Paul Biegler admits he never used to turn on his bicycle lights during the day. All it took for him to change his ways was the latest cyclist crash data, generated in a study he undertook for Monash University.
The figures reveal that 66 per cent of injured cyclists didn’t have bike lights on at the time of their accident. That was enough for the former emergency department doctor, who was preparing to make the 12 kilometre commute from the Clayton campus to his home in Brighton. The first thing he did as he mounted his road bike that mid-week afternoon was turn on the front and rear flashing lights.
The joint research between the university’s Accident Research Centre and Alfred Health confirms what many already know about the danger of sharing the roads: collisions with cars account for a third of all crashes and the likelihood of suffering a serious head injury has a lot to do with speed. But the data, generated from a study of 158 cyclists admitted to the Alfred and Sandringham hospitals after an accident in the 12 months to November last year, also illuminates a less-publicised danger: regardless of the time of day, there is an alarming relationship between visibility and collisions.
“It’s hell out there for cyclists,” Biegler says. “The only safety measure you have up your sleeve is prevention, because once you’re in an accident nothing is in your favour. There’s no airbags, no side curtains, no crumple zones, nothing.”
Biegler says cyclist safety is as much dependent on educating road users as it is about engineering roads. “Clearways are not the knight in shining armour for cyclists. It’s not just about moving parked cars – if it was we would be sending that message to the government.”
His comments come as the final push for a weekend no-stopping zone on Beach Road was set in stone. Bayside council recently confirmed plans to enforce 6am–10am Saturday and Sunday clearways along its section of Route 33 – the longest stretch of the popular cyclist route, which runs from Mordialloc to Port Melbourne, cutting through the municipalities of Bayside, Port Phillip and Kingston. Clearways already apply Monday to Friday.
The council’s decision follows an 18-month trial of the no-stopping zone and is subject to $1.5 million state government funding for works along Beach Road.
The road is one of the state’s busiest for cyclists, attracting up to 10,000 recreational and training riders each weekend. About 28,000 cars travel along the stretch every day. In recent years it has also been the site of five deaths, two involving cyclists.
Last year, professional cyclist John Cornish died on Beach Road when he was involved in a collision with a van. VicRoads crash statistics from 2007 to 2011 show there were 557 casualty accidents on Route 33 during that period. Almost half the accidents involved cyclists, including 36 hitting parked cars.
Beach Road Cyclist, an advocacy group which says it represents 15,000 cyclists, began lobbying for the clearways in 2001. Spokesman, cyclist and paramedic Marcel Lema says Bayside’s commitment to the no-stopping zones legitimises cyclists’ rights to use the roads.
“It’s common sense – the left side will be used for cyclists and the right for cars,” he says. “When cyclists and cars are separated there’s no bottlenecking, which increases traffic flow and cuts down frustration for everyone. The road is already at its peak capacity and this will make it much safer.”
Lema, who rides up to 200km three times a week, says cyclists are often the target of aggression from motorists on Beach Road.
‘‘There is definitely an aspect of safety in numbers,’’ he says. ‘‘Some drivers don’t like that and we’re still subject to aggression. Last month someone threw bricks and bottles at a group of riders. Others swerve close to cyclists, toot their horns or yell abuse.’’
But he says attitudes are slowly shifting.‘‘Cycling is a social sport and I think that’s why 80 per cent of the cyclists on Beach Road ride,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s probably the only sport that you can train for and still talk to the person next to you. It’s a great way to socialise and get fit.’’
Garry Brennan, spokesman for Bicycle Network Victoria, which joined Beach Road Cyclist in its clearway campaign, said the weekend trial period proved the no-stopping zones had been a success.
“The length of Beach Road controlled by Bayside council was a notorious location for bike collisions because the occasional parked car forced groups of riders to change lanes frequently,” Brennan says. “Often a rider would fail to notice the parked vehicle and slam into it at full speed.”
Figures relied on by Bayside council to make the no-stopping zone permanent record six accidents involving cyclists hitting parked cars in the four years before the trial was introduced. The latest figures show there were no accidents with parked cars between November 2010, and December last year. However, the data also revealed an increase in the overall number of accidents involving cyclists. During the trial period, the yearly average jumped from four to seven accidents.
Sandringham MLA Murray Thompson isn’t convinced the figures warrant a permanent no-stopping zone. “On the basis that there has actually been a spike in accidents since the trial commenced, I would have preferred to see provisional approval granted for two or three more years rather than locking in the clearway,” he says.
Thompson concedes balancing safety and traffic management with the interests of road users and community groups is no easy task.
