What is ‘normal’? (An open letter-of sorts-to Coroner Gordon Matenga)

The recent comments by the Coroner have led me to thinking about ‘what is normal?’ The coroner is considering introducing compulsory hi-vis and making the use of cycle lanes compulsory. These moves would drive New Zealand in the exact opposite direction of the countries where cycling is considered ‘normal’ and ‘safe’. While the safety of cycling in NZ has room for improvement, I have yet to find an example where making hi-vis compulsory has led to a safer cycling environment. This is because no other country has even considered it. Improving infrastructure, and thereby obtaining critical mass, are the only sensible and effective solutions to the question of cycling safety… and worldwide they are considered the most ‘normal’ and obvious approaches. So, given the obvious benefits of increased cycling and the interest in improving safety, why isn’t NZ investing in these measures? This leads me to think about what most New Zealanders consider to be ‘normal’…

Every morning we get up out of our ergonomically designed beds, wash ourselves under warm water which is delivered to our house and heated without any effort from us, we eat our breakfast – perhaps bread baked and sliced, or cereal mixed and packaged, with milk which we buy in a tetrapak from a store which supplies all these things – and then some of us hop into two tonnes of steel and drive, at speeds well in excess of what we would otherwise be capable of, to our work, where many of us sit behind magical boxes that (arguably) have processing power more powerful than the human brain (unless you work in the public sector… I hear their computers are somewhat more archaic!).

Technology is a wonderful thing. Plumbing, sliced bread, cars, computers… yet only one of these things is responsible for a large number of unnecessary deaths and injuries. No, I’m not talking about sliced bread.

We take most modern gadgets and systems for granted. Cars have been around as long as any of us have been alive, and many of us cannot remember a time before computers. The convenience and time saved has enabled us to make many more discoveries and advancements. Our quality of life has improved immensely. The last one hundred years have been a spectacular period of progress for the human race. Yet sometimes we forget what the consequences of these ‘improvements’ are.

Of course, there are some obvious consequences which we are aware of. The effect on the environment and causes of pollution have been moving higher and higher up the political agenda over the past few decades, with good reason. These are issues which more and more people consider when choosing their mode of transport. Smaller cars, public transport, walking, scootering and cycling are becoming trendier… or so it seems. Which is great. New Zealand performs quite poorly when we look at health statistics – we live less and less active lives, and our bodies bear the burden of this.

What I’d like to know, is how did it become normal for us to choose to move two tonnes of steel to pop down the road to buy a litre of milk? When did it become normal for us to accept the hundreds of deaths annually and many more injuries caused by use of these motorised metal boxes?

If you look at the impact of these choices on our most vulnerable citizens, our kids, it seems outrageous that we sit back and accept it. About 10% of all unintended child injury deaths are caused by vehicles hitting child pedestrians. What’s worse, is that 17% of child deaths involves children as passengers in motor vehicles.

I rarely travel more than a few hundred metres down the road (whether walking, by bike, or in a car) before seeing someone breaking the road rules or doing something incredibly stupid and dangerous. Lack of indicating, illegal parking, using cell phones, speeding, and the worst in my book, running red lights, are everyday, mundane parts of any traffic encounter. We expect it. We joke about it; “You don’t need to indicate in this town; everyone knows where everyone else lives”. Just yesterday I saw a car run a red light in front of a police car. And they got away with it. There isn’t the level of responsibility – the seriousness – placed on it that seems only reasonable to me. We aren’t held to account. Collisions are called ‘accidents’, and if you appear sorry enough, you won’t be held responsible. Even financially – your insurance takes care of that. You aren’t stung for your mistakes in any meaningful way.

Driving is normal. We do it everyday. (Well, maybe not the audience reading a cycling blog…) It’s become such an extension of who we are, as modern humans, that we place very little thought on it. We eat while driving, we chat, sometimes on the phone, have meetings, we search our handbags for things, read maps, drink coffee, listen to music, yell at talkback stations, yell at other drivers, we plan our day, think about our lives… some of us live in our cars. It’s not unusual for people to spend more time in their cars on their daily commute, than sitting down eating during the course of a day. Only one of these things is essential for our survival. Some spend more time in a vehicle than they do sleeping.

