Friday, 19 July 2013

Perfect driving will never happen (Campaign for Sustainable Safety, not Strict Liability - part 2)

Cycling campaigners often say things such as that there is "no such thing as an unavoidable accident". After crashes occur in which cyclists are injured or killed there is often an effort to lay the blame on the individual driver who was operating the motor vehicle at the time of a crash. Cyclists in English speaking countries often call for strict liability under a mistaken belief that this will improve conditions for cycling. Many people who call for this law mistakenly believe that the law's existence on its own somehow makes drivers behave better, but this is a misunderstanding. The law in the Netherlands exists merely to address issues of material damage and financial liability. It does not apportion blame and is mainly confined to reducing liability of children.

Bad driver behaviour is undoubtedly a problem for cyclists. Cyclists often find themselves on the wrong end of the result of bad driving and as a result it is quite common for cycling campaigners to urge drivers to take better responsibility for their actions. There are many ways in which drivers of motor vehicles put themselves and others in danger. For example, drivers should never be distracted by mobile phones or by talking to passengers. They should not look away from the windscreen in order to squint at a navigation system. They should slow down if visibility is bad. They shouldn't eat or drink while driving. They should always allow adequate space when passing another vehicle. They should never pass when going around a blind corner, should always slow-down when there is a risk of ice, demist their windows when they can't see properly, not hurry when they're late for work, never look past a pedestrian or cyclist and see only the car further away, never drive too close to the vehicle in front, never become tired and fall asleep. There is a long list of things that drivers should always do and should never do, but though every driver knows that this wrong behaviour is common.

The Dutch highway code exhorts
drivers to pass cyclists with a 1-1.5 m
gap. That doesn't mean they all do it.
What works best is to have the gap
enforced by infrastructure
. Dutch
drivers are just as capable of making
mistakes as the drivers of other
nations. Introducing a law does not
reduce how often people make errors.
Building infrastructure which keeps
bikes away from cars does, however,
reduce the likelihood of such an error
killing a cyclist.
It's true that road safety would be improved. Campaigners sometimes refer to this as "low hanging fruit" as they see improving driver behaviour as an easy thing to achieve. Danger faced daily on the roads would of course be reduced if only we could convince all drivers to behave better all the time. However, there is a limit to what can ultimately be achieved and it is my belief that we are already quite close to that limit. Diminishing returns for training effort set in long ago. In Western nations which already have relatively good records for road safety there can be only very slight improvements in safety if driving for large efforts in training and enforcement. No matter how often we call for drivers of motor vehicles never to crash those vehicles and always to behave in a perfect manner, they will still make errors of judgement.

Cyclists are often seen as a misunderstood and hated out-group. Some drivers make unpleasant comments about cyclists, sometimes are even deliberately aggressive. That cycling campaigners see "bad driving" as a crucial issue is understandable because cyclists come off worst in crashes between motor vehicles and driver error is a common cause of these crashes. Cycling campaigners often equate bad driving with deliberate acts however very few deaths of cyclists are actually due to deliberate violence by drivers. Overwhelmingly, deaths and injuries of cyclists are the result of mistakes made by either the driver or the cyclist.

Accidents happen. They will always happen. While many campaigners dislike the word "accident", it is actually correct to use this word other than in the very small number of cases where a deliberate act causes a crash. Humans are not perfect machines and will always make mistakes

Be kind to animals !
While some drivers express annoyance at cyclists taking space on "their roads", the same emotional outbursts are not common between drivers and animals. Animals are not a human "out-group" and the deaths of animals on the road are neutral with regard to interactions between human beings. I think we can learn something from these deaths.

The scale of roadkill statistics is surprising to many people - according to a roadkill study from 1993, an almost unbelievable six million dogs and 26 million cats are killed each year by motorists in the USA. Those are just the "domesticated" animals. Other mammals include 41 million squirrels, 22 million rats, 19 million opossums, 15 million raccoons, 350000 deer. The total number of animals killed on US roads is estimated at one million per day and there are about 200 million drivers in the USA. On average, each driver in the USA kills an animal every seven months. There is no reason to believe that the USA is any better or worse than other nations. The USA is my example for no reason other than the availability of figures for that nation.

