Deconstructing the truckers’ defence (part two)

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: While the phenomenon of ‘Driver as Victim’ in the below case is seen in an argument made by the president of the Road Haulage Association, it is frequently evident in responses to the proposed minimum passing distance law.

“The new proposed law enforces a strict liability on only the motorist … Why are we blaming a motorist, a professional person, in most cases who’s undergone a theory test, lots of lessons, and quite a rigorous test in order to obtain a licence?…We got a special mention from the advocates of the cycling, when the cyclists proposed the legislation we were actually named … why are they singling us out?”

“We’ve got to inform the public. In Australia, what liability attaches to the cyclist? … The cyclist isn’t mentioned, so if the cyclist veers further onto the road than is, when the motorist happens to be overtaking him, there is absolutely nothing. It’s nothing to do with the cyclist. It is the car and the motorist … that has strict liability, for imposing the shorter distance.”

— Verona Murphy, Today with Sean O’Rourke, 25 January 2018

The imposition of a law mandating safe overtaking practice so as to protect a certain class of particularly vulnerable road user is framed instead as an attack on a road user group that is magnitudes less exposed: drivers. The group in question in this particular radio broadcast is probably the least vulnerable of all road users: drivers of heavy goods vehicles.

There are times I have to stop work, get up and go for a walk to process the fact that people can be upset over the prospect of being delayed for MINUTES.

I understand why: the entire point of my research is that there are social forces at play that cause reactions way more vehement than the facts on the surface seem to justify. It doesn’t change the fact that while an interesting array of other explanations are given for the unacceptability of such delays, a perspective that cannot be denied is that a few people’s lives is an acceptable sacrifice for drivers’ unimpeded movement on the road.

Given the options of (a) “Occasionally, drivers will be stuck on narrow country roads behind cyclists for several minutes, until they can safely overtake” on one hand, and (b) “Every year a few preventable deaths will occur so that drivers can legally overtake as dangerously as they like, if there is no other way to get past a cyclist”, a significant number of people opt for the latter.

Is there a case to be made that drivers, particularly truck drivers, are being victimised?

If you comb through all the discussions and submissions related to the minimum passing distance law, it’s possible you’d find support for that assertion in the wording or tone of a statement somewhere. However, we need to consider the assertion and the prospect of seriously examining the possible guilt of “the cyclists” against a broader background.

Cyclist deaths as a rule involves drivers. Now and then, a cyclist is killed in a crash that doesn’t involve a driver. However, it is an insignificant proportion of overall cyclist fatalities. On the other hand, zero drivers have ever been killed in a collision with a cyclist (if anyone can find evidence of any driver death that has ever occurred as a result of a collision with a cyclist, I’ll be happy to amend this statement). To say outright or imply that drivers are the real victims is absurd. To say outright or imply that “blaming a motorist” is unfair is also absurd. Clearly, motorists are to blame.

We can add elements such as road design, culture, vehicle design, but ultimately in almost all cyclist deaths the common element is a driver seated in a car, van, or truck. Even if a cyclist made a mistake that resulted in their death, the fact that this mistake incurred a death penalty is only due to the fact that a motorised vehicle, controlled by a driver, was involved. Contact between a motorised vehicle and a vulnerable road user is very dangerous. Asking drivers to ensure they don’t risk making such contact is reasonable, and is NOT victimising.

If you are someone’s boss, you have to be more careful than you are with people who are not in that type of power dynamic with you, especially when it comes to flirting. You are the more powerful party, you are therefore more responsible. Societies are becoming increasingly aware of the psychological dynamics inherent in the differences in physical strength that as a rule exist between a man and a woman, the range of responses that can be recognised, and men are as a result increasingly asked or required to take greater responsibility to ensure enthusiastic consent.

If you are a man, you are more powerful and therefore more responsible. If you are young and horsing around, we as a society will expect you to calm down if you are around elderly people. You are more powerful and therefore held more responsible.

We expect behaviour from those in stronger positions that avoids harm to the vulnerable in many areas of life. The fact that with the mandtory passing distance law we are asking this of drivers, who in relation to cyclists are virtually all-powerful, is not victimisation. It is a reasonable requirement.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

8 Comments

  1. So basically it’s the drivers fault if he/she makes a mistake but the driver must be also be at fault if the cyclist makes a mistake because the cyclist is vunerable! Jesus wept.. is it any wonder drivers are demanding cyclists educate themselves not only on rules but manners on the road as well, this article does not do the cycling community any favours I’m afraid..

