A typically deadly commute – let’s fix it

My partner rides a bicycle to and from work. Her town bike has a basket on the front and back, and she is small, wears normal street clothes and obeys traffic rules. This is what a ride home looks like. (She takes the long way home to get exercise).

She’s fast right?

You might have caught two or three scary moments — let’s look at the worst one, on what is essentially a random day — today.

Here she is nearing the top of College Hill Road. She is not very big and goes pretty quickly up hills — and enjoys passing the occasional middle aged man in lycra. She sometimes does that when those baskets are full of groceries.

She is approaching a carpark – and as there are no cars today she had a clear run. This is great as normally the parked cars force her into the often fast moving traffic that is chaotic due to a complex intersection ahead. This, by the way, is on the safest route she has found to get some exercise while riding home.

The cars at the front by the light are stopped, and the closest car, the red one in the car lane to the right, is slowing to a stop. There is lots of traffic so it’s pretty noisy.

With the empty carpark she has a clear run to the head of the intersection and can stay well out of the way of motorised traffic. She could alternatively choose to cross to her right to get behind the red car, but that decision would have killed her, as you will see shortly. When cycling or motorcycling making decisions about not dying are fairly constant, with the key rule to stay the away from high speed differentials with large vehicles.

From nowhere comes a bus at high speed:

The bus is trying to cut between my partner, who is riding quickly, and the parked red car, and then take the left hand turn at the end of the street. The green bus has a large amount of momentum and very little room for error on either side. My partner is still riding in the designated car park.

A few seconds later the bus and the bike have braked almost to a stop – but look how far it took the bus to do so. The bus driver chose not to hit the red car from behind, and instead cut in front of the person on a bicycle, potentially fatally. Perhaps it would have been safer to graze or hit the car than to risk squashing an unprotected rider – a potential judgement call that should be discussed in an incident investigation, but clearly won’t be because this incident is a sadly regular occurrence for both buses and cyclists, and they are never investigated as far as I can tell.

Luckily my partner, riding the bicycle, braked very hard, and a tragedy was averted. However once again I get to greet a distraught partner when she arrived home.

There really was no room for error if she had continued.

But the bus made it through, the car was untouched and the my partner got to come home physically unscathed tonight — and I am grateful for that. But for the sake of about 3 seconds of time, the bus driver’s dangerous driving was exposing the driver of the red car to an accident and injury, and the cyclist to a potentially fatal accident. That’s not worth it, and the driver should instead have slowed down to follow the bicycle.

Let’s look at it all in real time speed. What would you have done? Are you confident enough to stop safely? How about if your bike was full of groceries?

This sort of incident is, tragically, quite usual for Auckland roads. While every cycling day is packed with the normal dangers to avoid, most days also see specific dangerous driving actions like this one, and that’s what we have to stop.

Our worst story

One reason my partner gets distraught at these sorts of near misses is that she was knocked off her bike in late 2012 by a woman who works for an insurance company. That person dangerously crossed a busy road by driving her car illegally through a stop sign from one side street to another. My partner was descending and the car hit her, knocking her off her bike and she slid for quite some time, luckily avoiding hitting anything. Even more luckily she had just avoided a perhaps fatal T-bone accident, and escaped “only” with lacerations, bruising, swelling and a couple of trips to the doctor. She was also very shaken up.

Strangely, for someone I discovered to be a communications professional, the driver, provided only her first name (Michelle) and phone number. As a victim my partner wanted as little as possible to do with the driver or her insurer company, but I was glad to  help. Even then, while my Google foo was strong enough to find the driver, I had to ask her quite firmly to formally identify herself so that we could settle accounts. I also actually enjoyed jousting with her insurance company (which was not her employer), who as always are not exactly there to meet your full costs unless you fight. Incidentally — if something like this happens to you there are people out there who really enjoy negotiating with insurance companies — so don’t be afraid to ask around.

We did report the incident to the police, who were wonderful. However we were later disgusted to find that  the end result was not a loss of license or worse for what was clearly careless or dangerous driving, but essentially a traffic ticket. My partner had had enough, and didn’t feel she could handle a court case, and so we let it slide, as victims often do. I’m certain that this is very common, and it’s just sad that dangerous driving against cyclists seems to be treated as irrelevant.

What we did

The first thing we did afterwards was to purchase Go Pro cameras for riding. They provide great evidence of dangerous driving, and I highly recommend riding or driving with a camera to everyone. If in doubt, search for “Russian driving video” or similar.

I did not write about the incident at the time, also because my partner did not feel she could cope with it. Overall I do not feel that there was natural justice, and feel that at the very least the driver should be compelled to go through some sort of remedial course.

However as with all accidents, it was not all the fault of one person. The real fault is the design of the road where vehicles have to cross a large road with cars traveling at high speeds. The side roads should either be closed, for example, or some sort of traffic control put in place. There should be no surprise to learn that nothing has happened yet, but we did go to the Ponsonby Road Masterplan public hearing.

