Saturday, January 31, 2009

Accident? Not quite

Cycling advocates in the U.S. love to talk about the cycling facilities in northern Europe. Countries like Denmark have enormous numbers of cyclists of all ages and experience levels. What's more their rates of accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians tend to be much lower than ours. Some of their success in attracting cyclists is undoubtedly due to the extensive network of bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, and bicycle boulevard type streets.

A lot of cycling advocates here, along with planners and engineers in some of our more progressive cities, believe that if we simply "do as they do in Europe", our cities will have similar levels of success in getting people on bicycles. The idea is to create an extensive network of cycling facilities, with the belief that if you build it, they will come. This is true to an extent, but it's only part of the story.

The Achilles heel of bicycle, and for that matter pedestrian, planning in this country is the existing set of laws regarding roadway use and our underlying beliefs surrounding our view of the road. In most of northern Europe there is some version of a "vulnerable roadway users" law. In other words, those driver larger, heavier, vehicles have a greater degree of responsibility than those walking or biking. The understanding is that each roadway user is responsible for the safety of roadway users more vulnerable than him/herself.

By contrast, under our current system, drivers seem to have an implicit carte blanche to do as they please, and unless they're drunk, they are often given no more than a slap on the wrist when they kill or injure a cyclist or pedestrian. Normally, when you injure or kill someone they call it assault, negligent homicide, or manslaughter. However, in this country, if you injure, maim, or kill with a car and you're not drunk at the time, it's usually called "an accident". If there's any doubt as to the truth of this claim, take a look at the following expert.

The lenient treatment of American motorists is documented in Killed by Automobile, an analysis of 1,020 pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in New York City from 1994 to 1997.

Using police records, the authors found that “drivers were largely or strictly culpable in 74 per cent of cases where sufficient information existed for culpability coding, and were largely, strictly, or partly culpable in 90 per cent of the known cases. Hit and run, turning into pedestrians at crosswalks, and speeding were the top three driver faults in killing pedestrians and cyclists.”

The police cited motorists for traffic violations in only one-fourth of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, although motorists were involved in 98 per cent of these fatalities and were unquestionably at fault in at least half.

In only one percent of fatalities did the police issue summonses to motorists specifically for violating pedestrian and bicyclist rights of way (such as failing to yield in crosswalks or driving in bike lanes).
Those statistics are appalling. No other word for it, simply appalling. The bottom line is that if we are serious about giving people choices in transportation, if we want to get more people walking and biking, then we need for government to do more than just build sidewalks and stripe bike lanes, as helpful as that may be in some cases.

What we need is for government at all levels to fulfill one of its most basic responsibilities - to protect it's citizens. Our laws need to be re-written so that driving is a serious privilege that comes with an accompanying degree of responsibility. Accidentally killing someone with car should be treated the same way as any other accidental killing would be. Northern Europe seems to understand this, it's about time we do too.


  1. I have long contended that the licensing of drivers in the USA is a farce. You can attend approximately 40 hours total training (32 classroom and 8 on road) and be turned loose, never to be bothered with them again. It shows in the slovenly driving habits of many motorists as well as in their attitude of not taking driving seriously.

    It will take a major, major overhaul of the current system. Professional drivers are required to take periodic retests, many other professions require annual re certification or continuing education to remain current. Yet we allow anyone that can pass the most basic of tests loose on the highways of this country to pilot a 2 ton misile. The statistics show the folly of this, we kill over 40,000 people every year with automobiles, and yet we continue to do little to nothing to improve the driver or his training.


  2. It would be interesting to see if those stats from New York are comparable to other cities and states.

  3. Yeah, I agree that our attitudes towards transportation are going to have to change on all fronts if anything is really going to substantially change.

    Automobiles have such god-like status in America that they get priority in almost every area, from infrastructure to spending to lawmaking. The small percentage of cyclists who coast through stop signs (usually when there is nobody to yield to) get more media attention than the thousands of people killed by automobiles, not to mention the severe health and environmental detriments of overuse of automobiles.

    Another thing about those scandinavian countries such as Denmark, is they often have taxes on automobiles that make it a major decision to buy one, and they often have weight taxes as well, so the encouragement is to not have a car, and if you have one, to get a small one. Because of that, it's not assumed that everyone will have a car, or that they will use it all the time if they have it, so city planning can focus on making a city accessible to *everyone*, not just those who use automobiles.

  4. The laws follow the users. Laws aren't going to change in any significant way until a lot more people start biking and walking, and getting outraged about every injury (currently, injuries don't even get reported in the press, so there's nothing to get outraged about!). But more people won't bike or walk until we put the proper facilities in place.

    The most important "facilities" are slow streets, speed humps, raised crosswalks and the like, particularly near bus stops and transit stops. Until cities start to do that, change will be very slow in coming, regardless of what laws are out there.

    Cities could accelerate the process by publicizing traffic injuries and deaths much more widely, but unfortunately, none of our politicians want to take responsibility for that. Maybe Obama can start by giving a long speech from the White House every time that 1,000 Americans are killed in preventable traffic deaths, and explaining who the people killed were and how they were killed. That speech would happen about once every week.

    I don't think laws are keeping people from riding their bikes. The perception of danger, which comes from speeding cars on impropertly designed roads, it what keeps 98% of the population (except young men) from even thinking about riding a bike.

    In other words, I think we should focus on livable streets infrastructure and lower speeds.

  5. It's especially notable how there is no retesting of elderly drivers. It should be a requirement for a re-evaluation of a person's motor skills when they reach over 65 and then probably every 5 years after.