Cycling groups in the Australian state of Queensland have raised concerns that new careless cycling laws set to be introduced by the government will penalise people on bikes for everyday activities, such as drinking from a water bottle or talking to another rider, and have called for the “draconian” legislation to be more clearly worded to avoid being left open to interpretation by police officers.
However, the state government has insisted that cyclists have nothing to fear from the new laws, and that enforcement will be “proportionate to risk” and based on “common sense”.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced to Queensland’s parliament by transport secretary Mark Bailey last month, will see cyclists and e-scooter riders face fines of up to AU$6,192 (around £3,250) if they do not ride with due care and attention on “road-related areas” such as footpaths and cycleways, ABC News reports.
An extension of existing legislation that already requires cyclists to ride with due care on the road, the proposed laws are the latest in a series of reforms recommended by a 2022 personal mobility safety plan, and could also see riders fined AU$3,096 (roughly £1,600) for not providing details or assistance after a crash.
However, in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry examining the laws, the Brisbane Central Business District Bicycle User Group (CBD BUG), a community-based cycling advocacy group, described the proposed penalties for careless cycling as a “draconian overreaction”.
Paul French, Brisbane CBD BUG’s co-convenor, said the “vague” legislation needed to be more clearly worded to avoid misinterpretation, and called for the laws to only apply to circumstances which lead to a crash.
“We’ve asked the question in our submission ‘what is careless riding?’ It’s completely vague,” he said.
In its submission, the group argued that it was easy to envisage police officers penalising cyclists under the new law for behaviours that have hitherto been “everyday, legal, and safe”, such as drinking from a water bottle while cycling, taking one hand off the handlebars, talking to another rider, or looking at a watch, the ground, or over your shoulder.
Bicycle Queensland, the state-wide cycling organisation that boasts over 12,000 members, also expressed concern that the definition of ‘without due care’ is subjective in its own submission to the parliamentary inquiry.
However, while the group’s director of advocacy Andrew Demack claimed that penalising a cyclist for riding without due care was open to interpretation by police officers, he warned against inflaming a situation that could ultimately have little effect on the majority of cyclists.
“Our members are giving us feedback that they think that’s a bit of a concern,” Demack said of the law’s apparent subjectivity.
“Having said that, that same phrase is used elsewhere in many other contexts, and it hasn’t turned out to be nightmare for motorists or anybody else. We don’t want to be too inflammatory about this.”
Meanwhile, in response to the cycling campaigners’ concerns, Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) insisted that cyclists will not be penalised for common, safe behaviours.
“This is not an issue for existing careless riding offences on roads, which already apply to bikes, and will not be an issue for the extension to road-related areas," a spokesperson said.
“Enforcement of the proposed new laws will be common sense and proportionate to risk. Police officers are well trained and operate under enforcement guidelines targeted at dangerous behaviours.”
The spokesperson also noted that examples of genuine careless cycling “could include dangerously swerving in and out of pedestrians on a crowded path, or riding at an unsafe speed around a blind corner where pedestrians and other vulnerable users might be present.”
Transport Minister Bailey also backed the proposed laws by arguing that they would improve safety for both riders and pedestrians.
“These new laws are simply an extension of existing laws to include behaviours on shared pathways and footpaths,” he said.
“As everybody knows, I’m an avid cyclist and I know the vast majority of cyclists already do the right thing. Enforcement will be undertaken with a commonsense approach, targeting dangerous behaviours.”
A Queensland Police Service spokesperson added that when a police officer suspects a person has committed any type of offence, they exercise judgement to determine how best to proceed.
“Discretion is an officer’s freedom to make decisions on the job and to decide whether and how, within legal bounds, they enforce the law,” the spokesperson said. “A balanced approach is required to ensure community safety for all involved.”
However, despite the state’s insistence that laws regulating the behaviours of cyclists will be exercised with “common sense”, Australia’s most famous, and controversial, cycling law – the mandatory requirement to wear a helmet – has long been criticised by cyclists, who say the laws “have become a tool of disproportionate penalties and aggressive policing”.
According to University of Wollongong law professor Julia Quilter and Russell Hogg, a School of Justice professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia’s mandatory helmet laws – first introduced in 1991 – have become an exercise in revenue gouging (with fines exceeding those of speeding motorists) while also providing a flimsy pretext for police to stop and search people.
“From 2016-2019, 17,560 penalty notices worth almost AU$6 million were issued to cyclists. Over the same period only 95 fines were handed out to drivers for unsafe passing,” Quilter and Hogg argued, while also pointing out that fines tended to be geographically concentrated in poorer areas.
“Local helmet-wearing behaviours could explain some of the disparity,” they said. “However, the stories we are hearing from lawyers suggest something much more troubling is at play.
“Our interviews reveal the helmet laws are being used for purposes unrelated to safety. These include gathering intelligence about offences and suspects, justifying searches and harassing targeted individuals – particularly young Aboriginal people.
“Sometimes this involves multiple penalty notices for failing to wear a helmet, including where a child rides both to and from school on the same day.
“The penalty for riding without a helmet is now ludicrously excessive. Proportionality between penalty and offence has been lost. The goal is meant to be harm reduction. Piling on the fines does more harm than good.”
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.