We were heartbroken to learn that our friend Carolyn Lister was killed on Tuesday morning while cycling to work at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. Carolyn was a highly experienced and very careful rider who has biked all around Brisbane as a commuter and in cities all over the world.
Carolyn has been a great supporter and contributor to cycling advocacy groups ‒ especially to CBD BUG and Brisbane North BUG. Together with husband John, she helped build the advocacy momentum behind the North Brisbane Bikeway back when there was no route and no plans to connect from the CBD to the northern suburbs.
Carolyn’s death at this time and in these circumstances is immeasurably tragic. We extend our deepest condolences to John, and Carolyn’s extended family, friends, and colleagues.
It is hard to read about Carolyn without tears. There are so many stories of her warmth, generosity, and adventurous spirit.
But perhaps this comment on Facebook from Malcolm summed it up:
“I am so sorry and angry! Carolyn was a fellow cycle tourer and Warm Showers host. We have hosted John and Carolyn often in Tasmania. Carolyn had cycled around the world, providing us with inspiring posts and reports. She and John had reported from countries where many felt they were intrepid to brave the traffic and to lose her in her home town where we think we are so clever and sophisticated but we are so stupid that we don’t protect bike riders makes me distressed with grief and anger. John, we grieve with you.”
We grieve. We are full of sorrow for a life well lived but finished far too early. For a love that shone, and a loss unfathomable. Words are tiny, rattling, useless things to try to wrap around such hurt.
But as Malcolm says, there is anger too. And we need to speak about that now.
It’s not anger at an individual ‒ a man driving a truck.
Imagine sitting in the cabin of a vehicle from which you can’t see the road. You can’t see a small car in front of you ‒ let alone a person on a bicycle or motorcycle. You might have pulled up next to a pedestrian crossing where there are a dozen people waiting, but they have disappeared beyond your vision.
You’re watching traffic; when the lights turn green, is there enough room for you to clear the intersection with your truck and trailer. Will the driver on your right realise how much operating space your vehicle needs?
You pull forward, and *crunch*. What was that??
We find it very hard to believe that Carolyn Lister rode up from behind the truck which killed her, overtook it, and positioned herself in front of it, in the driver’s blind spot. Carolyn had cycled all around the world; she understood risk. She picked her routes carefully; she rode to be visible; she kept clear of heavy vehicles. She knew this intersection. She rode here every day.
We don’t believe that Rebekka Meyer cycled past a truck on Stanley St, Woollongabba back in 2014 either, and pulled in front of it while they both waited for the green light to turn right into Annerley Road. But the Coroner could not conclusively find who had arrived first at that intersection that morning in 2014. The truck driver was convinced Rebekka must have come from the side of his vehicle into his blind spot. He had not seen her; she must not have been there as he arrived.
We believe him. No-one would knowingly drive their heavy vehicle forward over a person. The consequences are beyond imagining.
But on that day in 2014 those consequences became starkly real. Just as they did again on Tuesday morning in front of the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.
Another woman on a bicycle; another man in a frighteningly similar vehicle.
There were details of the incident which claimed Rebekka Meyer’s life which Coroner Christine Clements could not conclusively determine. But there was one thing she was very clear about:
“There remains the inherent danger of laden conventional trucks operating within congested city environments, particularly with respect to the limited forward vision from the driver’s position of these vehicles.”
“Conventional shaped heavy vehicles should be prohibited unless they are fitted with appropriate technologies to warn the driver of any obstacles or other road users within the forward blind spot of the truck.”
If that recommendation had been followed, we might not be here again. With our grief and our anger, and our fear for when we will be here yet again.
But the Department of Transport and Main Roads rejected the Coroner’s recommendation for an outright prohibition on conventional trucks, citing the cost of retrofitting trucks and difficulties applying consistent national standards.
Their response didn’t specifically address the possibility of prohibiting just the operation of those trucks in certain designated areas – which has been the approach adopted in London. There, the Direct Vision Standard for heavy goods vehicles requires all lorries over 12 tonnes gross vehicle weight to be granted a permit to enter or operate in Greater London. The scheme was created to improve the safety of all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. It is based on the Vision Star Rating by the vehicle manufacturer, based on how much the driver can directly see out of their front and side windows. Depending on the star rating of the vehicle, it will need to be fitted with various safety systems before the operator can apply for a permit to operate within the enforcement zone – which includes the inner city and many of the suburbs.
