public response matters

Think about the last time you heard about a crash that involved a car and a bicycle. Are you thinking? I’ll give you a minute. Okay. Now try to remember how you heard about it and what people said. Did they wonder who was at fault? Blame either the driver or the cyclist? Wonder if the cyclist was wearing a helmet or, if it was dark, using lights? Go back and forth about whether the bike was in the bike lane or not?

I just saw this video about a car-and-4-bike collision in the Netherlands, and it’s amazing how different the public response is than anything that would happen here in the states. Check it out:

When Cyclists Matter

I think the best part is how there’s absolutely no tolerance of reckless driving. It doesn’t matter if the guy meant to hit anyone or not, it doesn’t matter what the cyclists were wearing; what matters is that he hit someone, and for that he should face the consequences. I love how angry the public gets and how it launches a whole inquest into how the streets, which are already amazingly safe by our standards, can get safer.

You also can’t argue with the newspaper editor who decries “traffic jackasses.” Heh.

But the main thing I like about this video is how the public opinion is so swift and so unilaterally in favor of protecting cyclists. It’s like an affront to one–not just a cyclist, I get the idea, but a citizen–is an affront to all, and they have to do everything in their power to make sure that “accidents” like that never happen again. It seems to be working: the city’s gone from 339 injuries and 7 fatalities in 2000, to only 133 injuries and 1 fatality in 2009.

It makes me wonder what could happen for traffic safety here if we had the same mentality. How much safer would we be if people know that even if they “accidentally” hit someone, the public furor against them would be swift, and condemning? I suspect that if we didn’t tolerate mistakes, they wouldn’t happen as much. It seems to work for the Netherlands… I wonder what would need to happen for a similar cultural shift here?


  1. Thanks for the link. A few comments.

    (1) In the introduction to your post, you seem to be indicting our general desire to assign blame in such situations. But then it becomes clear that you are really indicting any attempt to lay blame on the cyclist. It’s a subtle shift.

    (2) If this is correct, I would argue that it’s shortsighted. Whenever I hear about cycling accidents, I do ask questions regarding the blameworthiness of both parties — just as I would if two automobiles collided. In some cases, like the case in Multnomah a few weeks ago, the driver is clearly 100% at fault and deserves our scorn. But in cases where the cyclist shares some of the blame, I think that both deserve scorn.

    (3) Perhaps it is inflammatory to suggest on a cycling blog, but I would argue that cyclists often do share the blame. As a cyclist myself, I’ve engaged in risky/illegal behavior. For instance, I’ve rolled through stop signs, jumped back and forth between the bike lane and pedestrian walkways to gain an advantage, and ridden on streets in which I know I’m taking a higher risk. As an automobile driver, I’ve seen other cyclists do the same and worse.

    (4) The case is similar between cars and motorcycles. Even if we “share the road” most of the time, when vehicles collide, the motorcycle will “lose” dramatically. If we find out that the motorcyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet (or was wearing shorts and flip-flops), there is an additional assignment of blame that occurs in our minds. Even in the instance in which the car is 100% at fault, I might say: “Geez, that driver is horrible and deserves punishment. But that motorcyclist is an idiot for not wearing protective gear and shares some of the responsibility for what happened to him.”

    (5) It’s not clear what the societal effects of “public furor” would be or what not “tolerating mistakes” would look like. What kinds of penal action are you proposing? Would cyclists also be subject to such action?

    • Heh. I knew when I posted this that you would have something similar to say. If I’d been really clever, I would have weaved in some lovely counterarguments beforehand;)

      So no, I’m not trying to say that a cyclist or a pedestrian or whoever is immune from ever doing anything stupid as you seem to be taking from my post. And I think if a cyclist is doing something dumb like not wearing a helmet or whatever else, we should certainly say “wow, that’s really dumb,” regardless of whether they get hurt while doing it or not. We’ve got to incentivize safe behavior and let people know that if they’re being unsafe they’ll be called out on it.