Motor vehicles are an integral part of our society. But they are also lethal in the wrong hands. Excepting that there are always idiots out there who will drink and drive, or speed. Those people are already targeted by very expensive advertising campaigns, which will never reach everyone. But what about those ordinary folks who have slipped back into bad habits? I see more people talking on phones now while driving than I ever noticed before the law was changed. Maybe I just pay more attention now? About half of drivers seem to have forgotten the new Give Way rules already, by my count. This is indicative, I think, of how blasé many drivers out there are about driving. It’s not a big deal, of no consequence, to occasionally do something you’re not supposed to.

I’m not a stickler to the rules. I’ll admit to receiving a few speeding tickets in my younger days. And I’ve gotten away with more dodgey parking than I should have. We live and learn. Perhaps I’m lucky though – my mother briefly was a driving instructor and my father is ex-military – so I had a very thorough driving education. I knew the Give Way rules and could pass a theory exam at age 8, which shows that they really aren’t that complicated. And I never forget what it is I’m doing… I’m driving around two-tonne of steel, at speeds I’m not capable of reaching by any other means, and any slip up, any moment of inattention, could be that moment – the one where you f**k up and hit someone.

No one who has accidentally hit someone has intended to do so. That’s the definition of the word ‘accident’. Almost all those people would have thought at the time that they were taking reasonable care. How many were? How many actually took the responsibility they held over other peoples lives seriously? How many of them, how many of you, think that driving is ‘normal’?

The message I’d like to send to the coroner – and the many police officials who make silly comments in response to cycling accidents – is that the problem isn’t that cyclists aren’t visible enough. The problem is that cyclists aren’t seen.  You can’t fix that by applying the band aid that is hi-vis. If that worked the cyclists who were wearing hi vis when killed would still be with us today. Drivers need to be more attentive. They need to be on the look out for potential hazards. Defensive driving courses should be compulsory. Drivers who have lost their license need to earn it back. They need to realise that driving isn’t normal. It’s a privilege. Drivers kill and injure more people than there are cyclists on our streets. It’s time to stop ignoring the elephant on the roads.

If Coroner Gordon Matenga wants to effect real change, and make New Zealand roads a safer and more pleasant environment for all road users, he would recommend compulsary cycling and driving training at schools. He would recommend better infrastructure above all else. Cycle lanes that don’t end after three metres, or at a pinch point. Roads which aren’t too narrow to share. Bike lanes which aren’t in car door zones. Bike traffic lights. Simple effective infrastructure and education, as seen in many countries around the world.

The Coroner should look at why cyclists behave the way they do – why would someone choose to share a congested road rather than ride on a cycle lane? Why would someone risk getting ticketed for running a red light, when they’re the one likely to be injured by doing so? Why would you ride on the footpath rather than on the road? It’s all about infrastructure and education. Because you can’t fix every problem with some Styrofoam and shiny yellow fabric.

Cycling isn’t dangerous. Cycling in an unsafe environment is. In a world where driving is the norm, we need to consider how this impacts on the rest of our society. The decision-makers and important people in this country need to stop blaming victims and accept some responsibility for their mistakes, or their lack of care. They need to be held to account. If we want to change the norm, it appears we will need to fight for it.

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26 thoughts on “What is ‘normal’? (An open letter-of sorts-to Coroner Gordon Matenga)

  1. Very good article.

    Automobiles seems to be one of mans means of self population control! Vehicles claim an equivalent of a 747 crashing everyday. That’s about 45,000 people a year.

    Education for drivers and cyclists is the ONLY way forward. Putting a target on the cyclist is not the way forward.

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  3. Ash

    Mr Coroner, why not mandatory helmets for skiers? I suffered a concussion from falling of a snowboard about 15 years ago.

    Also, Nigel mentions a figure of 45,000 per year killed by motor vehicles, but the actual figure is closer to 1.2 million.

    “Worldwide it was estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) and 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions.[1][41] India recorded 105,000 traffic deaths in a year, followed by China with over 96,000 deaths.[42] This makes motor vehicle collisions the leading cause of injury death among children worldwide 10 – 19 years old (260,000 children die a year, 10 million are injured)[43] and the sixth leading preventable cause of death in the United States[44] (45,800 people died and 2.4 million were injured in 2005).[45] In Canada they are the cause of 48% of severe injuries.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_collision#Epidemiology

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  4. Peter Mackenzie

    Hilleke’s article highlights a number of key issues about cycling – and road safety in general.