Perhaps the truck which killed Carolyn Lister was purchased in the years since the Coroner’s recommendations in Rebekka Meyer’s case were made. If the driver involved in the incident has better visibility from his seat in the cabin, it seems likely that Carolyn would be alive.
What is the cost of grief? Can you put a price on fear?
How can we reassure people like Sisa, who writes:
“This is so sad and scary. Every time I ride to work I am scared I might be injured or killed.”
What do we say to the hundreds of new riders who have recently been inspired to start cycling to work, or to the shops, or to school with their children? To those partners who say: “Please don’t ride today. I am scared of what might happen to you.” What is the cost to them and to society when those people decide cycling isn’t safe, and retreat to their car?
We are calling for a full investigation into Tuesday’s incident. Not just into the actions of the individuals in the immediate vicinity and the moments leading up to the tragedy, but an investigation into the design of the intersection, the movement of pedestrians accessing the hospital, the route designed for cyclists to access the hospital cycle centre and the design of the truck and its suitability for use in this place and at this time.
Australia’s National Road Safety Strategy is based on the Safe System approach to improving road safety, which recognises that people will always make mistakes and may have road crashes—but the system should be forgiving and those crashes should not result in death or serious injury.
“While individual road users are expected to be responsible for complying with traffic laws and behaving in a safe manner, it can no longer be assumed that the burden of road safety responsibility simply rests with the individual road user. Many organisations—the ‘system managers’—have a primary responsibility to provide a safe operating environment for road users. They include the government and industry organisations that design, build, maintain and regulate roads and vehicles.”
This incident requires a full investigation. Carolyn deserves that and would have wanted it. Her family and friends deserve to know. The wider cycling community deserves to know. The system has failed us. To move forward we need to understand how that has happened.
It should be obvious to anyone who visits the intersection of O’Connell Tce and Bowen Bridge Road that the infrastructure there is inadequate for the number of people walking and cycling to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. A tiny concrete island sits between two rows of traffic, with barely room for a single bicycle, let alone a crowd.
How was this not considered when the Cycle Centre at the hospital was opened? When the North Brisbane Bikeway was constructed? When new traffic signals were installed a little further down O’Connell Tce and the lanes reconfigured?
How was O’Connell Tce chosen for a haulage route? Which site was the truck coming from, and was the driver complying with their construction management plan? Who assessed the movement of these trucks through this intersection at this time—at any time—to be safe?
In the hours following Carolyn’s death, there were still similar trucks moving through. Were they from the same project? Surely a death on the work-site would trigger a stop-work while the incident was investigated and remedial action taken. How far past the gate does responsibility end?
Carolyn was a theatre nurse and a nurse educator. In the healthcare system it is well understood that responsibility doesn’t finish at the end of an operation or the end of a shift; that the success of an operation or treatment also depends on the quality of care provided before and afterwards. Protocols are documented and followed, and processes are checked and rechecked to ensure the hazards are minimised and that inevitable human errors are caught.
What information was provided to the truck driver about the route he was using on Tuesday morning? What warnings were conveyed to the general public in the area? What mechanisms were in place to coordinate with other works in the area which had re-routed the bikeway, and closed a number of nearby footpaths. What was the traffic management plan for people walking and cycling?
When she visited Brisbane for the inquest in 2015, Rebekka Meyer’s sister, Tania Jensen, said of her sister’s death:
“For us, this will always be horrific and meaningless but maybe … something can be done to prevent another accident another time, whether it’s to look at biking lanes or extra lines, physical barriers and also the trucks that are on the road. Turn every stone, check every corner.”
Brisbane has had five years to turn those stones and check those corners.. But here we are, trying to find words to wrap around our grief and our anger again. This time for Carolyn Lister.
Further deaths are inevitable if we do not act now. We owe it to Carolyn and Rebekka’s memories to learn, and to do better.