Of mateship and machismo. Driving in Australia.

Every country has its own driving culture. When coming back to Australia a year ago I was surprised to find that road safety hadn’t improved a bit since I was here in 1996 and that a dead cyclist was still “just a cyclist”. What’s wrong with Australian drivers?

A recent published article from the State of Australian Cities Conference 2013 found that “Australia (with Canada) are the only OECD countries where cyclist’s deaths increased in the period 2000 to 2011”. A cyclist in Victoria is five times more likely to be killed in traffic than a cyclist in Denmark.
Whereas these figures do not really surprise me but rather confirm my feelings, they are nevertheless worrisome. Being an active cyclist and having been engaged in mobility behaviour (with some formal background) and road safety questions for many years, I’ve been mulling over the subject driving behaviour in Australia for many months, particularly after having suffered a life-changing accident at the start of this year. What I found is that there are many factors contributing to an increasing hazard for cyclists in Australia and that while everyone seems to pride themselves for how cycling has become part of our daily life, little has effectively been done to mitigate the risks of accidents to occur.

First and probably most obvious is a lack of infrastructure. That is, not only a lack of amenities for cyclists but a lack of transport infrastructure in general. It seems quite obvious that the more frequented traffic systems the more prone to accidents they are and that where more different road users come together, the risk of incidents increases, with cyclists being member of a very vulnerable road user group likely suffering injuries that can be severe to fatal.
Now, those who believe that the only way out was separate lanes for cyclists are totally wrong. This is not only a very expensive version but has its own limits. Studies prove that separate lanes for cyclists increase the risk of accidents where lanes are non-existent. Sharing is definitely the better solution. However, for this we need to change traffic priorities and behaviour.
In Australia, road infrastructure has been focused on cars (and trucks) for decades. Whereas modern city planning tries to eliminate cars and trucks from inner suburbs[1], Melbourne as an example does exactly the opposite with Mr Napthine & Co. imposing some very absurd tunnel on the city and bringing even more cars and trucks into an already overloaded transport hub. Unfortunately, it is not possible to solve today’s problems by building infrastructure based on concepts of a former era and tailored for yesterday knowing that tomorrow’s needs will have totally changed by the time the infrastructure will be ready to be used[2].

Knowledge and skills
Not wanting to offend anyone and being aware that worldwide driving skills are not sufficient compared to the hazard “modern” cars represent, I can’t help but find driving skills and traffic knowledge to be shockingly poor in Australia. There are hundreds of road law infringements one can observe on a daily basis even without being an expert. When talking to friends or riding in their cars, I’m astonished of how little they actually know about traffic rules and how normally it is for example to cross a continuous line, not with the aim to breach the law, but believing to be doing what is correct!

Where I grew up, children went to school cycling and consequently we had to learn traffic rules from early childhood on. Every year some policemen would come to our school, setting up a course and teaching us how to correctly manoeuvre in traffic. The focus was particularly on how to manage crossing intersection and where to ride your bicycle when there were several lanes. From friends I learn that no such thing is or has ever been done in Australia. It might explain, why nobody understand how and where cyclist should ride when crossing an intersection and why statistics from Victoria “show that 60% of reported cyclist casualties occur at intersections…most are caused by motor vehicles failing to give way.

There is more to that. In Australia, as elsewhere, it is possible that you made your driving license thirty years ago, at a time when traffic was much less dense and less complex and when cars were much smaller than today, and still, you are allowed to drive a 5809 pound heavy SUV[3] as it would be the most normal thing in the world. An outdated driving license is sufficient for what you should actually be required to hold a license to kill[4].
Theoretically it is also possible (and done in practice) that drivers immigrating to Australia can have their overseas license changed into an Australian one and thus obtain the right to drive without ever having spent a minute driving in a vehicle before![5]

I find it extremely disturbing almost being hit by cars on a daily basis simply because car drivers don’t know the rules or even more, can’t judge distances and hence don’t manoeuvre their cars correctly[6], leaving only a few centimetres between me as a cyclist and the car, whereas on the driver side they still have over one meter left to the middle line. The same is common for trucks and buses, drivers unlikely ever having been on a bicycle and hence not being able to imagine what risk the resulting maelstrom composes for the cyclist, if they speed by at maximal velocity that closely.

Culture and habits
Australian politics are largely dominated by a very conservative and sexist thinking, part of that attitude being reflected in a culture that to a large extend is affected by widespread machismo. It’s definitely still “cooler” to tune one’s car and to drive reckless instead of cycling, catching public transport or giving way to the more vulnerable road user.
Politics has its share in this: by introducing a mandatory helmet law in the early 1990s, the burden of responsibility for cyclists was increased by subversively turning the victim into an offender[7]. Nowadays politics primarily target at winning elections and in a country where the big majority drives a car it’s evident that to win polls policies need to address drivers desires and not achieve safety for citizens in the first hand.
The fact that in times of mandatory climate targets tax payer money still mainly flows into road infrastructure instead of public transport is unacceptable and only makes the problem worse.
There are many more pieces that add to a car-centric culture. As a pedestrian I am scandalized to each time having to push a button before being allowed to cross a road in the city centre, whereas car drivers can park almost anywhere they like.
All this reflects one major attitude, an attitude to which so many Aussies got used to over the last decades and that is “me, here and now”. We life in a country and time of plenty and for many, sharing seems not an option. In such a culture it’s clear that the losers are the (physically) weak, which in traffic are pedestrians and cyclists.