    In regard to visibility, I disagree about the need for high-viz, but I question the need and benefit of making such things compulsory.

    Taking to the streets on a bicycle or motorcycle means you will be put at risk on every ride, as Hilleke alludes to. Even if you take the utmost care and don’t make mistakes, there’s a bunch of drivers out on the roads who are going to try and ram you- mostly by mistake – but that’s cold comfort when a lump of bone-crushing vehicle is heading directly towards you at speed.

    “You’re on your own” featured on one Tasmanian Government advert on road safety for motorcyclists, and applies just as much to bicyclists.

    In both cases, you need to realise sooner rather than later how to be alert to, and avoid as much as possible, the errors of other road users, and in worse case scenarios, learn the ungentle art of evasion and that applies to drivers and riders.

    As Hilleke also notes, one of the scariest parts if this is that most of this dangerous activity is almost all hidden from authorities, which seriously skews data, and opportunities for change.

    Why I disagree with Hilleke over high-viz, is because I have studied on-road driving and riding behaviour for 40+ years. What becomes clear over time is that while I need to be attentive, I need to be able to see erring road users – including bicyclists- in time to slow, and where necessary take evasive action.

    That bit of fluoro on the back of a runner’s Nikes, or the fluoro on a rider’s jacket alerts me earlier and gives me extra distance and time to assess the situation, and really that can be the “last line of defence” between crash and non-crash, between safety and injury or death.

    Bicyclists in Australia are in the forefront of detecting infrastructure hazards and motorist’s unsafe behaviour (I don’t know much about the NZ situation, but it’s not a case of one or the other – we need better infrastructure, better driver training, education and monitoring – but that will never negate needing as I said, the last line of defence through the ungentle art of evasion, which is still far better than the alternative. It’s like a big jigsaw, and we need all the pieces.

    Hope that makes sense.

    Peter Mackenzie
    TVT Transport Development and Road Safety Research
    Wesbury, Tasmania

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    1. On roads where the council or government takes the attitude that “you’re on your own” and ignores riders legitimate safety needs, what you say is probably true. But is that really good enough?

      Overseas experience shows that true safety measures that work properly are things like separated cycleways, not leaving riders to battle it out on inappropriate mixed-vehicle roads requiring hi-viz.

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    2. Tim

      Thanks for the comments Peter, how ever I don’t agree on the subject of Hi-Vis.

      Forcing a cyclist to wear a uniform which makes us the same colour as road side signs or road side workers does not make it safer. They are stationary, we are moving. I have worn the “floro vest” and in the time it took me to ride across town had 3 close calls. Same journey wearing the typical cycling shirt with multiple colours that move with me and no one pulled out or cut me off.
      I spoke with one of the people who had pulled out in front of me, they simply said they saw the floro, but didn’t expect it to move so didn’t allow room or time.
      This experience is very much repeated by other cyclists I know and talk with.

      The real key is making the people responsible for lax driving, inattentive driving etc accountable under law. All to often we hear of incidents and no prosecution takes place and the police declare is as just another accident. Accidents happen due to inattention and arrogance.

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  5. Peter Mackenzie

    Gidday Lisa, thanks for your response.

    I think fully separated cycleways, rather than painted bikelanes on roads are generally safer, but then I am in the ‘chicken’ brigade who don’t ride at all, so definately not in the 1% of riders who will bravely ride city streets as much as rural roads.

    But even on separated cycleways, (I think) you will still need to interface with roads and drivers somewhere.

    So good visibility will still be important, especially given the increase in texting, iphoning youngsters and an eyesight/perception diminishing ageing population (I am generalising).

    And in Australia at least, a continually growing freight truck and delivery van vehicle population.

    In regard to “your’e on your own’, I believe that attitude from government is just plain wrong, and illegal. But changing that culture is painfully slow. The story is complicated, but I would be happy to pen a separate article as it relates to bicyclists, if anyone is interested. As I mentioned earlier, bicylists in Australia are rightly taking these issues up to government.

    In Tassie, we still have many cyclists who will ride on 100km country roads, especially those training for competition. So they won’t want separate cycleways.

    But there are significant risks involving the speed differences between bikes and drivers, coupled to the lack of attention, alertness and ability of car drivers. Particularly where drivers come up on a bicycle (s) and overtake without any caution.

