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Is riding in a bunch illegal?
15 July 2009
In Sydney, bunch* riding hit the front page on 8 May 2008. A bunch of approximately 50 cyclists, known as the Coluzzi Riders, which included professionals Kate Nichols and Ben Kersten, were riding on Southern Cross Drive. Around 6:30 am, a disgruntled motorist, Hassan Bakr, passed the group, and then jammed-on his brakes, causing several cyclists to concertina into the back of bikes ahead. Damage to bicycles was estimated at $45,000. The motorist was found guilty of negligence and fined $12,000 plus court costs, opening the way for civil actions against the driver by the cyclists for their damages/costs.
Confronted with a very long formation of cyclists travelling appreciably slower (especially whilst climbing) than the rest of the traffic, over 25% of motorists would likely understand Hassan Bakr’s frustration, but not his behaviour.

‘Bunch cycling’, also referred to as cycling in a Peloton, is popular along the 27km bayside stretch of Beach Rd between Brighton/Port Melbourne and Mordialloc. On a fine weekend between October and April, around 7,000 cyclists ride Beach Road, over 50 per cent cycle in one of the many bunches, generally riding two abreast and often less than 60cm apart. A few bunches sometimes exceed 100 cyclists, often with an average speed in the mid 30km p/h and occasionally around 45km p/h on a downhill.

In August 2006 a cyclist from the ‘Hell Riders’ bunch ran a red light in Mentone along Beach Rd and killed 77-year-old, James Gould. The negligent cyclist, William Raisin-Shaw, was fined $400 for colliding with Mr Gould, prompting the Victorian Government to commission a report by Monash University Accident Research Centre titled Cyclist Bunch Riding ¬-- A Review of the Literature which reported inter alia 89 serious cycling accidents along Beach Rd in the 5 years ending 31 Decemer 2006. Of these 19% involved a cyclist riding into the back of a parked vehicle, and 12% cycling into a motor vehicle waiting to turn right. Were these ‘serious cycling accidents’ suffered by the over 50% who cycle in bunches?

On 18 June 2009, Victorian Roads Minister, Tim Pallas, announced new punitive laws:
* $13,610 or prison for 12 months, or both, for dangerous cycling
* $681 for careless cycling
* $68,052 or five years in prison if a person is killed or seriously injured by a cyclist and the rider does not immediately stop and offer assistance.

Under previous bicycle laws, cyclists in Victoria could be fined only up to $567 for “riding in a dangerous, careless or reckless manner”.

The author of this article hypothesises that cycling in a bunch is illegal under NSW Road Rules 2008 because a bicycle is a vehicle, and bunch riders do not provide sufficient distance behind the bicycle in front to ensure that the cyclist behind can, if necessary, stop safely to avoid a collision with the cyclist ahead.
• Regulation 15 of NSW Road Rules 2008 “What is a vehicle” states that a bicycle is a vehicle.
• Regulation 19 “References to driver includes rider etc” outlines that in the context of the road rules reference to drivers includes riders unless otherwise expressly stated.
• Regulation 126 “Keeping a safe distance behind vehicles” notes:

“A driver (incudes rider) must drive a sufficient distance behind a vehicle travelling in front of the driver so the driver can, if necessary, stop safely to avoid a collision with the vehicle.”

Section 4 “Crash Avoidance Space” of the RTA Road User Handbook stipulates a “three-second rule” in order to pull up a vehicle: “A total of three seconds crash avoidance space is needed to respond to a situation in front of you.” At 35kph this equates to approximately 29m. for a motor vehicle.

Due to inferior braking equipment and because it is “top heavy”, at any given speed, a bicycle needs much more braking distance than the average motor vehicle. With its short wheelbase and high centre of gravity, a bicycle becomes unstable above a breaking speed of 0.6g, and is likely to send its rider over the handlebars. Hence, a bicycle will require almost twice the “distance” to come to a halt than the average motor vehicle.

Regulation 255 “Riding too close to the rear of a motor vehicle”, notes “the rider of a bicycle must not ride within 2 metres of the rear of a moving motor vehicle continuously for more than 200 metres.” There does not seem to be any regulation which notes a minimum distance that a rider must ride behind another bicycle or which permits cyclists to bunch ride.