What can we do?

Do buy a camera and use it to name and shame, but most of all to show other road users that their behaviour will not go unobserved.

Please do respond, and drown out, the vocal minority of selfish commenters on a variety of forums who seem to think it’s okay to mow down people with their car.

Please consider riding a bike yourself – as the more people on bicycles commuting to work, the faster we will change behaviour.

Please ask your local and national politicians what they are doing to stop the killing of cyclists and to make Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and all of New Zealand have vibrant life-filled streets and the best urban and rural cycleways in the world.

Let’s make it happen.

About Lance Wiggs

@lancewiggs
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17 Responses to A typically deadly commute – let’s fix it

  1. dangerpossum says:

    Excellent post, Lance, and kudos to your partner for continuing to ride – we can’t let this sort of thing beat us. My colleague at one stage got 15 minutes of fame (on the news and on CloseUp) for his video of cycle commuting close calls in Christchurch… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8RTXrMHt2A

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  2. I also have the gopro, but the battery won’t last the trip home. It’s a trademe purchased one — which one do you have? How long does the battery last?
    I was looking at the garmin vibr instead, because it integrates with the garmin cycle computers, meaning I see if the camera is capturing correctly from the same display i see my speed (there’s lots of 30 speed restrictions in wellington, so i have to slow down on my pushbike)

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    • i tend to turn on the gopro video as i approach notorious intersections — so after i’m dead and squished they’ll know it wasn’t my fault and get the arsehole (with a traffic ticket?)

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    • Lance Wiggs says:

      Ours last about an hour, but the Go Pros themselves are flaky and sometime just fail. Reducing the resolution can increase life I think, and I got the extender battery pack which worked well for long motorbike trips.

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  3. This is typical of riding in Christchurch too. Dangerous narrow bike ‘lanes’ (read: cluttered verges) on busy arterial streets. I both cycle and motorbike regularly, and what’s remarkable is that it’s *motorbiking* that prompts remarks of ‘temporary NZ-er’ and ‘so dangerous’. Motorbikes are pretty dangerous, yes… but much less so if you don’t ride them like an idiot. Whereas however safely I ride my push bike I feel extremely exposed.

    The even more remarkable thing is that, amongst all the ongoing debate about rape victims and their rights and the universal guilt of the perpetrators of rape (however loosely defined), the general sentiment seems to be that vehicular manslaughter of cyclists is just fine! Run over a pedestrian – you’re going to hell. Run over a child – you’re going to hell. Run over a cyclists… well… I mean they *were* on the road. On a bike. So… is it really anyones fault? Unbelievable.
    The logic seems to be:
    a) Some cyclists are irresponsible pricks
    b) Some cyclists get killed while cycling
    -> Cyclists get killed while cycling because they’re irresponsible pricks.

    There has been some improvement in cycle infrastructure in Chch, and more planned, but I’m concerned it’s quite targeted at ‘recreational’ cyclists and children, to the exclusion of people who actually want to get somewhere. Which is unfortunate if it’s intended to address traffic congestion and pollution. Compared to what was available in Zurich it’s distressingly bad.

    I’m hoping to tackle the problem at the source.

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    • That is the logic. “I once saw a cyclist run a read! cyclist don’t obey rules. that’s why it’s okay if i kill them”.

      Cycle wellington did a impromptu survey of red light running at the intersection of Willis, Manners, and Boulcott Streets, during rush hour.
      http://cyclingwellington.co.nz/2013/12/cyclists-are-always-running-red-lights/

      14% of cyclist ran the red (this included cyclist who cycled through the pedestrian phase)
      23% of vehicles ran the red.

      Where’s the “motorists are always breaking the road rules! Motorists are terrible. They shouldn’t be allowed on our roads!”

      We’ve forgotten that roads were not invented for cars. Roads are almost as old as the wheel. They were used for bikes before cars were even invented. They were got horses, carts, walkers. How did cars come to think they own the road to the point they can kill other users without genuine penalty?

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    • LennyBoy says:

      Those “dangerous” bike lanes in Chch have led to a 23% reduction in cycle crashes – they’re not the be all and end all but they’re making life better for existing riders.
      As for the planned cycleways; they’re not generally aimed at “recreational cyclists” (although there are a couple of routes along the rivers); they’re aimed at those who don’t currently cycle because they’re worried about their safety. They want to get somewhere by bike too (just like existing riders) but need a bit more traffic separation or speed reduction. I think by-and-large the existing cycling population will also like what’s coming to Chch.
      But even then, we’ll still need to continue the public discussion about how all road users need to share the road, comply with the road rules, and tolerate their fellow travellers.

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  4. Thanks Lance, my comment was deleted to the Herald yesterday. Was fairly angry with how NZ keeps so sleepy on important issues. But well done for your article. It gave me a little hope as a cyclist myself but after reading so many comments underneath you article, I realised NZ is wow. Im so happy to be moving to Europe soon.

