A simple choice: speed or safety. That’s basically what it comes down to.
It’s a balancing act, but our choices are based on maximizing our speed/minimizing our travel time, and maintaining a minimal level of personal safety.
I need to stress personal safety, because I believe that most people, most of the time, have little to no concern over other people’s safety when they are choosing how to conduct themselves on the road. There are general exceptions where drivers are more likely to consider the safety of others, like when driving through a school zone while there are kids in plain view, but most of the time our decision process while using the roads are based on maintaining as high a speed as possible before we believe we will come to grief in some way. The scenario we imagine is our own grief. Our own safety. Damage to our own property. Having to pay a fine with our own money.
How often do you frame the various scenarios of grief with that of the other party in the transaction? Almost never, I am willing to bet, and I believe that one reason is because we almost always believe that we are the victim. If you get into an accident, the first thing your brain does is look to place blame, to distance yourself from responsibility. Accidents usually involve two parties, so statistically, one is usually at fault and one is usually the innocent victim (sometimes both are, sometimes neither are), but often both parties consider themselves to be victims in some way. You doored a cyclist? “Why on earth were they riding so close to my car!” You pulled out into an intersection and someone drove into you? “I couldn’t see because object X was in my way!”
Aside from being ready with excuses if something bad does happen, we view the road as a competition rather than something that works better and more efficiently for everyone if we all cooperate (which it does). It is a gauntlet to run with each journey, fraught with dangers for both our own personal safety but also for our expected time of arrival. Because we view traffic as me vs. the world, we are focused only on our success. We are myopic regarding the bigger picture, unable to see past our own noses.
Another reason why we make the wrong choice between speed or safety is because we believe we are better and smarter than we actually are when it comes to dealing with traffic. Accidents happen to other people. We are more aware than them. More skilled at avoidance. Every accident is a testament to the contrary.
Look, there are a number of ways how this plays itself out, but really it just comes down to prioritising ourself over everyone else. We’re selfish and greedy, and the way we drive reflects that. Motorists do it, cyclists do it, and pedestrians do it. We are all the same. This selfishness feeds itself almost every time we take to the road, because most of the time, we get away with it. We aren’t that concerned about speeding a little, or using our phones, or slowing down and waiting to pass a cyclist from the next lane, because, in reality, we get away with it most of the time, and each time we do, it is reinforcing the idea that it is without consequence. Who is it really harming? Most of the time, no one. Most of the time.
This doesn’t happen in a vacuum either. You are not the only clever person slipping through the roundabout or yield sign a bit too fast, or making any other potentially risky decision, however slight it may be. If everyone on the road is pushing the boundaries, and you really considered this when behind the wheel, then maybe you would drive a little differently. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just ideological thinking, but that’s precisely why we have laws.
The law is concerned with safety, not speed. That is why we find them so very annoying and inconvenient. Why speed limits are too slow. Why we can’t make a U-turn here. Why the traffic-calming infrastructure is so annoying. Why pedestrians can’t jay-walk. Why cyclists can’t roll through red lights. The law is concerned with safety, not speed.
There is a huge grey area between what is definitely dangerous and what is only a little dangerous. That is another topic. The law isn’t interested in getting you to your destination faster. It is interested in getting you there alive and without incident. Cyclists get all excited about whether or not they should be allowed to roll through stop signs and red lights, and in reality that might not be any less safe than the current set-up. Some laws don’t seem to have all that much relevance in certain contexts, but laws are best when they are simple and clear. When you relax them they can be a slippery slope, because, as we know, people push the boundaries to get away with the maximum speed and the minimum disturbance to our travels. We forget that accidents, personal injury, and death, should be counted amongst those disturbances.
Speed or safety?
We would surely drive differently if we genuinely kept in mind the impact an error on our part would have on someone else’s life. The responsibility is everyone’s, regardless of the method of transportation, but it is beyond argument (strictly speaking…) that those with the greatest potential for accidents resulting in grievous harm to others (and minimal personal harm to themselves) have the greatest responsibility to choose wisely between speed or safety, and that is motorists. This does not leave cyclists and pedestrians to do as they please – they are just as responsible for their own behaviour on the road, it is simply that an error in judgement on their part is far less likely to kill or even seriously harm someone else. Again, I want to stress that I don’t believe that cyclists and pedestrians are any less responsible for their choices and I believe that they need to adhere to the laws of the land just as much as everyone else. If there are contexts where cyclists should be subject to different standards than motorists, where the risk is low enough that efficiency (speed) can be increased without sacrificing safety – and I believe that these exist – then we need to change the law to reflect this (as impossible as that may sometimes seem).
In the midst of all this, the persistent thought rattles through my mind that humans are hopelessly selfish and simple and therefore we really have no hope of the world getting any better on a grand scale, and aside from war, crime, the destruction of the environment, discrimination, and all the other significant issues that we will continue to face, I’ll always have to be looking over my shoulder, somewhat pathetically anticipating the result of poor judgement from any of the millions of other road users out there because they want to get where they’re going as fast as possible, day after day. On the other hand, if I’m thinking this, maybe there are enough other people who are too, or that might if someone pointed it out to them. So I’ll concern myself with myself, try to practice what I preach, and hope that someone sees this and thinks better of rushing through that intersection the next time they jump in the car or on the bike. Or that, maybe, they look up from their phones when crossing the street
Sure, there’s a middle ground, but when it comes down to it, you can drive with a priority on only one of two things: speed or safety.
Header image: source