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The road rule drivers always get wrong

Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 2017
Another day, another police crackdown on pedestrians and cyclists. This week it was the NSW Police running a 12-hour blitz in the Sydney CBD and surrounding suburbs, called Operation Pedro.

The operation aimed to “raise awareness about road safety in the cycling community and among pedestrians and to promote safe road use”, according to the press release.

If you work in one of our big cities, this will be a familiar sight. NSW Police runs these operations several times a year, and their counterparts in Victoria and other states run similar programs.

Yet every day drivers flout the law and get away with it.

There are many pedestrians who take silly risks when crossing the road, but there are even more drivers who do the wrong thing when it comes to giving way to pedestrians.
The difference is that the dangerous driver is far more likely to hurt someone else.

It seems many drivers don’t actually know that when they are turning a corner they are required to give way to pedestrians crossing the road. I remember being taught this by my driving instructor and I’ve since looked it up and confirmed it in the road rules for every state and territory of Australia.

It’s the law that you “must give way to pedestrians crossing the road into which you are turning” and it doesn’t matter if there are traffic lights, stop signs, give way signs, or nothing at all. Google it.

It’s listed by the NSW government as one of the top 10 most misunderstood road rules.

My experience the other day was fairly typical. I was crossing the street near my house. There were no cars in sight. When I was halfway across the road, a car hooned up to a stop sign, paused for a split second and then turned left … directly across my path. When I threw my hands up as if to say “watch out, don’t run me over!”, the driver wound down the window and yelled at me “where’s the crossing?”.

The most galling thing is that she was convinced she was in the right.

I felt like marching up and giving her a copy of the NSW road rules, but instead I made sure I got safely across the road. She was the one driving a hunk of weaponised metal, after all.

I’m lucky that I’ve only copped abuse. Four of my closest friends and family have been run over in the past four years. Every time it was the driver’s fault, and in only one case has the driver been charged.

Four years ago one of my friends was crossing at the green pedestrian light and a cab driver, who had the right to turn left after stopping if he gave way to pedestrians, careened into the intersection and ran over her foot.

It took my friend months in a moon boot, numerous sessions of physiotherapy and protracted legal action before she recovered physically and got the insurer to reimburse her medical expenses in full. The driver was never charged.

The most devastating experience for me personally was when I got a call to say that my dad, in his early 60s, and grandmother, then 91, had been run over and were in hospital.

Grandma escaped with a broken ankle, though she then had complications associated with immobility. She’s doing fine now.

My father had his leg fully run over and the bone shattered in several places. That leg now has more metal than bone from hip to ankle, and it will never be 100 per cent better. His recovery was not only slow and painful, it also came with an added challenge because it coincided with my half-sister learning how to walk.

They had been crossing a side street in front of a stationary car. The driver was waiting to turn left, and looking to the right for a gap in traffic. She had seen the pedestrians on the footpath but did not look left to see if they were crossing the road before she took off.

Again the driver was not charged.

Last year another friend was crossing the road with a green pedestrian light. The driver turned left without looking and struck my friend, leaving her with a broken knee cap, damage to her jaw requiring extensive dental work and a permanent scar on her face. She is still dealing with the physical recovery and also seeing a psychiatrist for post traumatic stress disorder.

Even though she was not at fault and the driver admitted he didn’t look, she had to submit five years worth of tax returns and extensive evidence to get the insurance to pay up. Her medical expenses are covered, but she is self-employed, and will receive no compensation for her time.

This time at least the driver was charged with negligent driving causing grievous bodily harm.

The NSW Police issued more than 250 infringements during Operation Pedro, including 95 for various cycling offences, 12 against pedestrians, and 146 other traffic offences.

I asked NSW Police if they ever ran operations targeting drivers not giving way to pedestrians.

A spokesman told me that traffic crackdowns such as Operation Pedro always look at the behaviour of everyone on the road, not just pedestrians and cyclists, and clarified that the 146 in the “other” category were tickets given to drivers for various offences.

He added that the police issue hundreds of thousands of tickets a year for driver offences such as speeding and drink-driving.

Yet it seems to me that pedestrian safety is still seen as mostly about policing pedestrian behaviour.

In the original press release announcing Operation Pedro, the acting commander of the traffic & highway patrol command, assistant commissioner Michael Corboy said “we need cyclists and pedestrians to do the right thing to ensure the safety of themselves and others”.

The Victorian police use similar language. It’s not wrong, but it’s only part of the picture.

It’s good news if drivers got fined for not giving way to pedestrians in the crackdown, but it would be more meaningful if this was emphasised or at least mentioned in the official communication.

Pedestrian safety needs to start with educating drivers and better enforcement of pedestrian rights.