An obscure bike width regulation means hundreds of thousands of people are in conflict with the regulations every time they ride a bike, theoretically exposing themselves to police fines and insurance woes. But this loophole also has troubling implications for bike infrastructure and people with disability.
The corridors of power are built upon legislation – sometimes visionary, sometimes dreary, and sometimes totally inane.
It’s the last category that tends to be the most fun. In parts of Australia, for instance, you can face a year’s jail-time for cleaning up bat guano without a license (Section 387, Criminal Code Act 1913 (WA)), or cop a AU$777.30 fine for “flying a kite to the annoyance of any person” (Section 4, Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic)). Often, these laws aren’t enforced – their greatest modern-day relevance is as fluffy bits of pub trivia. But sometimes, weird laws can have real consequences.
As is the curious case with regulation 404 of the snappily titled Road Traffic (Vehicles) Regulations 2014 (under the Road Traffic (Vehicles) Act 2012).
Under this piece of legislation – which applies to the vast state of Western Australia, covering a third of the continent and home to 2.6 million people – a bicycle cannot exceed the width of 660 mm.
We’re primarily a drop-bar site here, so to give you some context, you probably can’t buy a mountain bike with bars that narrow (most modern mountain bikes are between 720-780 mm).
Let’s do a quick roll-call.
Your drop bar bike? Fine, unless it’s got wide flared bars. The vast majority of mountain bikes? Nope. Flat bar road bikes or hybrids? Borderline. Vintage-style bikes or beach cruisers? Nope. A child trailer towed behind another bike? Probably not (regulation 406). Most cargo bikes? No way. Even Australia Post’s delivery bikes? Don’t be silly.
To take an educated guess, we’re probably talking about half the bikes in the state.
Let’s measure up
Like those bat poo or kite flying laws, this bit of legislation doesn’t play a major role in the lives of Western Australians. Tens of thousands of them are riding around non-compliantly every day, unbothered by police and almost certainly unaware that their bikes are on the wrong side of the law.
Indeed, after calling around various government bodies in WA – the Road Safety Commission, the WA Police, the Department of Transport – I can’t say this single line in a decades-old multi-page regulation seemed like a particularly pressing issue on anyone’s radar, really.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the low-stakes nature of this law is that – unlike, say, carrying 50 kg or more of potatoes from a non-Potato Corporation-authorised seller (Section 22, Marketing of Potatoes Act 1946 (WA)) – is that the police don’t issue fines for your wider-than-legal bike. That means that police won’t pull you up in Perth. They won’t measure you up in Mandurah. You won’t get collared in Carnarvon.
In fact, hilariously, WA’s police bikes are not legal for use in WA.
But, although there’s no fine payable and people assume it’s a non-issue – if they know about it at all – it’s actually a much bigger mess than that.
Imports, sales, and usage
To delve a little deeper, it’s worth a brief detour through the other regulations muddying the waters.
The WA usage law is distinct from any nation-wide Australian Standards compliance law – which, incidentally, also has a handlebar width-related clause, a mandatory standard of a maximum handlebar width of 700 mm. But that’s just for a bike to be legal for sale, and can be sidestepped by importers specifying non-compliant products as ‘competition only’ – which is what many do, by simply whacking a sticker on saying just that.
And besides, once a bike leaves the store, customer amendments are fair game – everywhere unless you’re in WA.
Multiple major brands that I spoke to for this story confirmed that there is no separate WA-sales stream – whatever bikes they import into the eastern states are identical to those offered for sale on the other side of the country. Importers and distributors of bikes bear no responsibility to adapt bikes to be deemed legal for use in public spaces in Western Australia.
But while the WA usage law may look a pointless bit of bureaucratic flotsam, it is on the industry’s radar, and for good reason.
Peter Bourke, general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia, highlighted the issue in a recent newsletter as one of the issues his organisation was lobbying on. It is, he wrote, part of the work by BIA “to ensure decisions made, usually by bureaucrats, don’t have a negative impact on the bicycle sector’s ability to sell product.”
Speaking to CyclingTips, Bourke expressed his concerns about the far-reaching implications of this regulation – which, he noted, is originally based on 45-year-old legislation and only exists in Western Australia. In addition to affecting most modern flat bar bikes, there are other possible areas of concern. Bar-end mirrors may also fall foul of the law; likewise most panniers, and wide loads strapped onto rear racks. This isn’t a fringe issue – to confirm as much, all you need to do is pop out to your garage with a tape measure.
And because of the broad spectrum of non-compliance we’re dealing with, Bourke argues, there’s a worrying loophole that needs to be closed.
Insurance and enforcement
Insurance companies make their money by taking in more in premiums from customers than they pay out, and one of the ways they preserve their bottom line is by paying out only what they have to. Loopholes, no matter how small, can be exploited.
Just as car insurers can walk away from payouts if a vehicle has worn tyres or has unspecified modifications, it’s not impossible to imagine an attentive assessor seeing a non-compliant bike as a reason to bounce a payment.
Now, whether this has actually happened or not is a more difficult question to answer. The Insurance Commission of WA – a state body which last year paid $29 million to cyclists “for treatment, care and support for injuries sustained in a crash involving a registered vehicle” – told CyclingTips that “the specifications of the bicycle used, is not considered in confirming that right to claim.”
A spokesperson did, however, note that private insurers could be a different matter – if a wide-barred cyclist damaged property, or ran into a pedestrian, they could theoretically be sued. At the very least, there’s an opening for an insurer to quibble.
