The big cycling issue in the media last week was that Coroner Ian Smith completed his investigation into the death of Steve Fitzgerald and made a number of recommendations to prevent future cycling deaths, including a suggestion that hi viz clothing should be made mandatory for all cyclists.
Obviously the reaction of most cycling advocates was pretty dismissive, and rightly so in my opinion.
I did see a few tweets, however, pointing out that hi viz clothing might well lower the risk for cyclists.Â For example, Stephen Judd (@saniac on Twitter) pointed out this study which shows that cyclists who always ride in hi viz seem to have a lower risk of accidents.
While I don’t think Stephen was saying that he necessarily agreed with the Coroner’s recommendations, I thought it was worth while responding to the report in a bit more detail and explaining why I thought the Coroner was mistaken.
First off, as Russel Brown (@publicaddress on Twitter) helpfully pointed out, once he had managed to get the whole Coroner’s report uploaded online, the Coroner actually made quite a lot of recommendations to avoid future cycling accidents. The one that got the most attention was the hi viz recommendation but there were others.
What was kind of interesting was that many of his recommendations didn’t actually seem very related to the accident has was investigating or the research he referred to in his review.
What actually happened during the accident
In a pattern that is depressingly reminiscent of the Jane Bishop accident, the Coroner found that the layout of the road at the point where Stephen Fitzgerald was struck by a truck contributed to the accident.
To summarize the report Stephen Fitzgerald rode up to and entered a particular roundabout near Wellington at the same time as a large truck with a trailer.
There was no dedicated cycle lane and there was also what the Coroner calls a large “sump” (which I think must mean a grate where water drained off the road) which meant that cyclists were forced out into traffic while navigating the roundabout.
The truck tried to go around the roundabout at the same time as Stephen. However, it was too far over to the left and while it didn’t hit Stephen, the trailer did swing into him. Tragically he fell forward and so the truck then ran over him, meaning he sustained fatal injuries.
It is possible that Stephen had swung slightly to the right to avoid the sump but most of the evidence basically suggests that he was as far left as he could be. The driver was convicted of careless driving causing death.
How the council responded
Since then, as in the case of Jane Bishop, the council has removed the sump at the site and replaced it with a more cycle friendly version. An alternative, off-road route for cyclists and pedestrians has also been provided and was completed in early 2010 and there is also now a pedestrian underpass under some of the roundabout. There have also been some other improvements such as electric signs that light up to let motorists know cyclists are coming and clearer road markings.
Without knowing too much about the plans for cycle ways in the Wellington region (perhaps all these improvements were already in the pipe way), I will just say that, as in the Jane Bishop case, this is a very quick response compared to how long it usually takes to get even the tiniest of cycling improvements in NZ.
The recommendations the Coroner made – the good, the bad and the irrelevant
The recommendations the Coroner made seem odd because in many case they don’t actually relate much to the crash he was investigating or the research he cites in his report.
Some of them are relevant – for example, he suggests that the road code should prescribe a minimum passing distance of 1 meter for drivers when they are overtaking cyclists.Â He also asks that the specific intersection in question should be upgraded because he still doesn’t think it provides a safe route for cyclists.
Both of these are clearly relevant to what actually happened, i.e., the truck went too close to the cyclist on a badly designed roundabout and hit him.
Some of the recommendations are less relevant but pretty harmless – for example, he suggests that cyclists should receive more safety education and that drivers should also receive more education as to how to behave around cyclists.
I’d support this recommendation in general but it doesn’t seem particularly applicable to this case. In fact, Stephen Fitzgerald was a policeman who had held a very senior position in road safety for many years (so it’s doubtful more training would have helped him) and he was hit by a very experienced truck driver.
Regulations that make the individual safer but put the collective in danger
The Coroner made two recommendations, both of which I feel quite strongly would not help to improve cycling safety. Irritatingly, neither of them seem very relevant to the actual accident he investigated.
First, as mentioned in the media, he recommended that the wearing of hi viz should be made mandatory for all cyclists because he saw it as a “no-brainer.” He doesn’t present any evidence to support this view.
This recommendation seems oddly unrelated to the case, given that the crash happened at 5.20 pm when it was just getting dark and Stephen Fitzgerald was wearing both reflective hi viz stripes and functioning lights.
His second recommendation was that cyclists should be legally required to use cycle lanes wherever they are available (right now, we can ride in an off-road cycle lane or join the general stream of traffic, as we wish).
The problem with both of these recommendations, in my opinion, is that while they would probably make individual cyclists safer if they followed them (although it’s arguable in the case of hi viz, because there is some evidence that drivers give cyclists more space when they look less experienced) overall they make cycling less attractive.
This is particularly true of the hi viz recommendation. Even riders such as myself, who have very little interest in fashion, would probably be put off by a permanent requirement to wear hi viz.
Because I don’t particularly want to walk around the supermarket or go to work in hi viz, such a law would require me to permanently wear a hi viz vest over my normal clothes. This would not only be hot in summer but also would be annoying to carry around when I reached my destination.
Obviously, of course, riders who actually care about how they look while riding – such as teenage girls or the Frocks on Bikes types – would quite likely choose not to ride at all if hi viz was mandatory.
The suggestion that cyclists should have to ride in cycle lanes where they are available would also have a similarly off-putting effect, although it would probably put off quite a different group of cyclists.
Mainly, I think it would be off-putting to recreational riders and commuters who often don’t want to go in cycle lanes because they are trying to ride as fast as possible. A lot of the cycle lanes in NZ are bumpy and slow (Tamaki Drive springs to mind) and if riders were forced to use them (through ticketing etc) they would probably either stop riding or just ride in other places where there were no lanes.
Discouraging the safety in numbers effect
Why does all this matter in terms of safety? Well, putting aside the question of whether hi viz actually makes cyclists more visible during the day (which is questionable, it seems likely that a driver who can miss a cyclist in broad daylight is probably also going to miss a cyclist in hi viz) it’s mainly because of the well documented safety in numbers effect which obviously Coroner Smith had never heard about.
That he had never heard of this is weird because it’s pretty well known to most people with even a cursory knowledge of topics relating to cycle safety but anyways. Just to recap:
The fewer people there are cycling in a particular area the more dangerous it is for each individual cyclist. The accident rate per km cycled tends to be high.
On the other hand, once you manage to reach a point where a certain percentage of trips are being made by bike (around about 3 to 6%) then the rate of accidents per km cycled gets dramatically lower. This graph comparing various US cities illustrates this effect very well.
It’s a tipping point, like in climate change science, but actually a good one.
In New Zealand, we still haven’t reached that tipping point but if cycling rates keep increasing then we will get there. Any law which makes cycling less attractive (like mandatory hi viz) decreases the likelihood we’ll ever get there and thus will keep our rate of accidents per km cycled high.
Some people would also argue that making cyclists wear hi vizÂ (like helmets) sends an implicit message that cycling is a dangerous activity and discourages people from trying it. I think this is probably true although I don’t have any evidence at hand to support that view (feel free to link to it in the comments if you do).
This is the theory and research behind why cyclists created Ian Smith’s recommendations with such howls of incredulity and derision.
What do you think? Do you agree with the Coroner’s recommendations? Do you always wear hi viz?