The death of endurance rider Mike Hall was supposed to be a catalyst for improving road safety for cyclists. But two years on the deaths have continued. Scott Hannaford investigates.
At 4.30am on a Friday morning in March, 2017, Joe Spulak climbed into his Hyundai i30, pulled out of his Cooma driveway and headed into the darkness.
Spulak, a daily traveller of the Monaro Highway between Cooma and his public service job in Canberra, knew the road well and as he left the outskirts of town his eyes scanned the verges for the usual hazards.
Kangaroos were always a threat, sometimes it was wombats. Recently, increasing numbers of feral deer had been appearing suddenly in the glare of his headlights.
But as he approached the Snuggles Pet Resort on the outskirts of the village of Michelago, something new appeared in front of him - a cyclist.
I knew straight away it must have been him
"I think I might have been on high beam, which was just luck," recalls Spulak, who says he was virtually on top of the rider before he realised what was happening. "It was only when he was in my headlights that I saw him."
Yanking hard on the wheel, he swerved into the middle of the road as the car lurched around the lone figure. Badly shaken by the near miss, he continued on to Canberra.
Later that day on his drive home Spulak turned on the car radio and heard news that made his stomach churn. A rider, champion British long-distance cyclist Mike Hall, had been hit and killed at Williamsdale, around 20km further on from where Mr Spulak had encountered him.
"I knew straight away it must have been him."
Hall had been competing in one of the world's most gruelling endurance events, the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, an unsupported 5474km race from Fremantle in Western Australia to the steps of Sydney's iconic opera house.
When Hall's GPS tracking dot stopped moving just inside the ACT border and didn't move again early on the morning of March 31, it sent shockwaves around the world as thousands of cyclists tried to make sense of his sudden death.
But locally it also reignited a larger debate - why do cyclists keep dying on our rural roads and should they be there in the first place?
2017-18 was a horror year for cycling deaths in Australia. The number of cyclists killed on the nation's roads jumped a staggering 80 per cent from the previous 12 months, from 25 to 45, according to a report by the Australian Automobile Association, the biggest jump of any group of road users. That's before non-fatal injuries are taken into account.
In Canberra, around 200 cyclists are involved in crashes that are reported to police each year, although not all involve other vehicles and not all result in injury. Of those crashes that do result in a cyclist getting hurt, collisions at right angles are a major cause, although being sideswiped or hit by another vehicle pulling out from the curb or a driveway are also common causes of accidents.
As bad as those numbers are, the real picture is probably even worse. A survey of Pedal Power members conducted in January this year found 16 per cent of members surveyed had been involved in a crash or collision in the last 12 months and of those, fewer than a third had reported it.
Since 2018 the carnage has continued, despite the renewed focus on road cyclist safety sparked by Hall's death. In that time three more cyclists have been killed on the ACT region's roads. In April last year Teresa Foce, a passionate cyclist, set off on her regular ride to Tidbinbilla. She died in a collision with a car on the Mentone View roundabout in Conder as she travelled along the Tharwa Drive bicycle lane and died in hospital two weeks later.
In June Kathy Ho was cycling with her husband Mark Grundy near Bungendore in a collision with a van.
And in February, New Zealand army Major Aaron Couchman died in an accident with a truck while riding on the verge of the Federal Highway, one of the region's most popular training routes. 38-year-old truck driver Darren Samson has been charged with dangerous driving occasioning death and will face court in June.
In her final report into Hall's death Coroner Bernadette Boss said she did not have reasonable grounds for believing that the driver had committed an indictable offence. But she also said Hall's death had been avoidable and made a number of recommendations to improve road safety.
"There is sufficient evidence for his death to be the catalyst for changes that will enhance rider safety into the future," Coroner Boss wrote.
Road safety experts from the Monash University Accident Research Centre reviewed the accident and found the poor state of the shoulder made it unsuitable for cyclists, particularly at night. Manager of traffic signals for Roads ACT Michael Day agreed that a narrowing of the road caused by a culvert had effectively eliminated the area for cyclists, leaving Hall little choice but to ride in the main lane.
The coroner recommended the ACT Government review the intersection at Williamsdale and consider the speed limits that should apply to major intersections along the highway.
ACT Roads Minister Chris Steel says work is already underway to address many of the issues raised by the coroner, including engaging experts to review the ACT section of the Monaro Highway and consider speed limits, lighting and other conditions at intersections.
Separately, as part of a larger joint federal/territory upgrade of the highway announced in late March work will soon start on an overtaking lane and median barrier between Royalla Drive and Williamsdale Road.
"I've also asked [Transport Canberra and City Services] to work with Pedal Power to provide advice on immediate options to improve safety on rural roads ... while longer term options for infrastructure improvements are considered," says Steel. "Cyclists and other vulnerable road users deserve to feel safe as they travel around Canberra." .
But sitting in his Civic office, just back from a cycling tour in Bathurst, chief executive of Canberra cycling lobby group Pedal Power Ian Ross says there is more that could be done.
"We think that a risk assessment of all country roads [in the ACT region] needs to be done and it needs to be done collaboratively.
"Not long after Kathy Ho died there was a general consensus that something needed to be done to improve safety on country roads, and we did have a forum with councils, police and cycling clubs and others to come up with some ideas around that.
"That was useful, but people on bikes still seem to be about the last road users that are thought about when they're building those crossings and intersections."
Ross doesn't accept the argument that some roads are too dangerous and should be closed to cyclists.