A new website BunchRideFinder seeks to list hundreds of bunch rides across Australia. Why do some cyclists like riding in a bunch? Why do others shun cycling in a bunch? Why is bunch riding in Melbourne more popular than in Sydney?

A journal article cited in the Monash University Accident Report, “Real cyclists don’t race” by O’Connor and Brown**, lists three reasons riders give for bunch riding:
(a) Opportunity to cycle at a steady pace with like-minded people
(b) Increased visibility of a large group
(c) Build social networks whilst riding or at a café at the end of riding
Experiencing (a) and (c) above is not limited to bunch riding. Other motivating factors also include:
(d) Aerodynamic benefit of being “blocked from the wind” referred to as ‘drafting’ or ‘slipstreaming’.
(e) Challenging sensation of pushing oneself to the limit amongst respected peers.
(f) Acquiring the discipline, concentration and focus of riding in a well-organized bunch.

The greater popularity of bunch riding in Melbourne is largely due to its different topography. Within a 50km radius of Sydney’s GPO, there are approximately twenty beaut steepish climbs (averaging about 4km in length) in the North, South and West (including Bobbin Head, Akuna Bay, Kurrajong, Razorback Mtn Picton, Royal National Park) which cyclists climb and ride to local cafes each weekend. The Illawarra and Southern Highlands areas contains even ‘beauter’, longer climbs.

By comparison, Melbourne is predominantly flat with the nearest hills 45km to the east in The Dandenongs. Nearby Beach Rd is a 21st Century colosseum where today’s would-be gladiators don colourful battle dress, climb aboard their chariot with the latest bells’n’whistles and run the gauntlet challenging their peers up close and personal to savour the adrenalin rush. Perhaps some of the ‘Hell Riders’ bunch suffered those illusions prior to the death of 77-year-old, James Gould.

Is bunch riding materially more dangerous? Website “aboc cycle coaching, Vic” reported, “At aboc, we have long held the belief that the Hell Ride was an accident waiting to happen, and our worst fears were confirmed.” No bunch ride organiser would want a coronial enquiry to deduce that its weekly bunch ride was “an accident waiting to happen”. The aboc website also recommends a maximum of 15 riders in a bunch.

Would a bunch be easier for a motorist to pass if it was no longer than a semi-trailer? And separated from another bunch by at least 100m unless overtaking.
Is there a need to cap the length of a bunch? A semi-trailer can be as long as 8 motor cars, say 25m and travelling around the prevailing speed limit. However, a 60 strong bunch, 30 bicycles deep, can be almost 90m long and when travelling less than 20km p/h up a hill on a busy road, may frustrate motorists.

What about liability? Because the negligent driver is generally liable for losses suffered by the innocent third party, it is not uncommon after a motor vehicle accident for the motorists involved to question “Who was in the wrong?” Fortunately the CTP Green Slip provides a pool of funds to cover personal injury losses by an innocent third party. However, there is no CTP Green Slip cover that a negligent cyclist may rely on to pay for losses incurred by an injured third party. A negligent cyclist could have material damages/costs awarded against him or her, following a civil action by an innocent third party(ies) that the negligent cyclist(s) injured.

Hence, there is a vital need to hold third party insurance cover whilst cycling, and pursuant to the Civil Liability Acts 2002, for organisers to warn participants to hold third party insurance. Damages/costs could be millions of dollars if a negligent cyclist caused a third party to suffer injuries which negated the injured third party to earn his/her current income, particularly if the injured third party had a dependant family.

Upon an accident, the insurer will invariably seek to deny liability if the insured claimer breached any conditions of the policy such as breaking a road rule. A claimer could be a bunch rider(s) or a bunch ride organiser(s).

A bunch ride organiser, who invited the negligent bunch rider, could be litigated if the organiser failed in his duty of care to ensure that risk warning signals were always provided to bunch riders behind ie. warning of a parked or parking car, or a drainage grid, a fresh potehole following rain, all of which could result in a serious/painful concertina accident.

