Photo “Pet Peeve” courtesy of Paul Oka
A recent Streetsblog article highlights the fact that too many drivers who kill pedestrians and bicyclists are still getting off without charges – despite improvements to laws to hold drivers accountable for their carelessness and negligence.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 5,500 people were killed last year as a result of “distracted driving”.
In Toronto, there were 14 deaths last January in as many days – a “statistical hiccup” they called it. I call it manslaughter. The media in North America has a tendency to point out that the victims were wearing “dark” clothing – or bicyclists weren’t wearing helmets – as a way to deflect blame from careless drivers.
Just this morning a 30-year-old woman was hit by one car, and run over by another car while she was crossing at an intersection. The second car left the scene and she sadly succumbed to her injuries and died in the hospital.
A recent article concluded that San Francisco streets are possibly the most dangerous streets to walk in the United States – with 800 pedestrians hit by cars each year.
The SFGate article points out that these preventable deaths are considered a transit problem, and not a public health problem:
“There’s a federal goal for zero airplane fatalities and a federal goal for zero railroad fatalities,” Bhatia said. “Yet we have these acceptable levels of people getting hit by cars and killed.”
This phenomenon hit close to home this morning while I was riding my bicycle to my 7:30AM hockey game. I was riding along a quiet side street at about 7:15AM (it was still dark outside), when a van approaching me was veering toward my side of the road and headed straight toward me.
I have a large round headlight on my Dutch bike, so I couldn’t understand why the driver couldn’t see me. Assuming the worst, I pulled over to the right side of the road, stopped, and looked at the driver as he was passing by.
The driver was reaching for something inside his van (the glove box perhaps) – and not looking at at the road. He didn’t realize he was headed directly toward me until he was passing by and he looked out of his driver’s side window.
He seemed a bit startled, so I think there is a possibility that he realized that he almost drove into me.
This made me think about all the “what-ifs”. What if he had hit me and I had died? There were no witnesses in the area, so he most likely would have simply told the police that the bicyclist “appeared out of nowhere” or he couldn’t see me because I was wearing “dark clothes”.
Since the prime witness in the case would be dead, the police likely wouldn’t have been able to “prove” that the driver was at fault. Assuming the driver stayed at the scene, wasn’t intoxicated, and held a valid driver’s license, he likely would have walked away without any significant charges.
Little incentive for drivers to be more attentive
Unfortunately, our laws assume drivers are innocent until proven guilty. This puts the onus on the deceased to prove they weren’t in the wrong. It leaves very little incentive for motorists to be more attentive and makes it difficult for the police to bring justice for the deceased.
Bicyclists are far more aware of their surroundings than motorists. We have to be – our lives depend on it. We see you when you’re texting on your phone – we see almost everything that is going on.
Anyone who rides a bicycle on a daily basis will frequently see distracted drivers – it’s very common in North America.
So why aren’t we doing anything about it? Why is 5,500 dead Americans every year acceptable? That’s almost two September 11th attacks every single year.
In Japan, drivers usually at fault if they hit anything smaller
In Japan, the larger vehicle has the onus of due care. In general, a driver is usually at fault if they hit anything smaller. Many European countries have strict liability laws to protect vulnerable road users as well.
This protects pedestrians from careless bicyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians from careless automobile drivers, and automobile drivers from careless truck drivers.
And it works. Japan’s road death rate is less than *half* of that of the United States (5.7 per 100,000 people compared to US rate of 14.3 per 100,000).
Unfortunately, anything in North America that threatens the ability for motorists to drive everywhere fast and unimpeded takes precedence over anything that would improve our health or safety.
The car is still king (for now).