Australian warning sign. People drive
past signs like this and then run into
the animals in the pictures. Read an
Australian call for driver education.
Just asking people nicely to avoid
crashing is remarkably ineffective.
While many people might not feel upset about the death of a rat, they don't drive over them in such numbers on purpose. Perhaps more interesting are the figures for the pet animals. Very few people would deliberately harm a dog or cat, yet over 70000 cats and over 16000 dogs are killed by American drivers every single day.

For reasons of self preservation alone it's a good idea not to run into a larger animal such as a deer yet just the state of Michigan reports that "there were 56,666 deer-vehicle collisions in that state in 1994, and each year deer-vehicle collisions in Michigan kill an average of five people and injure 1,500". Michigan's deer collision rate works out as more than 150 per day. Have they not erected signs to tell people where the greatest risk is ? Are drivers not advised to avoid running into deer ? Of course they are. Have these attempts at education worked ? Of course not. Driver education can never result in there being "no unavoidable accidents", people will always make mistakes. Accidents will always occur.

Human beings are fallible
Car crashes are the inevitable result of putting human beings behind the wheels of cars. Human beings simply don't have the ability to behave in a faultless manner so even the most careful people are sometimes involved in crashes. Normal people going about their everyday business with no intention to cause any harm at all are spreading carnage along the roads, not only of the USA (which I picked only because I found the numbers for that country), but also of all other countries.

None of this is new. In fact, it's as old as cars themselves and of course the victims of this violence on the streets are not only animals but also humans. Back in 1896 a coroner who investigated the world's first fatal car crash made his view quite clear by saying that "this must never happen again". Much effort has been expended on preventing it from happening. In the 117 years between then and now, driver education has improved enormously and there have been countless campaigns to encourage safer driving. You may ask what the result of this has been and the answer is that there are now 1.2 million deaths every year due to crashes by motor vehicles. Perhaps a small fraction of these might be deliberate acts of murder, but the vast majority are accidental.

The connection between animal and human deaths on the roads is a simple one to make. The vast majority of these deaths are caused by motorists who are not deliberately dangerous, but who overestimate their ability, misread the road or who are not paying sufficient attention to what they're doing. This is not so much a failing of individual drivers but simply a normal part of the human condition. People are always distracted. We evolved to deal with travelling mostly by walking, occasionally running for small distances, but we're not actually faultless even at walking pace. Who has never walked into a lamp-post, stubbed their toe or tripped up ? Why are we surprised that the task of controlling a motor vehicle at higher speeds safely for long periods of time is difficult for us ? We're not very good at this sort of task and we will always make mistakes. It's not just the occasional bad driver who makes these errors, but normal drivers who have been trained well, passed a test to show that they understand how to drive well, who have been exposed to education campaigns and who drive past warning signs every day on their journeys. These average and good drivers still crash with alarming regularity.

When we pick on an individual driver after a crash has occurred this is an application of 20:20 hindsight. Every driver on the roads makes mistakes. We can't predict which driver will make a mistake next and we can't predict which mistake will turn out to be fatal for a cyclist or pedestrian, or even for the driver him/herself. Punishing an individual for a crash which has already occurred does nothing to prevent the next crash.

How can we avoid making mistakes ?
We cannot address fundamental human failings by changing the law or proposing more punishment for failure while the underlying task that we are asking drivers to perform remains so difficult. Punishment does nothing to address the reason why mistakes are made, which is that we are human and can't cope with the task of driving. Even the threat of heavy punishment won't make people perfect.

The way to address the problem of putting human beings in charge of any dangerous activity is to limit how often they have the opportunity to make catastrophic errors. There is a precedent in aviation .

Sadly, this pilot "flew the aircraft
beyond its operational limits and lost
control". Lives were lost as a result.
If the correct procedures had been
followed, this crash would not have
taken place. The existence of
procedures is not enough on its own
to guarantee safety
Historically, a large proportion of aircraft crashes were the result of pilot error. Pilots have crashed aircraft and often brought their own lives as well as those of others to an end due to such simple human failings as overconfidence and showing off. However commercial flying in particular is now very safe indeed. The improvement in the safety record for commercial flights has been achieved in large part by removing the opportunity for human beings to cut corners and make mistakes. This is the reason why pilots do such things as work through a check-list before they launch themselves and several hundred other people into the air. Check-lists might be boring but they result in a consistent check being made of important systems and any problems with them being spotted before they occur. When in the air, commercial aircraft benefit from several sets of eyes on the controls and from automated systems which sound an alarm and draw the pilot's attention if the aircraft is flying too low, too slow, falling quickly, too close to another aircraft etc. Automated navigation equipment has improved safety by removing human error so that aircraft don't run out of fuel in locations far from their destination. Automatic pilots take over much of the boring flying during which human pilots might lose concentration. Automated systems help landings to be made safely when visibility is not good. It is dangerous if aircraft fly too close to each other so they are kept apart. Small aircraft can be affected by the disturbed air left behind by larger aircraft so they are kept even further apart.

