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?
Photo: 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.