Safety in numbers, but for now, you all just need a good spanking (with a sock full of quarters)

Safety in numbers, but for now, you all just need a good spanking (with a sock full of quarters)

As more cyclists use the road, roads become safer. That’s what a study of intersections in Boulder, Colorado, has found. There could be many reasons for this, which the article does not concern itself with – it’s just looking at the data to show that safety for cyclists increases with numbers. We’ve known that for a long time now (Smeed, R.J., 1949. Some statistical aspects of road safety research. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General) 112 (1), 1-34, as cited by this paper), and it seems to be common knowledge these days.

The Ozy article written about the Bolder study goes a step further and claims that more cyclists also makes motorists safer. If more cyclists on the roads means that fewer cyclists get hit by cars, then… yeah, fewer cars will be having accidents with cyclists. Seems a bit of a tautology. By this logic, no cyclists on the roads at all would make motorists the safest. More cyclists compared to fewer cyclists will make drivers hit fewer cyclists, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it would make motorists safer.  They kill plenty of each other without the help of cyclists. At best, you might be able to argue that with more cyclists on the roads, motorists will have to be more mindful of them and may in turn be more mindful of all road users in the process. But, what struck me was that they brought this up as if it was supposed to be interesting for motorists – it “makes roads safer for cyclists and motorists”! The article begins with, “Attention, drivers: You might want to think twice before flipping the bird at that morning cycling group for slowing down your commute. In fact, you should probably thank them.”

Is that really an argument that will convince motorists to share the road with cyclists? If you already get annoyed with cyclists on the road and the solution to hitting fewer of them was that there would be more of them, would you find that to be very convincing? If there were no cyclists on your commute, not only would you not kill any of them, but there would be none to slow down your commute, either. Double win. This is ignoring the fact that more cyclists means fewer cars, and we all know that it’s cars that cause congestion, but I’m trying to get inside the mind of the motorist. If someone isn’t already convinced that not harming someone is a good reason for driving in a safe manour, why would we think that any other reason would?

The problem, however, isn’t that people are actively harming cyclists, but that they are being negligent around them. Not looking, not slowing down, not leaving enough room, not checking before opening your door. Sometimes these are conscious decisions (plenty of evidence on YouTube), but most of the time people just aren’t thinking of the consequences of their actions. So, how can we bring this into their consciouness?

Money and criminal action. It works in Holland (the law is not as lopsided as what most people think, but it does try to protect the more vulnerable road user), and I don’t think that anyone could argue against the idea that actions are given more consideration the higher the degree of consequence. This would work for motorists hitting other motorists as much as motorists hitting cyclists. Unless it becomes a criminal matter, the penalties are all tied up with insurance companies, so maybe it could be worth some investigation into the idea of penalizing drivers at fault directly and not just in higher insurance premiums for everyone (demerits, licence suspensions, fines, etc). This is obviously a ludicrous idea, but it illustrates a point: if your car had no airbags or seatbelts, you might just drive with a little more care and consideration, especially as the speeds increase.

If a car (even with no safety features) hits a cyclist (who has no safety features), then the driver comes off completely unharmed whilst the cyclist may even be killed. A cyclist is acutely aware that they are treading in dangerous waters, and rides with this in mind. Obviously, some ride with more abandon than others, but generally, caution is taken so as not to end up in hosptial, and this situaltion is precicely why motorists get frustrated: cyclists don’t trust you to be responsible. “Taking the lane” is one tactic that some cyclists will employ so as to remain safe. They usually have a right to do so, but it usuaslly ends up generating a huge degree of ill-will from motorists. What if cyclists had more confidence in the ability of drivers not to hit them? Do you think this would result in a better flow of traffic? I think so.

Sadly, motorists don’t have a good reason for using caution around cyclists as far as any penalties go. Undue care resulting in injured or sometimes killed cyclists usually carries with it no consequences. It was just an accident, after all. I’m sure if motorists knew that they would kill someone they would use caution, but nobody drives around thinking they’ll actually kill you. Maybe just knock you off. Or get really close. The headline got this article some press a while back, but I think it addresses the issue fairly well. It seems like every other day there is another news story about a cyclists getting killed somewhere in Australia, the UK, or USA, with the driver facing a citation or a fine for not using your indicator, or no consequence whatsoever. The most amazing part is that if you take the bike out of the picture, there are almost always consequences – workplace negligence, construction sites, parents and children, and even automobile accidents where only other cars are involved. Put a bike in it, and you’ve merely got an innocent accident.

What would be the best outcome is that both cyclists and motorists can travel in safety and unhindered. However, until our city’s roadways have been completely re-engineered to provide for this, we may need to take some measures to ensure that cyclists are protected, and stiffer penalties (see Singapore for a high penalties/low crime example here and here) would without a doubt change that without having to wait for any further infrastructure to be built.

Header Image: Boston Public Library/Flickr