At a street corner somewhere, a pedestrian, a bicyclist and an automobile driver enter an intersection. The person in the car turns and hits either the person on foot or the person on the bike, killing her.
Question: What happens to the driver? In most states, nothing. Unless the driver is drunk or can be shown to be speeding or driving recklessly, it is, in the words of Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog, “a free kill.” The driver walks away without criminal charges, civil liabilities or administrative penalties.
This is crazy.
In the past decade, there has been a movement around the world to make towns and cities more hospitable to their primary occupants: people. Dubbed the livable city or complete streets movement, it has resulted in cities widening sidewalks, putting in bike lanes, converting parking lots and streets into pedestrian plazas, launching bicycle-sharing services, implementing high-speed bus lanes, reviving streetcar systems, tearing down freeways, and more. This is a global phenomenon, with American cities from Chattanooga, Tenn., to New York City playing catch-up to Seoul and Stockholm.
Without laws protecting bikers and walkers, however, the goal of having truly livable cities in America remains out of reach. Legal lines are more important than physical lines. Creating the right laws to govern the interactions among walkers, cyclists and drivers is more effective than painting new stripes for a bike lane.
“Ultimately, the thing that changes people’s behavior are the penalties,” says Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer in New York City who specializes in bicycle injuries.
Right now bikers -- and, to some extent, pedestrians -- are in a Catch-22. It’s long been known that there is a “safety in numbers” phenomenon. The more people walk or bike, the more the drivers of cars look out for them. But people won’t ride bicycles if it’s not safe, and it’s not safe because people don’t ride bicycles. A big step forward is to put the primary responsibility for keeping streets safe on the drivers of the two- and 10-ton vehicles that routinely kill people.
There are several ways to strengthen consequences. There are increased criminal penalties, such as charges of manslaughter. There are increased civil penalties, such as liability for hospital bills, lost earnings, and pain and suffering. And there are increased administrative penalties, such as points on one’s license or loss of license.
Personally, I think the way to go is increased civil liability. The countries where cycling is an integral part of life, such as Holland and Denmark, as well as much of the rest of continental Europe, have something in effect called “strict liability.”
It means that if you, the driver, strike a pedestrian or cyclist, you are automatically at fault, even if the walker or cyclist literally jumps out in front of you. This may not seem fair, but a system where a cyclist and a driver are on equal footing is not a fair one either, because the results of any collision are so unequal. A system needs to acknowledge that it is the driver of a car or truck that is doing something inherently dangerous.
Bicycling in Holland, where such a system is in place, is an amazing experience. Cyclists there ride in heavy traffic, commuting to work, carrying groceries and children, secure that the drivers are looking out after them. Holland also has plenty of bike lanes, but it’s not the bike lanes that keep cyclists safe. The car and truck drivers are held legally responsible for the potential consequences of their vehicles. It’s appropriate too that if a cyclist in Holland strikes and hurts a pedestrian, the cyclist is presumed to be at fault.
The legal systems of continental Europe are different from ours, as is overall context. It’s telling that the bike and pedestrian laws in Great Britain, our legal forefather, are more similar to ours when it comes to fault. Fortunately, there is a movement there to change this.
As we have 50 states, we also have 50 legal regimes on the subject. There are complications such as no-fault insurance, which about one-third of the states have. But laws giving drivers “strict liability” can be passed on both a state or local level. There may be an outcry, but it’s only fair. Such a law would have a ripple effect, most importantly by getting the insurance companies on the side of those seeking to change driver behavior. Ultimately, if we are to be safe, we need the driver to look out for us, not for us to look out for the driver.