I wrote this for my local paper – but I guess it wasn’t interesting enough, so instead you lucky people get to read it. Enjoy!
Rule 72 in the NSW road rules states that drivers turning a corner at an intersection must give way to pedestrians that are crossing the road they are entering. There is a bit more to it, but that’s the main gist. The gist that one hopes is common knowledge amongst all the road users in this city, especially as a mum who walks all over Newcastle with her two small children.
However, the reason I know the number of the road rule isn’t for this post. It’s because I literally have to recite it to angry car drivers who look at me like I’m an obnoxious pedestrian, out to illegally stop their momentum at all costs. And last week in the car with my parents, as my mum whizzed around the corner I pointed out the pedestrian she should have given way to. My mum and dad are not rule-breaking kinds of people, but their reaction demonstrated they had been breaking this rule for years, oblivious to its existence.
I often find myself letting cars go before I cross, perhaps for the sake of the safety of my children or to avoid confrontation, and other times it’s just to be nice (like the drivers who gesture for me to cross the road when they have right of way). But each time I do, I wonder if I’m helping cement false understandings of the road and the rules that go with it. I know my parents are not alone in being unaware of this rule and not everyone has their pestering adult daughter in the backseat pointing out these things. Who looks up the road rules to have a refresher or check they haven’t changed? Don’t the norms on the road appear to tell the story that matters anyway?
I also regularly ride a bicycle, so I’ve become aware of several other rules that are being broken (perhaps also because they aren’t common knowledge) that jeopardise the safety of non-motorists. It terrifies me more when I see that it’s people who have barely had time to forget the score they got for their L’s test. It’s not uncommon to see the left blinker come on as a P plater overtakes me just before a corner, I slow to avoid the collision as it crosses my path and they drive off none the wiser.
It’s not just the rules that matter to the safety and comfort of active transport users. The road environment is more than just following rules – it’s about staying humane, whether you jump into a car, hop on a bike, or stay on foot or in your wheelchair. You can think of the road environment as a bunch of different bodies moving around in a shared space – one of the most dangerous spaces on earth. These bodies vary in size, shape, weight, speed, hardness and have a person at their helm (with the exception of automated vehicles). While there are rules and infrastructure that make it seem ordered (including rules that not everyone knows), there is still a lot of understandable confusion on the road as we weigh up risks, responsibilities, competency and compassion. That’s where thoughtfulness, conversations and experience come into play. But perhaps, as a population, we haven’t been taught these other road skills well and it’s hurting our chances of reaching vision zero or getting more people to feel comfortable riding and walking through Newcastle.
What if we changed this with a school lesson that really got kids ready for the road? I didn’t know anyone who rode a bicycle in Newcastle when I got my licence and if I had to pass a cyclist, I would almost shut my eyes, hold my breath and hope. A scary thought for anyone who was cycling in the year 2000. I can’t help wishing I had known more about sharing the road and the complexity that is part of it. Instead all I knew was blind hope.
I have started developing a lesson plan for Year 10 students to get this conversation flowing and give the students an opportunity to express their concerns and build their competencies and compassion. Whether they are excited about driving or remain devout active transport users, it’s important that we afford our young road users with the opportunity to use the road space wisely and feel confident and stay humane while on the road. I would love to collaborate with interested parents, children, teachers and other community members to make this an effective project for our community. In the meantime, make eye contact, smile, be kind and keep rule 72 in mind.