  2. The idea that we should assume that motorists should be treated more credibly just because they have passes a test is a joke. A shocking number somehow managed to pass without knowing even basic things (like how traffic lights work) and even more just ignore the rules (because they don’t work in ‘reality’).

    ‘Professional’ drivers, meaning those who are paid to drive, are no better. I doubt very many people would claim taxi drivers don’t routinely break the rules of the road purely because there’s a few quid in it for them. Additionally it seems that professional drivers are less likely to be punished when they do appear in court for dangerous driving because they will claim that they need to be allowed to keep driving to support their poor families.

    I can understand why the IRHA wants to keep the current system whereby the driver can simply claim they did nothing wrong and get away with anything. Who wouldn’t want o be able to do what they like with no consequences. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to change. Urgently.

  3. Come down to kerry to give 1.5 meters on the roads and you are in a field

  4. Nadia Williams July 30, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Brian, you are deliberately exaggerating my point and taking it to an absurd extreme, then shooting down that extreme and claiming the actual point was therefore attacked. The point is not that drivers are always to blame no matter what happens, it is that the bulk of responsibility lies with the driver, because it is driving that kills cyclists, not cycling that kills drivers.

    Drivers must understand that contact between their car and a cyclist is extremely dangerous for the cyclist involved, and therefore the driver must give the cyclist a wide berth. Allow for space so that a mistake on the cyclist’s part will not incur the death penalty, and accept that the balance of the responsibility to make sure there’s no contact between your car and a cyclist is on you, the driver.

  5. Nadia Williams July 30, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Ed, the width of the average cyclist with bicycle is about 0.75m. Add that to 1.5m and you have just over 2m. The average width of a car is 1.8m excluding the mirrors, probably around 2m if you include them. You wouldn’t scrape right against it in an overtake so the total width of space you’d need to leave for the car is probably just over 2m. So what the 1.5m rule is really asking is that you imagine the cyclist is a fellow driver and leave a “box” of space the same as you would for a driver on overtake. The only difference is that a fellow driver forces you to leave that space by filling it.

    The roads in Kerry must be quite something if you’re in a field if you overtake a cyclist the same as you would a car. God forbid any oncoming traffic presents itself, because these roads are clearly too narrow to allow for two-way traffic. Kerry drivers must be really good at reversing, because everytime you meet oncoming traffic one or the other party has to reverse to the nearest driveway to let the other driver pass. Alternatively Kerry motorists do a lot of driving in fields anyway, and the 1.5m overtake rule is going to make no difference to the problem.

    If the road is too narrow to overtake safely, you do the same as you would if it were a car, bus, truck, tractor or horse-car ahead of you: wait until it’s safe. If that means ages stuck behind the tractor, you’re not going to insist you should be allowed to ram it off the road or jam your car past it regardless, so all you do if it’s a cyclist is the exact same thing.

  6. It is ridiculous to say the driver is at fault. Have you ever driven a large vehicle? Especially in a city?

    Cyclists do NOT stick to the provided lanes and it is extremely naive to suggest such nonsense. Majority of cyclists in city have rented one of the city bikes, have no real idea of the rules of the road, road safety, etiquette! Food delivery cyclists under time pressure, watching the satnav strapped to their wrist or handle bars change road position, dart in front of you with no warning or signal, they cycle with headphones in… The list goes on!!

    There are many blind spots when driving a large vehicle bus or truck. Most professional bus/truck drivers who have STUDIED the rules of the road, done professional tests for their trade, and do so every year. Do their utmost to drive carefully while navigating the jungle that is our cities trying to avoid pedestrians, cyclists, cars, it is their job and lively hood at stake, they are not superhuman and cannot monitor every inch of the vehicle every second. So how does a cyclist putting themselves in dangerous situation become the professional drivers fault?

    Would it not as a cyclist be more beneficial for them to sit down and do a test on the rules of the road, understand the way a large vehicle works see it from our prospective before pointing the finger???

  7. Nadia Williams July 30, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    It is ridiculous to say the driver is at fault.

    I disagree. The balance of responsibility in any situation lies with the more powerful.

    Cyclists do NOT stick to the provided lanes

    That is often because they’re littered with cars, vans, trucks and other vehicles that are parked there. At other times, the lane design may be woefully unsuitable or the lane is so poorly maintained that it is unusable.

