Overview of the recent NSW bike law changes can be found here.
The stated aims of the laws were to protect cyclists, yet the targets of those changes were mostly cyclists themselves. Very few cyclist deaths are caused by cyclists hitting each other or killing themselves by falling off or crashing into things; most cyclist deaths are caused by car drivers making errors.
The recent changes in NSW were largely fine increases for cyclists so did not have to be enacted in parliament, they were simply a change to the regulations, increasing fines for existing offences. This meant that they did not have to undergo parliamentary scrutiny.
The trade off for increase in fines for cyclists was that the metre passing law, which has proven very difficult to enforce in other states, was implemented, and has had very few fines recorded against it in NSW (just 4 in the first 3 months of being in force).
Proportionality in the law means that the punishment must fit the crime. The increased fines for cyclists do not reflect the danger that the targeted offences present to the community. Laws should be evidence based, ie they should be based on statistics which demonstrate that they are required to protect certain groups or individuals.
Laws are supposed to be a reflection of the society they are created for and to keep its citizens safe. Cyclists very rarely kill or injure others, yet every single day we have people killed and injured on the road. Just not by cyclists.
While a society can pass a law to reflect its opinions and beliefs, those laws can also affect the society in return. There can be unintended consequences of law changes, eg mandatory helmet law (MHL) reduced overall cycling numbers in the early 1990s, see the RMS website for cycling research articles written for the first few years after MHL was enacted acknowledging this. These research articles state that cyclist numbers went down and it was expected that they would soon go up again. That did not happen and the ongoing evaluation of the MHL ceased after 4 years.
But the new 2016 fine changes appear to be aimed at deliberately reducing numbers of cyclists, perhaps even in the knowledge that the prior MHL laws did just that a few decades earlier.
NSW Cycling Safety Action Plan 2014-2016
The aim of this Plan is to reduce cyclist deaths to zero, and while it states that separated cycle paths are desirable and will be built to that end, nowhere does it explicitly aim to increase numbers of cyclists.
Why increase cyclist numbers anyway?
• Cities are becoming more traffic congested as they grow
• Pollution: Asian and European cities are implementing drastic measures on high pollution days to keep cars off roads. Don’t want to reach this point because no one wants to walk or ride in high levels of air pollution. City leaders ie mayors have to take these responsibilities to protect their citizens in times of emergency. The NSW laws are a state level decision that city mayors will be left to deal with the consequences of. (Mainly the City of Sydney mayor as that is where pollution levels are the highest in NSW and probably Australia.)
• Greenhouse gas emissions targets to be met under international agreements: bikes largely overlooked but they can be a significant part of the solution as a significant amount is from car emissions.
• Tackling obesity. Whenever we see a story on the benefits of cycling for this we see lots of comments about weight loss from cycling to work.
The main problem with the NSW cycling law changes is the lack of alignment between damage certain offences can cause and the penalties incurred. As well as their lack of alignment with policy at federal and local government levels.
It appears that the law changes have been intended to be punitive to cyclists and to discourage cycling. If those are the intended effects they have been successful. Thousands of dollars worth of fines have been issued to cyclists in the first three months and there are many anecdotal stories of cyclists ceasing to cycle because of the risk of fines. They felt that they needed to break certain laws to stay safe eg footpath riding for short distances as part of their commute, and did not want to risk huge fines.
There is no doubt that the new laws sent a shockwave through the NSW cycling community and caused ripples even overseas regarding NSW being considered the most cycling unfriendly place in the world. It has also affected public opinion of cyclists – possibly one of the most damaging effects as it ramped up the online bike rego debates in the press.
Ironically the NSW minister for roads is so concerned for the safety of cyclists that he has overlooked the safety of the majority of road users and loss of life on NSW roads has increased since March 2016.