What is a cyclist’s life worth in Australia?

At the beginning of this year, only three months after arriving in Australia, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle. What shocked me at the beginning doesn’t surprise me that much after having lived here for nearly a year. A cyclist’s life has no value down-under; a lesson you better learn before yours is taken.

It happened on New Year’s Day. One of the few New Year’s Days in my life I will never forget. A sunny day, hot and quiet – the ideal day for a ride on my bicycle. What started as a wonderful ride ended abruptly when at around 3pm I was taken off my saddle by an “incautious” car driver. The lady, probably still in her 20s, was on a different trip than I was. On her way back from a New Year’s Eve party, she tried to cope with her drug and alcohol level rather than with sun and heat from which she was well protected in her air conditioned BMW. The poison in her body was still enough to encourage her yelling at me (still on the ground, trying to grasp some breath) once she had realized that I was still alive. From her point of view I was the one to blame, since I had been in her way. What? If I couldn’t believe my ears at that moment, now I understand all the better. Which idiot would ride a bicycle in Australia knowing that roads belong to trucks and cars?

I don’t want to write about how the accident changed my life, how I suffer a trauma ever since and how my shoulder hurts every two out of three days. I had never imagined ending up being a cripple before turning forty, and less so because of a drunk driver, but what can we do about it? It must be part of life, bad luck. Wrong time, wrong place, and there you go. Just like this man two weeks ago in Queensland.

But let’s stop for a minute. Can one be in the wrong place at the wrong moment if what they are doing is correct and in line with law and order? Who exactly is to blame for an accident that wasn’t even an accident if it could have been avoided with the necessary responsibility and care of all participants, the victim and the offender? According to what I consider common sense probably the offender. But that is a weak point, simply because a car driver can’t be an offender. Not in Australia, at least.

The reason why cycling in Australia is so dangerous is the priority of cars over anything else, a fact reflected even in the current election campaign. All Abbott promises is plans to build more roads and that’s way enough to secure the majority of votes.
Cars are everything and they are everywhere. I have never seen more cars or traffic infringements in any developed country. Burnouts in the middle of a city with hundreds of people standing close by are common place in Melbourne, as are right-turns in no-turn areas and preferably over six lanes. Rules are for the records, the road for cowboys. If a pedestrian is crossing the road when they get a green light, car drivers get so close that one feels like not crossing any road ever again. To me it’s not clear if people don’t know any better or if they don’t care. Fact is none of it has consequences. In contrast, cyclists not wearing a helmet get heavy fines in Australia, another stupid rule that only targets at making cyclists weaker in traffic and pretending that it’s the helmet that decides over their safety. Let’s get this straight: cyclists will always lose against a car, due to their physical property. In order to make cycling safer, we should work as well on car drivers and on road safety, not only on cyclists.

That the contrary is the case reflects the status of cyclists in Australian’s life. Cyclists are like the headache you never asked for. If they are gone, everyone is happy. That’s probably one of the reasons why road safety is non-existent for cyclists. In the few places where there are cycle lanes, cyclists have to share them with parked cars and mind you, if you come too close to one of those: people give a shit when getting out of their car because they know that it’s you who will get hurt when you run into their open door, so why bothering?

bike and open doorPhoto: The Age “Dooring fears prompt bike lane rethink

Disclosing that you prefer your bicycle over a car makes you as suspicious as if outing yourself being a vegetarian. What you get in return is more than the simple “you shouldn’t ride a bicycle, it’s too dangerous here”. I often notice signs of disappointment, in some cases even disgust, a feeling otherwise hardly experienced in Australia.

Low credits and antipathy for cyclists are also shared by police officers. In my case, I still haven’t even seen a police report and it seems that all they are waiting for is me to give up bothering them. The driver, who hit the road the second I uttered the word police, has not yet been interviewed. The officer in charge claims that it wasn’t possible, despite of knowing her. With the help of witnesses they found the car parked in front of the owner’s house only minutes after the accident, apparently with scratches from the bicycle that confirmed the findings. However, since the owner didn’t open the door when the police knocked, she is free to drive and kill more cyclists up until today.
Justice is only possible where law is enforced. Where people look away, right is not any different from left and in Victoria police officers have better things to do than protecting cyclists anyway. Why should they care, if in the meantime their colleagues earn some good extra money, dealing with drugs?

