Photo courtesy of Jorge / via RateMyVelo.com
We spend a lot of time on here talking about improving bicycle infrastructure. Yes, bicycle infrastructure is important to help make bicycling in car-dominated cities more comfortable for people on bicycles.
But one issue that gets lost in the push for better infrastructure is the discussion of responsibility and accountability – two very important words that contribute to safety on our streets.
This topic came to the forefront of my mind when I was riding home last night from work. I was riding along an old rail line that has been converted into a multi-use pedestrian/bicycle trail. A toddler suddenly ran directly in front of my front wheel and I came less than 10 centimeters from running into the child.
But I wasn’t scared, the toddler wasn’t scared, and the mother wasn’t scared – because I adjusted my riding speed to the conditions around me. I anticipated that a toddler might run in front of me. I was going slow, so I only had to apply a slight brake in order to avoid hitting the child.
In this particular situation, the mother is accountable for protecting her child. But I was responsible for riding safely and adjusting to the conditions around me. I’m larger than the toddler. I understood that even though the mother might be at fault for letting her toddler run about on a path shared with numerous bicycles, I had an obligation to ride responsibly.
Too often, these words are lost upon us in our car-dominated society. Society too often makes excuses to absolve drivers from responsibility and accountability. If a pedestrian or bicyclist get hit by a car, the first question asked is “was the pedestrian or bicyclist obeying their signal?”. We first try to hold the pedestrian or bicyclist accountable.
If the pedestrian or bicyclist isn’t at fault, then we look to blame other factors such as weather conditions, alcohol or helmets. Was the driver under the influence of alcohol? Was the bicyclist wearing a helmet? Were the roads slippery at the time?
We ask questions that avoid the root cause of the problem. The question we need to ask ourselves is, was the driver driving responsibly? Was the person driving the larger vehicle adjusting their driving to the conditions of the road? Was the driver of the automobile anticipating something unexpected? Were they speeding? Turning too fast? Passing too close?
We skirt around these tough questions because it’s so much easier to blame it on alcohol, helmets or weather. We avoid getting to the root cause because as a society we are afraid that dealing with the real problem might add five minutes to our commute time. And we pretend the driver is rarely at fault because we want to believe that our choice of automobile dependency is superior to other modes of transportation.
If the photo at the beginning of this article makes you feel queasy, you need to ask yourself, why? Is it because you fear that too many drivers don’t drive responsibly, and that you fear for the child’s life? Do you feel queasy when you see a child inside an automobile? What about when a driver is driving 140km/h on the highway? Still not queasy?
Parents shouldn’t have to worry about bicycles running down their children. Just like pedestrians and bicyclists shouldn’t have to worry about cars running them down. Remember the days when children used to play on the streets and drivers were cautious to watch out for children? Does this happen any more? I don’t see it.
One way to hold people accountable and thus encourage them to be more responsible when they drive is to enact and enforce strict liability on our streets. In simple terms, with strict liability, the person in the larger vehicle is presumed to be at fault unless they can prove otherwise.
Here in Canada, even though the law implies strict liability, people are rarely held accountable because there are so many loopholes in our court system that favours drivers. This leaves very little incentive for people to drive responsibly, and there is plenty of evidence of dangerous and distracted driving in most cities I’ve visited in North America both statistically and anecdotally.
In the absence of enforced strict liability to make us more accountable for our actions, let’s all try to act a bit more responsibly. Try to think about the potential consequences of texting while driving, driving too fast, or passing too close.
You never know when someone on a bicycle might need to swerve to avoid a pothole. Expect the unexpected and adjust your driving to your surroundings.
I once heard someone say that drivers should drive as though their car is covered with bombs and the car would blow up on contact with any other object. It’s hard to go wrong with that mentality.
Be safe friends.