    Majority of cyclists in city have rented one of the city bikes, have no real idea of the rules of the road, road safety, etiquette!

    Could you please site evidence to back up this assertion? Because the studies I’ve seen all support the oppsite: that cyclists behave no more poorly than drivers or pedestrians, and more often when they do break rules are motivated by a judgement call that it is the safer thing to do, while drivers and pedestrians are more likely to break rules for convenience. So what you’re saying here is simply not true, to my knowledge.

    Food delivery cyclists under time pressure, watching the satnav strapped to their wrist or handle bars change road position, dart in front of you with no warning or signal…

    Likewise I can now go and tell you about taxi drivers, for instance, who behave disgracefully around me when I cycle due to time and other pressures. So would that justify making an argument that it should be legal for taxi drivers to be tailgated by HGVs? Because the way I understand what you’re saying here is that you believe people who cycle for work break rules, therefore dangerous overtaking of cyclists by drivers should be legal.

    …they cycle with headphones in…

    Which is legal, like it’s legal to drive with your windows up and the radio playing.

    There are many blind spots when driving a large vehicle bus or truck.

    Which is why I believe they should not be allowed in urban areas. Smaller delivery vehicles should be used in city or town limits.

    Most professional bus/truck drivers who have STUDIED the rules of the road, done professional tests for their trade, and do so every year. Do their utmost to drive carefully while navigating the jungle that is our cities trying to avoid pedestrians, cyclists, cars, it is their job and lively hood at stake, they are not superhuman and cannot monitor every inch of the vehicle every second.

    So clearly you are supporting the argument that these dangerous vehicles should not be allowed in urban areas. They cannot mix safely with vulnerable road users.

    So how does a cyclist putting themselves in dangerous situation become the professional drivers fault?

    This is called victim blaming. It is the responsibility of the person capable of doing the most harm to make sure they don’t do that harm, not that of the ones capable of doing the least harm to stay out of the way of the dangerous. Our streets should belong to people, not machines.

    Would it not as a cyclist be more beneficial for them to sit down and do a test on the rules of the road, understand the way a large vehicle works see it from our prospective before pointing the finger???

    Almost all cyclists out there are also drivers, and have therefore sat a driving test, so your point here is invalid.

    From what you’ve said here the problem is that no matter how much the highly trained truck driver tries, they simply cannot move their massive vehicles safely in an urban environment. Driving in narrow streets shared with vulnerable road users clearly isn’t doable. We cannot argue that therefore it is the humans that should be banned, because then we are saying our cities and towns should belong to machines, and if you can’t afford a car you can’t go anywhere unless there’s a bus route, so we’d effectively ban people from certain areas which they can’t reach by bus. We’d also ban one of the most effective ways to tackle congestion, pollution, and disease and death caused by sedentary living.

  8. @Edel Ní Riagáin

    The author is clear throughout that this article is about the 1.5 meter passing law and drivers’ moral responsibility to give adequate space when passing and yet your response is essentially an unreasonable and almost completely irrelevant diatribe against cyclists in general based on a few anecdotal accusations of poor behaviour.

    The article is merely stating the moral case for a passing law. It is not defending poor behaviour by anyone and implying that it is is deeply disingenuous. We all accept there is poor behaviour by some cyclists. Like drivers and pedestrians, cyclists are human, and some humans are assholes.

    But when we are cycling on a road normally, we should not be taken out because some fool passes too close to us or indeed has “many blind spots”. Is that somehow cyclists fault too? Having blind spots is not an excuse for anything. Having blind spots is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    Your point relating to cyclists not sticking to the provided lanes is laughable. What lanes? The cycling infrastructure in this country is a joke as you would know if you ever cycled anywhere. What there is, and there is very little, is badly designed and never maintained or just a line on the road which needs to be left to perform any maneuver. Any attempt to improve the crappy infrastructure is greeted by a barrage of objections from the motoring lobby that are terrified of losing any of the 99% of road space they currently occupy.

    Anyone advocating cycling publicly faces this kind of problem all the time. Attempts to make rational points in the media are greeted by the kind of misleading, disingenuous, spittle-flecked accusatory and evidence-free invective characterized by George Hook and his ilk. Verona Murphy is a little cannier in her approach, but no less dishonest. You should try to engage with the points, as Nadia has done, rather than attacking.

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