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In the Bump and Jostle of the Street, Who Bears the Burden for Safety?

Alex Marshall / Aug 17 2012

For Release Friday, August 17, 2012

Alex MarshallWhat strikes you as fair, as every parent knows, depends on what you’re doing and who’s doing what to whom. What can seem unassailably fair from one standpoint can seem quite the opposite from another.

This applies to both small children and large nation states. It also applies to city streets.

In recent years, cyclists and pedestrians have returned to our streets in greater numbers. Their presence has brought a renewed examination of what is fair, and different answers.

If you’re driving and someone on a bike or on foot cuts in front of you or moves into your lane with little warning, what seems fair is to have everyone obey the same rules of the road and suffer similar legal penalties if they don’t.

But if you’re walking or rolling along on a bike, applying the same rules seems unfair, when an inadvertent turn or a momentary lapse of attention on the part of a driver can mean your quick and messy death.

Right now, with some variations, rules and penalties are mostly the same for all, and often surprisingly light. A motorist can make a left turn and kill someone walking across the street, and unless the driver is drunk or speeding there’s often no special penalty. A driver can escape without even a fine or drivers license points.

So let me make my own opinion clear. Those at the wheel of potentially lethal, heavy metal machines should bear extra responsibility. A contest where one participant weighs 4,000 pounds and the other weighs 150 is not fair.

The past decade has seen a movement around the world to make towns and cities more hospitable to their primary occupants: people. Dubbed the livable city or complete streets movement, it has resulted in wider sidewalks, more bike lanes, free and low-cost bicycle sharing services, revived streetcar systems, the destruction of freeways and more. In this global phenomenon, U.S. cities from Chattanooga to New York City are playing catch-up to Seoul to Stockholm.

To make this movement really catch hold in this country we need to change the laws governing interactions between motorists and those on foot or bikes.

We’ve spent a lot of money and time creating bike lanes and bike paths, and they are important. But ultimately the legal lines are more important than the physical lines. Creating the right laws to govern interactions among walkers, cyclists and drivers is more effective than painting new bike lane stripes.

“Ultimately the thing that changes people’s behavior are the penalties,” says Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer in New York City who specializes in bicycle injuries.

Today cyclists and to some extent pedestrians are in a Catch-22. The “safety in numbers” phenomenon has long been known: The more people walk or bicycle, the more motorists look out for them. But people won’t bicycle if it’s not safe, and it’s not safe because people don’t bicycle.

A big step forward is to put the primary responsibility for keeping streets safe onto those driving the 2- and 10-ton vehicles that routinely kill people.

We could strengthen penalties with tougher criminal penalties, such as charges of manslaughter; tougher civil penalties, such as liability for hospital bills, lost earnings and pain and suffering; and tougher administrative penalties, such as points on one’s license or loss of license.

Because this country is particularly litigious, the best way to go is increased civil liability through something called “strict liability.” Countries where cycling is an integral part of life, such as Holland and Denmark, have this, as does much of continental Europe.

Strict liability means a driver who strikes a pedestrian or cyclist is presumed to be at fault and must meet the heavy burden of proving otherwise. This may not seem fair, but a system where a cyclist and a driver are on equal footing is not fair, either, because the results of any collision are so unequal.

Bicycling in Holland, which has strict liability, is an amazing experience. Cyclists ride in heavy traffic, carrying groceries and children while talking on cell phones, secure that the drivers are watching for them. Holland has plenty of bike lanes, but they’re not all that’s keeping cyclists safe. Drivers are held legally responsible for the potential consequences of their vehicles. It’s appropriate, too, that if a cyclist in Holland strikes and hurts a pedestrian, the cyclist – who’s on the larger, heavier vehicle – is presumed to be at fault.

Continental European legal systems are different from ours. It’s telling that bike and pedestrian laws in Great Britain, our legal forefather, are more similar to ours when it comes to fault. There is a movement in Britain to change this.

With 50 U.S. states, we also have 50 legal regimes on the subject. But laws giving drivers “strict liability” can be passed at both a state or local level. Such a law would have a ripple effect.

Ultimately, if we are to be safe, we need the drivers to look out for us, not for us to look out for the drivers. Yes, there may be an outcry. But it’s only fair.

Alex Marshall, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, is the author of the new book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies. Reach him at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Ken Wood
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    In Austin, Texas, most bicyclists routinely run stop signs and traffic lights. They have been filmed for the 6:00 news, but, unless a police officer has to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting one, nothing is done about the problem. I feel that making the automobile driver responsible (Unless he can prove otherwise) is unrealistic. An unforeseen left turn, directly in front of a motorized vehicle, and a suicidal biker can destroy a law abiding driver and his family.

  2. Zach Thomas
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    New bicycles lanes have been painted on some streets here in Charlotte, NC. Unfortunately, runners are beginning to use them, also. They run both against and toward the traffic, sometimes two and three abreast, spilling onto the main pavement. Today I passed a woman who was running while pushing her double-wide baby carriage in the bicycle lane against traffic. There is plenty of sidewalk available. These streets are heavily travelled. As a former marathoner and employee in a rehab hospital, I fear for the safety of these runners and for others whom the runners are putting at risk. If runners, bicycles and cars happen to pass at the same moment, I feel that the runners are causing the problem. Ordinances should require runners to use sidewalks and should prevent them from using bicycles lanes. It seems like the only sensible thing to do.

  3. Zach Thomas
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I just made a correction to my email address.

  4. Zach Thomas
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    New lanes for bicycles have been painted on some streets here in Charlotte, NC. Unfortunately, runners are beginning to use them. This morning I passed a group running against traffic, including a runner pushing a double-wide baby carriage. If runners, bicyclists and cars happen to pass at the same moment, I feel it is the runners who are putting themselves and others at risk. Ordinances should be in place that require runners to refrain from using bicycle lanes. There are ample sidewalks available on these streets with bicycle lanes. Runners should be on the sidewalks, not in the streets.

  5. Mike Koetting
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I think the idea of disjointing legal remedies from phyical improvements makes this argument unsustainable.
    In the current situation, bicyles in most cities do not have safe places to ride. Safety cannot be simply legislated for the reasons Mr. Marshall described: the inherent mismatch of man v machine. In the absence of a physicial environment that supports safe biking, the kind of law he proposes can exist only in theory because in the road war of all against all (a) the automobile majority would NEVER allow such laws to be enacted, in large part because (b) bicyclists will continue to seek safety however they can, which (based on my experience) is inherently unsafe for car and cycle–especially given that the environment tends to select for those cyclists willing to take the most risks.
    While the physical layount of bicycle lanes may not be the only reasons for cyclist safety in Holland, it is an indespensible reason. If these two approaches are not simultaneous, neither will work.

  6. Lucie Whitcomb
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    You seem to believe that the world is full of sociopaths. What infuriates me is motorcycles, even police, who drive wrecklessly and expect everyone else to avoid them. When you are going 120 miles an hour it does not take much. Bicycles don’t go that fast, one can usually see them.

  7. Richard Partay
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Ken, I can say the very same thing about drivers in Indianapolis. At every single red light during rush hour traffic, one can witness someone in a car running the red. The vast majority of the drivers on my street drive at least 15mph over the speed limit. Cars more often than not will stop over the stop bar and in the crosswalk. I see drivers all the time passing slower drivers in the right-hand parking lanes if no cars are parked there. In my mind, I feel that not increasing the penalties against drivers is simply negligent and only serves to continue to state that the drivers going through neighborhoods and cities will always have priority of all else.