You never really forget what a close pass feels like. You’re tootling happily along on your bike and then, without warning, a motor vehicle roars past, sometimes close enough to touch. Even when it’s not that close, the noise and the air pressure fluctuations of a close pass are enough to get your heart racing. In an instant they can turn a joyful activity into a thing of terror. They’re intimidating and they discourage people from ever getting on a bike. And, in New Zealand, they’re completely legal.
If Patrick Morgan gets his way, that will change. Patrick is Cycling Action Network’s project manager and he’s the closest thing we have to a national voice for cyclists. His current campaign: Give Me Room, an online petition for a safe passing rule. It asks the government to regulate against close passes. We asked Patrick to explain the why and the when of Give Me Room:
Why the petition?
The law doesn’t offer enough protection for people on bikes. There’s a guideline in the road code to leave a 1.5 metre gap but it lacks the force of law. Simply put, people on bikes deserve the protection of the law. A safe passing law was recommended by the New Zealand Cycle Safety Panel in 2014 and safe passing laws are common in Europe and most Australian states.
It’s not just about people on bikes; it also protects people on foot, law enforcement and road workers.
To be clear, I’m not saying that a law will eliminate close passing. But it will do two things. One, it will make it clear what safe overtaking looks like. And it will give police the possibility of taking action. Currently they are very reluctant to prosecute unless contact has been made, which is totally unsatisfactory.
The other benefit of a rule change is that it starts a new conversation about what safe overtaking looks like. Discussions with the media, face-to-face, driving instructors, police messaging – all those conversations.
If a safe passing rule was recommended four years ago, why don’t we have one yet?
It was probably put into the too-hard basket by the previous government. But I know the current government is considering it right now. This petition will demonstrate to the government that there’s a lot of public support for laws that protect people on bikes.
The next step is that the minister has to take it to her cabinet colleagues and get the ok to go out to consultation. I believe her maternity leave has delayed that stage somewhat, but we expect it will happen early next year.
There will be other things the government will consult on at the same time, such as footpath cycling for children and changing the give-way rules at side roads. There will be a range of things; some will be more controversial than others. A safe passing rule will be part of a package of changes the government is considering.
What evidence is there that legislating a 1.5 metre gap makes cycling safer?
The experience in Queensland, for example, was that when they evaluated their rule, they found that there was in fact benefit. Vehicle drivers were giving more space to people on bikes. Getting passed too close is really scary and it puts people off bikes. We need fewer barriers to cycling, not more barriers.
What are the realistic chances of success for Give Me Room?
The chances are better than 50 percent. We’ve got transport ministers who are ambitious for road safety. We’ve also got a transport agency and organisations like Auckland Transport which have put safety at the top of their priorities. The question is: can the ministers persuade their cabinet colleagues that this is a safe move?
Do you have a target for signatures?
No. We’re just over 2,000 at the moment. When the government announces the consultation over the safe passing rule, I think there will be a lot more interest at that point.