The law should reflect the fact that cars are the main cause of bike accidents
The number of cyclists in Australia is declining. Safety is the main reason for this. The Royal Automobile Association of South Australia released a report last week that found that cyclists were not responsible for the majority of crashes.
It may be time for us to follow the lead of many European nations and introduce legislation that, in civil cases, presumes that the car driver caused the collision unless evidence suggests otherwise.
In other countries, which shift the burden of proof from cyclists to drivers, who must prove that they did not cause an accident, it has proven highly effective in reducing accidents and keeping cyclists safe.
Karl Von Drais’ Laufmaschine. (c) TECHNOSEU
Collisions between cars are common.
Recent data show that despite a reduction in road fatalities in Australia in the last few decades, serious injuries to road users are increasing steadily, especially among cyclists.
If we are to reverse the trend, Australia must take serious action. The RAA report released last week confirms previous research on this topic. For example, a University of Adelaide study from 2013 that examined police accident records found drivers were responsible for four out of five accidents between cars and bikes.
The results of this study are similar to those from Monash University, in which researchers examined footage taken by cameras at similar incidents. In 87% of the cases, drivers were found to be responsible for the actions that preceded the accident.
Previous studies have shown that the majority of these collisions occur at intersections and involve a cyclist who is traveling straight on a single lane at the time the crash occurs with the motor vehicle.
Presumption in liability
Previous road safety lessons, like the legislation on cycling safety, are insufficient and unfairly burden cyclists.
According to current Australian laws, if an automobile collides with a cyclist or pedestrian on Australian roads, they have to file a claim against the motorist for insurance. The injured cyclist or pedestrian must take their case to civil court if the insurance company disputes the claim.
The burden of proof must surely shift to the road user who is more powerful, given that research indicates they are most likely to be at fault.
We need to protect vulnerable road users with a law of presumed responsibility. In Canada, as well as in several European countries including Germany, France, the Netherlands, similar laws have been implemented. These laws are sometimes referred to by the terms “strict liability” or “reverse onus”. Drivers must prove they were not at fault in a collision involving a cyclist or pedestrian.
The laws only apply to civil cases and do not affect the presumption of innocence. Criminal law holds that drivers who collide with road users are innocent until proven guilty. The blame does not always fall on the motorist; for instance, if cyclists ran a red signal and caused an accident, they are at fault, and will not be compensated.
A version of the laws in Australia would make it more likely that cyclists will be fairly compensated if they are involved in a collision. Such laws will also encourage drivers to be extra cautious when driving near vulnerable road users. It is widely accepted that in many European countries, the assumption of liability, originally introduced to decrease traffic accidents, is a key element to encouraging safer bicycle.
A presumptive liability law would encourage cycling for its health, social, and environmental benefits, while keeping the spirit of Drais’s original Runmaschine.
The law is not enough. To keep our roads as safe as possible, we need better cycling infrastructure, lower speed limits in residential zones, and improved driver and cyclist education.