Sometimes, the solution to a problem seems so simple. Sometimes it’s not.
I support the idea that if you are truly interested in stopping a certain action, then you should make performing it costly enough that people don’t even consider trying it. Things like speeding. Drink driving. Assault. If the consequences are steep, the behaviour is less likely to occur. It’s all about proportionality, but also proportional to how bad you want to prevent the action. Harsh. But fair?
Well, obviously it depends on your perspective, but while this idea has obvious holes in it, I think they can be worked around. I think jail is a pretty old-fashioned and less than effective way to penalize someone in many cases, and anyway, the punishment has to fit the crime. Make it a sliding scale, but make the curve extremely steep. Going 5kph over the speed limit? Normal fine. Then maybe double it for each additional few kph, add a suspension of license (maybe start with 3 months) for repeat offenders, then double that for the second offense, and then you simply loose it. Take a similar approach for other offenses. If you’re a fan of throwing people in jail, then California has taken an approach similar to this.
Then I thought of this being applied to all laws and that scared me a little, mostly because some laws are completely stupid, some laws are a bit silly, and some are really just to keep certain actions from getting out of control. Take jaywalking – there really shouldn’t even be a law against it (except in a few specific circumstances). So clearly the idea would have an overall benefit to society when applied to things that are neither beneficial to society on the whole, and preventing them would be beneficial, like drink driving, reckless/distracted driving, assault, or many other things we could do without (as opposed to a human-being safely crossing a street where no lights are provided).
Then I though about the same approach for cycling and pedestrians. At the moment we are all collectively freaking out against the outrageously steep fines that NSW has levied against cyclists (and the ID cards), believing that they are out of proportion. For consistency’s sake, shouldn’t I be in favour of this?
Well, firstly, I have to admit to myself that I am biased. We all are to some degree. I admit that I am quick to admonish the behaviour of pretty nearly all motorists and hesitate to do so for some cyclists. But, if a law is worth keeping, it should be worth keeping for everyone, right? Speeding is speeding. Red lights are red for everyone. But what makes a law worth enforcing? Aren’t we smart enough to know that if you change any variable in an equation, never-mind the central one, you change the outcome? In fact, you can change the entire situation. So, a law might make perfect sense in one situation, but not in another.
And that’s really the issue. Laws are contextual. Not all of them, of course. The really bad crimes are really bad no matter what. Murder. Rape. Hate crimes. No question. However, when you think about it, our laws are always based on the consequences of the action, and when I say always, I mean usually. Or sometimes. Or, it depends…
Let’s look at speed limits. The very fact that we have different speed limits in different places depending on certain characteristics of the surrounding area is a perfect and universally accepted law that is based on the fact that we set the limits of our actions based on the context. While it’s safe to operate a vehicle at a certain speed in one context, it may not be in another. We all understand this. We all accept this to be reasonable.
On the other hand, humans try their hardest to simplify things, especially as people multiply and situations become more complex. It’s what our brains do. It’s difficult enough to organize a society without having different laws for every conceivable situation. The more laws you have the more complicated it gets to understand and enforce them. But even when that actually makes sense, and often because people are selfish, people think certain laws don’t apply to them in certain situations.
Ok, so let’s look at another situation. Punching someone with your fist is assault, right? Punching someone with a knife in your hand is assault with a deadly weapon and carries a much higher penalty. Granted, you would have a hard time convincing a jury that you didn’t realize you had a knife in your hand and you only meant to punch them, but indulge me.
If you bump into someone while running on the footpath, you could hurt someone. You could knock them over. If they’re old or really little, they could break something or worse. If you are cycling and you hit a pedestrian or another cyclist, you could hurt someone. You could knock them over. They could break something, and if the conditions are right, in very rare circumstances, they could even die. If you hit a pedestrian (or cyclist) while driving a car at speeds between 40-50kph, the rate of fatal injuries increases exponentially from around 10% at 40kph to 80% at 50kph, while the chance of fatal injury starts showing up below 30kph, and the chance of severe injury starts ocuring at speeds not much higher than 10kph.
In the first example, there is simply no reason to impose a speed limit for walking, or penalties for, let’s call it, distracted walking. Everyone has the ability to walk, everybody has the right to do it. It’s walking. Enough said.
