Drivers take to bikes for a taste of their own medicine

As an experienced cyclist and Ironman competitor, Tom Nickels has had his share of close encounters with drivers.

"Heaps," he confirms.

As managing director of Waste Management and its fleet of 800 heavy vehicles nationwide, he's perfectly placed to do something about that.

On this particular morning, that means wobbling around the streets and bike paths of the Auckland commercial suburb of Highbrook, providing health, safety and environment managers from around New Zealand with a first-hand cyclist's perspective of the power struggle taking place on our roads.

Rather than walking a mile in their shoes, Mr Nickels is encouraging his staff to pedal a kilometre on their bicycles.

The outing is part of the 'Share the Road' programme, run by the Cycling Action Network, which essentially puts truck drivers on bikes and cyclists in the cab of a truck to promote better mutual understanding.

Supported by New Zealand Transport Authority, it has been around since 2013.

"That year, there were a high number of cyclists killed on the road tragically and a large proportion of those were as a result of crashes with heavy vehicles," reflects campaign manager Richard Barter.

"The coroner said something had to be done. There were a number of initiatives that came out of that time and one of them was a behaviour-change initiative, where 'Share the Road' came from."

Despite the seemingly escalating tension between cyclists and motorists, the death toll - generally - has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years. Our worst year on record was 1957, when 41 cyclists perished in New Zealand.

The toll was still 27 in 1990, but has progressively dropped to an all-time low of just five in 2016. Last year's 18 fatalities were very much an anomaly - the worst since 2000.

Scratch below the death toll and injury incidents also seem to be falling, according to ACC figures, although the cost of addressing new and active claims rose to $18.6 million last year, an average of $8840 each.

That doesn't include emergency treatment at hospitals, which is covered by a bulk-funding arrangement with District Health Boards.

Since its inception, 3500 participants have passed through the 'Share the Road' scheme and Mr Barter is convinced it's found its mark. 

"We survey participants and more than 93 percent of drivers come away with a better attitude towards cyclists," he says. "We ask them later 'has that attitude morphed into a behaviour change?' and they tell us it has.

"We ask them about the number of incidents they have before and afterwards, and they tell us afterwards they have less."

For many transport companies, equipping drivers with better road habits is part of an overall health-and-safety approach to their jobs.

Waste Management team
The Waste Management team embark on their 'Share the Road' workshop. Photo credit: Newshub

"Safety is the foundation stone of everything we do at Waste Management," says Mr Nickels. "We operate in hazardous environments - the roads of New Zealand and customers' premises - environments we can't control.

"Safety is paramount and anything, everything we can do to help our employees - and drivers in particular - to be safer, then they will get home safe every night and so will everyone else across the community.

"This programme is about helping our drivers be more aware, so that we can be safer for everybody. One of the follow-on benefits I can see from this programme is that it will help us with, not only cyclists, but other slow-moving vehicles and pedestrians."

These health-and-safety managers will be tasked with passing their experiences on to the drivers in their regions. Some are obviously shaken by the close encounters along the way.

"It was a wake-up call for me, definitely," admits Taranaki/Manawatu HSE manager Felicity Belsham. "Personally, it was really good to see the perspective of a cyclist, rather than being in a car all the time.

"It was a bit scary actually and to see how they deal with our trucks every day was really interesting."

Waste Management driver John Pomare has been instructed to make a close pass in his truck to give his colleagues a taste for what that feels like. Unfortunately, for the sake of this exercise, Mr Pomare has been a cyclist himself and gives them a generously wide berth.

But there are other transport businesses in this neighbourhood and their drivers are not nearly as courteous.

"General public obviously didn't know what we were doing and they came a lot closer than I thought they would," says Ms Belsham. "It was quite scary, to be honest, just because you can't see them coming behind you and had no idea when they would pass."

She admits there's a lot of work to be done in driver education and Waste Management have committed to putting all their drivers through similar courses.

"Attitudes towards cyclists are not very good," says Ms Belsham. "I think no-one really enjoys having them on the road, but it's a catch 22, I don't think cyclists enjoy having to get around trucks either."

There's one other outstanding reason for truck drivers to adjust their approach towards road users on bikes - you just never know when that cyclist you cut off might turn out to be your boss.