Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Sobering reading

When a car hits a pedestrian or cyclist, conventional wisdom blames the victim. Jaywalking is ingrained in New York culture — it has been called the city’s secular religion — and most cyclists treat red lights as stop signs at best. This rule-breaking is generally attributed to carelessness, if not insanity, and is regarded as the reason for most pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

Yet the police accident reports obtained for this study tell of pedestrians struck down by speeders and red-light runners, or even on sidewalks. At any intersection, motorists can be seen forcing their way through crosswalks or otherwise infringing on walkers’ lawful right-of-way. This behavior impels pedestrians to bend the rules for the sake of self-protection. The chaotic character of traffic at intersections leads many pedestrians to conclude that crossing mid-block is safer, since one only has to look for cars coming in a single direction. Similarly, cyclists “slip through” red lights in order to gain one or two blocks’ respite from threatening motorized traffic; cyclists who wait for the green often find themselves bullied from their lawful place on the road by impatient drivers. If drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all flout the law, should they be held equally culpable in fatalities? No. Pedestrians and cyclists are not equivalent with drivers. Motor vehicle operators are licensed, their vehicles are registered, and insurance is required of them, precisely because of their potential for harm. By virtue of their weight and speed, motor vehicles are immensely dangerous machines, and the human body — even on a bicycle — is not.

(Charles Komanoff "Killed by Automobile: Death in the Streets in New York City 1994-1999", March 1999)

What has come to light may be summarised as follows. Drivers who kill 'merely' through carelessness are regarded by the judiciary as unlucky but often blameless: an implicit empathy – “There, but for the Grace of God, go I” – is evident. However, driving offenders who are also implicated in vehicle theft or drink and drug abuse are likely to be condemned by judges and magistrates as 'real' criminals, even if their standard of driving was no lower. Meanwhile Vulnerable Road Users may be held unfairly responsible for their fate: cyclists have been blamed for wearing dark clothing or no helmet despite it being the car and not the cycle which creates the danger, just as rape victims are blamed for wearing revealing clothing despite it being the attacker and not the victim who commits the assault.
The final research question regarded the ideologies and power relations behind the regulation of Britain's roads. Is it simply a coincidence that the vast majority of police officers, magistrates, judges and lawyers are drivers? And that those most likely to be killed by drivers, and least likely to be drivers themselves – the very young, the elderly, the poor – are also least likely to be policy makers and legal officials? And (perhaps running alongside or perhaps cutting across these themes) is there not a link between the fact that almost all drivers who are convicted of killing are male, and that almost three quarters of all magistrates and judges are men? The evidence indicates that this is no coincidence. Those policy makers and legal officials who are in a position to change matters are mostly drivers and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

(Jake Voelcker, Review of the Legal Penalties for Drivers Who Kill Cyclists or Pedestrians, 2007)

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