    Many of the comments to your article make me sick:
    Many of the “Hugely insightful and helpful comments where’: “Well the Biker went through a red light” or “the truck Driver had the Green” it the bikers fault. Thats NZ intelligence for you.

    It makes me sick and as a confident bike rider I know even will stop using mine.

    Generally New Zealand hates bikers loves cars.

    The only way to win the battle would be in the courts with Criminal prosecution of the Truck Driver, Len Brown, etc, transport agency etc.

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  5. dangerpossum says:

    On my ride into work yesterday, on Fitzgerald Ave (6 lanes) I had a small dump truck blow past me in the left lane, nearly clipping me with its extended wing mirror. I caught up with it at the next light where it was turning left (I came up on its right side as I was going straight) and I told the driver that I was troubled by how little space he’d given me when he passed me. He rolled down the window and smuggly said “Well you should’ve been farther over on the side of the road” and then drove off as the light changed.

    I rode on *fuming*. What an asshole. Because he absent-mindely decided I was cycling too far out in the lane, which is my legal right (he, of course, was ignorant of this) to avoid the radii of parked car doors, he frickin’ *risked my life* and then was callous about it. Even if he was right about my riding in the road (which he’s not), the issue is he didn’t *give a shit* about threatening my safety – I’m a complete stranger whose never done a thing against him in my life – for his simple convenience/laziness. That, my friends, is a fundamentally broken culture. What do we do about it?

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  6. Thanks for the article Lance,
    Politically enough voices can make a difference and work towards lowering the incidence of accidents. Having moved form Melbourne to the Hawkes Bay I am appalled by the road use and habits of car drivers of all denomination and age.i thought riding in Nz would be fun. It’s frightening and for my boys and I ravelling by bike is our only transport 5 days a week.

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  7. Incidentally, some countries/states/cities allow cyclists to ride through red lights, for safety reasons.

    This allows cyclist to get through in the few seconds before the green, avoiding the a common danger zone (and a car with a new green overtakes and the one behind hits the cyclist) .. and other scenarios. The multi-lane layout at traffic lights i just plain dangerous to cyclists surrounded by drivers who aren’t paying attention.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/9067129/Paris-cyclists-given-right-to-break-traffic-laws.html
    http://thecityfix.com/blog/paris-allows-cyclists-to-run-red-lights/
    http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2013/sep/27/new-law-lets-cyclists-go-through-stalled-red-light/
    http://www.vabike.org/va-cyclists-can-now-run-red-lights/

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  8. I’ve had the same experience so many times… It’s called fishtailing and this is what Auckland buses do. Because they haven’t learnt how to drive properly, to recognise the risk they expose riders to by doing that, disregarding the fact that below the helmet is an actual human being who doesn’t deserve to die. This sort of thing would never happen in Europe.

    However, I really disagree to blame the road layout for this, it’s the driver’s responsibility to adapt to the road layout, not the road’s fault for being ill adapted to the driver’s irresponsible driving. And you’re right, there needs to be a form of punishment for this sort of behaviour. It is actually punished under NZ law (careless use of a motor vehicle), the law just needs to be applied.

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  9. taffyjonah says:

    NZ needs a massive dose of grow up when it comes to road use. Three immediate easy fixes – compulsory driving lessons for all learners from a qualified driving instructor (not on the paddock or with Mum and Dad where all the bad habits are passed inter-generationally), dedicated cycle lanes that are separate from cars. How hard would it be to close two or three roads into the CBD of each town to cars and open to just bikes and pedestrians? Thirdly there has to be proper punishment of dangerous driving. I too am a cycle commuter in Christchurch, and have considered buying a camera to record near misses etc but really what will the police do? I occasionally go onto the police website and report a dangerous driver but really it is mainly for my sanity…

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  10. Barb Insull says:

    Thank you Lance for your intelligent methodical description of the issues facing those of us who cycle for transport in Auckland.
    Will you send this video to the bus company?
    I know NZ Bus are giving their drivers training in sharing the road safely with cyclists. They have a high staff turnover so perhaps they need to up the number of courses they run.
    And thank you to the trail of responders who added usefully to the solution finding.

    I live in Brighton Road where motor traffic is stopped from 7.30 to 9 every weekday. Mostly one person per car.
    I choose to ride into the CBD – down Gladstone Road to the Strand and left into Quay St, or down Parnell Rise and across the Strand onto Beach road. (I get to share the bus lane this way.)

    I arrive in Queen street in 12 minutes and am sitting in a meeting room in 15 minutes.

    These are my only 2 bike routes to town.
    My other option is to ride to Newmarket -congested and dangerous with long light phases, make my way down to the platform in the lift, and then wait for a train to Britomart. But it’s the concern that I will not be allowed on with my bike when the train is full of commuters that prevents me from taking the train.

    (I am an experienced and determined bike commuter – I would not recommend other Aucklanders take my route unless they have been trained/buddied to a suitable commute skill level.)

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  11. taffyjonah says:

    http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists – some very interesting thoughts and ideas to implement.

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