Several websites for bunch ride groups list risk warning signals that bunch riders need to observe to warn bunch riders behind of imminent risks ahead. An injured bunch rider could litigate a negligent bunch rider ahead, if the bunch rider ahead failed his or her duty of care to warn of an imminent risk, and a bunch rider behind suffered a serious injury due to not being warned. Conversely, an injured bunch rider ahead could litigate a bunch rider behind by alleging that the bunch rider behind had been negligent in riding too close, in breach of Regulation 126.

Under tort law, bunch riding in NSW is a ‘dangerous recreational activity’ as defined in Division 5 Recreational Activities of the Civil Liability Amendment (Personal Responsibility) Act 2002 No 92 because compared with other recreational activities, there is a significant risk of physical harm. Bunch riding is clearly more dangerous than each cyclist “breaking their own wind”, enjoying clear vision ahead and riding in single file which the majority of cyclists do. Several triathlons, including the IronMan Series, will not allow competitors to draft.
In NSW, Division 5 Recreational Activities of Civil Liability Amendment (Personal Responsibility) Act 2002 No 92, obligates organisers of a ‘dangerous recreational activity’ to warn prior to each ride (invitees) of foreseeable non-obvious risks that the regular bunch riders have become aware of. These are often referred to as “blackspots”, i.e. dangerous intersections, drainage grids, poor cambers where it is difficult to hold the road, more so when wet, etc.

The majority of road cyclists, at least in Sydney, will not ride in a large bunch. These are often older cyclists whose bones are more brittle and know that the road surface and cars always win. Others will ride in a ‘loose’ bunch of, say up to five if they know the others well, and more importantly know they will give requisite risk warning signals.

Some bike shops have attracted more and more “newcomers” to their bunch rides, a good thing so long as these “rookies” understand each party’s duty of care and the risks of harm. Seemingly some of the larger bike shops that provide regular bunch rides are targeting customers who will trade-off obtaining the lowest purchase price for image/aura/profile (i.e. opportunity to wear a cycle jersey worn by lots of “serious” cyclists). Perhaps these shops believe that the administrative cost of organising regular bunch rides with large numbers of riders, all wearing the bike shop’s jersey, represents valuable marketing dollars.

Greater participation in bunch rides as a result of promotion by new website BunchRideFinder, may evidence more riders cycling with others whose skill level is not well known and who may not always provide risk warning signals “down the Peloton”.

Materially increasing the distance between the rear wheel of the bike ahead and the front wheel of the bike behind to two bike lengths would –
i) increase the peripheral vision of bunch riders behind;
ii) provide more time to react to risk warning signals given by riders ahead of imminent risks ahead; and
iii) enable more time to avoid a collision.

Perhaps a new descriptive title is needed. Maybe a “convoy” (rather than a “peloton” or “bunch”) may attract more cyclists if they viewed riding in a “convoy” two bike lengths apart to be substantially safer than in a bunch. Any riders who have “hit that hard tar” would surely appreciate the significant improvements in safety would far outweigh any diminished drafting benefit.

Importantly in view of the substantially narrower width of a mounted bicycle, two bicycle lengths behind would seem to constitute a rider complying with Regulation 126, if not by being able to pull up behind a fallen bicycle ahead, at least the rear cyclist would enjoy a significantly better chance of swerving to avoid a fallen bicycle ahead.

Are there other cycling options which encourage challenging, recreational road cycling which do not involve large numbers of cyclists riding two-abreast in tight bunches on ride routes that pass ‘blackspots’? enables interested hill climbers to log their climb times for over 60 tough climbs in Sydney and the Gold Coast Hinterland, appraise their times against other climbers and access a record of improved performance in “Climb Times”.

For over 13 years BUG has attracted endurance cyclists to a +100km ride each Sunday which visits over 30 cafes around the perimeter of Sydney with a 1st Commandment: “Hills are your friends! Mountains are your mates!” One of its toughest cyclists, Resolute Diehards, is 76 year old, Harry aka KayakMan, who completes the 200km Audax Alpine Classic each January from Bright in Victoria. Participant endurance riders do not ride in bunches, preferring maximum peripheral vision from “breaking their own wind”.