Aviation has been made safe by removing the opportunity for humans to make so many errors. The same principle can also be used on the roads.

In the Netherlands, the principle of sustainable safety is credited with improving the safety of the roads. It is the equivalent of the measures which have been taken in the air. Road designs are made self-explanatory. Everyone knows where they should be without having to read lots of signs. The task of driving or cycling is made safer by reducing the amount of thinking that drivers or cyclists have to do. While this reduces the frequency with which motor vehicles crash, it cannot completely remove human error from driving. Cyclists are kept away from where the inevitable out of control motor vehicles are likely to end up. The source of danger is kept away from those who are most vulnerable. This is how The Netherlands has achieved a better degree of overall road safety than almost all other nations, and a particularly enviable record of road safety for cyclists, pedestrians and children.

How this relates to Subjective Safety
Not just subjectively safe, also
sustainably safe. These cyclists are kept
safe from motor vehicles by the same
principle as keeps penguins from being
eaten by polar bears. Physical separation
from the road reduces the chance of a
driver making an error being able to
injure these cyclists. This creates an
environment in which everyone feels
safe to cycle.
It's fortunate that the same changes to the environment which remove danger from the roads are also in large part those which lead to a better degree of subjective safety. If roads and cycle-paths are subjectively safe then this makes cycling accessible to the public at large. It reduces the anxieties of parents about whether their children are safe to ride a bike. It reduces the anxieties of older people who ride here in increasing numbers and it results in everyone being able to cycle. Merely changing the law to punish errant drivers will not have this effect. It didn't have that effect here either - "strict liability" came some years after the construction of a comprehensive grid of safe cycle-routes which go everywhere.

Campaigning for Strict Liability harms cycling
Strict liability is positive for any country because it determines who has financial responsibility in the result of a crash. In The Netherlands we see no opposition to the law because everyone wants their children to be immune from financial responsibility if a crash occurs between their bicycle and a car.

However strict liability is really a side-show issue for any country where cyclists still do not already benefit from proper cycling infrastructure and where cycling is still a minority pursuit because of the lack of that infrastructure. It's a contentious issue which drives a wedge between cyclists and drivers. Drivers see this as an attempt to blame them for crashes which are not their fault and it is not surprising that they see this as unjust. Many of the people campaigning for the law don't understand what its true scope is and some of the campaigners actually really are asking for an injustice to be made law.

Today's drivers are potentially tomorrow's cyclists. It makes no sense at all for cyclists to put effort into alienating themselves from their potential allies, but this is precisely what is happening with the emphasis on blame which comes through strict liability campaigning. Though the potential benefit is very small indeed, this is still a difficult battle to win precisely because it appears to be unjust.

Strict liability is simply not a worthwhile thing to spend time in campaigning on in countries which face far larger problems. To campaign on this issue consumes considerable campaigning effort for something which can never result in the masses cycling because it doesn't even start to address the main issue standing in the way of people riding bikes. The Netherlands achieved success by transforming the environment to be safe for all road users.

If you want to copy the Dutch success in cycling then you need to campaign for all those things which really made and continue to make a difference in the Netherlands, not just anything described as "Dutch".

A few tens of km South of Assen. Segregation of all modes. Motorway on the far left, local road in the middle, cycle-path on the far right. All pass under a bridge for wildlife which aims to address the problem of roadkill. Segregation of modes is the big thing which enables mass cycling. Just like humans, animals benefit most in safety terms from being segregated from motor vehicles. Wildlife bridges are important because for some endangered species being hit by motor vehicles is one of the most significant causes of death.
What this post is not about Various comments have been made about this post, for example: "David Hembrow says accidents will happen, and there's no point in holding bad drivers accountable". This is, of course, not actually what I said at all and the thread which carried on afterwards went into even wilder diversions from the subject of this post.