"We should be expecting that there will be people on roads at all times and they are legally allowed to be there. If you look at the number of people going up and down the Majura Parkway path, people use it all the time not because it's particularly exciting but because it's a fantastic piece of infrastructure. Whenever we're developing or upgrading roads we should be trying to apply the best possible treatment."
Numbers in decline
AT THE same time the number of deaths has been rising, the number of Australians actually getting on a bike appears to be in freefall. From 2011 to 2017 almost 640,000 fewer Australians aged 2+ were recorded riding a bike at least once per week and about 1.4 million fewer had cycled in the year prior, according to calculations based on the National Cycling Participation Survey. The ACT fared better than most jurisdications, recording a relatively flat participation rate above most other states and territories.
But with just 3 per cent of Canberrans commuting to work by bike, the ACT government's 7 per cent by 2026 target appears ambitious at best.
Former professional road cyclist and Cycling ACT president Peter Rogers says it's hardly surprising, giving the shrinking number of safe roads available to cyclists.
"A few decades ago we had probably two dozen venues for club races, today we've got three or four - we've lost around 80 per cent on our last review. All of those roads are still there, we just can't go near them anymore for various reasons but it's basically too dangerous due to the growth of suburbs and increase in traffic."
The city's population has roughly doubled since Rogers and his brothers Michael and Dean - both also former elite level competitors - started training on the region's roads. But he says despite efforts by successive governments, infrastructure for cyclists hasn't kept pace, making it hard to encourage the next generation to take up the sport.
"The saddest thing is school children and their parents aren't seeing cycling as a safe and viable activity simply because of the dangers. We're not stupid and we're not going to put children in harm's way. There are simple things they could do to make it safer, like sweeping the roads more often."
Search for solutions
One measure that has proven popular with governments around the country is the introduction of minimum passing laws, sparked in 2005 by the death of another elite Australian cyclist, Amy Gillett, who died in an horrific crash in Germany while training with teammates.
After a two-year trial the ACT legislated its laws in late 2017 and require drivers to keep at least 1m distance from cyclists when passing at speeds up to 60kmh and 1.5m at higher speeds.
But enforcing those laws is notoriously difficult. Between July 1, 2016 and March 25 this year ACT Policing issued just seven traffic infringement notices and nine cautions for overtaking a bicycle too closely.
In addition to public education campaigns, the ACT Government has funded a study into the effectiveness of its minimum passing laws. Conducted by the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide, the study fitted measuring equipment to 20 Canberra cyclists for four weeks and recorded the actual distance of passing cars. The results of that study are expected within weeks.
Lead researcher Dr Jamie Mackenzie says one of the issues with the rapid introduction of minimum passing laws around the country is researchers have had little time to conduct proper analysis to find out if they actually work.
"Nobody knows how effective they are, that's the big thing, because noone gave researchers like me a tip-off in time that these laws were going to come in so we weren't able to do a before-and-after study. Victoria is one place that doesn't have these laws yet, and I know they've said they aren't going to introduce them but if that changes in the future we may be able to answer some of those questions."
But one innovative program that has shown promising results overseas has caught the eye of local police.
The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured has fallen by a fifth in the British West Midlands since police rolled out their close pass campaign.
Under the program, plain-clothes police officers are put on bikes and sent onto target roads. When a vehicle passes too closely the officer radios to a waiting colleague up ahead who pulls over the driver. While the worst offenders can face penalties, in many cases drivers are given an option of avoiding a fine if they opt to watch an education video before continuing on.
Head of ACT Policing's road safety team Detective Sergeant Marcus Boorman says it's a promising technique that will soon be trialled in Canberra.
"We're hoping to get something happening in the coming weeks and we will be putting officers on bicycles ... once we've had a good look at it to make sure it's safe," says Boorman.
"We have seen some recent improvement in driver attitudes, and we want people riding, Canberra is a great place for cycling.
"But the onus needs to be on the individual, both drivers and cyclists. Some drivers don't look beyond the end of their bonnet, and cyclists are legally allowed to be on the roads.
But high speed roads carry a greater risk. The onus is on individuals, and if it's not safe, why do it?"
Boorman says there's a lot of emotion and sensitivity around bikes and cars that tends to blow the situation out of perspective, and there are ongoing education initiatives to try to foster a more considerate attitude on the roads.
A recent joint study from three Australian universities has found much of the aggression on the road could be reduced by putting a human face to cyclists. More than half the Queensland, NSW and Victorian drivers surveyed rated cyclists as not completely human on a scale with people at one end and cockroaches at the other.
Another landmark study out of the University of NSW also found drivers were distracted from the road 45 per cent of the time they were behind the wheel, even when they had cameras in their cars and knew they were being watched. The incidents that resulted in near misses were caused by preoccupied motorists who had been texting and talking on a phone, engaging in personal hygiene or reaching for an object.
Uncertain road ahead
At Williamsdale a white ghost bike sits on top of a pole, surrounded by fading teddy bears, cyclist bidons and wilting flowers. Among the cards and notes scattered at its base, a letter from Mike Hall's mother Patricia has started to fade and crack, the weather having taken its toll.
But on Facebook her message to the cyclists and drivers remains clear for all to read.
"I came to Australia to find answers and I did, I found the answer all around in the courtroom.
"I saw destructive anger that is negative, I saw people so wrapped up in their own need that it destroyed what my son stood for. But I also saw incredible steadfastness and the ability to reach out and have compassion. I came away with clarity I had done want Mike would have done - I forgave."
The momentos at Williamsdale may have started to fade, but for Joe Spulak, who still finds it difficult to talk about, the memory of his near miss that dark morning in March has not.
"I pass the memorial every day. I try not to think about it when I do."