I certainly learned my lesson. Cycling in Australia is not only dangerous, it’s deadly. And it’s costly, too. The damages I have incurred – $800 in reparation costs for an almost new bicycle, the pain I suffered plus the time I couldn’t work – are not paid for. In Australia you need to wear a helmet to ride a bicycle, but you don’t need to have liability insurance if driving a car, nor do you need to know the traffic rules. Hence, when it comes to an accident, besides of being victim the cyclist is likely to pay for the costs. In any other country with right of law the drunk-driver would no longer own a car or hold a driving license and if I’d live in the US, I would likely be entitled to sue the driver (or in the worst the state) in order to get a compensation for the damages suffered.

All that is wish-thinking. To claim one’s rights the written law is not enough, there also needs to be someone to enforce it. In a country where cowboys reign, kangaroos have no rights. Nor do cyclists have enough value to deserve protection.

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About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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13 Responses to What is a cyclist’s life worth in Australia?

  1. echo says:

    Awful!!! So awful!! I only liked in support. That is a long time to wait for justice, she needs to be held accountable! Unfortunately, a similar thing would happen in many places here in the US…people drive drunk all the time and barely get a slap on the wrist. It’s like everything is set up just to keep people driving.

    Geez. I wish you the best of luck. Is there possibly an attorney who specializes in bike issues? Many cyclists in Chicago, IL (where I live) have to turn to a lawyer cuz the police don’t (can’t) do enough quick enough

  2. Marcus says:

    Regarding liability insurance for motorists in Victoria: it is built into the cost of vehicle registrations, and the government’s Transport Accident Commission compensates anyone injured in road related accidents – further details at their web page:

    http://www.tac.vic.gov.au/claims/What-to-do-if-youve-had-an-accident/who-can-claim

    The claim process will probably involve a lawyer.

    • blaubear says:

      Thanks Marcus for your comment.

      The problem with TAC is that they only cover health expenses (not any damage to the bicycle or equipment such as bike clothes, broken sunglasses etc.).

      In terms of health costs their coverage is also quite ridiculous. As regards my shoulder, they were so kind to pay for a physio treatment (10visits). However, since their maximal reimbursement is not even half the rate normal physios ask for, it means that I would spend even more money.
      And since I am a consultant (means not someone working in a coal mine or at a construction site) the doctor thought a medical certificate to stay at home (first days after the accident) wasn’t necessary…apparently, a consultant doesn’t do work that is worth compensation.
      It’s all just ridiculous!

  3. Judy Hembrow says:

    I hope you will make a full recovery very soon. It really is a place I couldn’t live being a cyclist and a vegan!! We run Study Tours here in Assen in The Netherlands, check out our page if you’ve got time. hembrow.eu Best wishes.

  4. Charlie says:

    Good luck with your recovery, but I can’t agree with the overly dramatic sentiment in your writing. Australia has probably more and stricter rules for everything we do than most western countries, and that includes driving. The burnout, turning right across 6 lanes, etc, is against the law and if caught offenders usually punished through loss of points and hefty fines. The girl that hit you, has broken the law also, and to act like she is a typical Australian driver is again, a bit sensationalised
    I ride a bike, commuted in Sydney for 6 years by bike, ride recreationally on weekends, and now that I live in Canberra cycle approximately 15 hours per week, all of it on the road. I find most drivers naive, but not malicious. I’ve been bumped by cars, accidentaly, i’ve been hit by kangaroos, I’ve broken my collarbone and scapula. My wife has shattered her arm and dislocated her elbow. My son has broken his wrist. I’ve spent a fortune on bikes and bike bits, but I now insure my bikes for a few measly dollars per month. I get the odd bit of anti-social behaviour, through a honk or a 1 finger salute, but not enough to make me generalise about all drivers.
    But none of this bothers me a bit because my love of cycling is way greater than harping on about dangers, killers on the road, the”deadly” roads, etc. I’ve been caught in conversations with such people and it get a bit boring
    I hope you rediscover the joys of riding, which unfortunately for many is fraught with fear, bitterness and blame, else find a passion that will help you move on

    • blaubear says:

      Hi Charlie
      Well, I’m happy for you that you could put all this aside. It probably also depends on the individual situation. I have lost friends due to traffic accidents and don’t agree with you that it’s the cyclists that should or can protect themselves with an insurance. Many Aussies feel offended whenever someone says against them or the country, which in my case makes the thing and my individual recovery way worse.
      Believe me that I rode my bike in many countries and in traffic that was definitely more dangerous (in Saigon, Vietnam for example). However, it is a question of respect and openness to address such an issue, not to downplay it.
      In other places they work on it. Maybe talking about it will help to do the same in Australia.
      Cheers and good luck.

  5. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.

    I do think that you need to write more about this
    issue, it may not be a taboo matter but usually people don’t speak about these issues.
    To the next! All the best!!

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