Overtaking law will give our cyclists a safe space on the roads - and save many lives
There are probably a quarter of a million of us on Irish roads every week. Some 12,000 of us travel into Dublin city centre every day.
We are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Five of us have been killed in the last eight weeks and on average one of us is killed every month. We are cyclists, we are vulnerable and we need to be protected.
It is time to move on from the perception that there is some kind of road-user hierarchy where cyclists are treated as little more than an annoyance. Instead, we need to acknowledge that everyone has a legitimate right to a safe space on our roads where their life is not put at risk simply because they choose a bicycle as their mode of transport. It's also important to note that the vast majority of adult Irish cyclists are also motorists, yet we have managed to create an illogical "them and us" scenario and it needs to be addressed.
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Ireland is lagging behind other countries when it comes to creating this safe space for cyclists. In 1974, the state of Wisconsin passed a law to create a minimum passing distance of three feet between motorists and cyclists. Since then 25 US states, five Australian states, France, Spain, Belgium and Portugal have all passed a minimum passing distance law (MPDL). Queensland, which has a population similar to Ireland, had 23 cyclist fatalities between 2012 and 2014. Those tragic figures prompted their law-makers to pass an MPDL with a distance of 1.5 metres. Following the introduction of this law, they saw a 50pc drop in serious injuries and a 35pc drop in deaths.
We finally have such an opportunity to pass such a life-saving piece of legislation. The Road Traffic (Minimum Passing Distance of Cyclists) Bill 2017 was published earlier this month and hopefully it will be debated in the Oireachtas within a very short timeframe. It's not a complex piece of legislation. In its two pages, it defines what a bicycle is, what a motor vehicle is and the distance that needs to be observed when a motor vehicle overtakes a bicycle. It's simple and effective and in every jurisdiction where such a law has been passed, there has been a greatly increased awareness of the need to safely overtake cyclists. Put simply, this legislation saves lives.
Since the bill was published there has been some debate, much of it ill-informed, about the merits of legislating for a safe passing distance. We have heard arguments about cyclists breaking red lights as if this was a common occurrence and indeed a legitimate cause to continue putting all of the cycling community at risk on our roads. Of course, there is no evidence that cyclists are the main culprits when it comes to breaking red lights.
In a report published by gardaí in October 2016, it was found that motorists were the greatest offenders when it came to breaking red lights in Dublin city. The report concluded that motorists in Dublin break red lights at 24 times the rate of cyclists, even though the ratio of motorists to cyclists in the city is only five-to-one. Another study commissioned by the Road Safety Authority in 2015 monitored 60 junctions nationwide and discovered that only 12pc of cyclists broke red lights at these junctions.
Another argument being made against the introduction of a MPDL is that it would be impossible to enforce. Firstly, this is missing the point about why we legislate in the first place. We do so to effect behavioural change. It is no longer acceptable in Irish society to drink and drive, to smoke in a workplace or to litter our streets. These and other cultural shifts came about because they were underpinned by strong legislation and then enhanced by public awareness campaigns. One won't work without the other. Secondly, it is possible to enforce a MPDL. Gardaí can observe relative distances based on identifiable road markings, cyclists can submit video evidence, and police in Australia are currently trialling a sonar device which can measure exactly the distance between a bicycle and a vehicle. Queensland has had 72 successful prosecutions over the last two years.
Every time we hear of another tragic loss of life on our roads, we reflect on what we could have done differently to protect vulnerable road users. Whether it's the child cycling to school, the family out for a Sunday spin or the next Sean Kelly in training, every one of our cyclists is deserving of the maximum protection possible. We can give them that protection by enacting two pages of legislation. It's time to make it happen.
The new Road Traffic (Minimum Passing Distance of Cyclists) Bill 2017 is being published by Ciarán Cannon TD, supported by his Fine Gael colleague and Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty