Riding the gauntlet: Tackling cyclists' safety head-on

Ken Anderson almost lost his life riding his bike. Now he wants all levels of government to take cyclists’ safety more seriously. 

Ruth Anderson wouldn’t wish the events of August 29, 2011, on her worst enemy. She still gets chills watching the nightly news as some tragic stories hit too close to home. 

Early in 2011, Ruth, an IT trainer at RMIT University, and her husband, Ken, an engineer with a practice in South Yarra, bought themselves a bicycle each. It seemed the perfect solution to their daily commute and a way to get fit.

A few months later they bought a Toyota four-wheel-drive ute and planned to convert it into a campervan and travel around Australia on a long holiday.

Ken soon found he could get to work faster on his bike than by public transport or car. So every morning he would head off from home, navigating through the back streets to his office. “It actually got him quite fit,” Ruth says.

Ken wasn’t fond of bike trails. He reckons bike hoons are as bad as car hoons, speeding past with little regard for others, so he kept to side streets, avoiding the main roads. But there were unavoidable busy intersections and arterial roads to cross on his route, including crossing Swan Street in Richmond.

Ken has no recollection of what happened at 8.50 am on Monday,  August 29, 2011, when he was weaving through static traffic as he crossed Swan Street just in front of Dimmeys. 

His memory of that day has been erased. But he has been told the road was wet from early drizzle and, like most mornings at peak hour, the traffic on Swan Street was at a crawl. 

According to the police report, Ken’s bicycle wheels became caught in the tram tracks. He fell onto the road and under the back wheels of a semi-trailer. 

When police arrived, he was bleeding heavily from the femoral artery in his thigh. Doctors would later tell him his body lost half of its blood that morning.

Ken survived only because of the quick thinking of police officers, one of whom grabbed a rope from the semi-trailer and applied a tourniquet around his thigh.

When paramedics arrived, Ken had no pulse. His left leg would be amputated at the scene. He also had a head injury, a lacerated spleen, a crushed femur and pelvis, nine broken ribs and collapsed lungs. 

“He nearly died right there on the tram tracks that morning,” Ruth says. 

Ken’s phone battery was flat that morning, and when police finally tracked Ruth down more than two hours later, she could tell one of the young police officers had been crying. “That day -- you cannot even describe it,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was in for. When I arrived, the doctor ran through this mile-long list of injuries, but finished with saying, ‘he is alive’. I was relieved, to say the least.”

Ken was in The Alfred hospital’s intensive care unit for 10 days before moving to the Epworth, where he stayed until January 19 this year.

For all those five months, questions filled Ken’s mind: Why me? What if I had left one minute later? What if I stopped for a moment longer? What happened to me that morning?  “I used to ask myself that a lot” he says. “Now I consider myself very lucky, not just because I survived but also because I have no memory of what happened, so I do not live with the trauma,’’ 

Ken returned to work last month after more than a year of learning to walk again. Ruth welcomed the day, saying he was getting bored and restless at home.

“I can walk almost as fast as the slowest people on the footpath,” Ken says, laughing. “There are very few people that I overtake.”

The Andersons sold their ute earlier this year, realising Ken would not be able to drive for some time, let alone drive anything with a manual gearbox.

Ken’s story is just one of a disturbing number of accidents involving cyclists on Melbourne roads each year. In 2011-12 there were 326 injured cyclists admitted to The Alfred Hospital alone. Three died. The year before, 325 cyclists were admitted to the Alfred, with one death recorded.

The Andersons say there is a pressing need for cycling registration and licensing to help emergency services identify accident victims, contact family members and better educate cyclists about road hazards. They also want more public discussion about how to improve the relationship between motorists and cyclists.

Not that Ken blames the truck driver for his accident. ‘‘Not at all. This was a pure accident. However, in my short time riding on Melbourne’s roads it became clear that the connection between motorists and cyclists needs work.

“The only way we will keep accidents such as mine from happening is if local and state governments work together to fund and encourage safe road use for cyclists and drivers.”

