Editorial: Cycle safety not a blame game

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File photo / The Aucklander
File photo / The Aucklander

Those bereaved by the deaths of five cyclists in as many days over the last week may be assured of the sympathies of us all.

But in turning from individual tragedy to examine the wider implications for road-user policy, it is important to keep the matter in perspective.

This is not an epidemic, nor even an upsurge, but a statistical blip. On average, 10 cyclists die on New Zealand roads each year.

The carnage of the last few days has taken this year's death toll to 10 and it is probable that the blaze of publicity surrounding the recent deaths will prompt a temporary outbreak of on-road watchfulness and a lull in crash rates. In short, 2010 is on track to be an average year.

The problem is that in an average year about 750 cyclists are injured, along with the 10 who die; the cost to the country in medical treatment, accident compensation and rehabilitation runs into the millions and the human cost is incalculable.

So the question we are left to confront is how to make a more permanent change than simply a shocked outbreak of studied caution.

It is regrettable that some cycling advocacy organisations have sought to make political capital out of the tragedy. They complain that the Government is reluctant to make law changes because cyclists do not contribute to road costs and thus do not earn the right to statutory protection.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce was correct to label such an opportunistic suggestion "silly", not least because it is inaccurate.

The vast majority of cyclists are also vehicle owners, who pay in their registration fees for ACC and road-user costs, and we all contribute through taxes and income-based levies to health and ACC costs.

But the cyclists' tactics have also angered plenty of motorists, who have vented their spleen in online forums and on talkback radio against the pedal-powered road users, accusing them of arrogance, indifference and selfishness - in short of carrying on as if they own the road.

It is beyond unfortunate that discussion about cycling safety has descended so quickly into spiteful accusation and counter-accusation.

For a start, it pays scant respect to those who have died in recent days; the least we can do in their memory is have a mature public discussion that concentrates on making things better rather than assigning blame.

When a cyclist and a car - or indeed a cyclist and a stationary object - collide, the cyclist will invariably come off second-best; that is a matter of simple physics, not of fault. For that reason, the sensible cyclist knows that any accident is, ultimately and by definition, the cyclist's fault; self-preservation requires an 80kg human on a 10kg machine to assume the incompetence, poor judgment and even malevolence of anyone at the wheel of a 1200kg car and adjust riding behaviour accordingly.

This is especially the case since New Zealand, and particularly Auckland, won't be turning into the Amsterdam or Copenhagen of the South Pacific any time soon.

Those cities teem with cycles, protected by favourable traffic laws, but they are flat and compact, and cycling is transport, not sport. This analysis does not, for one minute, seek to let car drivers off the hook. Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean has launched an inquiry to see whether law changes are needed and Joyce has said he will pay close attention to the findings.

But paying close attention is everybody's duty. New Zealanders, generally decent and respectful people, have a tendency to become pushy and crazed when they get behind the wheel.

If anything this has worsened in recent years as economic pressure, strained roading infrastructure and the pace of modern life have all added to the stress of driving.

The dangers of cycling can be eased if we all take the foot off the gas and show each other more respect and courtesy.

The delay that has you fuming will, in all likelihood, make you 20 seconds later getting where you want to go. Simply taking a deep breath may avoid an incident that you will regret for the rest of your life.

- Herald on Sunday

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