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.