or the so called one metre rule,” said Emerson back in November. “This will mean that motorists must maintain a minimum distance of one metre when passing a cyclist in a 60kph or less zone, and 1.5 metres when travelling above 60. This rule was heavily supported by the cycling community and I’m prepared to conduct a twoyear trial to test its practical implementation.”
Virtually immediately the MOD trial drew widespread approval from the Australian cycling community. According to Tracey Gaudry, UCI Vice-President and Chief Executive Officer of the Amy Gillett Foundation which actually drafted the amendments to the Queensland Road Rules that have since been implemented in the trial, “The minimum overtaking distance legislation trial in Queensland is a significant step forward in terms of safety for bike riders. What’s important to understand is that a road rule already existed – it is only being improved and clarified with a focus on everyone’s safety and mobility.”
Gaudry has also been heartened by the steps that led to the adoption of the trial laws. “It was, and remains, a challenging topic to address, continuing to attract a lot of misinformed comment by the mainstream media,” she says. “We were genuinely surprised and encouraged at just how thorough the Committee was in covering their Terms of Reference. The process that led to this ground-breaking development was very thorough and exhaustive; we were involved throughout. The Committee should be applauded for the way they investigated the issues at hand.”
Scott Emerson’s initial response to the report wasn’t confined to the trial passing laws, mind you. In what some suggest was little more than a tit-for-tat arrangement to appease voting motorists, the Minister added, “I’ll also support Recommendation 31 – bringing fines for cyclists into line with those imposed on motorists. For example, currently the fine for entering a level crossing with a train approaching is $110 for cyclists and $330 for motorists.”
It’s worth noting in the period immediately following the introduction of the trial laws in April, Emerson’s Department made considerable noise as to how many cyclists had been fined under the new system. Whilst the motives for doing this were questioned by some, what cannot be denied is that it generated column inches and media airtime for the new laws; surely a good thing for all cyclists in the State. Two months into the trials, anecdotal evidence from regular riders and even the RACQ was suggesting a positive change as a result of the MOD laws. However more recently Ben Wilson from Bicycling Queensland has hinted otherwise, saying from the perspective of many cyclists the new laws were yet to make any real difference. When asked why he suggested it lay in enforcement: “It’s proving a challenge for Queensland Police,” he told The Courier Mail on July 4. Wilson’s view is backed up by several Brisbane lawyers who have publicly (and Police figures anonymously) suggested the laws may struggle to hold up in court should they be challenged by errant motorists.
One of the more controversial recommendations not to be adopted in Queensland concerns the relaxing of Mandatory Helmet Laws, something always guaranteed to create division whichever way the Minister decided to go. The Committee was clear in its opinion that the benefits of such laws are still at best inconclusive and were worthy of repealing as part of the trial under Recommendation 15 to “remove the need for helmets in 60kph and less speed zones and on bike paths.” Mr Emerson, wasn’t convinced, however, and the legal requirement remains for cyclists to wear a lid at all times.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into this issue since it was first raised six months ago and I’m yet to be convinced of its merit,” Emerson said on release of the report. “Personally I’m a big believer in the benefits of helmets and I believe the evidence shows helmets reduce the risk of serious injury.”
While drawing pockets of criticism, Emerson’s stance on helmets was widely applauded including support from the RACQ and Amy Gillett Foundation, both of whom reiterated the primary reason the Committee was established in the first place was that of safety, not participation.
“If the stated role of the Committee was about improving safety of cyclists, we really couldn’t see why they would introduce something that takes away a safety feature,” says Steve Spalding, a spokesman for the RACQ. “We couldn’t see a safety-related reason to change that.”
Tracey Gaudry agrees. “While the minimum overtaking distance legislation trial is a step forward, we believe a relaxation of long-standing helmet laws would be a counter-productive step to creating a safer environment for cycling.”
Other areas explored by the Committee include the merit of introducing strict liability laws such as those which apply to cyclists under the age of 16 in the Netherlands (the Committee wasn’t convinced), the provision for better bicycle infrastructure in future urban planning processes (widely agreed, with the goal to keep cyclists and motor vehicles separated wherever possible), the pros and cons of bicycle registration (the Committee was against it as, significantly, was the Sunshine’s State’s largest motoring group, the RACQ) and multiple ways to address the escalating culture of animosity between road users.
Reading through all 202 pages and 68 recommendations, one recurring theme in the report is the need for greater education and awareness to deliver long-term cultural change on the State’s roads.
In virtually every section of its findings, the Committee called for greater Government commitment to integrated marketing and education campaigns. Recommendation 56, in particular, couldn’t have been any clearer: “The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads develop proactive, comprehensive and integrated education campaigns to be funded and implemented urgently.” The recommendation goes on to outline very specific messages for public education campaigns including better awareness of road rules relating to cyclists, fines and penalties, the dangers of dooring, entitlement of road use and addressing the general issues relating to cyclists as vulnerable road users.
Of course, to be implemented effectively such campaigns require considerable taxpayer funding. Recommendation 58 covers this as well: “The Committee is therefore recommending that the proportion of the annual road safety budget dedicated to education and awareness between cyclists and drivers be at least proportional to the representation of cyclists in the Australian population (around 18% in 2011).” Once again, this reflects the core proposal submitted by the Amy Gillett Foundation who argued 18% is an entirely appropriate funding figure “because bicycle riders comprise 18% (and growing) of all seriously injured road users.”
