Protecting vulnerable road users: Hansard 22 June 2021

sign and safety

Jo Clay MLA introduced an amendment to the Transport Act to encourage motorists to show more concern for vulnerable road users. The effect of the bill would be to increase the fine, but her speech was of a more general nature and gives us an insight in her reasoning and her thinking.

Testing assertions

What people say: Many surveys ask: “What would it take to get you to hop on a bike?” The answer is always the same. Jo Clay suggested in her speech that she has been asking a similar question.

When Canberrans were asked what would encourage them to start riding, the most common answer was better off‑road cycle paths, and the second most common answer was improved driver awareness of bicycle safety and road sharing.

The National Cycling Participation Survey (NCPS) (Austroads, 2019) came back with the following answer.

Respondents were asked to prioritise actions that could be taken to encourage bicycle riding. The most supported actions (from figure 3.8) were: 

1 more off-road paths and cycleways (62% of respondents rated this a very high or high priority)
2 better connections between bike paths and schools (51%)
3 better connections between bike paths and shops (51%)
4 more signs highlighting bicycle routes (41%)
5 more on-road bicycle lanes (40%)
6 better connections between bike paths and parks and swimming pools (40%).

The National Cycling Participation Survey (NCPS), Austroads (2019), page 13

The big picture: Most people would not think to ride on the road because it is dangerous (see the Brazilian bus driver videos) . The off-road bike infrastructure in Canberra is poor and incomplete, and we often are forced to ride on roads at times if we want a direct route to our destination. Car, truck, and bus drivers’ lack of consideration then becomes potentially life-threatening for vulnerable road users.

Australia is a low cycling country with a deeply ingrained car culture. We ride on roads because of the lack of alternatives. This is typical of low cycling countries – they lack dedicated, grade separated cycling infrastructure.

Road calming is another measure common to high cycling countries. The objective of road calming is to slow traffic down and discourage the use of some roads by cars in areas that have high numbers of pedestrians and cyclists.

The most effective measure to protecting pedestrians and cyclists is to provide them with their own dedicated infrastructure: Think 3! In Canberra this will never happen as long as we unquestioningly prioritise investing heavily in building more roads.

Why it matters: The bill is welcome, because it does make a difference whether a motorist collides with at traffic sign or a vulnerable road user. We forget how deadly a motor vehicle can be to the unprotected. The bill is meant to be a reminder and a trigger for future thinking.

The case for active travel

How is happens: The method of the Legislative Assembly is to amend a bill to encourage road safety. It may be a roundabout way to do it, but making laws is arguably what the Legislative Assembly does best. The “law and order” approach works with both conservatives and progressives.

Jo Clay does not read the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2) that she is proposing, because it is a legal document without much context. Instead, she argues her reasons for introducing the bill. She’s talking about the Why. Thus, tabling the bill becomes a driver for arguing the case for active travel. This is a classic change leadership example of beginning with the end in mind. Envision, Energise, Enable!

Jo Clays speech can be watched on the video from the ACT Legislative Assembly, Tuesday, 22 June 2021, start 3:05:58 hours, duration 11:23 minutes. The text of the speech is below (derived from the Hansard).

MS CLAY (MLA for Ginninderra)

I rise today to table the bill that is in my name, the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2). This bill will protect vulnerable road users and contribute to a culture of care on our roads. We are all vulnerable road users. Every single one of us is a vulnerable road user at one point or another in our lives, often every day—a dad walking to school with his child, a person heading to the shops in a wheelchair or a weekend motorcyclist. Even if you drive most places, when you get to your destination and hop out of your car, you become a vulnerable road user.

The good news is that our roads are getting safer. For most groups, our road death toll has been going down over time. New cars are more robust. We are getting better at building infrastructure. We have reduced drink driving and lowered suburban speed limits through Slower Streets but, tragically, road safety is not improving for everyone. For instance, in Australia more cyclists died on our roads in 2020 than in 2010.

Death tolls are no mere statistic. They are a shocking loss of life that affects children, friends, family and the whole community. But counting deaths alone omits a lot of the damage. Many collisions leave those involved with serious and long‑lasting injuries. When one of the victims is a vulnerable road user, the consequences are even more severe.

There are lifetime injuries, permanent psychological harm, surgery, and loss of work. A few seconds of negligent driving can be a life‑changing event for someone else. Data from the federal Office of Road Safety found that pedestrians suffered around seven per cent of serious injuries. Motorbike riders suffered 22 per cent and bike riders 18 per cent. Almost half of the serious injuries on our roads and more than one‑third of road deaths are suffered by vulnerable road users. Vulnerable road users are being injured and killed.

The ACT government does not accept this. The government is committed to Vision Zero and acknowledges that we should not regard death and serious injury as acceptable or inevitable. But while road safety is increasing for motorists, it is lagging for vulnerable road users. Being in a car is safer than ever before, but being near a car is not. A motorist is surrounded by armour, but a vulnerable road user is surrounded by air. A pedestrian does not have airbags. A wheelchair does not have a crumple zone. A helmet does not help much when two tonnes of metal are headed your way at 70 kilometres an hour. The situation is even more dangerous as our vehicles get larger and heavier.

My family and I are keen on active travel. I ride my bike to the Assembly most days. My daughter rides to school, with me or my partner walking or riding behind her. I have never been on a motorbike, but e‑scooters are a lot of fun and I went e‑mountain biking last weekend. I have been walking and riding around Canberra for 30 years without incident, but not everyone has this experience.

