Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Strict Liability

I'm feeling a little cynical today. The morning started with a news report on NPR about backlash against red light cameras in Arizona. That reminded me of an article I read recently about a study of bicycle collisions in Fort Collins, CO, and the insensitive comments that readers made about it. The readers (most of whom had obviously forgotten how to travel without their car) had two points in common:
1. They seemed to be in favor of bicycle infrastructure
2. They seemed to think that the burden of crash prevention fell entirely to cyclists, since bicyclists were more likely to suffer injuries.

There is an ongoing debate over the justification for bicycle infrastructure. Many motorists are in favor of completely separated bicycle paths. They think that this would reduce "delays" for motor vehicle traffic. In truth, it probably wouldn't, unless it were a really lousy system. In a sense, it would double the number of intersections, and might lead to right-on-red restrictions where there are leading bicycle traffic signals. Some cycling advocates fear that over-reliance on separated facilities could lead to bicycles being banned from public streets. Such a system would be a far cry from the celebrated infrastructure of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where bicycles not only have their own infrastructure, they are also exempt from many motor vehicle restrictions such as plazas and one-way streets.

But Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and many of their neighbors have success with bicycle traffic, and safety, for another reason: Strict Liability. This policy holds that the motorist is almost always at fault if they are involved in a collision with a bicycle, pedestrian, or other unarmored traveler. The assumption is that, if we, as a society, are going to permit you to operate a powerful piece of machinery in public, we can at least expect you to do so with the utmost level of caution. Really, where else in your life will you be given such lethal power to exercise around your fellow citizens on a daily basis? When we drive, shouldn't we behave as though we're holding a loaded gun?

But we don't. I think we are all collectively suffering from "freeway-itis". This is the belief that the world outside is just a hostile expanse of almost-lawless pavement, where other people are willing to kill you just to beat you to the exit ramp. In this "Mad Max" world, the logical response is to armor your vehicle and leave home with a defensive, competitive mindset. Other road users are just opponents, and civility is abandoned.

It may take a long time to really overcome this. It will take more than adding bicycle paths to the existing semi-functional system. We actually have to redesign the entire system to reintroduce humanity into every mode of transportation. We need to take traffic violations seriously, as an intentional threat to human life and public safety, with the penalties to match. We need to think of our streets as indicators of public culture. Are our children safe there? Are the elderly at liberty to travel and take part in daily life? Are the streets a place for people and life, or a source of stress, fear, and frustration?

Sorry for the ranting... I try to limit myself to no more than one rant every few weeks. I'll be shiny and happy again tomorrow, I promise!


  1. Thanks for sharing! I'm just getting into cycling around Atlanta and really still learning my place on the road. I found some great links and did lots of reading about how to ride and behave on existing infrastructure, and I'm a big infrastructure nerd anyways. But I'm glad to get the opinions of someone more experienced! So please do rant away... I'd love to be well armed when chatting with friends about what it's like to integrate smoothly instead of being repulsed at the idea of having to share the road with cyclists.

  2. Ranting? What ranting? Yours is rational and critical thinking! I visit your blog daily because you show substance and thought in your post, something I find lacking in other bicycle-trendy blogs. It's a nice, street-level, practical view of bicycling in Atlanta. I consider what you have to say important, ranting or not. Keep up the good work!

  3. Cool, thanks for the encouragement. I'm glad to hear that other people agree! I feel like Atlanta (and much of the US) is challenging in terms of infrastructure and attitudes, but that those challenges contain seeds of opportunity... People are ready for a change and there is room for it to happen.

    @alwaysreflecting - be sure to check out the confident city cycling classes at They can help you feel safer and more comfortable in traffic. From the westside, Marietta St, Tech campus, and Atlantic Station are relatively bicycle-friendly.

  4. I live in Toronto, Ontario. Here is our version of strict liability. Section 193 of The Highway Traffic Act states:

    "When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle is upon the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle."


  5. Kevin - that's a great start...does it get enforced by police and in the courts?

  6. Great post. The more years I ride a bike in the city, the more I really internalize the dangers of driving a car (on high-speed type infrastructure mostly - the city doesn't scare me as much to drive around). Yours is still my favorite blog!