Western Australia’s peak body for cycling, WestCycle, told CyclingTips that it had not had any official public complaints regarding the regulation. But all it takes is one over-vigilant insurance assessor for a cyclist to be left paying an exorbitant damages bill.
And if there’s a policy of targeting cyclists – as has been the case in New South Wales at various points, when police would have occasional blitzes on bells and reflectors – a 660 mm-wide loophole could be used as a starting point for pulling over a cyclist and building out a list of other infringements.
And although none of the 15 or so people I spoke to for this story had ever heard of cyclists being fined for an unlawfully wide bike, there’s this section down the bottom of the regulation:
That passage has my brain playing Twister, sure, but also doesn’t actually say that fines are outright off the table. The WA Department of Transport suggested as much, with a spokesperson confirming that “enforcement is at the discretion of the WA Police Force.”
So: there’s a (possibly theoretical) risk of insurance woes and penalty units from this regulation. But there are much more tangible implications, too.
Discrimination and design flaws
Most days of the week around Perth, the community organisation Cycling Without Age runs rides. Their bikes are adapted cargo trikes – more like rickshaws, really – accommodating “older adults and people with disabilities who cannot ride for themselves, connecting them with their community and the environment.” On Wednesdays, they visit the seaside City of Stirling, in Perth’s northern suburbs. But then bollards – spaced 700 mm apart – were fitted by the local council to the bike path their route runs along. That cycling infrastructure was generously compliant to WA’s laws, with 40 mm to spare, but the cargo trikes were nowhere near narrow enough to fit through.
While that Cycling Without Age group was able to reroute – and the bollards were eventually re-spaced – it illustrates the ripple-on effects a single outdated dimension in a piece of obscure legislation can have. It’s not actively discriminatory; it’s just one of those things that happens.
Perhaps the most galling issue, though, is that the legislation means a marginalised group is missing out on the joy of cycling – people with a disability.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a government-funded program that entitles eligible recipients to fully-funded “reasonable and necessary” support items for their disability, including items such as stability bikes and trikes. Around Australia, there are little kids, adults and everything in between discovering the joy and independence of riding a bike, with the assistance of specially modified equipment.
In Western Australia, meanwhile, the NDIS is unable to fund any adapted mobility bicycle or tricycle wider than 660 mm – which is basically all of them.
“People with a disability are missing out in WA, and it is the only state it is an issue,” Bourke told CyclingTips. “We’re lobbying on this because we can’t see any benefit to it – and there’s actually a group being discriminated against.”
Again: it’s uncertain how widespread the issue is. One WA-based NDIS provider said that the 660 mm limit was news to them, and hadn’t been a factor in their ability to provide equipment – despite many of their products almost certainly not being compliant. But CyclingTips understands from discussions with other retailers that it’s not simply a theoretical issue – multiple claims have been knocked back.
“If we can change people’s lives by giving people something to ride … it’s not just about money; this is what we’re trying to do here,” said one retailer, lamenting a situation where a client had been declined funding because of the maximum width regulation.
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the NDIS confirmed that they were bound by WA law: “Assessors are required to be aware of, and adhere to, this law when considering requests for assistive technology and to ensure that any equipment recommended adheres to this law.”
Salt in the wound is the fact that the legislation is so unevenly applied – and, when compared to other legislation, seems utterly nonsensical. You can ride a wider skateboard. You can ride a 700 mm-wide electric unicycle. But someone with cerebral palsy can’t get a trike funded.
Bicycle Industries Australia – along with other groups including WestCycle, and politicians including Greens member for the South Metropolitan Region, Brad Pettitt – have been pushing for a change, but progress has been frustratingly slow.
Peter Bourke told me he’s been on the case for about 18 months. “It should be simple. The minister for transport just needs to sign off on an amendment,” Bourke said.
But there’s an abiding sense that it’s getting passed back and forth – and nobody’s bitten the bullet yet.
Time to measure up
The work of governments is – in an ideal world – intended to make the lives of people better, rather than worse. None of the people I spoke to for this story suggested that there was any malice in the WA bike width regulation; it’s just a gap in legislation, when bureaucrats over multiple decades and regimes fail to keep pace with change.
20 years ago, when this regulation was last amended, adapted trikes for people with disability were a tiny segment. 45 years ago, when the Road Traffic Act the regulation sits in was introduced, mountain bikes barely existed. Technology changes, and legislation changes slower.
But now… now we’re here. Where a state of millions of people and hundreds of thousands of cyclists are saddled with a silly, (mostly) harmless bike width law that (mostly) doesn’t have any unintended consequences. Until it does.
Bicycle Industries Australia is continuing to lobby on this issue.
Western Australia’s peak body for cycling, WestCycle, said it was “aware of the situation and is currently working alongside the WA Department of Transport advocating for change.”
Greens member Brad Pettitt told CyclingTips he will be raising questions in parliament today.
The WA Department of Transport provided a statement to CyclingTips acknowledging that “in the recent past … a vast range of bicycle, tricycle and e-bike variants have been manufactured.”
“DoT is reviewing the regulations and will work with relevant stakeholders, including the Road Safety Commission, to identify all relevant issues and recommend to the Minister to amend the regulation and legislation where appropriate.”
Edit 15 June: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the regulation as falling under the Western Australia Road Traffic Act 1974 (Road Traffic [Bicycles] Regulations 2002).