I would like to talk about one story in particular. On 3 October last year, there was an incredibly serious collision in Belconnen, quite close to my house, at an intersection I have ridden and driven down many times. A car towing a trailer knocked a cyclist off their bike. The victim of this incident was left with lifetime injuries. Out of respect for that person and their family, I will not go into the details, but I imagine many of you remember it in the media at the time.

It took months for a penalty to be handed out, despite dash cam footage clearly showing that the driver was at fault. That driver received a $393 fine. The community was outraged. I will read out a few of the comments made. That driver was in charge of a “lethal weapon”. It was “negligent or even malice”, “attempted manslaughter”, “aggravated assault” or “vehicular homicide”. The penalty sent the message that in the ACT you can nearly kill a bike rider riding lawfully on our roads and only receive a relatively light fine. A fine of $393 for driving negligently and seriously harming another human being! This does not meet community expectations. It sends a bad message to drivers, it makes vulnerable road users feel as if our lives are worth less than other people’s and it discourages people who might otherwise choose active travel.

This is a terrible outcome for our vulnerable road users, but it is equally bad for all of Canberra, Australia and the planet. Driving a car has become an ingrained habit, to the point where many people get behind the wheel to pop to their local shops instead of walking there. There is a consequence to that for all of us. I remember when I was a kid we laughed at Sydney friends caught up in morning traffic and we heard with horror their tales of one‑hour commutes. That is true for Canberra now. We are a growing city, and cities choke on cars.

It is not possible to solve congestion by building more roads and car parks. They only fill up with more traffic. The way to solve congestion is to get as many people as possible out of cars. Every single person that you see on a bike, walking to work or catching the bus or the light rail is one less car you will wait behind at the traffic lights. It is one less car you have to compete with for parking.

I welcome our move to electric vehicles—my family have an Ioniq—but we still need more people out of their cars. Canberra will not work if most people drive for most journeys.

As well as solving congestion, active travel cleans up our air. We breathe in less diesel and less petrol pollution from combustion engines, as well as less particulates from the tyres and the brakes. Most importantly of all, we tackle climate change. Now that we are powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity, we need to deal with our transport. Transport represents over 60 per cent of our carbon emissions. Active travel is the original zero emissions travel.

The ACT government understands this really well. In 2015, the government released a report called Building an integrated transport network. The active travel framework highlighted targets for participation and barriers to active travel. Our 2026 targets included seven per cent of trips to work by walking, seven per cent by cycling and 16 per cent by public transport. They are great targets, but we are not yet meeting them. There is so much more that we can do to get there.

When Canberrans were asked what would encourage them to start riding, the most common answer was better off‑road cycle paths, and the second most common answer was improved driver awareness of bicycle safety and road sharing. A culture of care on our roads is essential if we want more people using active travel. We have to make it fun and convenient. We also have to make it safe.

I have been working on this problem in different capacities for two decades. Since getting elected, I have been listening to regular active travellers and victims of collisions. I have consulted with Pedal Power, the Motorcycle Riders Association, the Australian Federal Police Association and various other community stakeholders. It has shown us a lot of opportunities to improve active travel and road safety, and this is merely one of the first steps.

Today I am tabling an amendment to our road laws that creates a proper penalty when a negligent driver harms a vulnerable road user. This amendment is an important step. It shows that our road rules should take people as they find them and not treat all road users as if they were the same. There is a hierarchy of road users. Motorists have a duty to look after those who are more vulnerable when we all share the road.

This amendment fits a body of work that already recognises vulnerable road users. Section 7A of our existing law defines and recognises vulnerable road users. We already have increased penalties for speeding in a school zone because we know that children on their way to school are more vulnerable and they need special protection.

My proposed new offence is a middle ground between some of the existing offences. We already have negligent driving but the penalty is low—a maximum of 20 penalty units or that famous $393 fine. That might be acceptable when no‑one is hurt, but when someone has been seriously injured it falls short.

We also have high‑level offences where negligent driving causes grievous bodily harm or death. These come with serious penalties and they are not traffic infringements, and nor should they be. Fortunately, most accidents fall short of grievous bodily harm or death, but that does not mean most accidents should be accepted. We can and must do better. We must create a culture of care on our roads.

I am proposing a new offence that lies somewhere between these two points. It recognises that driving negligently and harming somebody is more serious than a moment of carelessness that harms no‑one. This new offence comes with a maximum penalty of 50 penalty units. It is also open to a traffic infringement notice of $1,600 plus three demerit points. That will allow for easy enforcement and simple road safety education.

Community consultation is an essential part of any lawmaking. I have already conducted some consultation and I look forward to further consultation on this issue. We actually ran some media this week and we had comments from quite a lot of people who regularly use our roads as vulnerable road users, including quite a few victims of collisions who came forward, and they were all quite positive about this change. It changes things when you actually listen to the impact a crash has had on somebody. It makes you realise that it is really important that we take effective action on this.

This amendment bill will not come back for debate until August, at the earliest, and I welcome the conversation until then. I know that one new offence will not change our road culture overnight. That is why this offence does not stand alone. It is one small part of a broader suite of changes that I would like to see introduced over the next few years.

As well as working on this amendment bill, I am working with the community and stakeholders on other measures to improve active travel. This will include education, driver training, and construction of more separated paths and cycleways. I welcome the minister for transport’s comprehensive review of road laws and rules, and I think there are many more improvements we can make to protect those who are most vulnerable.

I invite anyone and everyone to get in touch with my office and chat about active travel and this amendment bill. The problem affects us all and the solutions will benefit us all, so let us build that culture of care together. I commend the bill to the Assembly.

Hansard, ACT Legislative Assembly, Tuesday, 22 June 2021
sign and safety
sign and safety Photo by Travis Saylor on Pexels.com

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