    I have been dragged into a number of scary situations from being the driver coming from the opposite direction, and have had to run off the side of the road. Not always good on our narrow roads without proper verges.

    That’s enough rave from me, hope it might be of interest to NZ riders.

    Cheers

    Peter Mackenzie

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    1. In countries with good cycle infrastructure any interaction between riders and drivers is managed by good design. I’ll put up a video about good intersection design tomorrow.

      Essentially, visibility is infrastructural, not personal, which is much the best way.

      Not quite sure why roadies wouldn’t want safe, separated cycle lanes? They might not want to ride at the same speed or in the same places as commuters etc, but there’s no reason that their needs can’t be designed for.

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  6. Gary

    I am an Ozzie who lived in NZ for a couple of years and loved it, I would just like to say we all give up our freedoms today to easily. Police the drivers and riders, build respect between them. Don’t make childish rules which wont do a thing to help the problem. Apart from all that you could never build bike lanes on those wonderful NZ roads.
    G

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  7. Michael

    I am a NZer that has been living in the netherlands for the last 10 yesrs. people do not wear helmets when cycling and hi res clothing is not compulsory but i bet the deaths per capita are lower. There are three things that definitely help 1. apart cycle lanes (not all lanes are apart but on high traffic roads definitely). 2 a culture of if a car hits a biker the car is always in the wrong. 3. driver and cyclist education. children complete a cycling road rules certificate at 6-7 years old.

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    1. Michael – your point 2 is not just cultural, it’s a legal presumption of liability. The onus is on the driver to prove that they WEREN’T in the wrong. I like that.

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  8. The only person you can control in this whole world is you – and that takes many years to learn.
    It’s all very well saying someone else should take responsibility for your safety when you ride a bike – but the consequences can be very painful and even fatal if the other person doesn’t do the right thing and you get hurt.
    The common sense thing is to be look after yourself – by being highly visible – using lights and appropriate clothing. Many riders may ignore this advice but it is still valid.
    From hard experience I have found a very simple device to keep me much safer when riding on the road. This is to wear the equivalent of a keep right sign – which can go on your back, backpack, saddle or saddle bag.
    Do yourself a big favour – see for yourself how this works. Google missby1m or go to the blog spot: http://missby1m.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/overview_13.html
    I now get a much safer passing margin from overtaking traffic – with virtually no ‘near misses’.
    You can wear what you like – you don’t have to use lights – but this idea works!

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    1. Thanks, Jim, but I’d rather put my money and efforts towards making the roads safer for everyone. It’s my view that special clothing sends exactly the wrong message.

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  9. That we even debate that cyclists should wear bright clothing or take every care to be seen I find staggering! Infrastructure is a huge issue but this is something we can immediately. As cyclists we have a responsibility to be seen, if we cycle on the roads. For your safety as well as other vehicles. Your first line of defence is to be seen. Give motorists a chance to see you well beforehand. This is what we wrote in our last newsletter:

    BLACK IS DUMB!
    Don’t wear black tops. All drivers struggle to see cyclists on our roads wearing dark clothes. Use your head. If it is dark, overcast or there are shadows on the road – a driver will struggle to see you. You are most vulnerable from behind. Your first point of defence is being seen. Reflectors or bright booties (movement) on your feet, bright tops (yellow or red stand out the most), white helmets with reflectors and/or lights, white arm warmers, and flashing lights work best. Show some leadership and say something to your riding buddies if they are wearing dark clothes. You might just save their life. Black is not cool or slimming if you are flat on the road! BE SAFE, BE SEEN!

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  10. jakeonhisplanet

    The compulsion to wear hi-vis is wrong, at least without equity across road users.

    I quite happily wear it of my own accord, but until drivers are required to unlock their car by breath test, wear helmets and fire retardant suits, cyclists don’t need any more compulsory apparel laws.

    I wear hi-vis so as not to give anyone an excuse, as that is all the protection it can offer.

    I ride cycle lanes if they are going my way and are safe to use. If not, they are just diversions or death-funnels.

    Anyone care to print a run of ‘Excuse Proof’ or ‘Anti-SMIDSY’ tabards?

