The famous American gangster, Al Capone, was arrested and convicted, not for drugs or murder, but rather for tax evasion and failing to file tax returns. There wasn’t enough evidence to get him for anything else, so the authorities went for what they could prove. When I think of the minimum passing distance laws being promoted, and sometimes instituted, around Australia, Al Capone’s fate is what I think of. There are motorists out there who seem to get away with horrendous crimes against cyclists. Is a 1 metre passing law going to allow cyclists to get some sort of justice? Is it going to keep us safe?
As of this year, in Queensland, a two year trial of the minimum passing distance law has gone into effect. The Queensland law states that motorists must give:
- a minimum of 1 metre when passing cyclists in a 60km/h or less speed zone
- at least 1.5 metres where the speed limit is over 60km/h.
While Queensland is the only Australian state trialing this at the moment, there are 22 states in the US who have enacted 3 feet (or more) passing laws, some of which are speed dependent. Surprisingly, some of these laws have been around since 1973!
Does it make a difference? Opinions from Queenslanders and US riders vary on this, but the law at least makes a noise, and the more noise we make, the more obvious we will be. The biggest noise on this in Australia is made by the Amy Gillett Foundation whose “A Metre Matters” campaign has the benefit of memorable alliteration and some good visual language that can be used on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and signs. The foundation, named after a young Australian cyclist who was struck and killed by a car while riding, was set up to reduce the number of deaths and injuries suffered by cyclists on the road. I almost wrote “due to motorists” in that last sentence, but that’s not politically correct to say, even though motorists are the main danger to cyclists on the road. Certainly, many accidents are caused by cyclists, but when cyclists do something stupid, it’s usually the cyclist that suffers, while when a motorist does something stupid, other people are likely to be negatively affected and to a significant degree.
The road is meant to be there to share. We can argue about how who owns the roads and who has more right to be there, but there are two realities that we need to face: bikes are legal vehicles on most roadways, and there is an imbalance of power on the roads. It’s this imbalance of power that needs addressing, and that’s what the 1 metre passing proposals are about. They’re not designed to directly protect cyclists, since an invisible and insubstantial bubble around your bike is no protection at all, rather they’re designed formalise behaviour on the road.
Going too fast on the road is dangerous, but how fast is too dangerous? Well, we have signs to tell us this. Driving past cross streets or through intersections when there is other traffic about is dangerous, so we have lights, signs, and road markings to tell us how to negotiate these situations. Driving a few thousand kilograms of metal at high speed near cyclists is dangerous (for the cyclist, at least), so we have a proposal to deal with this – when passing, keep at least a metre between you and the cyclist.
It’s the defined distance that makes the difference – it removes ambiguity. All Australian motorists are required to “keep a safe distance when overtaking”, but what does safe mean? In Queensland, where there actually is a 1 metre minimum passing law, safe means at least a metre. If there isn’t that metre there, then it’s not safe to pass, and so you should wait until it is. For most motorists, that will be more than enough clarification, and I predict that cyclists will face a little less anxiety when they are travelling through pinch points or when they feel they need to “take the lane”.
To make any law work, there will need to be enforcement, and this is where cyclists have been let down so much in the past. Many cyclists that I know have been buzzed, bumped, or clipped by passing motorists; I have as well. It’s not a pleasant experience. In the first instance, we’re going to need the police to step up and lay charges. If any cyclist gets hit or run off the road, the motorist is at least in violation of the 1 metre law (at least in Queensland) and liable for prosecution. Then we’re going to need the courts to follow through, convict, and suitably punish.
At the moment, the penalty for passing too close in Queensland is a mere $330 fine and 3 demerit points, but at least it’s something, at least it’s an acknowledgement that the motorist has done something wrong. I’m yet to hear of anyone actually being charged with it, though. Personally, I don’t want to be the victim in the test case. All I want to do is ride my bike to work and get home again safely.
Cycling’s enemy is not the car; it is the idiot. And idiots travel by foot, car, and bicycle. – BikeSnobNYC
photo © roadsidepictures