It is an injustice that we permit the careless and reckless to continue to wield such power, while those who present little or no risk to others are discouraged from using our streets.
I’ve been stewing on this story for a few days and debating whether (or what) to write about it.
You’ve probably heard the horrible story about the couple killed on a tandem bike in Texas. You may have seen the heart-wrenching photo of their orphaned, 7-year-old daughter. If you have, you’re probably angry, too, because you also know the driver who killed them will not be charged with anything.
Deputy Chief Bennett told News 4 WOAI the office’s hands are tied. He said under current law, unless a driver is drunk or high, it is difficult to prove recklessness. And legally, charges can not be filed for “an unfortunate accident.”
Go ahead. Scream.
Now walk with me for a moment.
If you’ve read the articles, you’ll notice lots of ire and blame is being directed at Governor Perry for vetoing the “vulnerable user” law. I think that’s an easy target, but it’s wrong.
This problem is systemic, and it’s not bicycle specific. First of all, everyone is vulnerable. Over 40,000 Americans are killed by cars every year and the vast majority of them are in cars. This guy was driving his pick-up truck 70mph and veered into the shoulder at speed. He happened to hit two cyclists on a tandem bike. If he had hit a disabled car, he would probably have seriously injured or killed the occupants, and possibly himself. He would have killed a motorist attending to the engine of a disabled car, or changing a tire. What if he’d gone the other way and hit a car head on, killing its occupants? Would their lives have been less valuable than two cyclists, pedestrians or motorcyclists? I guarantee their story wouldn’t have had nearly the half-life or drawn as much public anger and grief.
I have to wonder if the injustice of a careless motorist killing two cyclists and facing no charges is really as personal as it feels to us. Are the police unable to charge this guy because he hit cyclists, because the traffic statutes are inadequate, or because our culture is unwilling to come face to face with the responsibility and impact on others of operating a heavy vehicle at high speeds? Surely there are existing laws under which this driver could be charged.
If this man was playing with a gun and it accidentally went off, killing 2 people, would he be charged with something?
Check out the Wikipedia definition of negligent homicide. Note the last sentence about the Aeroperú crash. An engineer forgot to remove a piece of tape from a static port causing the plane’s instruments to fail. That engineer was charged with negligent homicide. Rightly so, it was his job. His competence (or lack thereof) affected the lives of dozens of people.
Driving a motor vehicle at 70mph does too — every other human being in your path (or near it).
There are things we need to change.
The source of this justice problem is our social acceptance of inattentive driving. The majority of drivers engage in some form of distraction some of the time, and most get away with it all of the time. Who hasn’t arrived at their destination with no recollection of anything along the journey? The fear/realization that it could happen to any of us ought to make us take it more seriously, but it seems to do the opposite. Probably because we get away with it so often.
That’s the problem. You get away with it until you don’t. Life is forgiving until it isn’t. The rarity of catastrophe against what we get away with every day allows us to write off the consequences as “an accident.” Everyone is mortified when something like this happens, but the thought passes quickly because we wish to avoid cognition about the reality behind it.
We are united in this normative behavior by circumstances and environmental cues. Driving is boring and multitasking is irresistible. We’ve engineered our cities for car-dependence, complete with extremely boring and frustrating commutes—hours of wasted time, isolated and imprisoned. We’ve engineered our roads to be forgiving of inattentive drivers, with the unintended consequence of encouraging inattentive driving… and no thought as to how that might affect the rest of us.
“If we make the roads safer for them, will the roads be safer for us?”
How it affects us.
We hear about these horrible events because they are newsworthy. They stick in our minds because they are personal. But we need to remember the tens of thousands of cyclists who ride without incident. In a country of 300 million people, what makes the evening news is not a representative sampling.
The fear of inattentive drivers keeps cyclists from riding assertively, or causes them to ride miles out of their way to avoid some roads. It keeps some people from riding at all. Motorists use the inattentive driving norm to bolster their arguments that we don’t belong on “their” roads. It affects the way many law enforcement officers perceive the legitimacy of safe and lawful cycling on high speed roads.
Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that distracted driving is more of a problem for cyclists than for anyone else. There’s good reason to believe that assertive cycling actually mitigates the problem in most environments. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that most people (including many cyclists) think the safety solution is for gentle users to retreat and yield the commons to undeserving, careless clods… and to buy a bigger SUV.
When will it change?
It will change when all of us — you and me and our families, friends and neighbors — decide that inattentive driving is not OK, and we as a society are not going to tolerate it anymore.
Perhaps the careless driving statute needs teeth. Check out this provision added to Britain’s Road Safety Act:
Causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving
This new piece of legislation means that should a driver be found guilty of causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving, they will receive a mandatory disqualification and have their licence endorsed as well as the penalties in the table below. This offence is linked to the standard and quality of driving. A driver will be found guilty of this offence if they have caused a death by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or another public place without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other person using the road or place. For example, a driver could be found guilty of this offence if they pull out onto a road and misjudge the flow of traffic – resulting in the death of another. It is important to appreciate that the driver will not be acting in a dangerous manner, as this would then fall under another offence of causing death by dangerous driving.
Perhaps the distracted driving law could provide some symbolic resolution. But the ultimate change is not going to happen until we own this problem and decide that operating a heavy vehicle at high speed requires continuous attention and a sense of responsibility for other users of the road, no matter what vehicles they drive.
The best thing cycling advocates can do is help push for broader, systemic solutions to the problem of irresponsible driving. We should steer clear of special interest legislation and embrace solutions that benefit everyone.