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.
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.
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
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.
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".
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: