On wisdom and culpability

We must demand the highest standard from drivers who kill when they err. You could be next – do you want other cyclists to blame you? Then don’t blame them.

We must demand the highest standard from drivers who kill when they err

Society only gives the drivers of large vehicles one job, and it is this: before you hit the accelerator, ensure you aren’t about to crush someone in front of you. Before you spin the wheel, ensure you aren’t about about to crush someone beside you.

The vast majority of drivers are pretty good at this, which is why the death toll caused by large vehicles is so much lower than it could be.

Unfortunately, when they do fail to follow this simple rule the victim’s chances of survival are slim, which is why the drivers of large vehicles are involved in around 50% of fatalities despite making just 5% of urban vehicle movements.

Many large vehicles have such good mirrors that it’s actually impossible to disappear from view regardless of the position you are in.

This is not true of them all, but that is hardly a mitigation in the driver’s favour. It is to be hoped that we will reach a position where operating a vehicle without safety mirrors becomes a criminal offence, but even today there can be no question that the driver’s first responsibility is to satisfy themselves that they aren’t about to take a life when they spin the wheel.

“I couldn’t confirm it was safe, so I did it anyway” isn’t accepted from anyone else who is responsible for preserving lives, and you owe it to yourself not to allow the terrible frequency of large vehicle deaths to blind you to this basic truth.

The TFL “die in” protest, courtesy Docklandsboy

Silly cyclists are only silly – they do not give the driver a free kill

Because the drivers of large vehicles are the single biggest threat to their lives, many cyclists have developed a healthy paranoia about being anywhere near one, and the authorities have invested significantly in awareness campaigns targeting cyclists in the hopes of reducing preventable deaths.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Women are sometimes warned to avoid certain areas for fear that they will be assaulted.

Critically, it doesn’t follow that rapists are less culpable if their victim failed to follow that advice, nor is someone crushed by a driver who swings his lorry about without looking partly to blame, just because we know that drivers sometimes fail to ensure their path is clear.

There are huge political and financial incentives for the authorities to fix the blame on victims of bad driving. Look at the way Boris immediately came out on the attack against cyclists after London’s spate of recent killings – not only does this go down well with certain sections of society, it divides cyclists themselves over the artificial distinction of whether the victim could have avoided being crushed to death by the driver who failed to check their course was clear.

The apparent failure of cyclists to appreciate this is one of the biggest obstacles to a unified outcry against large vehicle homicides.

Yes, it’s often unwise to pass a large vehicle on the right, or the left, or even to sit in front of it.

Yes, avoiding the drivers of large vehicles can seem ridiculously easy to an aggressive and experienced rider.

Yes, there would probably be fewer deaths if every cyclist was as wise as yours truly.

But at the end of the day, there are over sixty million people living in the UK who are not HGV drivers. We have a basic right not to be crushed to death by a professional who fails to ensure their path is clear.

Cycling unwisely doesn’t excuse the driver anything.

You could be next. Do you want other cyclists to blame you? Then don’t blame them.

Courtesy Richard Gough

7 thoughts on “On wisdom and culpability”

  1. I don’t understand why, by law, new trucks/lorries aren’t all equiped with cameras on the sides + back.

    Cameras are cheap and pretty much all new vehicles come a GPS so a monitor is already available.

    Besides, it’d make drivers’ lifes easier when maneuvering.

    I don’t get it.

  2. FWIW: I’ve been reading a lot on this website since I first came to it to check out Dave’s experience and opinions on recumbents. His writing there has been concise, useful, and informative. The Social Comment section, however, is better. I’ve read a few of these; they’re admirable for their clear-sightedness, arguments, and graciousness.

    Riding conditions in Scotland and England sound similar in many ways to those in Australia. As do the casual abuse and specious arguments of people I encounter driving cars while I’m riding and media commentators, driving organizations, police, politicians, and letter writers to local and national papers.

    I am constantly amazed and appalled by their failure to recognize, firstly, that the people who ride bicycles are, in fact, people, fellow citizens, vulnerable, and worth caring about and for; and, secondly, that they–the commentators, letter writers, &c–as people and citizens, undoubtedly themselves sometimes vulnerable (but perhaps in different ways), by their actions and words demonstrate their childish belief that only they and their opinions are worth caring about.

    I hope that rather Proustian sentence is clear. As, too, the information that here in Melbourne, roads, paths, footpaths, and the behavior of people in cars, buses, and trucks, are similarly complex and confused, and as plainly bad and dangerous, as in the UK.

    I visit Japan regularly. I have ridden around Sri Lanka. Drivers there are no more competent than in Australia. Perhaps less so. In Sri Lanka there are few if any bike paths. Cars, buses, motor bikes, pedestrians, cattle, dogs, and elephants share the roads. It is undoubtedly dangerous. However, I never felt that I was viewed as anything less than human or that anyone felt I had no right to be there. In Japan, bicycle infrastructure varies from the amazing to the non-existent; roads, apart from freeways and major intra-urban routes, are small and winding. However, such is the nature of Japanese culture that, in general, drivers are courteous and patient even as people on bicycles move unpredictably, and mostly painfully slowly, off footpaths and onto the roads, ride against the traffic, in large groups, and with general obliviousness to what is going on around them. I spent October in Japan; I heard two instances of drivers tooting their horns. Riding a bicycle in both these countries is a pleasure; I never feel or felt that I was at war. Perhaps it’s the influence of Buddhism. If so, there should be more of it here in Australia and, it sounds like, there with you.

    Civility and compassion are virtues that can and should be taught and practised. Meanwhile, we have to depend on the law, urban designers, and driver training.

  3. To follow up: lest anyone think I’m being romantic, I believe a major reason for the comparative safety of riding in these countries is that speeds are low–in Sri Lanka ‘cos of poor infrastructure; in Japan, by law. Find yourself on a major, fast road, and things can become difficult.

  4. Well written and thought out, as always. If I’m not mistaken, every single cyclist death we had in Boston last year involved a large truck.

  5. Kyle > If I’m not mistaken, every single cyclist death we had in Boston last year involved a large truck.

    Another one, a couple of days ago in Paris:

    “A woman riding one of Paris’ public rental bikes died in a collision with a dump truck in the centre of the French capital on on Wednesday. Initial reports suggest she could have been caught in the driver’s blind spot.”


  6. Why doesn’t it say “Initial reports suggest the driver didn’t ensure their blind spot was clear”?

    That, at least, is simply factually true. The weird language used to describe these killings is half the problem. Why was the truck allowed on the road without basic safety mirrors? Edinburgh bin lorries don’t have a blind spot, judging by this article.

  7. Thanks for the link.

    > 2. Realise that your light is just one of a sea of lights, and offers you surpisingly little visibility, especially from the oblique angle created when viewed from a cab.

    Which is blinking lights are a very good idea, since cars don’t have them so those lights are more noticeable and “blinking = bike”.

    > 3. The “urban look” is dumb from a safety point of view. Not making any judgements here, but you’re far more likely to be noticed if you’re wearing a “Hi Vis”, partly through enhanced pheripheral visibility (remember, we can only glance at one mirror at a time) but also because lorry drivers are phsycologically tuned to spotting you if you wear one. A Hi Vis is probably the single biggest improvement to personal safety you can make, day or night.

    Although they’re ugly, I always wear a windproof hi-viz, day or night: They make use more visible by drivers AND pedestrians.

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