NSW Police is cracking down on cyclists in a bid to ‘educate and promote awareness’. Some riders, however, claim the aim is to drive them off the streets. By Drew Rooke.

Cycling laws in NSW at the crossroads

Two weeks ago NSW Police conducted Operation Pedro. It was a one-day blitz in Sydney’s CBD and surrounding suburbs, focusing on misbehaving cyclists and supposedly aimed at “educating riders and promoting awareness”. The tone of the press release put out on the morning of the operation, however, was like those announcing a crackdown on drug dealers. 

It was just before 10.30 on the morning of the operation when 39-year-old Michael Gratton was pulled over by a highway patrol car. He was riding his fixed-gear bicycle along King Street, Newtown, en route to the University of New South Wales, where he works as a robotics researcher. He knew why he had been stopped: he wasn’t wearing a helmet. This was a deliberate choice, an act of civil disobedience protesting against mandatory helmet laws and one that had attracted attention from police in the past. 

The police diligently inspected and photographed his bike. They informed him that not wearing a helmet was only one offence that he had committed. There was also no bell or horn fitted to his bike, nor was there an effective brake. Michael explained that there was a perfectly fine warning device – his voice – which he uses when approaching pedestrians with great effectiveness and that braking on a fixed gear bike is done by exerting reverse force on the pedals, which stops the rear wheel. He also drew their attention to the front-wheel brake that is attached to his bike. 

His protest was in vain and he was issued with three separate infringement notices, totalling $531. “It was as if I was being punished for daring to ride a bicycle,” he told me. He wasn’t alone: 193 infringement notices had been issued to cyclists by day’s end. 

Operation Pedro forms part of the state government’s new approach to improving cyclist safety. Central to the government’s approach is legislation that came into force in March this year. The new laws significantly increased the penalties for offences such as not wearing a helmet, which went from $71 to $319; riding through a red light, which went from $71 to $425; riding furiously, recklessly or negligently, which went from $71 to $425; and not stopping at a pedestrian crossing, also increasing from $71 to $425. Other offences, such as not having a working warning device, now attract a fine of $106 and, as of March 1 next year, it will be compulsory for cyclists to carry identification. These penalties are now in line with those for motorists. 

Included in the legislation is a requirement that cars must pass cyclists at a minimum of one metre when travelling at 60km/h or below, and at least one-and-a-half metres when travelling faster than 60km/h. Drivers who are caught not complying with this minimum passing distance will incur a $319 fine and lose two demerit points. 

The man behind all of this is Duncan Gay, the NSW minister for roads, maritime and freight. In years past he has slammed Australia’s “anti-road zealots” and has described himself as “the biggest bike-lane sceptic in the government”. Comments such as this have fed speculation that he is ideologically opposed to cycling. Explaining the new laws, the minister told me: “With cycling injuries high in NSW, I had no choice but to look at tougher deterrents to improve safety for cyclists. I don’t want to see another dollar in fine revenue but I do hope to see a reduction in cyclist injuries.” 

The laws and the strict enforcement of them have attracted fierce opposition from a wide array of voices. A petition calling on them to be repealed drew 10,000 signatures. Stephen Greaves, a professor of transport management at the University of Sydney’s business school, is an outspoken critic of the legislation. He acknowledges that there are a small number of cyclists who do behave badly, but he is frustrated that authorities have responded by focusing on the lowest common denominator. Instead of trying to “price everyone off their bikes”, he says more common sense should be employed by lawmakers when it comes to judging whether bicycles pose the same level of threat as a car, truck or bus. 

He argues that the heavy-handed and draconian legislation has only served to exacerbate the battle-like mentality between cyclists and motorists in Sydney. “The government have said to motorists, ‘Listen, guys, the cyclists have been treated favourably up until now compared to you but we’re going to put that right.’ That’s ignited even more this feeling of us versus them.” In this way, he says, the laws diminish rather than enhance road safety. He also questions whether enforcing these laws through designated operations is a sensible use of state resources. “Haven’t the police got something better to do?” he asks. 

There is also concern that the minimum passing distance requirement – although touted by Transport for NSW as a way to “better protect bicycle riders” – is mere lip service, a convenient safeguard against criticism that the new laws are anti-cycling. Statistical evidence that highlights lax enforcement of minimum passing distance requirements supports this view. A Fairfax Media report showed that in the first two months after fines were increased, 1541 infringement notices were issued to cyclists, up from 990 in the same period of the year prior. Only four infringement notices were issued to motorists for not passing a bicycle at a safe distance.

Asked why there were so few notices issued to offending motorists, a spokesman for NSW Police said: “Infringements are issued based on offences detected.” Asked exactly how police detect minimum passing distance offences, the spokesman said: “The NSW police force does not reveal methodology.” 

One method available to authorities is technology known as C3FT. It is already being used by a police department in the United States as part of their bike safety initiative. Using a bicycle-mounted sensor, it measures and displays to a cyclist the distance at which a car passes. Coupled with a video recording device, it works in much the same way as a speed camera. Ray Rice, the head of the state’s peak cycling body, Bicycle NSW, is a supporter of this technology and advocates for a trial of its use to be conducted in NSW. Asked whether NSW Police had considered using C3FT to monitor driver compliance, the spokesman said: “The technology was considered and deemed not appropriate for NSW Police.” 

But what has been most infuriating for the cycling community is that the government’s enthusiasm for punishment far exceeds its enthusiasm for building an integrated network of cycling infrastructure. Despite opposing advice from a transport consultant it had commissioned, the government removed a cycleway running the length of College Street in Sydney’s CBD that serviced more than 2000 people every weekday. The decision was made to accommodate extra traffic caused by the closure of George Street. 

Two new cycleways were built along Castlereagh Street South and Liverpool Street, which created a dedicated bike path from Central to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But this does not address the problem of there not being a networked grid of separated cycleways. Many end abruptly, as though they’re awaiting completion, forcing riders onto the road or onto the footpath. Anyone journeying along the city’s east-west axis is still forced to do so alongside other vehicles.

Ray Rice says that instead of focusing on prosecution, creating a completed grid of cycleways that services all areas of the city is the key to fixing road safety issues and encouraging more people to choose pedal-power over petrol. “Physically separating different road uses is the best method – and for riders this means safe, separated cycleways along all major routes.” Numerous scientific reports have echoed this, as did a government report written in 2013, which stated: “The number of injuries involving people on bikes has decreased where separated cycleways are built.”

After nine years cycling in Sydney, Michael Gratton knows a major reason for this. Every day there will be at least one driver who yells, honks or nearly swipes him while overtaking. Of the three infringements issued to him, he plans on disputing only the one regarding not having a working brake, “simply because it is invalid”. The other two, however, he has resigned to paying. Not wearing a helmet is a political point and one for which he is prepared to accept the consequences, and while he could contest not having a working bell fitted on what he calls “common sense” grounds, he knows this argument will have little weight in court. “After all – it’s the law.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2016 as "Cycling at the crossroads".

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Drew Rooke is a freelance journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

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