Bayside Ratepayers Association president George Reynolds supports the clearways as a safety measure, but his view isn’t shared by all his members. “I lost quite a few over this issue,” he says. “There was a huge amount of opposition to the clearways; the council meetings were filled with residents and cyclists all shouting at each other. But the reality is that there’s only about 14 homes and a couple of shops directly affected by the parking restrictions. Everyone else has driveway parking.”
There have been reports that anglers who launch their boats at Half Moon Bay could suffer from a parking shortage because the fishing season generates overflow from the boat ramp car park to Beach Road. Lifesaving clubs, too, argue the restrictions will affect carnivals that can attract thousands to the foreshore.
Special projects manager at Mentone Life Saving Club, David Blanks, wants the no-stopping zone lifted on designated days. “We just want access on two days a year,” he says. “The road belongs to everyone and we need the clearway removed when we hold carnivals.”
Blanks was told by the Kingston council to take his proposal to VicRoads and Bicycle Victoria, but he says he’s not interested in bureaucracy. “We don’t want to get tied up in red tape. All we want is parking to access the foreshore a couple of days each year.”
Hampton Life Saving Club spokesman Peter Lewis agrees the clearways put more strain on limited parking. ‘‘We already have members parking up to a kilometre away during summer,’’ he says.
Reynolds says some residents view the clearways as a quick-fix for poor road design and the high numbers of cyclists disobeying road rules. “They think that if [cyclists] acted responsibly we wouldn’t need the no-stopping zones,” he says. “They were upset and they will continue to be upset. But they are mainly upset about the cyclists’ behaviour.’’
Victoria Police crime statistics reveal the number of cyclists failing to use bicycle lanes or misusing paths has spiked during the past decade. The number of cyclists booked for these offences hovered around 50 a year between 2002 and 2009 but shot up to 277 in 2010 and hit a high of 366 last year. Failure to obey traffic lights last year accounted for 535 offences.
The statistics are a stark reminder of a 2006 accident in which pedestrian James Gould died after being struck by a cyclist who ran a red light on Beach Road.
Despite the figures, Reynolds says the clearways translate to increased safety on the road. “Whatever the conduct of the cyclists, I don’t think you need them swapping from one lane to another. The situation is so dangerous and a clearway is the only way to manage that danger.”
The Bicycle Network’s Brennan says the evidence of accidents involving parked cars on Route 33 since the trial began speaks for itself. He says community opposition to the clearways has been limited to those who “stubbornly resisted inevitable change”.
“Local politics got in the way of responsible decision-making.”
Nick Mitchell agrees. In 2007, the professional cyclist clipped the side of a parked car on Beach Road and was thrown off his bike. The 27-year-old took out three other cyclists in a pack of 20 but escaped with minor injuries to his shoulder, elbows and knees. “This was before the no-stopping zones,” Mitchell says. “It could have been a lot worse. The riding conditions have definitely improved since the clearways came into effect.”
Mitchell has seen two other accidents involving parked cars on Beach Road. ‘‘When you’re in a group you don’t always have a really good view of the road, and if there’s a parked car there the chance of an accident increases.”
James Taylor, who heads Sandringham Hospital’s emergency department, and co-authored the Monash study with Biegler, says he treats 250 to 300 cyclists a year, mostly for upper body and minor head injuries. About the same number attend The Alfred each year.
“One out of every 100 patients we see is a cyclist,” Taylor says. “That’s about twice the state average. They’re mostly adults who ride for recreation, training or commuting. And they’re primarily from Beach Road and the major feeding roads to Beach Road.”
He says the Monash study revealed that most cyclist injuries resulted from obstructions in the road, rider errors in judgment and loss of balance.
But of greater concern, he says, is the number of cyclists hitting parked cars or having car doors opened in front of them.
The study’s findings, which were not limited to Route 33 (12 of the 158 cyclists interviewed crashed on Beach Road), revealed 13 per cent of collisions involved parked cars. Crashes into an opening door, or ‘‘doorings’’, accounted for only
6 per cent of accidents – about the same as the number of cyclists who crash after clipping the rear wheel of a bike in front of them.
Taylor says VicRoads figures prove the no-stopping zones prevent injuries. Crash statistics from 2000 to 2005 show 25 per cent of serious accidents on Beach Road involved cyclists running into parked cars.
“During the clearway times on Beach Road there has not been a single cyclist that rode into a parked car. That’s because there weren’t any parked cars on the road. Therefore, the clearway has removed a significant obstacle.”