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Academic says new laws are anti-cyclist but government insists they will improve safety

Transport for NSW says that huge increases in fines for cyclists who break the law and a requirement they carry ID will improve the safety of people on bikes. But an academic who regularly publishes on cycling issues says the legislation means New South Wales will probably “become the worst state in the world in terms of how we treat cyclists.”

From next Tuesday 1 March, as well as having to take ID with them, bike riders in Sydney and elsewhere in the state will face being fined A$315 for failing to wear a cycle helmet and A$425 for running a red traffic light.

Those are increases of 350 per cent and 498 per cent respectively on the current fines of A$71 for both offences, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Other changes to traffic laws in what is Australia’s most popular state, home to 7.5 million people, nearly one in three of the country’s population, include that drivers will have to give cyclists at least one metre’s space when overtaking them in areas with a speed limit up to 60kph, and 1.5 metres above that.

A spokeswoman for Transport for NSW told the newspaper: "The rapid growth of cycling in Sydney” – the number of daily trips in Sydney has doubled in the last decade – “is not expected to change with the NSW government's new measures.

"In fact, the changes will encourage more cyclists who may have previously felt unsafe with drivers on the road who were flouting the law, putting innocent road users at risk.

"New and seasoned bicycle riders can now have increased confidence in sharing the road safely with motorists and pedestrians."

NSW roads minister Duncan Gay maintained the laws would benefit cyclists. He said: “The new policies we have announced are going to put cycling safety at the forefront of people's minds.

"I disagree with the negativity that there will be fewer people cycling because of the new laws – we're increasing safety, which is going to encourage more people to jump on their bike with confidence.

"I put it to those groups who are against these policies - if you are a safe road user, you don't need to change your behaviour. In fact, you should continue doing what you're doing to set the example for other road users."

Cycling campaigners however have hit out at the legislation as being a further reflection of what they see as the state’s anti-cyclist stance.

Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards said: "No other country in the world has the extraordinary barrier of mandatory ID for riders. It's embarrassing that international experts in liveable cities think NSW is so backward.

"We call on the NSW government to produce the data, evidence and reasoning for fine increases of 500 per cent and mandatory ID. 

"The government hasn't yet even released the wording for these laws and they're two weeks away. Maybe the government is having second thoughts?

"We've seen significant backlash from the bike riding community, the opposition and the Greens in relation to the proposed laws," he added.

Meanwhile, Professor Chris Rissel of the University of Sydney, an opponent of compulsory helmet legislation who has published widely on the cycling issues, said the legal changes represented “new lows” in  the state’s treatment of cyclists and that the government was missing the point when it came to how to improve riders’ safety.

He told Australasian Lawyer: “This legislation is reaching new lows. There are many things that could be done to make cycling safer and to encourage more people to ride. These things are not it.”

He added: “We’re probably going to become the worst state in the world in terms of how we treat cyclists – if we’re not already.”

But Bernard Carlon, the executive director of the NSW government’s Centre for Road Safety, insisted: “If one cyclist chooses to now wear a helmet because of the new penalties, we consider that a win for cyclist safety.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.