In a decision seen as a considerable disappointment by many, Minister Emerson viewed things differently however and Recommendation 58 is one of 17 that have been rejected by the Queensland Government. Instead there will be a continuation of the existing ‘Join The Drive To Save Lives’ campaign which was launched in late 2013 and, whilst yet to be seen, is scheduled to commence in mid-2014 and run into next year. Estimated campaign budget? $1.9 million. To bring this into some perspective, on 4 June last year the Newman Government announced a two-year $350 million action plan to tackle the State’s rising toll. In other words the $1.9 million represents little more than half of one percent of the total budget. Even for this mathematically challenged cyclist that seems some way off 18%.
Budgetary grievances aside, however, the slow pace of action to date has also been a source of frustration for many interest groups – particularly given the clear urgency with which the Committee felt educational campaigns should be adopted. According to the RACQ’s Steve Spalding who was personally involved in several of the public forums held by the Parliamentary Committee, “Roughly six months has passed since the report was handed down, and there’s been virtually no public education or messages that target better road sharing behaviour. We see that as a missed opportunity.”
“We tried to encourage the Committee to put a lot of work into education,” Spalding continues. “But while it certainly made its way into the report, it isn’t something the Government has adopted as a centerpiece of behaviour change.”
Tracey Gaudry shares similar views. “It’s critical to the success of the trial to ensure a thorough and prolonged awareness campaign to ensure it’s part of driver training and licencing.”
Given two of the report’s supported recommendations are currently being trialled, the obvious question is what about the other 48?
Back in mid-May the RACQ’s Steve Spalding suggested many in the community including motorists, cyclists and even the RACQ itself were still largely in the dark. “After the report was handed down we wrote to the Minister with a formal response outlining our view on each of the 68 recommendations, and we’ve encouraged the Government to include us in any dialogue. We’re not even sure to what extent dialogue has taken place with other stakeholders. At any time when the Government is ready to engage us, we are ready to join the discussion.”
While understandably encouraged by the swift adoption of the MOD trial laws, Tracey Gaudry says the Amy Gillett Foundation supports the bulk of the recommendations and is keen to see swift action taken on the others. “As they were delivered we fully support 45 of the 68 recommendations,” she explains. “We have qualified support for a further 19 and do not support four recommendations. Some we believe need more work.”
So where are things at right now?
The formal Queensland Government Response to the Parliamentary Committee’s report was released on 28 May 2014. With specific responses to all 68 recommendations it’s fair to say the 33-page document offers plenty in terms of hope but little in terms of specific and measurable timelines. In other words, watch this space. But perhaps don’t hold your breath.
Regardless of which of the 50 supported recommendations ultimately gain the Parliamentary nod of approval, there seems little doubt they will, once again, create waves of community debate and division. A scan of social media sites quickly reveals the Committee’s original findings and the subsequent trial passing distance laws haven’t been a hit with everyone. But of course they were never going to be. It’s worth remembering Australia’s legislative tomes are overflowing with laws that, whilst unpopular with some interest groups, have nevertheless been adopted for the greater good of the wider community.
On the issue of social media, one of the more heartening albeit unexpected things to happen on introduction of the trial passing laws in April was the way the Queensland Government defended them in the face of what, at times, was scathing criticism in a channel that all-too-often descends into a cesspit of intolerance and hate from all sides: Facebook.
A remarkable online defence of the trial laws unfolded on the Department of Transport and Main Roads’ own Facebook page which, in many cases, saw direct and personal responses given to individual criticisms posted.
Time and no doubt hugely labour intensive, it was a symbolic stance that sent a powerful message to both the cycling and motoring public in Queensland. Despite this, however, the Transport and Main Roads seems reluctant to take much credit, instead playing a very straight bat indeed. “We promote responsible road use to all road users,” said a Department spokesperson. “Our Facebook page is just one channel used as part of our overall communication plan to provide information to cyclists and motorists about legislation changes. We will continue to use it as a way to communicate with our stakeholders.”
Looking ahead, what’s happening in Queensland right now is clearly only the beginning. The State is barely out of the neutral zone and by any measure there’s considerably more work to be done before the situation goes remotely close to achieving the objectives outlined by Committee Chairman, Howard Hobbs: “to significantly improve the interaction between cyclists and motorists on Queensland’s roads, thereby improving the human, economic and environmental outcomes.” But at least the wheels are in motion.
The Report may be 202 pages long, but drawing upon such an extensive foundation of reference materials, interviews and perspectives from both Australian and global experience, it’s well worth finding the time to download and read for anyone concerned with safety on our roads. In many places it will confirm your existing views. But it may also surprise you in others; something it certainly did for me.
The way the Amy Gillett Foundation sees things it isn’t just cyclists who should read the report either. Tracey Gaudry believes other state and territory governments should use it as the basis for their own legislation – sooner rather than later.
“The easy option is to sit and watch the legislative trial unfold, and then start their own work at the conclusion of Queensland’s two years,” she says. “We believe that’s wasting time, and lives.”
“The ACT is currently undertaking its own inquiry into vulnerable road users and we’re hopeful of a similar outcome. It’s fundamental for the other states to look at the ground the Queensland Inquiry covered and implement their own legislation, avoiding the need for further drawn out inquiries. While we respect the need for parliamentary process, we also recognise the need for action over talk.”
Whichever side of the road you stand in regards to what has happened – and continues to happen – in Queensland, the fact it’s happening at all represents a significant step for vulnerable road users. Now, as Gaudry says, if only the other States and Territories can be persuaded to show similar initiative, then we might really be getting somewhere.
Read the full report: QLD Cycling Report
Read the QLD Government’s response: QLDGovtResponse28May2014