Safe passing through awareness and consequences
I could be wrong, but I think that only a few weeks after the safe passing law was rolled out in South Australia, people’s salty, bitter tears have already started to dry and they have begun to refocus on whatever else usually deserves their righteous indignation. Hopefully, in time this will become something approaching a widely accepted law.
Whether or not it does, the question remains as to how effective it is, and for this, I offer you two insights today regarding education and consequences.
Firstly, education. This is especially popular among people who don’t like controversy or upsetting anyone or taking a stand of some kind.
I don’t mean to say that education is a waste of time or that it isn’t necessary. Of course it’s both necessary and good. How are you supposed to know not to do something unless you are informed that it isn’t supposed to be done?
What I mean is that educating people about things they really don’t see any value in is quite pointless when it is absent of any method of making that thing valuable. Even if it’s sort of important but not personally costing you anything… well… meh.
Some people have empathy, and some people use their powers of reflection after doing something. Some people encounter situations where they realize that they have caused someone else distress or harm, and because they are good or at least reasonable people, they try to refrain from performing that act again. These people don’t need a government-funded campaign to inform them about safe passing.
Some people are good, or at least reasonable, but are also actually unaware of the effect that their actions have on others. This is made possible for those driving, in part, because of the isolating nature of cars. They are comfortable, quiet, and increasingly entertaining environments. The car industry spends much effort convincing us all that they are safe (for you, but for others?), and instruments of self-expression and independence. For some people who have never experienced a close pass of any kind in any form, have never ridden a bike on the roads, or who are just a bit dim, it genuinely doesn’t occur to them that the person on a bike they just missed at 70kph might not be as enthused about their willful ignorance. For these people, education is important. First-hand experience is better, but education is a good start.
For everyone else, education on its own is useless, but before this brings me to my second insight, the real point of the first: the silver lining behind cyclists and the safe passing law being denigrated in the media by half-wits.
You see, while we could do without the mud-slinging in our direction (and the potential inciting to violence), the initial wave of controversy and hand-wringing surrounding the new safe passing law has at least had the effect of pretty much everyone knowing about it.
So thank you, half-wits. In a way.
Secondly, the consequences. Have you ever considered that the only real, practical incentive most people have for not crashing into things is that they don’t want their cars to be damaged? People will avoid debris on the road at all costs because if they drive over it, their car will be damaged. People? I’ll take my chances. Of course they don’t actually want to really kill people, but that’s usually not the situation that is at the forefront of their brains. Broadly speaking, people recoil from immediate material damages far more readily than emotional, social, or moral consequences, and that is likely because these things aren’t certainties. You could probably keep the emotional baggage in the closet, and justify any moral or social misgivings to make yourself feel better, but material damages somehow require less consideration. You avoid them without thinking. A natural response learned from the depths of time. It doesn’t even matter if your insurance will cover most of it, such is the natural inclination to protect what you have invested in (both materially and emotionally).
And that’s where the consequences come in. Because people are inherently self-centered and have an infinite capacity to justify their selfish impulses, rendering education a tad mute, we need actual, material consequences.
Fines are good. Big fines better. Impounding one’s car is probably better yet (maybe they’ll actually learn that another mode of transportation isn’t all that bad, assuming public or active transport is viable in your city). Jail time… probably the last resort, but handing down real, act-appropriate sentences for the most heinous of crimes (dangerous, careless, or even distracted driving resulting in severe injury or death) is most certainly something we need to take more seriously.
And then there’s this. The Friendly Cat’ Paw, from KaleCoAuto.
“Motorists and Cyclists alike,
As you already know: most states require a three foot buffer for a motorist to pass a cyclist. How far is three feet? Well, it’s pretty impractical to hang a measuring tape out of your window.
So what is the solution?
The KaleCoAuto Friendly Cat’s Paw. Simply attach the clamp side to your bicycle and extend the telescoping Cat’s Paw. This extends to exactly 2ft 11 and 7/8ths inches. If a motorist passes too close, the spring-loaded Cat’s Paw will gently brush the paint of the vehicle and emit a high pitched squealing sound as the (user replaceable!) friendship-blades run across the paint!
The motorist will know immediately they are too close, and give you a friendly wave. Whew! Accident avoided.
Another KaleCoAuto product that makes sharing the road safer and more fun!*
Weight Weenies: Only 113 grams!
*Not for use with pedestrians.”
Whether it’s a joke or not isn’t actually important (though it is pretty good). The idea behind it is actually something that should be taken seriously.
Think about this: people will, whether they mean to or not, give insufficient room when passing cyclists on a regular basis where there is no apparent consequence in sight for them. As long as they don’t actually knock them off, it’s all good.
If the only thing to change in the above scenario was the cyclist making use of a Friendly Cat’s Paw or similar, I have no doubt that a comfortable distance would be left between the car and the cyclist (in all but the least spacial aware among us), lest they scratch their car. They just wouldn’t take the chance.
That’s the sad truth. Vision Zero (never mind a decent cycling mode-share) isn’t going to be successful with education alone, or by trying to appeal to already empathetic people. Vision Zero and sustainable urban landscapes will be made possible by real, meaningful consequences to real, meaningful actions.
Header image: source