Correction measures and punishment
As I have already mentioned above, breaching of traffic rules is quite common. Unfortunately, those responsible for enforcement of law and to make our roads safer are themselves affected by widespread machismo. Whereas members of the police don’t refrain from punishing a young female riding a bicycle without wearing a helmet by issuing a hefty fine, they are very happy to look away if an older man in a fancy sports-car is disrespecting a traffic light. “Squeezing in” at lights during peak traffic hours and then getting stuck in the middle of a pedestrian crossing is so common in Melbourne that without knowing the rules an outsider would believe it to be the norm, not an offense. And despite the fact that it is unlawful and causes more traffic congestion, I’ve never seen any punishment for such behaviour, pedestrians having to walk around the car in big circles[8].
If one year after a hit-and-run accident a car driver is still driving around freely only because the case has not yet been brought to court and it took more than eleven months just to get a police report, not only the system is corrupt but the police useless as well. To me it’s clear that similar to politicians members of the police force don’t see a priority in making our roads safer and/or traffic more efficient but have their own goals whatever they may be.

Conclusion and a way forward
Australia definitely has a traffic problem. Whereas the causes are manifold, it is always good trying to improve the situation by comparing with and learning from others. While in the context of cycling this is largely done with cyclo-centric cities such as Kopenhagen and Amsterdam, it might also be helpful to compare general culture and habits with comparable cities/countries.
From all the places I have lived or spent longer periods of time in I find that Portugal comes very close to Australia in terms of traffic behaviour. Whereas citizens in both countries are very friendly, calm and polite, they become reckless and selfish drivers once they sit in their cars. It might be coincidence that both countries dispose of a very conservative machismo culture controlled by even more conservative and oppressive politics. Yet, it might also explain that when driving their car[9], people demonstrate what they are not meant to talk about in society and instead of speaking out loudly, they express their frustrations with selfish and aggressive driving skills.

I believe that above all, we need to talk about things and find a way forward together instead of everyone being frustrated and relieving their anger where it jeopardizes the integrity of others, that is, on the road. We are all the same in this game and working together[10] instead of against one another will bring more road safety and comfort for all of us. In the end, roads have been built over centuries to connect people, not to set them against each other.

More cycling should be encouraged for many reasons and in contrast to what many want us make believe, cycling is not dangerous, be it with or without separate cycle lanes or wearing helmets. What is a danger are other traffic members who don’t recognize the vulnerability of cyclists. What we need is a general better understanding of traffic rules, more mateship than machismo on our roads and policies and infrastructure that are made for the future, based on newest standards and knowledge, not such of the past. Then a presently acute traffic problem will be solved single-handedly.

[1] Not only big cities such as London who has introduced a road taxing in the inner city, also smaller cities have been working on restricting road use in inner cities. In Europe even cities with populations below 20’000 don’t allow people to park their car for free and almost everywhere as is the case in Melbourne. In Switzerland it’s quite common that neighbourhoods have speed limits of 30km/h and that parking for cars is heavily limited with accordant room for cyclists and pedestrians.

[2] In other words: the Napthine government comes up with a technocratic approach that was typical for the post-WWII era based on teachings from the 1940s and tries to solve Melbourne’s traffic problem of twenty years ago knowing that population and traffic will have increased further by the time his East West Link horror will be built without being aware that looking backwards is definitely not the right strategy for a way forward.

[3] See e.g. the Audi Q7.

[4] Studies have shown that the shape (particularly front height) of SUV cars make them to very effective killers and that in contrast to “normal cars” even at low speed accidents with pedestrians are usually fatal for latter. Consequently, the EU and Switzerland have been working on accordant legislation to regulate their use. See here for more information.

[5] There are certain nations, where prior driving is not mandatory to obtain a driving license for cars. Nevertheless persons from such countries can have their license changed to an Australian one if they are over 25 years old without having to take any sort of test.

[6] Folks, to be frankly: those of you who can’t even park sideways into a normal parking spot without correcting several times should definitely consider having some driving lessons before getting back on the road. And all those that don’t know the difference between a broken and a continuous line (apart from one using more paint to apply) please read here.

[7] For those who don’t see the correlation: helmet laws don’t bring any safety for cyclist. Instead, they shift the responsibility for reckless behaviour of other traffic members to the cyclist by saying “we told you cycling was dangerous” in case of an accident. For a good and objective discussion of the topic please see here.

[8] Besides of getting a fine, a car driver in Switzerland would be punished for such an attitude by pedestrians kicking in their door or simply walking over the bonnet of their car!

[9] It has been showed in studies that people change their behaviour and perception while driving in their own car. Separated from others and protected in their own private walls, they see themselves not as equal partners in a traffic system, but individuals that have their own goal controlling the means to achieve it.

[10] I had a nice experience on my bicycle trip through Victoria: in rural areas and less frequented roads, car drivers wave even at cyclist, just as a gesture to make sure that both parties are OK. To me it is exactly such behaviour that helps change peoples’ minds.

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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4 Responses to Of mateship and machismo. Driving in Australia.

  1. crank says:

    When I was in primary school in Perth we absolutely learnt about riding and traffic rules. In fact we even went to some police facility with a little mock-up road system where we would ride around, learn how to properly stop at stop signs and lights, cross and so on. This was in the 80s, possibly there were differences from state-to-state. We all rode to school, and school had an annual bike fete or something – I only remember winning the “slow bike race”! 🙂

  2. nick s says:

    Coming fro northern europe I am appalled daily at the terrible standard of driving in australia, both lacking in even basic skill and judgment. No idea at al, combined with a hatred of cyclists as unaustralian treehuggers. Why this massive cognitive deficit as standard is a mystery, but politicians, police and many experts exhibit the same lack of understanding.

  3. Pingback: East West Link, civil disobedience and the question of when it’s time we stand up against governmental crimes | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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