Family hopes tragedy will pull strings for change in law to protect cyclists on roads

Memorial: a bicycle marks the spot where Richard Pollett was killed. Photo: Supplied
Memorial: a bicycle marks the spot where Richard Pollett was killed. Photo: Supplied

Richard Pollett, a 25-year-old musician, was crushed under the wheels of a cement truck while cycling in September 2011.

The virtuoso violinist was due to perform with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra when he was killed as the truck was overtaking him on Moggill Road, a two-lane conduit through the Brisbane suburb of Kenmore.

A simple touch of the brakes would likely have spared a brilliant young man's life. The subsequent court case has prompted renewed calls for laws to protect cyclists on Australia's roads.

Two weeks ago, truck driver Luke Stevens faced court charged with dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death. After several days of testimony and a weekend for the jury to consider its verdict, Stevens, 29, was found not guilty.

Reports on the proceedings detail how the prosecution argued that Stevens' decision to overtake Pollett was ''very dangerous'' and ''left no margin of error''.

Stevens should have been ''patient'' and waited for a safer opportunity to pass Pollett on his bike, the court was told.

In reply, the defence said Stevens was not driving erratically or speeding and was ''boxed in'' by other cars as he approached Pollett.

Stevens was under ''the honest and reasonable belief'' there was enough room on the road to safely overtake the cyclist.

Reviewing the case this week, Crikey blogger Alan Davies pondered whether cyclists are seen as ''mere obstacles'' by motorists.

''The underlying issue is most motorists don't view cyclists as legitimate road users. The slower speed and greater vulnerability of riders isn't acknowledged, accepted or duly allowed for by drivers,'' Davies wrote.

''I suspect the jury's decision reflects that widespread perception.''

Any regular cyclist will attest there are few things more terrifying than a vehicle passing close by you at speed.

It is especially the case with large vehicles, which push a ''bow wave'' of air that buffets a rider away and then sucks them towards the vehicle as it passes.

In my experience, the vast majority of drivers automatically give a safe berth.

After the ruling in Brisbane, a broad range of cycling advocacy groups are calling for increased legal protection for cyclists.

Tracey Gaudry, of the Amy Gillett Foundation, told me: ''Every state advises and recommends to drivers that, when overtaking bike riders, to leave a metre. It's an accepted and endorsed and embraced recommendation in every state and territory.''

But it's not law. There is no legal stipulation for a minimum passing distance under road rule 144. And that needs to change, she says.

''The recent court outcome regarding Mr Richard Pollett … acquitting a driver who thought he was overtaking safely, but unfortunately the rider was killed … demonstrates that the law currently doesn't prescribe safety well enough,'' she said.

In response, Queensland Transport Minister Scott Emerson said a complication was that any such law might make it ''illegal for cyclists to move slowly and closely past queued vehicles''.

I'm not sure why that should be the case. There are laws specific to cycling, such as the right to pass cars on the left.

We need a law specific to vehicles overtaking bicycles. Besides, motorists are hardly in physical danger when a cyclist passes them closely.

The Pollett family are hoping their devastating loss will spur action so that future incidents are minimised. Recently, in the Financial Review, businessman and cyclist Andy Sheats said his one wish was ''for drivers to pass cyclists with the same care and safety that they would take in passing their own son, daughter or loved one''.

We shouldn't have to legislate such a basic respect for human life. But sadly, it appears we do.

This story Family hopes tragedy will pull strings for change in law to protect cyclists on roads first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.