Revenge and road danger

Almost all cycling campaigners agree that a cycling society — “mass cycling” — would be desirable. The world would be a better, happier, healthier, wealthier place, and our towns and cities nicer places to live, if far more people cycled and far more of our journeys were made by bicycle.  And there is little controversy left about the barriers to cycling and the fact that fear of traffic and hostile conditions for cycling are the biggest and most impenetrable barriers to cycling in this country.  Large volumes of fast moving and dangerously driven motor vehicles create an environment in which most people never cycle.  This is old ground I shouldn’t need to go over again.

The big disagreement is how we break down that barrier. One set of campaigners want to separate the large volumes of fast moving motor vehicles from cyclists.  The other thinks that there is a better way: separation is unnecessary and perhaps even undesirable.  Their alternative is to tame to motorcar.  They would teach drivers how to overtake properly, how not to park in dangerous places, and how not to drive a tipper truck all the way into the advanced stop box while preparing for the left turn at the change of the lights.  And if they demonstrate that they can’t be taught, ban em and bang em up.  Teach drivers to play nice and the barrier to cycling will tumble, the argument goes.

As a typical cycling forum poster puts it:

I don’t even know why the councils in this country bother with cycle lanes. The money would be better spent educating idiots on the road on how terrifying them driving 6 inches from us at 50mph is.

It’s a response to the road danger problem that I have every sympathy with.  Every time somebody passes within touching distance I want to reach out and touch, and cause damage or inspire a little of the fear and discomfort in return.  I usually can’t watch helmet cam footage: I know that something bad is going to happen and that somebody is going to get away never accepting that what they did was wrong.  I desperately want them to know just what a fucking terrible thing they did.

The world in which tame motor cars roam the streets is a world in which every evil, selfish, or simply ignorant motorist has been made to realise that they have done wrong and made to feel shame and remorse for all those times they nearly took a life.  It’s a world in which we get our revenge on all those individuals who wronged us.

The problem is that road danger isn’t really all about individuals.  Ian Roberts describes this peculiar way of thinking about road danger in The Energy Glut: our focus on individual “accidents” and the individual who is to blame.  The pedestrian who jaywalked, the drunk driver, the person who made The Bad Judgment to cause it all.  And when it costs a life, we want revenge for That Bad Judgment.  This is how we think in the “road safety” paradigm: something went wrong, and we can educate, engineer, or enforce that out.  The Human Being and the Motor Car are perfectly able to peacefully coexist, it’s just that idiot needs dealing with.

It’s a nice idea.  But it doesn’t work.  Revenge won’t solve the road danger problem.  Education can’t solve it.  And “road safety” should have been written off decades ago.

For six decades road deaths and injuries have primarily been reduced simply by the human beings getting out of the way.  Education, engineering, and enforcement have had at best a minor role in cutting the rate of death and injury to cyclists over the year.  What really cut the number of deaths to cyclists was people stopping cycling, leaving only a few of the most confident, assertive, and powerful on the roads. Even those of us left have cut our distance, and set personal limits on the sort of roads we’re willing to ride on.  The Human Being and the Motor Car do not peacefully coexist.  The Human Beings get out of the way.

Why won’t revenge, education, and road safety eliminate road danger and make the roads a nice objectively and subjectively safe place to ride?  Because road danger isn’t all about the individual and their preventable mistakes.  Sometimes the pedestrian wasn’t jaywalking and the driver wasn’t drunk.  The “accident” happened simply because putting metal with that sort of kinetic energy — even the kinetic energy of a 20mph car — right next to soft fleshy people who are going about their daily lives is dangerous in any situation, no matter how well everybody behaves.  Death and injury is an inevitable result of mixing people and motor vehicles.  Idiots can make it even more probable, but it will always happen.  Ian Roberts goes right ahead and blames the car lobby for suppressing any thoughts that the car, rather than a few rogue users, might be an inherently dangerous thing to have around — but you really must read the book for that story.

Even if it were possible to weed out all of the bad apples, there will always be enough road danger to put people off cycling.  But realistically it’s not even possible to weed out all of the bad apples — or to force them to be good.  It is frequently claimed that “strict liability” will enforce good behaviour, and even that it has been proven to work — just look at the Dutch, they have strict liability and there’s loads of cycling there.  It’s another very attractive idea: if you come near me with that thing, you’ll pay.  I think most British cyclists see “strict liability” and salivate at the idea of that idiot, desperate the overtake through that little gap at 50mph, being forced to sit there and suppress his urges.  We taste that sweet revenge again.  But the real idiot won’t wait.  As David Hembrow points out, the Netherlands has idiots too.

That’s not to say that there is no reason for enforcing the rules, punishing the wrongdoing, improving driver education, and ensuring justice for the wronged. Only that those are not the things that will bring us closer to a world where mass cycling can happen.

Vengeance is no way to go about establishing productive policy, no matter how desperately we yearn for it.  Policy needs to be based on what works, and when it comes to establishing mass cycling we can try any number of policies, but as long as we are asking squidgy and snappable humans to share with hard objects possessed of such large quantities of kinetic energy, none of them ever will.  Get rid of those hard objects — separate them off — and we can make progress.