Fines possible for driving too close to cyclists

The Government is considering making it illegal to drive too close to cyclists.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter told Newshub she wants to discuss the issue with officials and road safety groups in the next few weeks.

"We know a lot of people want to cycle more, but see our roads as too dangerous. I'm committed to changing this," the Green Party MP said.

"Anyone who's had the experience of a car or truck passing too close, at high speed, knows how frightening it can be. It's certainly off-putting for people new to cycling."

It comes after Western Australia became the fifth state across the Tasman to implement a passing law. Drivers have to stay at least one metre away from cyclists, and 1.5m if they're going faster than 60km/h. Failure to do so could result in a NZ$440 fine and four demerit points.

Kiwi cyclists have welcomed the move.

"A close pass is really uncomfortable and scary, and it's one of the main reasons that puts people off cycling," said Patrick Morgan of the Cyclist Action Network.

"People love cycling - they don't like mixing with heavy traffic. Being overtaken too close is bad manners, it's dangerous and it's scary."

Mr Morgan says there's already a "duty of care" written into the law, but the roads will be safer if it's made absolutely clear in the law how much room drivers need to give.

"The evidence from Queensland is it has been effective at increasing passing distances."

Western Australia is the last state to put a passing distance into law, Victoria the holdout.

In the past decade, between six and 10 cyclists have died on New Zealand's roads every year. Ministry of Transport statistics show the vast majority of accidents involving cyclists - around two-thirds - are not the cyclist's fault.

Minimum passing distances are mentioned in the Road Code, but not specified in law.

Cyclist car crash
The new Government wants to see less of this. Photo credit: Getty

Putting on the brakes

Automobile Association spokesman Simon Douglas says research commissioned by the Ministry of Transport in 2014 showed most drivers were already giving cyclists plenty of room, and often where they weren't, the roading layout was to blame.

"It might be they're in a really tight roading environment and the motorist couldn't give the distance they perhaps wanted to because of double-yellow lines or barriers or other traffic."

Mr Douglas says fines won't make the roads any safer on their own, partly because - just like with anti-cellphone laws - so few reported incidents result in prosecutions.

"What we do know anecdotally from Australia is when they have brought in a new rule, it hasn't tended to result in a swathe of tickets issued to motorists."

On this point, Mr Morgan agrees.

"I get many reports of people saying 'I reported this close pass' and the police are just not interested. They say they find it hard to prosecute those offences without good evidence."

Switching gears

The Western Australia passing law is being trialled for two years. Mr Douglas says this will give authorities a chance to run an education campaign, which he believes will be far more effective.

"The real change that you want to effect is that all the drivers on the road understand what makes cyclists comfortable or uncomfortable."

Ms Genter, a cyclist herself, says the new coalition Government wants an increased focus on "infrastructure that separates people cycling from cars and trucks" so passing distances become moot.

"More people cycling to work and school is good for everybody," she said. "It means fewer cars on the road, less congestion for motorists, and a healthier community. Our roads need to become safer for people cycling.

The Cycling Safety Panel's final report, published in December 2014, recommended a trial largely identical to the one currently underway in Western Australia.