Is the cupboard bare? Treasurer, Wayne Swan, acknowledges that Australia is faced with unprecedented Federal budget deficits due to the GFC. The age to start receiving the old age pension will defer one year to 66 in 2017 and to 67 in 2022. Under funding of hospitals due to insufficient state government revenues now receives greater press attention than ever before.

Hence, in an unprecedented era when all three tiers of government are overtly encouraging cycling for health and climate change benefits, can regulators condone a ‘dangerous recreational activity’ on public roads which places an additional strain on emergency wards and spinal units, if the activity is illegal and the danger can be materially reduced by imposing conditions on the size and ‘tightness’ of bunch riding.

In an era when conserving fuel costs is paramount, Regulation 126 “Keeping a safe distance behind vehicles” would not exist if it was safe to drive immediately behind a vehicle ahead.

Neither would the Victorian Roads Minister have announced in late June an increased penalty of “$13,610 or prison for 12 months, or both, for dangerous cycling” if cycling did not have the potential to be dangerous.
Merit exists in –
A. cyclists, potential cyclists and bunch ride organisers, being aware of the possible consequences of bunch riding in light of Regulation 126 and an insurer’s right to deny liability if an insured party breaches the terms of their policy; and
B. regulators questioning whether some additional constraints on bunch riding on public roads should be imposed.

Cycling fast in a large juggernaut often less than 60cm apart may well constitute “riding in a dangerous, careless or reckless manner”.
The ‘benefits’ listed in i), ii) and iii) above of “Convoy riding” with “two bike lengths” spacing to comply with Regulation 126, capped at the length of a semi-trailer, with a 100m gap to the nearest bunch, far exceed the negative impact on the ‘reasons’ for bunch riding listed in (a) to (f) further above.

Bunch ride organisers should seek legal opinion on the rights of a seriously injured bunch rider to commence a civil action against a negligent bunch rider if an injured bunch rider believed a negligent bunch rider ahead (or behind) contributed to his/her serious injuries. And if such litigation could name the bunch ride organiser as another defendant, if the bunch ride organiser had not made reasonable efforts to ensure that –
I. bunch riders had always provided risk warning signals to riders behind; and
II. new bunch riders were provided a risk warning which included notifying known ‘blackspots’ on each route.

Also, because a bicycle is a vehicle and reference to a driver includes a rider, are bunch ride organisers in NSW inviting others to breach Regulation 126 “Keeping a safe distance behind vehicles” of the NSW Road Rules 2008? Are there any fines/penalties for organising or promoting an illegal activity?

Courts regularly award material damages against people who accept a responsibility, but fail to exercise reasonable care. On 26 June ’09, NSW Supreme Court awarded $850,000 in damages to a boy who fractured his skull due to falling from a top bed-bunk while at a friend's house for a sleepover, because the parent’s of the friend failed to exercise reasonable care to ensure that the ladder was in place.

NB: It is perhaps unusual for a road cyclist to be questioning the behaviour of other road cyclists. However, with cyclists striving for greater rights on the road, cyclists need to consider other road users, namely motorists and pedestrians. Often harmony is achieved when polarised parties give a little to find middle ground. Road crash fatalities were an alarming 30.4 per 1,000 in 1970, yet only 8 per 1,000 in 2005 and continuing to drop due to ‘inter alia’ increased road rules and punitive fines/penalties. Less than 50 years ago, smoking cigarettes was socially acceptable, as was driving after imbibing ‘lots’ of alcohol. Behaviour can change. Most of us want more people cycling safely with –
* fewer trauma accidents;
* reduced health care costs which hit the public purse; and
* lower insurance premiums which are a function of ‘risk, frequency and magnitude of pay-outs’.

A disgruntled bunch rider might deduce that the writer did not want his third party insurance premiums to subsidise similar payments by bunch riders due to the greater incidence of trauma accidents during bunch rides. But the afore-mentioned seeks to consider all issues in order to render “challenging cycling” as safe as possible.

* For the purpose of this article, bunch riding is defined as more than four cyclists riding two abreast with the distance, between the rear wheel of the cyclist ahead and the front wheel of the cyclist behind, often less than 60cm, but may be slightly over a metre.

** International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 42, No. 1, 83-97 (2007)

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