There are a small number of genuinely bad drivers. These drivers break many laws and take many more risks than average and of course they feel the force of the law. Ideally they should not be allowed to continue to drive. Some people have even used motor vehicles deliberately as weapons. In these cases an existing law has been broken. Assault with a motor vehicle as a weapon should be treated just as seriously as assault with any other weapon. There may be examples in some countries where where there have been problems with achieving prosecution when a car was used as a weapon and this may well be something worth campaigning about. However, none of this is what I wrote about above because criminals cause but a small minority of the total number of crashes which occur on the roads.

Most drivers are neither particularly good nor particularly bad. When talking about "good drivers" and "bad drivers" we are often actually talking about the result of a perfectly average drivers in an average states of concentration who find themselves in different circumstances from one another. Most average drivers never cause the death or injury of another human when driving. However, most of those who have caused death or injury were no less skilled than those who have not. This comes down in large part to nothing more than luck. An average driver in the wrong place at the wrong time may cause a death. An equally skilled driver who never had the same bad luck might drive for his/her entire life without ever having even a minor bump. That someone could end their life with a perfect driving record does not necessarily indicate that they were a better than average driver; it is more likely that it shows they had better than average luck and found themselves with fewer dangerous situations to deal with.

Handing down particularly harsh punishment on a driver who was involved in a lethal crash after it has already occurred will do nothing to prevent similar bad luck leading to a similarly skilled driver being involved in a similar crash in similar circumstances at some time in the future. Indeed, if the road remains in the same state as when the first crash occurred then this is almost a certainty that the same thing will happen again in the same place if given enough time.

If we wish to address the problem of average drivers' mistakes causing injury and death, punishment is an almost useless response. Even if every drive who has already killed is locked up in prison this won't do anything to stop other average drivers faced with the same difficulties from making the same mistakes. However, changing the road design to make mistakes less lethal will work for all drivers. This is the gist of Sustainable Safety. If you remove conflict from roads and, especially important for cyclists, remove vulnerable people from the path of those in motor vehicles, then safety on the roads is improved.

The safety of roads in different countries is in very large part a function of their design and far less a function of the behaviour of different country's drivers. We're all from the same gene pool and all populations have a similar range of abilities. We all have the same human failings. The difference between the countries on the left and the countries further to the right come down in large part to the standards of road design.

This chart shows overall road safety and does not highlight the safety of cyclists. While almost all oher countries would gain increased safety for their drivers if they adopted infrastructure such as is in the Netherlands, for cyclists the safest place by far is The Netherlands (read footnote at that link). Cyclists elsewhere especially stand to gain from campaigning for the type of infrastructure which is common in the Netherlands, but it's worth bearing in mind that adopting this infrastructure will also benefit all other road users. The benefits of Dutch infrastructure also include keeping drivers from harming themselves and each other quite so often.

A comical interlude
When the new liability law was introduced in the Netherlands, it didn't go without comment. A Dutch comedy team produced this film in 1994. Remember that this happened after the Netherlands already had mass cycling. Nevertheless, many people thought the legal change was a step too far:


Anonymous said...

However this is not so much a failing of individual drivers but simply a normal part of the human condition. People are always distracted. We evolved to deal with travelling mostly at walking pace, with very small distances covered at a run but we're not actually faultless even at that speed.

This is so true - this is what I refer to as behaving like traffic. You've put it ito a rarher more thorough context than I did.

I'm glad you're still keeping this blog going. I'm always felt very aware that you do this excellent work for free - hence don't want to clutter up the comments. You've helped to change the thinking of a number of people (including myself). I've been intending to take one of your study tours for several years now and I want to apologise for not making it (perhaps if I put it in my diary *now* for 2014?)

Konstantinos Parsalidis said...

Excellent post!

David Hembrow said...

Psychobikeology: Thanks for your reply and even more the positive comment. I like your post and suggest that others read it too.

The August study tour is full now. However, contact us to make a booking. We will do another open tour in September if there is enough demand. Not sure yet about 2014.

Bob said...

I still vividly recall our neighbour in Delden telling me, "Even if a bike falls out of the sky, it's your fault."
Which, of course we know is blatantly false, but it stuck with me just the same.
Keep on plugging away. I enjoy reading your take on things. Only wish we had the political will over here to improve things. I mean, the city of Toronto can't even decide whether to put in Subways or LRT, and this has been going on for 30 years. Just deplorable.