      But what I’m talking about isn’t necessarily blame or who shares what percentage of the blame. I’m talking about the balance of power between more and less vulnerable roadway users–and I think the burden of responsibility should basically always be on the less vulnerable user. So in a crash between a car and a motorcycle, to use your example, you’re exactly right: the motorcycle will always lose. And as a car driver, you should know that. And if you know that, and you know that there are motorcycles on the road or that it’s possible that there are motorcycles on the road, you’d better damn well drive in a way that doesn’t endanger them. Because in any sort of collision, you’ll squish them. And no matter who did something stupid, that still means that because of your car, there’s one squished person where there didn’t have to be any.

      Same with bikes. If you’re driving somewhere where it’s at all conceivable that there would be bikes, it’s up to you to drive in a way that doesn’t endanger them, even if they do something stupid. I think that’s actually the law in the Netherlands–the driver is presumed guilty in a collision between car and bike, because everyone knows that cars–the much larger, more dangerous vehicles–should be super, super careful. And even if bikes do something stupid, as a driver, you should know that they sometimes do, and you should be ready for it. Like I said earlier, the burden of responsibility should go to the one who’s actually in a position to kill or injure someone else.

      In the same way, I’d say a cyclist who hits a pedestrian, an even more vulnerable user, is totally to blame. Everyone knows that pedestrians do spontaneous things like change sides of a path, stop suddenly, cross without looking. Knowing that, as a cyclist you have to be ready for it. And if you hit a pedestrian, even if s/he did something totally ridiculous, you should have been ready for it and able to avoid it. As a more dangerous vehicle, it’s up to you to avoid collision.

      So as for number 5 in your comment? I’m not sure, but I think the discourse needs to shift from “whose fault was it” to “did the person in the more dangerous vehicle do every single possible thing s/he could do to avoid a collision?” I’m also kind of a fan of the fact that the dude in the video had to take a traffic safety class that cost 800 Euros (!!), required him to be away from work for 3 days, and would have resulted in the loss of his license had he failed. That doesn’t work for bikes, of course, seeing as they’re not licensed, but something like that, where you know that safety is for real taken seriously, sounds good to me!:)

  2. I think I understand your position better now, but I also think that my interpretation of it isn’t that far off. It seemed to me you were tired of people seeking to blame cyclists for accidents and wanted to shift the discussion (regardless of blame) over to protecting cyclists. In other words, the idea is something like “I don’t care if cyclists are at fault, we should seek to protect them regardless.”

    I’m simply saying two things in return: (1) I’m not sure why the vulnerability of cyclists puts them above the blame game; and (2) I’m not sure that punitive public scorn will have the effects you say it does.

    I find this argument of yours hard to stomach: “As a car driver, you should know that [motorcycles may be on the road and are vulnerable.] And if you know that…you’d better damn well drive in a way that doesn’t endanger them. Because in any sort of collision, you’ll squish them.”

    I think that drivers have a responsibility to drive safely regardless of the possibility of cyclists and motorcyclists. But if the goal is merely to lower accidents, why couldn’t it be the case that the following argument is equally valid: “As a cyclist, you should know that car drivers are not as in touch with their surroundings as cyclists and that you’re extremely vulnerable. And if you know that, you’d better damn well stay off the roads or be willing to accept the consequences.”

    Why should the burden of responsibility necessarily go to the one who’s in a position to kill or injure someone else? If the cyclist is partially responsible for putting themselves in a position where they can get killed, why aren’t they subject to responsibility?

    And who says cyclists aren’t in that position? A swerving cyclist can cause a driver to jerk the wheel, sending them careening into oncoming traffic.

    I guess I just don’t understand why we should throw away centuries of assigning moral and legal blame to individuals in favor of simply holding the “stronger” party accountable. It reminds me of childhood lessons never to physically strike a girl (bike). Of course, I wasn’t supposed to strike a boy (other car) either, but that was a secondary rule that could be overridden in certain circumstances (defending myself).

    Imagine in domestic assault cases if we simply held the “stronger” party (be it the man or the woman) accountable for the assault — ignoring any evidence regarding who is at fault and blameworthiness. I just don’t get it.

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