Responsibility and blame in road safety


Two deaths involving cyclists made the headlines this summer, reawakening some long-running debates about cycle safety and prompting  the prime minister to suggest the Government will consider extending the law on dangerous driving to cover offences by cyclists.

In one of the tragic stories, we saw Charlie Alliston, (20) convicted of causing bodily harm to Kim Briggs, (44) who died of catastrophic head injuries after he collided with her in east London. He was cleared of the more serious offence of manslaughter, a charge that had never previously been brought against a cyclist.

Ghost bikes have been used to remember cyclists who died in a collision

Ms Briggs walked out into the road. Alliston then allegedly shouted ‘get out of the way’ before he collided with her at 18mph and their heads knocked together. The charges against Alliston were essentially based on the absence of a front brake – required to make the bike roadworthy - and evidence submitted to the court that if he had such a brake the incident would have been avoided.

In the second more recent case Greater Manchester Police were accused of ‘victim-shaming’ after suggesting people riding bikes should not weave in and out of traffic, shortly after the death of an 18-year old cyclist in the city.

This comment was condemned on social media. Chris Paul, a Manchester city councillor and the council’s lead member for cycling, said: ‘Awful answer. Just awful. An 18-year-old on a bike died. Come on @gmpolice get a grip of your Twitter feeds.’

The question is how can we improve safety and identify - legally and socially - types of behaviour that increase the danger on our roads without giving in to victim blaming or shaming?

For instance, we can agree perhaps that the tweet was insensitive. It would have been better to refer people to professional advice, perhaps from cycle safety charities. But the most important, and most controversial question is, was it bad advice?

This goes beyond blaming people for what has happened to where responsibility lies for avoiding future tragic incidents. There is such a range of different users at home on the roads, with different needs and different dangers facing all of them. The only place in the world where so many weird and wonderful types of user come to work is the circus.

Competition for space and respect between these different users is nothing new. Ever since the first motor car, road user arguments have been bitter. From road hogs to lycra louts, to pedestrians who don’t look where they are going, no group can escape some censure - even if they are not all as dangerous or as equally to blame.

It is right that we have these debates and important that people should feel free to voice their concerns and experiences to better help overall road safety. Very few problems ever get solved by simply being ignored and the situation won’t be helped by people shutting down debate and pointing fingers at everyone else.

The road safety charity Brake says this on the nature of road collisions: ‘Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.’

It takes a village, a highways authority and everyone who uses it, to keep a village road safe.

The sector is doing its bit. Work is being done by the profession on a daily basis to make cars and roads safer. Fresh forms of analysis are being applied to local authority road safety, looking not just at heat maps of where there are accidents but also analysing the design of the road and proactively getting to grips with layouts that make incidents more likely.

This is supported by the likes of TRL and sponsored by the Department for Transport. Highways England has also made impressive safety improvements on its network in just the last couple of years.

It is worth pointing out that cyclists have a case for feeling historically aggrieved. They have had comparatively little money spent on their safety. Furniture and designs such as segregated cycle lanes, special traffic lights and cyclist-only stopping areas at junctions have appeared relatively recently on our streets and little improvement has been made in overall incident statistics.

In the latest public attitudes survey number of respondents saying roads are too dangerous to cycle on is now at a record low, but it is still 59%.

Speaking to Transport Network, Cllr Paul, says: ‘It’s not gentle enough on our roads, we are not looking out for each other. There is a particular lack of consideration for other road users in this country. It’s not that people don’t care, but we can be reckless as a society.’

He makes the point that cycling infrastructure in this country is not nearly good enough and much of this is a funding issue but there are also cultural and media issues at play.

‘We always say it’s a cyclist that has hit someone. But when it comes to a motor vehicle, we say it was a car that hit someone, not the driver.’ It is a point well made.

How do we balance responsibility between different users?

He goes on to highlight that a cyclist killing someone happens so rarely that it is newsworthy, but people are killed all the time by cars and lorries. Around 1.5 million people die on the roads every year worldwide, which is something we should all be ashamed of. After more than a century of motor travel it is still one of the top causes of death. You may wish to think about that for a moment.

The crux of his argument lies with proportionate responsibility. He notes that while cyclists can occasionally be reckless and inconsiderate, they cannot be compared to the danger posed by drivers of heavy goods vehicles for instance.

Cllr Paul suggests that the approach of assuming responsibility rests with the larger, more dangerous road user until proven otherwise, is a sensible place to start. This is a fair argument, though one that has not been adopted yet by our legal system despite its popularity on the continent.

It should be noted though, that it is easy to say a pedestrian is harmless and it is the driver that must take responsibility. One imagines it is not so easy to live with running someone down, even if there was nothing you could do. You don’t have to be at fault, or the direct victim, for an incident to haunt you for the rest of your life. No road user should be arrogant enough to forget this.

TfL knows this well and treats their Tube drivers accordingly when someone falls under their train.

Once all that can be done has been done, once every penny that can be spent has been spent, these roads will still need us to drive on them safely, whether you are on two feet, two wheels or four. And no, we can’t just wait for driverless cars.

With so many still dying on our roads every year, it is essential that we learn whatever lessons we can from every incident and we must look at each situation with surgical honesty. That way some benefit can come from such tragic pain.

It is a difficult thing to assign blame, it can be necessary but it is not something all of us are qualified to do. Without knowing the full facts in a case and having the requisite experience, how can we say who is at fault? Blame is the work of the courts. Taking responsibility on the other hand, is something we all must do. Travel safer, everyone.

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