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.
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.
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).
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.