Jambo said...

David, you make a persuasive argument and I do not disagree with the idea of sustainable safety at all. However, I feel accidents are more avoidable than you seem to.

True, there will always be cases where a small lapse in concentration or decision making has severe consequences but I believe many accidents could be avoided simply if people had more respect for the useful, yet dangerous, tools which cars are.

I believe simple changes in automatic driving behavior like not rushing through junctions, leaving a good gap between yourself and the car in front and being patient with overtakes would yield big results.

Perhaps it is not realistic to expect this of people but it is still important to distinguish between momentary human error and constant bad driving practices.

Just as it is possible to design roads to cope with human failings, it is also possible to style your driving to cope with your own imperfection, and thus *reduce* your chance of causing a collision.

Anonymous said...

While I agree wholeheartedly with your call for better infrastructure, I cannot accept that most collisions are mere accidents or a matter of luck.

When a driver speeds, fails to look before changing lanes, or goes through a stop signal, just to name a few, whatever follows is a direct result of that failure to drive safely or observe the law. It is not an accident, but a foreseeable result of what is too often a conscious decision to flaunt the law, or the casual carelessness with which too many drivers operate their vehicles.

As you point out, it does little good to jail drivers except in the most extreme cases. But to casually dismiss the results of careless, reckless and distracted driving as mere accidents or bad luck is to continue the failed thinking that has lead to the carnage on our roads.

Drivers can, and should, be required to operate their vehicles in a safe and alert manner. If they demonstrate an inability to do so, they should not be allowed to drive.

David Hembrow said...

Jambo, bikinginla: The problem of drivers crashing their cars and killing people is not a new problem.

It's also not new for observers of this mess to imagine that training or education are enough to make everyone else into a better driver.

However, these things only go so far because people are people.

Modern human beings make mistakes at much the same rate as we have for our entire history. We've not evolved a special ability to make fewer mistakes just because we've been put in charge of a dangerous piece of equipment.

This doesn't only affect driving but also such things are operating chainsaws. Everyone knows it's dangerous, but thousands of us still manage to injure ourselves with chainsaws every year.

People fall over and hurt themselves when they're just walking. Given a bicycle, people quite often fall over at higher speeds and hurt themselves a little bit more. With a motorbike or car they have even more ability to cause harm and that's exactly what happens.

Exactly the same thing was true in aviation until people thought very carefully about why and how human beings make mistakes and how to reduce the problems caused by pilot error. They put effort into developing technology and procedures which while they didn't reduce the frequency with which humans would make mistakes, did reduce the likelihood of those mistakes being fatal. The same ideas have been taken up for such things as nuclear power plant operation.

The equivalent idea when applied to the roads is the Dutch concept of Sustainable Safety. It was found that rebuilding road infrastructure along sustainable safety lines very powerfully reduced the rate of injury above what could be achieved by training drivers. If you've not read that link, please do so.

Do either of you drive ? Can you honestly say that you have never ever misjudged anything while driving ? If you don't drive, have you never misjudged anything when cycling ? Never stubbed your toe or tripped over when walking ?

There's no point in telling people to walk more carefully if they happen to trip up and hurt themselves when walking on a sidewalk as these trips will continue to happen. Perhaps the person who hurt themselves might be more careful next time, but other people will not be. To address the problem you need to make the surface that people walk on trip-proof. That is sustainable safety in action.

Dave H said...

No David - the use of a neutral word such as crash or collision in the immediate reporting of an incident will not then prejudge the later reflection on the events and proving of blame or otherwise.

I'mn advised that the unfortunate wording of strict (civil) liability is required by the legal system, when what is really meant is a presumed liability (known through H&S legislation as the duty of care). Without question we apply the same concepts of strict civil liability to those using guns, chainsaws and other machinery that can cause serious damage or harm if a stupid individual wanders in to the 'working' area so why should motor vehicles be any different?

Simon Burns said...

David, many thanks for another thought-provoking and well-argued piece. The unfortunate fact (in Britain, at least) is that our cycling infrastructure is mostly rubbish and this seems unlikely to change in the next decade or two. The government's recently-published plans for transport did not mention cycling or walking even once. The parliamentary debate on cycling scheduled for this Autumn calls for 10% of journeys to be made by bike by 2025, and 25% by 2050. Ambition? It's in the dictionary somewhere.

