For Release Friday, August 17, 2012
What 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.
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