Story transcripts

Vicious Cycle

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producer: Stephen Rice

Come on, admit it. You curse when you get stuck in traffic behind a cyclist.

Maybe you've even edged the car just a little closer to hurry them along a bit. And what about those great mobs of bike riders who take up entire lanes of highway during peak hour?

The fact is, cars and bicycles just don't play that well together. For some drivers, the merest glimpse of lycra in the distance, turns them into homicidal madmen.

And the bike riders, well they're getting all bolshy, as well. And with one million new bikes hitting our roads each year, the stage is set for one big showdown.

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LIZ HAYES: There's a war of wheels being waged on our roads, a battle between cyclists and drivers, and it's not for the fainthearted.

MAN 1: You hit my car.

MAN 2: I didn't hit your car. This is the daily reality on Australia's busiest roads from a cyclist's eye view.

LIZ HAYES: You meant nothing to that red car!

NATHAN BESH: Pretty much. They know that we can't hit them because we'll come off second-best so they'll put the car straight in the middle, in our path, absolutely.

LIZ HAYES: On the cyclists' side, a growing band of enthusiasts, like Simon Hookham and Nathan Besh.

LIZ HAYES: There IS an attitude out there.

NATHAN BESH: There's definitely a lot of anger at times directed toward cyclists, putting ourselves deliberately in danger. We definitely do find a fair bit of that on the roads.

LIZ HAYES: A constant fight for road space amid dedicated drivers, like motoring commentator Ian Luff.

IAN LUFF: Not wearing a helmet. How stupid. It's really quite amazing, Liz. We've just seen a cyclist overtake a taxi over double lines. Now, that cyclist really is taking a huge amount of a gamble with their life because, as we saw, it was very close and a near-miss.

LIZ HAYES: Many motorists believe that until these Lycra-clad commuters are registered and licensed they simply don't have the same right to be here.

IAN LUFF: They must think they've got special rules or, probably, some special privileges. I'm confused - they just don't get it.

LIZ HAYES: Gridlock. Another typical day in just about any Australian city - cars jammed in every direction, clogging up intersections and jostling for space and going nowhere. Which might be why when we see those cyclists whizzing by, cutting through traffic, sailing through red lights, we feel - let's be honest - a little annoyed. Some even feel downright angry.

MAN 1: Cyclists have no consideration for anyone else on the road.

MAN 2: Mate, you get up in the morning and try to go somewhere and there's 300 cyclists in one lane and they're all going 5km/h. What are you going to do?

MAN 3: They get shirty at us if we've to go around them, yet they'll cut through lights, cut across us and don't obey the rules, so...

LIZ HAYES: Plenty of cyclists do break the rules. Running red lights is a favourite. Cyclists are entitled to use a whole lane and can legally ride two abreast, but that doesn't win them many friends. In Sydney, a monthly disruption ride across the Harbour Bridge in the middle of peak hour gets motorists so mad that the protesters have to be protected by police. But there's no stopping the cycling revolution. From fitness fanatics to families, from pensioners to politicians, cyclists are trying to reclaim the road. 1 million cars were sold in Australia last year, 1.4 million bikes - the ninth year in a row that bike sales have outnumbered cars. And you never know who it might be under that helmet.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Well, I started riding the bike when I was a child but I started riding to work a little over a year ago.

LIZ HAYES: 'Work' for Kristina Keneally means being premier of NSW. Keneally was vaulted into the top job just months ago but still does the half-hour ride from her home into Parliament House on most days.

LIZ HAYES: They say there is a revolution taking place - that this is not just a lifestyle decision, it has become a mode of transport. Do you agree?

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Well, I would. My own children have started cycling to school. I do think that people are recognising that this is more than just a child's plaything or for the serious road cyclist, this is actually a viable transport option.

LIZ HAYES: It takes a little getting used to. Have you broken your bum in yet?

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Well, the padded pants help. A bit of natural padding doesn't hurt either.

LIZ HAYES: So, you're right now, are you?


LIZ HAYES: Well, I guess we should do it.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Fantastic. Let's go.

LIZ HAYES: On the road, the NSW Premier becomes just another cyclist. No-one gives her a second glance - or any special treatment.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: It's also important to give a sense of what you're going to do. It's no different than the indicator of a car.

LIZ HAYES: Like, you can go first now.


LIZ HAYES: I've got to admit, riding in peak-hour traffic makes me nervous, and it doesn't take long on the road to see why it can be so dangerous. The garbage bins are in our bike lanes! Bad. Within the next seven years, 10% of all trips in Sydney will be by bike - in Melbourne, even more. But, as yet, all roads aren't built for sharing and that's why things get ugly.

MAN IN CAR: You've got no rego plate, so f--k off! I don't give a f--k, mate - you're in the middle of the road.

MAGDA SZUBANSKI (2009): I want to complain about cyclists in Lycra on Beach Road. What is that about?!

LIZ HAYES: The road war has become a very public brawl. Even celebrities like Magda Szubanski are buying in. JULIA MORRIS (2009): It totally infuriates me.

MAGDA SZUBANSKI (2009): I agree. Numberplate 'em, fine them. JULIA MORRIS (2009): No! No! Just drive and take 'em out.