So it's unsurprising that some campaigners are looking for other ways to limit the carnage caused by motor cars, and strict liability looks (on the face of it) to be a good candidate. I accept, however, from your previous piece on this subject, that it's not the panacea it's made out to be. Public reaction to the recent proposal to adopt it in Scotland shows how it is perceived as offering unfair privileges to cyclists, despite the many unfair privileges currently afforded to motorists (such as urban infrastructure which tends to suit them alone, above all others). So it's probably going nowhere.

So we're left with driver education and coercion, and here falls the burden of my point. Historically, we have as a nation accepted things which are less acceptable (or entirely unacceptable) today. Look at the Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall cases to see how child abuse was (apparently) routine, and routinely overlooked by people who could have reported it to the police. Even in cases where it was reported to the police, it was ignored or laughed off - a man as important as Savile was basically untouchable.

These views are changing (have changed) dramatically. I would hate to pretend it's yesterday's problem, since these things still clearly go on today. But the levels of public anger border on hysteria (for better and worse) and nobody is attempting to say "it's fine, because that's the kind of thing which happened back then. People are just people, after all."

But where is the outrage about the appalling levels of fatalities on our roads, of which many victims are children? Why are people not calling for reductions in air pollution (most of it caused by motor traffic) which kills many thousands of people (many of them children) each year? Why are people being let off with a slap on the wrist when they kill people on the roads? We just don't care that much: it's part of the price we pay for having cars. As you say, accidents do happen in aviation (for example) but the standards are so much higher that they are a rarity. Flying is incredibly safe compared to driving or cycling, and that's because the sanctions against careless pilots are severe.

Public perceptions need to change. Car drivers divide their attention between operating the vehicle, talking to passengers, talking on the phone, adjusting the stereo, using their tablet computers, fixing their hair or makeup and generally not taking their responsibilities very seriously. This is seen as perfectly normal. It shouldn't be. Until the legal system starts to punish drivers appropriately (I do not mean prison, but why do they so often keep their licences even after killing someone?) this is unlikely to change.

Unfortunately, your article comes across as an apology for poor driving - I doubt you mean it that way. The Netherlands has a unique position for cycling because it has taken bold steps to alter the balance in favour of cycling and public safety. Given the reluctance of the car-obsessed UK and its politicians to do the same, we might seek to redress the balance using other means. It might not work as well, but it looks like the only way forward at the moment. Strict liability might not be the answer, but a more serious attitude from the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts themselves might start to cause careless drivers to take their reponsibilities seriously as well. I hope we will one day look back and wonder why on earth we put up with it for as long as we did.

Richard Adamfi said...

Perhaps when automatically driven cars become the standard, mistakes from motorists will no longer be an issue. In this event, will normal people become comfortable cycling on normal roads in countries like the UK?

Dutch-style segregated cycle infrastructure would still preferable for many other reasons highlighted in this blog, even if motor vehicles no longer posed a threat, for example the ability to ride 2 abreast. But if automatic motor vehicles become a reality then the government will definitely see segregation as unnecessary. So it is essential that the infrastructure is built now before that happens.

In the meantime, automated safety systems should be made mandatory, such as speed limiters set by GPS, which would help cyclists by forcing cars to stick to 20/30 mph limits.

Anonymous said...

Yes we need more infrastructure. But I don't see why more enforcement and liability can't be a way to procure the funds needed for the infrastructure.

If tickets were more expensive a portion of the ticket could be diverted into a fund for building the infrastructure and enforcement.

If you were to triple (amount could vary, using 1/3 for simplicity) the cost of all traffic infractions and use 1/3 of the funds from each ticket pooled for administration costs (court filing etc), 1/3 to pay for enforcement (more police photo radar, what ever), and 1/3 going to the improvement fund.

Could even make say school zones and intersections a "safety zone" like roadside construction sites where the ticket prices double, and the bonus fines given specifically to the infrastructure funds.

Of course this would take some doing in the part of the localities both at the local and state level to accomplish. But it seems like a viable option.

And I do think you'd see more people driving more safely if what was a $200 ticket, suddenly jacked up to $1000+. I know I would, and I already consider myself (yeah like all do) a safe driver.

BTW- I think the same increase in charges should apply to violations performed by cyclists and pedestrians as well. After all unsafe behavior by all on the roads leads to collisions (I refuse to use the word accident - because yes humans make mistakes, but nearly all the mistakes are easily eliminated by focus and attitude, as your example of the airline demonstrates.

