On 2nd February 2020 I woke up early on a Sunday morning to the news that the previous evening, four young children, three girls and a boy, were killed on a suburban footpath in Sydney. Three more children were hospitalised.
At appears that a 29 year old male drunk driver, behind the wheel of a large four wheel drive vehicle, lost control, jumped the curb and ploughed into the children before crashing into a fence.
He was allegedly three times over the legal blood alcohol limit and was witnessed by multiple motorists in the moments beforehand speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road and running a red light.
For any parent, this is the ultimate tragedy and of course, our hearts go out to everyone affected.
My article will not be focusing upon the tragedy itself, but the impact that incidents like these and more particularly, false reporting of these incidents, can have upon our bicycle industry.
An initial report suggested that the children were all riding bikes. But this was soon corrected to say that the children were all walking on the footpath and one of them had a bike.
This did not stop the Sunday Telegraph, Sydney’s Murdoch owned tabloid newspaper which has a long history of ‘cyclist bashing’, running with a completely false headline in huge type on page one ‘Four Kids on Bikes Killed’.
The story’s introduction repeated the false news saying they were, ‘riding their push bikes along Bettington Road’.
The next day, Monday’s Daily Telegraph correctly stated that they were walking, not riding. ABC TV and other reports showed that they were on the footpath, not on the road. One of the children was apparently wheeling a bicycle along. But no correction, apology or mention whatsoever was made of their Sunday edition’s completely false screaming page one headline.
Meanwhile at least one other ‘media commentator’ shock jock turned politician Derryn Hinch repeated the false ‘four kids riding bikes’ line on social media. Mr Hinch is infamous for describing cyclists as ‘cockroaches on wheels’ on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program on 18th August 2013.
Thanks to grossly incorrect reporting such as this you can rest assured that this tragedy will reverberate through the media and families nationwide as having something to do with cycling. Part of the subsequent discussion will be the danger of letting kids anywhere near the streets, especially on bikes.
You can also have no doubt that this will also directly impact parents’ decisions about whether to buy their child a bike for their next birthday, or perhaps a video game instead.
We live in a society where the trend for decades has been for families to have fewer children, for and parents to be older and wealthier when they have them. At least partially as a result of these factors, ‘cocooning’ is the new norm. Our kids are wrapped up in cotton wool compared to kids of previous generations.
Here’s a classic example… In the late 1980’s when our children were very young, we bought them a trampoline. It had coil springs, with no padding over the springs or frame and certainly no safety net around it. But when I bought my grandchildren a trampoline last Christmas, it not only had a carefully designed full safety net and full padding around its perimeter, but even the coil springs have been banished in favour of a safer, leaf spring design.
No one thought badly of us for the design of trampoline that we bought 30 years ago. It was normal. In fact, the trampoline designs of today had not yet been invented. But if you were to allow kids on a 1980’s style trampoline today, you’d be considered reckless.
Which leads us to children cycling. Like so many of you who are of my age or not too much younger, when I was a kid I virtually lived on my bike every evening when school finished and on the weekends. My bike was my ticket to freedom and I’d roam the streets far and wide with no mobile phone, no GPS tracking, no helmet and no worries.
But fast forward half a century and the safety of my grandchildren is paramount. I have no doubt that whatever cycling they do will be far more limited.
These examples are being repeated through millions of families throughout Australia. As a result, we’ve seen a large decline in kids’ bike sales over the past 20 years. Meanwhile our population has grown significantly so the pro-rata decline in kids bike sales is even more dramatic.
What will happen when our current core generation of adult customers, already aging, gets too old and stops cycling? They have fond childhood memories of cycling and the skills and confidence that goes with that. But will younger adults who never rode at all as children want to take up cycling as adults?
What can we do about this decline in childhood cycling and the broader dilemma of childhood cocooning more generally?
Increasing parental risk appetite when it comes to their children’s activities would be an incredibly tough thing to do.
The greatest irony is that the number one cause of death for children aged 1-14 years old in Australia is land transport accidents. (Source: Australian Institute of Heath and Welfare).
The majority of these are car accidents. In other words, the very place parents put their kids to keep them safe, the back seat of mum’s people mover, is the place of greatest danger.
Meanwhile the negative impacts of this cocooning, childhood obesity, diabetes, mental health and resilience issues, social disconnection and more, all continue to grow.
What can we do about this? The road back to a saner world is long and littered with social and political hurdles. If we’re really going to significantly change this situation in future, we need to be able to take strong action to resolve questions like these:
- Why was this 29 year old drunk driver, allegedly three times over the legal limit, still driving and what social norms made it acceptable for his 24 year old passenger to be accompanying him? Why don’t we live in a society where the ‘mates’ of a drunk potential driver stop him before he even sets foot inside his vehicle?
- Why don’t all vehicles have immobilisation systems so that a drunk driver can’t start the car? The technology has been available for years. Society would probably not accept this intrusion on all cars, but why not for recent drink driving offenders or other high risk segments?
- Why do we allow high fronted vehicles with aggressive radiator designs, bull bars and other pedestrian killing design features to drive unrestricted in urban areas when studies and data has proven that they increase the rate of injury and death for those who are hit?
- Why aren’t all vehicles equipped with external front airbags, which were first fitted to a Volvo V40 in 2012?
- Why don’t we have lower speed limits, such as in many other countries that have far lower road deaths than we do?
Finally, to some even more difficult questions confronting our bicycle industry.
- How do we counteract the constant barrage of negative media when it comes to children cycling?
- How do we educate the broader community that cycling actually offers far more benefits than risks?
- How do we regain the generation, fast approaching a second generation, that have largely been lost when it comes to experiencing the former childhood rite of passage of the joy and freedom of cycling?
These are difficult questions with often complex and expensive solutions. But we owe it to all future generations to proactively address them.