Free bike lights and bells – The most progressive council policy in Western Australia?

by Tim Grey-Smith

A cyclist rides through the historic West End of Fremantle. Source: WAToday

In March this year, Mayor Brad Pettitt announced in a radio interview that the WA Police, in conjunction with the City of Fremantle, would trial a new approach to the policing of safety compliance for cyclists. In the new regime, when a police officer pulled over a cyclist for not having lights or a bell on their bicycle, instead of dishing out a hefty fine they would issue a caution, and a voucher for free lights and/or a bell to be picked up from Town Hall. While this might seem like an innocuous and minor change to policy, it raises very real and interesting questions around the purpose of the rule of law and how to achieve behaviour change.

At the time, this policy attracted a lot of negative attention from right wing media commentators both in radio and print. They stated that this policy was “rewarding criminal behaviour” and a waste of ratepayers funds. Whilst I do agree that there is a slight cost shifting from state to council in the implementation of the policy, I would strongly disagree that the small amount allocated (around 5k from what I understand) is a waste of money, and I deeply disagree with the idea that this “rewards criminal behaviour”.

The first point I’d make, is around the idea that anybody who isn’t compliant with any and every single piece of legislation that applies to their world, is a “criminal”. I would be hard pressed to find a single individual that doesn’t break some kind of legislation daily, or weekly. To put someone who doesn’t have a bell on their bicycle in the same category as a rapist or murderer is to horribly simplify the issue and not give any deference to the relative weighting of legislation, from both a societal outcome and ethical point of view.

The second point is simply around cost of compliance. The cost to the state is huge. Not only in the police time to write them out, but to process them, enforce them, and in the case of giving a fine to anybody who lives outside the state, generally writing the fines off. All this, without actually guaranteeing any real behaviour change. In fact, the most likely outcome is to just reinforce a viewpoint (rightly or wrongly), that police are more interested in revenue raising than in public safety. Not to mention the fact that the recipient of the fine now has less money to put towards their own compliance.

Contrast this to handing out free lights and bells. Yes there is a cost, but the resources required to achieve compliance are significantly less. The result of the action is actual compliance with law, and increases public safety in a real and quantifiable sense.

For me personally, it all comes down to the world I’d like to live in. Do I want to feel like the powers that be are constantly breathing down my neck, waiting for me to “step out of line” so that they can whack me with a fine, or do I want to feel like the government is looking out for me, that they care about my safety more than taking my money? I haven’t seen this policy being acted out in person, but the idea of someone being pulled over, expecting a bollocking and a fine, and ending up with some free stuff just makes me smile.

I congratulate our council and local police force for taking a more considered and rational view to this issue, and from all accounts the scheme is working well with feedback being overwhelmingly positive.

Is there a more progressive policy out there in Western Australia? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

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