The Andersons’ call comes as Bicycle Network Victoria (BNV), has released figures revealing stark differences in cycling infrastructure spending between municipalities. 

Melbourne City Council leads the way, spending more than $50 per head of the municipality’s population on cycling infrastructure, such as dedicated bike trails, marked lanes on roads, safety zones, road crossings and parking. 

    The cities of Boroondara, Maribyrnong, Yarra, Stonnington and Port Phillip spend less than $20 per head on cycling infrastructure, according to BNV’s 2012 Bicycle Expenditure Index. Of the six municipalities, Boroondara’s expenditure was the second lowest per head at $4.34 in 2011-12, albeit still well ahead of Maribyrnong’s 91 cents.

Adding to Boroondara’s woes, BNV says figures released by CDM Research in July show there were 25 car door-related cycling accidents that resulted in injury in the municipality between 2006 and 2010.  According to VicRoads’ CrashStats database of the 16 south-eastern Melbourne municipalities, Boroondara ranks worst for cyclist fatalities and serious injuries.  

Across all Melbourne municipalities, the number of car door accidents reported to police rose from an annual average of 63 between 2006 and 2008, to 129 in 2009 and 117 in 2010.

BNV spokesman Garry Brennan, says councils need to keep up with the rapidly growing cyclist population to ensure they have safe routes. “Councils have a responsibility to ensure their streets are safe for all road users. They have to take some of the responsibility for the lack of safety in their streets.”

Boroondara embraces 23km of shared cycle-pedestrian paths, including a large portion of the Gardiners Creek bike route, as well as 56km of formal on-road paths on local streets and major roads such as Glenferrie and Burke. 

The  latter -- one of three main roads that form Camberwell Junction --- is the municipality’s worst bicycle accident black spot, with seven serious crashes between 2001-05. It’s figures like these that in 2007 spurred the council to commission a 10-year bicycle strategy.   

The strategy identifies six types of cyclist, including the most vocal species, commuters. This group has been lobbying for duplication of the Gardiners Creek Trail, swarmed upon by more than 2500 cyclists a day. Boroondara council has duplicated a piece of the trail at Winton Road,  Ashburton, but says it has no plans for more. 

“We can’t do it elsewhere without cutting into parkland,” explains Gardiner ward councillor Coral Ross. 

However, the strategy has a more urgent to-do list: a bike-lane retrofit for Kew Junction (where a cyclist was killed), a bottleneck where the City Link overbridge meets Glenferrie Road, improving  lousy signage on the Anniversary Trail in Glen Iris, Camberwell and Canterbury, and the tiresomely steep steps that are the only connection between the Yarra Trail and the Chandler Highway in Kew.  

It also suggests way-markers for the many riders who prefer the quieter local streets but can’t always find their way.

In neighbouring Stonnnington, the council chief executive Warren Roberts supports the Andersons’ call for a holistic approach to cycling infrastructure. He says collaboration between neighbouring municipalities and government organisations is vital. 

Stonnington has fast-tracked approval of a $1.8 million shared bicycle and pedestrian bridge for the Gardiners Creek Trail between Sir Zelman Cowen Park and Johnson Park, after years of complaints from the community about the lack of safe crossing zones for cyclists and walkers. 

That council is also investigating options to improve safety in Chapel Street, a notorious hotspot for car door-related accidents. Options include creating a so-called “door-away bike lane’’, to provide cyclists with a separate, green lane about a metre away from parked cars. 

The state government has also pledged $1.27 million to improve bike safety on Chapel Street. Extending bike lanes north to the Yarra Trail and bike parking facilities are just a few ideas being considered by the council. 

Meanwhile the Andersons are still hoping to some day go on that round-Australia holiday, with Ken aiming to get back behind the wheel in the next few years. After a few months driving him around, Ruth says Ken, like most men, is a bit of a passenger-seat driver.

“He might still require assistance with some things, but his spirit is certainly still intact,” she says.

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