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  11. G Higgott

    If you follow the ” blame the victim” logic used by your wooly headed coroner, you will soon have all NZ pedestrians wearing hi- vis and helmets. NZ has the honour of having maintained the second highest death per thousand “road accident rates” in the world. Only beaten by the USA, yes it’s come down but it is still an appalling record to hold, drink driving, speeding and a totally selfish attitude on the road will only change when you have stronger laws, policing and convictions. The NZ situation would not be tolerated in any Australian state. Mr Coroner it’s time to open your eyes and have a wider look a cause, not just blame the victims and grab at weak ineffective responses. Or is that to hard, because it won’t be popular to bring your drivers kicking and screaming into this century.

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  13. Mike Wilson

    Great letter. Flouro is a terrible idea with no evidence to support its use. In fact there are studies that suggest that it makes you more likely to be hit. In addition it suggests to people who might be considering cycling that cycling is unsafe and to non-cyclists that they are not responsible for keeping an eye out for one particular type of road user.
    This nation made helmets compulsory with no evidence whatsoever based purely on emotion and zero rationality behind the decision and that, in itself, made cycling less safe by reducing the number of cyclists on the roads. It almost killed utility and non-recreational cycling in NZ. Flouro would similarly compound the problem. Next step after that orange flashing lights on our helmets or perhaps a man with a red flag walking 20 paces in front of every cyclist.
    If you are a cyclist wearing flouro, you are making things worse.

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  14. Kevin Toughey

    I don’t think it makes any difference, I wear a hi-vis (flouro-yellow) have a 900 lumin head light and a flashing handle mount light, a flashing red tail light and a flouro back pack. And still have had 3 close calls this year. The last one was in a extremely well lit roundabout, and I was actually staring at the driver with my headlamp on his face, and he still just cut me off.

    Got to change driver attitudes we all have the rights to be on the road, not just cars.

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  15. Jim Lawrenson

    To Well Lit Kevin and All Riders
    No one can claim that being highly visible will guarantee your safety – as riding on busy roads on a bicycle is intrinsically dangerous.
    However reason, common sense – and experience – suggests to me that being visible is a safer bet than being less visible – or practically invisible (wearing black, no lights.
    My experience comes from wearing a simple, keep right sign on my back – black arrow in gold circle within red ring. This is very light weight and attaches as a cloth bib which can be removed.
    Do yourself a big favour – see for yourself how this works. Google missby1m or go to the blog spot: http://missby1m.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/overview_13.html
    Traffic waits behind in pinch points – and I now get a much safer passing margin from overtaking traffic – with virtually no ‘near misses’.
    You can wear what you like – you don’t have to use lights – but this idea works!
    There is one more thing to consider – bikes with super bright head lamps dazzle and confuse traffic – and fail to respect other drivers (and especially riders on bike tracks)
    You may have looked the driver in the eye – but he couldn’t see you – just a blinding glare.
    As it says in the Good News – first remove the beam from your own eyes and then you may see the splinter in your brother’s.

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  16. I know someone who rides in hi-viz so bright it has given me a headache, yet he seems to have lots of terrible riding experiences due to awful driver behaviour. You can see some of it at https://www.youtube.com/user/WellingtonBikeCam01/videos. He said that after one of the incidents the police officer said “Well it’s not as if [the driver] wouldn’t have seen you!” or words to that effect.

    I ride in my ordinary clothes and without a helmet. In the last four years I have had one – yes, ONE – incident of scary driver behaviour.

    There seems to be a perception problem with cyclists protective gear. From discussions with non-cycling driver friends it seems that seeing a person without a helmet or special clothes triggers a “warning – vulnerable person” alert, whereas they don’t really register people in helmets and hi-viz in the same way.

    I’d far rather be recognised as a vulnerable person than barely registered.

    Lights are also important, but I’d like to see some standardisation, so that a particular visual effect means ‘cyclist’. Again, this is about recognition. Blinking/flashing appears more effective than static, as there’s no other use of blinking white lights on the road.

    (I ride with Monkeylectrics at night and I defy anyone to not register those in their consciousness). https://www.youtube.com/user/MonkeyLectric/videos

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  17. Rob

    Re: high-viz:

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/GE1302/S00068/optometrists-cyclists-wear-biological-motion-reflectors.htm

    “The image of biological motion created by reflector markers on hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and wrists yields a pattern of motion that is immediately recognisable as a person rather than an object.”

    Re: helmets

    Personally, I wear a helmet to minimise the chance of my kids having to see me drooling in a hospice with brain damage.

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