MAGDA SZUBANSKI (2009): Just open the door! Open the door!

LIZ HAYES: What is the greatest sin of the driver?

NATHAN BESH: Deliberately going extremely close to us in a dangerous manner, that if we did have to swerve for a pothole or an obstruction we'd go straight into the path of the car and we'd be hit at 50km/h, 60km/h.

LIZ HAYES: Nathan and Simon are well aware of the aggression they face. Every moment they're on the road they must be alert for the next assault.

LIZ HAYES: Are you trying to tell me there are drivers who deliberately try to frighten you, to run you off the road?

NATHAN BESH: Without a doubt.

SIMON HOOKHAM: Absolutely. Hit the horn right when they're right at your shoulder, that sort of thing.

NATHAN BESH: And also deliberately push us into other lanes and literally run us off the road.

LIZ HAYES: They just hate you being on the road?

NATHAN BESH: Some seem that way, yes.

IAN LUFF: Well, there we go. Completely crazy - right through a red light. I just can't believe it. That cyclist has got no brains. We are going to see a lot more accidents in the future - that's if cyclists don't behave and ride and stick to the road rules.

LIZ HAYES: Ian Luff believes all cyclists should be licenced and registered.

IAN LUFF: If people are going to hit the roads they have to be very careful and really take responsibility for their actions.

LIZ HAYES: This cyclist was riding in a bus-only lane early one morning but took exception to how close the bus came as it passed. At the next stop he leapt aboard and assaulted the driver but with no registration or record he's never been found or charged.

IAN LUFF: I really believe that push bikes should have some form of identification, some form of registration to actually identify bikes, because at this point in time no-one knows who they are or what they're doing. They do share the roads so there should be some form of identification plate.

LIZ HAYES: If you want to see how bikes and cars CAN share the road just take a look at Amsterdam. Here cycling is fun, and easy. Everyone owns a bike. 80% of the population cycles at least once a week. One of them is Australian expat Melissa Lennon.

LIZ HAYES: This is second nature to you? You prefer this to a car?

MELISSA LENNON: I much prefer it. Especially in the city, I much prefer it to the car. And even with the boys, by the time you've got them packed and ready to go an hour's passed in the car. Whereas here you just throw them in, clip them in and you're off and riding, basically. You get to wherever you want in a couple of minutes.

LIZ HAYES: When you're going out for a glamourous night, do you get on the bike?

MELISSA LENNON: Yes. Even go to weddings in black tie on the bike, because it is just so much easier. Also, you can't park...

PETRA REIJNDERS: Here, you get taught bicycling from a very young age. Most children can bicycle before they can walk.

LIZ HAYES: Petra Reijnders has never owned a car in her life. She runs bicycle tours for visitors. No-one wears a helmet, because cyclists have their own lanes and run-ins with cars are rare.

LIZ HAYES: When there is an accident between a car and the bike what is the assumption?

PETRA REIJNDERS: Car is wrong.

LIZ HAYES: Really?

PETRA REIJNDERS: Yes. The car is just automatically wrong if it comes to a collision, and that gives the bikers protection as well. Cars just don't want to hit you because they will have to pay for all the cost.

LIZ HAYES: There's an incentive!

PETRA REIJNDERS: It really protects everyone and keeps the cars on their toes, because bikers are more fragile when it comes to traffic.

LIZ HAYES: Back in Australia, Nathan and Simon dream of the day they're treated with such respect. In the meantime they've found a way to fight back against motorists. They've mounted video cameras on their bikes and helmets to record the worst offenders.

SIMON HOOKHAM: This will be a blue Commodore overtaking very, very closely.

LIZ HAYES: It's frightening - cars passing so close you can almost feel the whoosh.

NATHAN BESH: We are about to see a very impatient taxi driver. He'll cross double white lines into oncoming traffic to make up one space in a queue and stop right in front of me.

LIZ HAYES: Their daily records reveal the types of drivers to watch out for at any given time.

NATHAN BESH: During school hours it would probably be the 4-wheel drive. Early morning, normally it's the ute.

LIZ HAYES: The ute, I'm assuming, is the tradie in a rush?

NATHAN BESH: One could assume that, yes.

SIMON HOOKHAM: That was one I could feel the warmth of the engine on my arm.

LIZ HAYES: These aren't just home videos. Nathan and Simon are prepared to use them as legal evidence - take aggressive drivers to court and get them off the roads.

NATHAN BESH: Generally, if we see a driver who is behaving quite badly and they are putting other lives at risk, say, they're next to a school our driving quite erratically, we will make formal statements to the police and put that forward so they will actually have something against their driving record.

LIZ HAYES: You're being proactive. You're taking a stand?

NATHAN BESH: Absolutely. So if these people are repeatedly offending then they are actually taken off the roads.

NATHAN BESH: Sure enough, no blinker. He just decides to drive into the bike lane. I'm left nowhere to go except the gutter.

LIZ HAYES: The truth is, lives will remain at risk and the war will continue to rage until drivers get the message that cyclists are not fair game.

NATHAN BESH: We want to make people aware that if they do have an accident with us then it will definitely mean possibly wheelchair, possibly death and most likely a lot of injuries for us and months in hospital.

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