What the Alex Mann case has taught us

It was fascinating to watch the furore erupt regarding Alex Mann’s conviction for impeding traffic while cycling on Dyers Pass Rd. Only two weeks ago, this was all over social media (and was easily our most viewed blogpost in a long time). Invariably these kind of news stories turn into a “cyclists vs motorists” free-for-all that is interesting to watch but also rather depressing (especially while I’ve been enjoying the relatively civil interactions of road users here in Europe lately). Still, like a lightbulb, one hopes that out of all that heat a bit of illumination also occurs and we get a little closer to a more cycle-friendly society.

Here are three key “big picture” points I have taken away from the discussions:

Not everyone is nice

(1) Some people are d**ks: They might be driving, they might be cycling, they might be posting a comment online – heck, they might even be a Police officer for all I know. Maybe Alex Mann acted like a bit of a d**k on the day; from what I understand about the case I suspect not, but I don’t know for certain because I wasn’t there. Not everyone plays nicely, for whatever reason; fortunately most people are a bit more reasonable and considered, but of course they don’t tend to be the ones that get noticed and remembered. And many people can also change from being generally an OK person to a bit of an idiot given a certain situation (the classic was Goofy’s mild-mannered “Mr Walker” turning into a road-raging “Mr Wheeler” when in his car – a 65 year-old Disney clip but still very relevant today it seems). The trick of course is not to generalise¬† – “all motorists do this”, “all cyclists are like that”. Chances are it’s the same d**k behaving badly when travelling by car or bike.

(2) The law can be rather ambiguous in places: Lots of commentators have been very certain in their beliefs that (a) Alex Mann was in the wrong or (b) Alex Mann was wronged. Like many parts of existing traffic law as it relates to biking (think also riding two-abreast, overtaking on the left, etc) the relevant section of the Road User Rule is actually very open to interpretation and circumstance. What’s a “normal and reasonable flow of traffic” (especially on Dyers Pass Rd)? If you have to get out of the way “as soon as is reasonably practicable”, how do you determine what is reasonable? It may depend on whether you can picture yourself in the car or on the bike; the law shouldn’t require that kind of broader level of perspective and empathy, but unfortunately traffic laws designed with motor vehicles in mind often don’t quite make the same sense when applied to a bike. This is why an important tool in the Police officer’s arsenal is the power of discretion – it is up to them to judge the context and determine whether an infringement notice actually is warranted (it’s the same reason why motorists aren’t generally ticketed for doing 51km/h in a 50 zone). It’s not a perfect tool though because obviously two different officers might come to different conclusions. There is some work going on at a national level to look at some of the existing traffic rules as they apply to biking and see whether they can be amended or clarified to give everyone a better understanding of their rights and obligations. But I wouldn’t expect it to create a perfect black-and-white world; why do you think we already have so many disputes dealt with by courts?

Cycling in Utrecht – unreasonably impeding traffic?

(3) Even more cycleways won’t solve all the problems: A number of people have said that situations like this are why we need to have more separate cycleways (or at least better shoulders) – “this wouldn’t be an issue in The Netherlands; they’d have their own space”. Except that, as pointed out in my post the other day, there are still plenty of places in the Netherlands where road users have to share. It is simply not physically possible (or sensible) to create separate facilities everywhere. More pertinently, in New Zealand a huge expansion in separated facilities is not going to happen overnight. That big funding announcement the other day? It’s going to create about 250km of cycleways (and Dyers Pass Rd isn’t one of them) – what about the other 90,000km of roads in NZ? What it will do is (hopefully) get a lot more people out cycling and thus improve the perception of cycling and the understanding of why “cyclists” sometimes do the things they do, because more people will be (or know) “one of them”. Some practical road user education campaigns could also help the understanding and, dare I say, even the debate following incidents like the Alex Mann case helps a little bit to get the different perspectives across.

Meanwhile, NZ has moved on to other more pressing issues; even the “bl**dy cyclists…” grumblers found something new to moan about, thanks to the big spend-up by the Govt. Behind the scenes, cycling advocates are thinking about ways to clarify the discussion with key agencies in a somewhat more civilised manner than we saw on some of the blogosphere. This issue won’t go away though; there will no doubt be other contentious cases come up (and if the Govt does introduce a minimum passing distance rule, as recommended by the Cycle Safety Panel, there’s a whole other conversation to be had about keeping left…). I’m reminded though of this rather famous saying:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win”

On that scale, we seem to be making excellent progress…

What do you think? Are these the key issues?

3 thoughts on “What the Alex Mann case has taught us”

  1. All good points. I’m sure you mean Dyers Pass Rd where we can be fairly sure the Alex Mann incident took place rather than Dyers Rd.

  2. Great post. Am keen to see a post on keeping left. How far left should a person on a bike be? What does “as far left as practicable” mean? What about NZTA advice in the Cyclists’ Code? What about “taking the lane” and primary / secondary position?

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