By John Pedler
Published: Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Updated: March 11, 2022 at 2:25 pm
When bicycles first hit the scene, they were considered playthings for the idle rich. But when they became a serious mode of transport, laws were introduced to govern their use and interaction with pedestrians and other road users.
German Karl Drais invented the Laufmaschine ‒ the precursor to the modern bike ‒ in 1817. It was also known as the ‘dandy horse’ because it was trendy among England’s fashionable elite.
However, it lacked a major piece of equipment that’s since become popular among cyclists – pedals. It was powered by the rider’s feet, not unlike a toddler’s balance bike or Fred Flintstone’s car.
Pedals arrived well before chains and gears, and they were attached directly to the front wheel axle on bikes like the ridiculously unstable penny farthing.
The bigger the front wheel, the faster the bike could go and from a greater height the rider could fall.
The real game changer was the chain-drive bicycle, perfected by Englishman John Kemp Starley in 1885.
Using front and rear cogs connected by a chain, it amplified pedal power allowing for smaller wheels to be used.
Sold as the Rover Safety Bicycle (the same company later produced the Land Rover), its design is similar to the bikes we ride today.
It led a transport revolution in Europe and the United States, and bikes became the main form of mechanical personal transportation until the early to mid-20th century.
Not only were they relatively cheap and easy to maintain, they helped get a lot of horse poop off the streets.
With so many bikes on the road, rules were needed to keep everyone safe. Cycling laws, like the requirement for a bike to have a warning device (bell or horn), were all about alerting pedestrians and horse riders that a cyclist was approaching.
But as cars became more prevalent, new rules and infrastructure focussed on the safety of cyclists.
Here’s a brief background to some of our major cycling-related laws.
Protecting your head
In the very early days, bicycle helmets were little more than leather strips that prevented noggin grazes during bike races.
This ‘hairnet’ style was used well into the 20th century. The next major development was a model comprising a hard-shell over polystyrene, popularised in the mid-70s by the Bell Biker helmet – not unlike a construction helmet without the peak.
Of course, no cycle down helmet memory lane would be complete without mention of the iconic Stackhat.
Hailing from that giddy period of sensible fashion choices – the 1980s – the orangey yellow Stackhat was more about function than ’80s cool, plus it was one of the only helmets to comply with the Australian Standard of the day.
The importance of head protection was promoted in a government ad fronted by Molly Meldrum.
Improvements in materials, fitting systems, ventilation and ‒ thankfully ‒ style followed, leading to the vast range of colours, shapes and prices we see today.
The hard shell has all but disappeared with a thinner ‘soft shell’ around dense polystyrene now the norm.
In 1990, Victoria became the first state to introduce mandatory helmet laws, followed by the rest of the country.
Regulations are pretty much uniform nationwide, but in the NT riders over the age of 17 are only required to wear a helmet if they’re cycling on a road.
In Australia, all bicycle helmets must comply with Australian/New Zealand Standard 2063:2008.
The first bike lanes appeared in Adelaide in the 1980s to help make cycling on roads more predictable for all road users. The Road Traffic Act was amended accordingly, and the following rules have been introduced. Note that these cycle lane rules only apply during the hours of operation listed on the bike lane signs. If there are not hours listed, the bike lane operates 24/7.
- use the bike lane when riding on a road that has one (cyclists can leave the bike lane to avoid debris and potholes and to safely overtake another rider), and
- stay within the bike lane even when riding two abreast.
Motorists must not drive, park or stop in a bike lane that’s in operation unless they’re:
- stopping in an emergency
- crossing the bike lane to change lanes (only for up to 50m)
- crossing the bike lane to enter or leave the road from private property, a parking area or another road (only for up to 50m)
- overtaking a vehicle turning right or making a U-turn (only for up to 50m)
- avoiding an obstruction (only for up to 50m), or
- driving a bus or taxi that’s picking up or dropping off passengers (only for up to 50m).
Research compiled by the Department for Infrastructure and Transport showed that changing the colour of bike lanes significantly improved motorists’ awareness of cyclists.
State road authorities and the Australian Bicycle Council agreed on green as the colour to be used in areas where there’s a greater risk of conflict between motorists/pedestrians and cyclists.
A good example of this can be seen when you’re travelling west on Anzac Hwy and approaching the South Rd slip lane.
A metre matters
The Amy Gillett Foundation was established in 2006 in honour of professional cyclist Amy Gillett, who was hit and killed by a motorist in Germany in 2005.
Founded by Amy’s husband and parents, the organisation’s sole purpose is advocating for cycling safety.
In 2009, the Foundation began the national ‘A metre matters’ campaign to draw attention to the danger of vehicles passing too close to cyclists.
At the time, the law only required motorists to allow a ‘sufficient distance’ with no indication of what a safe distance was.
In 2014, the SA Government set up a Citizens’ Jury ‒ made up of 37 South Australians representing a cross-section of the community ‒ tasked with the brief: Motorists and Cyclists will always be using our roads. What things could we trial to ensure they share the roads safely?
Among other suggestions, the jury recommended a new law be introduced allowing at least a metre overtaking distance between vehicles and bikes.
In 2015, the SA Government mandated minimum overtaking distances – one metre on roads where the speed limit is 60km/hr or less and 1.5 metres where the speed limit is over 60km/hr.
A driver can cross centre dividing lines and straddle lanes to maintain this distance if it’s safe to do so.
In 2021, Victoria was the last state to pass minimum overtaking distances into law, which now apply in all states and territories.
Despite the many benefits that cycling offers, SA’s rate of cycling has been found to be below that of almost every other Australian state and territory.
The National Walking and Cycling Participation Survey 2021 found that only 17% of South Australians cycled in the last week and 38% in the last year – putting SA below every other jurisdiction except New South Wales.
RAA believes that improved cycling infrastructure will make our transport network safer and increase the popularity of cycling for leisure and commuting.
This will have significant physical and mental health benefits and reduce traffic congestion and pollution.
In the lead up to the state election in March, RAA is calling for all parties to commit to developing a state cycling strategy, underpinned by a $10m annual investment in the State Bicycle Fund.
Combined with more targeted education programs and training for cyclists and motorists, it will help make our roads, footpaths and bikeways safer for everyone.