It is a hobby of mine to follow my hometown newspaper in order to stay in touch with those local affairs. However, to my great repugnance, I have read about one cyclist fatality after another. In the past month alone, there have been three human beings struck and killed by vehicles, the most recent of whom was killed by a woman with a suspended license. Yet no sooner does the ink dry on the reports of these tragedies than do apologists begin to hurl blame around to everyone but the one behind the wheel. And while it is true that tragic accidents do occasionally happen, what we see most often are not freak occurrences but deaths that were entirely preventable by the driver. But until we begin to hold drivers accountable for their manslaughter, I expect that we will continue to see article after article trying to make sense of why our neighbors’ lives have been cut tragically short. Here are some of the excuses that perpetuate the mindset that the driver can do no wrong.
“Cyclists are reckless, and therefore at fault for their own deaths”
The ‘victim blaming’ card is one that will require a little bit of nuance in order to understand it the way that I do. Every action that we take has consequences: some of which we can reasonably anticipate and others that we can not. All actions, however seemingly insignificant, carry risk. Although some risk may be negligible, everything we do undergoes some sort of internal cost-benefit analysis. However, even though some choices we make can lead us in greater or lesser danger, if an incident was to occur, it is never the fault of the passive party. For example, if I have two possible routes to walk home, and one is longer, but on a well-lit thoroughfare while another is shorter, but through a dark alley, the latter may carry a higher risk than the former. Yet however irresponsible my decision may have been and however much I could have potentially done to prevent it, if I were to get mugged, the fault would lie solely with the mugger. For it is he who perpetrated the crime even if there was conceivably something I could have done to lessen my risk. It is he who actualized my risk into consequence, and without him, my action, however risky, would have passed without incident.
The point is, that since all actions carry some risk, there will always be an action that carries less risk than the one we choose to undertake. To look upon an incident with omniscient retrospection is futile because for every alternate potential course of action one proposes, there will be an even safer one that could have had its risk actualized, or a more dangerous one that may not have had its risk actualized. Obviously it is in one’s best interest to make informed cost-benefit decisions, but it is only the ones who convert the potential risk into actual harm that are at fault.
Hopefully that explanation is clear enough, and you may agree or disagree with it, however that is the philosophy behind my frustration with the attitudes expressed that fail to place blame on the perpetrators of manslaughter.
Of course I am not advocating for cyclists, or anyone else, to engage in excessively risky behavior. Of course I would very much like to see everyone on the road operate their respective vehicles safely and with consideration for all others. But let us take a look at some of the generalizations that people use to excuse vehicular homicide.
Cyclists don’t obey traffic signals. Cyclists wear headphones. Cyclists do not signal their intentions. Cyclists ride two abreast. Cyclists don’t wear helmets. These are all risky behaviors that some cyclists engage in, yet not a single one warrants a death sentence. Let us now look at some risky behaviors that some motorists engage in. Motorists drive with excessive speed. Motorists talk on their cell phones. Motorists text while driving. Motorists don’t wear seat belts. Motorists drive while tired. Motorists drive while drunk or otherwise inebriated.
It is part of the human condition to rationalize our own actions while easily condemning the actions of others. We wish to see ourselves in the best possible light and therefore excuse our own dangerous behavior while criticizing others’. Yet however dangerous our behavior is to ourselves, it becomes criminal when it inflicts harm upon another. If a cyclist were to engage in the aforementioned risky behavior and subsequently strike and kill or injure a pedestrian, he or she is guilty of the same crime as a motorist who strikes and kills or injures a cyclist.
Most upsetting though is that in the context of these three homicides, these points are notwithstanding. The cyclists were obeying all traffic laws and they took every reasonable measure to stay safe. Yet the knee-jerk reaction of motorists is to first generalize their personal bias against cyclists and blame the law-abiding victims for the drivers’ own negligence. This leads to their next point…
“Cyclists shouldn’t have been on these roads”
By definition, the public owns the public rights-of-way. Each right-of-way is unique in its context and some of these contexts prohibit certain modes of transportation. Train tracks, bus rapid transit lanes, freeways, cycle tracks, and pedestrian streets are all examples of rights-of-way that exclude one mode of transit or another. Yet by far, the most common rights-of way are just ‘regular roads,’ although each is still very much sensitive to its own context. Unfortunately though, in the past 60 years or so, roads have been built or modified to accommodate the personal automobile in lieu of the human being, thus limiting the options for people who choose safer, cleaner, healthier, and cheaper modes of transportation. It is no wonder then that motorized and active modes of transportation are forced to share the existing road network in less than ideal circumstances.
Despite this, drivers were offended at the gall of these cyclists who chose to travel on a direct route rather than navigate the curvilinear labyrinth of suburban streets. They are aghast that they must temporarily reduce their speeds in order to safely pass the cyclists; as if the 30 seconds that would be added to one’s travel time are even remotely close in scale to the value of a cyclists’ life! Many believe that automobile traffic should be given preference because the drivers are making trips to and from work while cycling is just a leisurely activity- this despite the fact that one of the cyclists killed was on his way home from work and it is abundantly obvious that many car trips are also recreational, rather than utilitarian in nature. Ultimately, there are only two primary reasons why drivers hit cyclists: either they are driving faster than visibility would safely allow or they are distracted from the road.
In a perfect world, transportation planners would prioritize people over vehicles. Cyclists would be given bike lanes or wide shoulders, and pedestrians would be given sidewalks so that all can pass safely. Fortunately, this seems to be the trend in the industry. But until that time we must share the road and be mindful of all users. Furthermore, it is long overdue that municipalities began prosecuting drivers who selfishly place their own convenience over the lives of others. At least in New York such laws are already in place, including Merrill’s Law, which mandates that vehicles respect a safe passing distance from cyclists, after its namesake was killed by a bus while cycling on the side of the road. We often forget the inherent danger of operating two tons of glass and steel at speeds that defy our evolutionary instincts, all while within the vicinity of vulnerable users of the streets.
The optimist in me wants to believe that these tragedies will lead to greater awareness for cyclist and pedestrian safety, but the realist in me expects that police and district attorneys will fail to arrest and prosecute offenders, and drivers will continue their destructive habits in the wake of ever-increasing casualties.
This article from Streetsblog NYC unfortunately supports my cynicism.