Drew Devereux said...

When a license is granted to a motorist, it is not expected that the training involved in preparing them for driving will do much good. Not seeing what is in front of me, driving too fast for conditions or while distracted; all of these are acceptable excuses for a crash. At least where I live in the USA.

When a license is granted to a doctor/paramedic/nurse, there is a high expectation that the training involved will ensure safe practice. A paramedic who cannot determine if their patient is breathing adequately will soon be out of a job. If they give the wrong medication or dose there will be consequences, as there should be. The license may be revoked or suspended; there may be a lawsuit.

The biggest cause of mortality to adults/children/babies in the under 35 year old crowd is car crashes. That is, simply put, a public health emergency.

When I accept a driving license, I agree that I will pay attention and drive safely. If I cannot do this, by reason of failing senses (too old), undeveloped sense of mortality and responsibility (too young), or I just need to multi-task, it is no different in my opinion than the paramedic who cannot recognize if his patient is breathing or not.

Having been a paramedic for 16 years, I cannot remember a encountering single car accident from the many I have been to. All were caused by speeding, intoxication, or distraction. I did have a friend who had an accident. Road debris cut his hydraulic brake line without his knowledge. He crashed into a stopped car when he tried to use his brakes.

I disagree that car crashes should be defined as accidents. First of all, we cannot be sure it was unintentional. I cannot look into the mind of my fellow human being. Would you say the paramedic who could not assess your breathing was making an understandable error? Of course not. That paramedic should be looking for another line of work. And chances are good that the paramedics license would be revoked. When a motorist is distracted or keeps driving with glare obscuring a dirty windshield, and takes the life of a pedestrian; I fail to see the "accident" in any of that. How is it different from an incompetent medical professional? But that is how it will be viewed by society today. It is the social construct we live in. Brought to you by the automotive and fossil fuel industries and their lobbyists. In years to come, this circumstance of affairs will be looked back upon with horror.

When we decide to accept the responsibility of a license that allows us to perform an activity that is responsible for the mortality of so many of us, the expectations need to rise to the occasion.

David Hembrow said...

Drew, gutterbunny, others, you're very worried about the word "accident" and how much fines cost but I think you've missed the main point of my piece above.

It really doesn't matter what word you use to describe crashes, they're going to occur anyway unless something is done to stop them.

The statistics show that drivers on Dutch roads are far less lethal than drivers on American roads. The reason why is that the job of driving is made easier here by better road design.

The difference is even more extreme if you look at the fate of vulnerable roads users, i.e. pedestrians cyclists and children. Cyclists are vastly safer in the Netherlands than they are in the USA.

If we want pedestrians, cyclists and children to be safe then the most logical way to progress is not to have debates over which words we use to describe car crashes nor to concern ourselves overly much with how large the fines are for people whose accidental behaviour has a fatal consequence. None of these things is going to make any real difference to the deaths rate on your roads.

If you want to make people safer then the logical thing to do is to copy the most successful attempt at improving safety. That means copying Dutch sustainably safe road designs.

i.e. we shouldn't entirely blame drivers for the death rate on the roads when it is shown that changing the road design also affects the death rate. If we place the blame entirely on drivers then we are letting the other guilty parties off the hook entirely.

To achieve safer roads you need to look beyond driver behaviour and also blame your planners, road designers and politicians who have failed to emphasize the need for better road designs, as all of these people can rightly be given partial blame for the deaths on your roads.

Frankly, North American roads are terrible in design and they don't seem to be getting any better. A few weeks ago I criticized dreadful new Ontario traffic manual which is full of ideas to put cyclists in danger. A while ago I wrote about Los Angeles setting ludicrously long time-scales for plans which will achieve very little for cycling. These problems appear to be widespread across North America. I don't have time to write similar pieces about all the examples that I've seen.

If you want to save lives on your roads, you need to look very closely at how bad road design is killing people.

Robert said...

