Hard News by Russell Brown


When "common sense" isn't

The call by Wellington coroner Ian Smith last week for a law change to make hi-viz clothing compulsory for all cyclists, just as helmets are now, got a lot of coverage but precious little scrutiny on Friday.

In his report on the death of cyclist Stephen Fitzgerald in Petone in 2008, the coroner declared it a "no brainer" that high visibility clothing should be mandated. And yet his own inquiry was delayed while the truck driver was charged with and convicted of careless driving causing death. What was the reasoning behind the call?

With the help of Ministry of Justice comms staff, I was able to obtain a copy of the report and uploaded it here on Friday afternoon. It turns out that the coroner's call was not based on the particulars of this tragic case, or indeed on any evidence at all, but on his view that it was "simply common sense" that such a rule be introduced.

You can't blame reporters for highlighting the hi-viz angle. It is the first of four recommendations at the end of the report, and it is unequivocal:

(i) That just in the same manner that it is compulsory for a cyclist to wear a safety helmet when cycling on public roads, all cyclists (with the exceotion of those partaking in a controlled event such as a road race) should wear hi-vis clothing.

There is some evidence that wearing high-viz reduces the risk of accident (although the cohort in the study -- riders in the Taupo Challenge --  is not particularly representative of the average cyclist). The problem  is that making fluouro a condition of getting on a bike at any time provides a significant disincentive to cycling -- probably more so than compulsory helmets. Here, it implies that the cause was a lack of visibility on the part of the cyclist, when in fact there was no evidence presented that this was the case (indeed Fitzgerald was wearing reflective strips and had lights working on his bike). Instead, the most significant factor seems to have been what the coroner described as "the unfortunate engineering of this particular part of the road" -- just as it was in the death of Auckland cyclist Jane Bishop.

The next recommendation is that the road code be amended to require that drivers give cyclist at least a one metre clearance. This seems good on the face of it, but it's actually extremely unhelpful, given that even NZTA recommends drivers give a 1.5m clearance. It's not clear whether the coroner did any local research on this issue.

He also recommends that it be made compulsory for cyclists to use cycle lanes where they are provided. In my experience, cyclists use dedicated lanes where it is practical to do, but that isn't always the case. I think this recommendation won't hold much water unless and until there is a much better cycling infrastructure in New Zealand.

The other recommendation is for more extensive driver and cyclist education, starting in schools, which I can only heartily endorse.

Remarkably, one recommendation that would seem to be validated by evidence noted in the report is absent: sidegaurds on trucks. Smith quotes British research indicating that such guards, which protect cyclists from falling under the wheels of trucks (which is how both Stephen Fitzgerald and Jane Bishop died) cut overall cyclist fatalities by 5.7% and injuries by 13%, but he does not see fit to propose such a measure.

Lucy at Cycling in Auckland takes a closer look at the details of the accident and the responses to it. And Eric Crampton marvels at quite how freely coroners recommend law changes and declares: "This economist recommends that either Coroners get training in cost-benefit analysis, or start noting the limitations of their recommendations."

He also notes that the Chief Coroner wants it to be mandatory for government to respond to coroners' recommendations. If that were to be the case, I would think it should also be compulsory for coroners to take competent advice in making their recommendations, and not simply rely on what they believe to be "common sense".

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