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Why Not Aim For Zero Deaths? 11

Don't be stupid

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).

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at

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11 thoughts on “Why Not Aim For Zero Deaths?

  1. Kim Dec 29,2010 5:09 pm

    It is not just in Japan that the larger vehicle has the onus of due care. In most of Europe, a driver is usually at fault if they hit anything smaller.

    In Sweden there is a policy aim of Zero road deaths by 2020, it remains to be seen if they will get there, but at least they are trying.

  2. PaddyAnne Dec 29,2010 5:36 pm

    We are at a very sad state in our history, allowing people who drive metal boxes with powerful engines to have a feeling that they are “always in the right”.

  3. James D. Schwartz Dec 29,2010 5:42 pm

    Agreed, strict liability is used in many European countries (added a note).

    Zero road deaths by 2020 is an admirable goal, however unrealistic it may be.

    It’s odd to me that there was an outcry in Toronto when the number of murders spiked in 2005. Meanwhile, far more people are killed by traffic collisions and pollution here than by murder.

    I guess people view traffic deaths as a necessary aspect of transporting people. I just wish the most vulnerable people were better protected (pedestrians and bicyclists).

  4. Barney Dec 29,2010 6:40 pm

    It always gets on my nerves when people tell me to “ride safely” as they say goodbye and I’m off on my bike. Like they think I am going to try to get run over. Or that I have any control over all the bad things that other people might do.

    I usually tell people to “look out for the other guy”, or “keep your head up”, which is good advice for hockey too.

  5. Anonymous Dec 29,2010 6:44 pm

    So, since it is about that time, how many pedestrians and cyclists died or were hit on the roads this year?

    James, motorists and many others don’t have a viewpoint on road death. They are simply desensitized and numb, it really is just meaningless to them. Maybe if police became serious about making traffic deaths real crimes people would respond in kind.

  6. Mr. S. Dec 30,2010 12:45 am

    Were you able to get the Japan information from one of my previous comments? If so, great; if not, sorry to presume. Glad to see you use that information as your blog gets a lot more traffic than mine!

    The attitude that traffic collisions are anything less than manslaughter is the problem, and what else could they be than manslaughter? We’re also wasting our time as cyclists and pedestrians to beg for our lives, because ‘drivers’ don’t care about ‘others’: humans just don’t.

    Cars and drivers are a safety issue for everyone: inside a car, or outside of one, especially for the disproportionate number of children killed. Sell it that way, just as drunk-driving was reduced by selling it that way.

  7. James D. Schwartz Dec 30,2010 2:50 am

    Mr. S, yes, I did use your ideas from your comments. Thanks for that! Sorry, I should have credited you for your input.

    A few weeks ago I also read that long post from the ex-pat who was involved with the death of a child who was playing on the street. I have mixed feelings about that post.

    I searched for the numbers to find the death rate for Japan, but I was surprised to find that the UK death rate is actually lower than Japan’s (based on the link I provided in the article).

    I believe the UK has strict liability, but there must be more to this than strict liability to explain why the UK has such a low rate. We have all heard about UK drivers…

  8. Mr. S. Dec 30,2010 6:31 am

    I have very mixed feelings on that post too, at least on his attitude to the death, and his wife’s responsibility; however, the fact that the local police went to bat for him in the face of Soka-Gakkai (a quasi-Buddhist prosperity-cult) organized resistance has to mean something. In the end several of those officers lost their jobs, and part of their pensions, which is well above and beyond for a foreign resident.

    Do not know much about the UK at all, but that’s interesting.

  9. jw Dec 30,2010 11:05 pm

    do you ride with your gear over your shoulder?

  10. Anonymous Dec 30,2010 11:45 pm

    Anti-lock brakes.
    Traction control.
    Side-impact airbags.
    Five-star safety ratings.
    (Bonus points: power steering, power brakes, powerful engines)

    People drive carelessly, with impunity, because they are wrapped in this safety/security blanket. Too bad all those safety features do nothing for the human beings they run over.

    I’m constantly amazed when I ride my bike on the two-lane road how many people won’t turn their power-steering enhanced wheel 10 degrees to give me 3 feet of clearance as they pass me at 50mph in a 35mph zone.

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