I too dislike the casual use of the word "accident". If a wasp flies in through an open window and attacks the driver, causing him to loss control through being distracted, it's reasonable to call it an accident. It's not an accident if a driver collides with another road user whilst sending a text message, as it's not necessary and it takes a conscious effort to pick up and use the phone, and just to back up the idea that it's a stupid thing to do in my own country and others it is illegal. However, when a driver makes a mistake as a result of being confused by poor road design, then before calling it an accident in my opinion one should consider if the engineer(s) who designed the road applied best practice. In my experience it is often the case that designs in my own country fail to live up to reasonable practice, let alone national or global best practice. However, the collision will just dismissed as an "accident", and the driver is left to pay the consequences. I've never heard of a local authority being held responsible for the consequences of a collision resulting from poor road design, so nothing is done to correct the underlying problem until the "accident" rate becomes noticeably unusually high, at which point the road becomes described as an "accident blackspot". Then something might get done, but it could be as little as erecting an exclamation mark sign and leaving it to drivers to figure out what is the problem sufficiently quickly to avoid having the same "accident". I do like that the Dutch have set out to address the issue of sloppy, inconsistent road design. In my own campaigning I do raise this issue, but I just face disbelief that there are better ways of doing things and the ideas come from the Netherlands.

I too think the "strict liability" is largely a red herring, especially since in my own country already a motorist may well be held responsible for a collision with a cyclist. And it would seem the Scottish government too believes it to be a red herring:

M Stoss said...

@ Richard: "Perhaps when automatically driven cars become the standard, mistakes from motorists will no longer be an issue. In this event, will normal people become comfortable cycling on normal roads in countries like the UK?

I believe, this is a (car)technicians dream. What will happen is, that as soon as cars are automatically forced to prevent accidents, other road users will loose their fear. Cars will then be blocked every 10 meters or so by someone stepping into their way.

Well, I wouldn't mind ;-)

Photo Blogger said...

The law should take into account that a person who decides to operate an inherently dangerous machine will be accountable, even if he/she follows the law. Operating a combustion engine with 50+ bhp to move a tonne of metal on the public highway certainly carries much more risk to others than if that person decided to walk. If an accident happens, this intrinsic risk should be taken into account, resulting almost always in a driver’s partial liability. An article about the situation in Germany - - which seems similar to what David describes for the Netherlands.

Restlesstablet123 said...

I disagree with the accident wording. Deliberate acts of course are no accidents, but if a road fails to protect it's users, like a collision could have been prevented with a cycle path for example and it was feasible to add a cycle path, then if the road designers do not install one even if they are told about all the benefits and why they are good, then it is no accident if they fail to add one that could prevent another collision.

Cycling in Edmonton from the Eyes of a Teen said...

Even if we did have nobody ever making a mistake on the roads leading to a crash never happening, would that make you willing to cycle between large trucks at something like 70 km/h?

Cycling in Edmonton from the Eyes of a Teen said...

Where are all of the campaigns to create pictograms in mooseese and ducklish to warn the animals about the cars, and all of the efforts to make them wear helmets and high viz jackets? When will we see the day when all of them walk on the left side of the road facing traffic, and why don't we take away a meal as a fine for them or have cops sternly lecturing them about the dangers of cars and trucks?

Replace animal, moose and duck with pedestrian and cyclist and it suddenly makes sense?

Ashley said...

Some very interesting arguments here. This did make me question my opinions and beliefs, especially around the efficacy of laws and punishments. That said, I found myself disagreeing with much. The discussion of roadkill is intriguing, but it makes an unfortunate equation between the 'irrational' and 'darting' behaviour of animals and that of cyclists on the road. Unfortunately in Australia, where I live, as in many other places, cyclists are presumed to be just such irrational and unpredictable road users. Research done here suggests however that drivers are at fault in up to 85% of reported crashes between cars and bikes. While you could plausibly argue it's hard to avoid an animal that darts out onto the road, surely you can't say the same thing of the vast majority of responsible and sane on-road cyclists. Yet just such excuses have been accepted in Australian courts. Further than that, animal rights advocates also argue that killing animals is avoidable, and reminding us that there are in fact roadkill laws ( While it's probably true few people want to kill a kangaroo, for instance, the threat of this doesn't change our driving behaviour much - as you point out. In fact, we buy "bull bars" to put on our cars to make sure the roos don't damage them! Rather than the result of distraction or human fallibility, it seems this is a deliberate "cultural choice" not to slow down and surrender the amenity of speed for the right to live of the animal (or ... cyclist). On the bright side, where there is culture and choice, there can be cultural change.

So I guess I agree with you to some extent on human fallibility, but would argue things are more complex than this alone.