In the second example, there may be a reason to impose a speed limit on cycling in some circumstances, but for the most part, these can just be the normal posted speed limit for the road in question. I’m happy with that. When cycling occurs on the footpath, speed limits make sense, but given the very low incident/injury rate and the fact that most people already cycle at a very low-speed because they aren’t interested in running into anyone either, I’d suggest that it’s not worth the effort to regulate it, except maybe in specific contexts like pedestrian-dense shared spaces.
I shouldn’t need to dwell on the many reasons for why the third example is deserving of a much stiffer penalty and more careful regulation than we typically credit it with deserving (even though we know better). It’s the reason why many countries in Europe have passed presumed liability into law. Driving a motor-vehicle is, essentially, like the walking around with knives in both hands. Merely walking around holding knives isn’t necessarily a dangerous activity, but the potential for injury and even death is significantly higher than walking around without knives in your hands. When walking around holding knives, it is the person in possession of those knives whose responsibility it is to make sure that they do not end up slipping them into someone else’s body, accidental or not.
Cycling is like walking around with wooden spoons in your hands. They can injure someone, but it’s highly unlikely for it to result in anything, never-mind anything serious. And walking is like, well, walking. With nothing in your hands. Unless you’re holding knives…
A vehicle is a potentially dangerous (very dangerous) object, just like knives and guns, and what we have done as a society is placed the responsibility of remaining safe around these potentially very dangerous objects on those around them rather than the person in possession of such an object.
That’s wrong, and in any other scenario, we would recognize that.
Coming back to the main point, then, that not all laws can be applied with broad strokes. As the consequences of an action become more severe, the consequences of performing such an action should rise in proportion, especially considering that there is no net benefit to society for actions like assault or excessive speeds/driving dangerously and the like, whereas there actually is for jaywalking, rolling through a stop-sign when safe, cycling on the footpath, or even not forcing all cyclists to wear a helmet.
So while I support the idea of applying aggressively increasing penalties for actions that have no benefit and a high degree of detriment to society, we have to resist the urge to over-simplify things and applying the same penalties for actions that simply do not carry the same consequences, like cycling without a helmet or rolling through a stop sign, or even, in some cases, cycling through a red light (where I grew up, aside from it being legal to turn right on red after coming to a complete stop and then proceeding when safe, at night when traffic was light, some of the lights at signaled intersections changed to flashing amber or red – the main road getting a flashing amber and proceeding with caution, and the minor road getting a flashing red which was effectively a stop sign – recognizing that a fully signaled intersection was simply over-managing the situation at times).
This is the heart of the problem with the NSW governments attempt to bring “parity” to their streets. Equal fines for cyclists and motorists are not actually to scale. Such an approach is not responding to the physical reality of the situation so much as an attempt to pacify motorists who somehow feel maligned by the presence of a minority group that quite simply needs to be encouraged at all costs and for so many reasons.
That exorbitant fines and mandatory ID cards for cyclists are in the name of safety is exactly the same approach that governments have taken to protect the interests of motorist groups the world over (and/or their own) for the past 100 years. Cars were killing too many pedestrians, so crossing the street became a crime. Cyclists continue to be hit and killed and cycling rates are embarrassingly low because people feel it is too dangerous, so hey, make sure you wear high-viz, a helmet, ride in the gutter, and take your government mandated identity card with you so we can notify your next of kin when we are scraping you off of the pavement next time (has IDing someone ever actually been a problem in the past? Where are the raft of John Doe cycling victims if that is the case?).
We know what will be the most significant means of improving safety on our roads, and it has as much to do with cyclist or pedestrian behaviour as the answer to improving gun safety is making sure that everyone simply wears a bullet-proof vest at all times.
I hope the people of NSW don’t take their new laws that are supposed to make everyone “go together” safely lying down (here’s a petition to have it reversed), and I hope that the other States and Territories are smart enough not to follow suit with anything as unhelpful as this, but instead take measures to improve not only road safety, but the health of our cities, the environment, and our citizens that are based on real solutions that have been in use for decades the world over.
Header image: source