On the way to Copenhagen I: Guilty motorists

On the way to Copenhagen I: Guilty motorists

Bike Auckland

Copyright: CC-BY-SA-2.0, User: Comrade Foot (Jens Rost), Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/people/56380734@N05/)Posts here often concentrate on infrastructure issues, and many others in Cycle Action work on cycle culture and events and behaviour change. But recent experience has also made us think more about how “policies” influence cycling.

Not just the $$$ policies (though they are huge in terms of change / no change) – but instead the many big and small rules, laws, regulations and guidelines that affect cycling. Some of them are so ingrained that even cycle advocates sometimes have to go: “Wait, that DOESN’T have to be that way.”

This is a small series of blog posts discussing policies to make cycling in NZ safer, more attractive, and more normal. To be clear, this is very much for discussion, not CAA policy – though some topics relate to our policies, or may in time become one of them. The topic:

Should motorists automatically be considered guilty when they have a crash involving cyclists or pedestrians?

What would it mean in (traffic law) practice? It would mean that when you hit a pedestrian or a cyclist with a motor vehicle you would automatically be considered the “at fault” party, unless you can prove you are not responsible.

Such a move would change the “burden of proof”, and create a situation where it is mandatory to really, really be careful with a motor vehicle around people who don’t have shock absorbing metal frames and airbags, and which your vehicle outweighs by a factor of 20.

I can hear the newspaper editorials howling already: Cyclists will become even more dangerous to everyone else (???) – jumping out from behind red traffic lights to throw themselves under our SUVs.* Well, admittedly, some idiots among the cycling populace already try to do that, but I don’t think such a law would create more of them. But it would make drivers a lot more careful around cyclists. And no more judges throwing out cases simply because motorist fault could not be established 100%. If you can show that the cyclist you hit with your car at night was wearing black clothing and had no lights – well, THEN you may be off the hook.

* Bonus question: Would you consider it appropriate that the new law would also make a cyclist mandatory “at fault” when he/she collides with a pedestrian? Again, one could argue that there’s an imbalance here, and the faster “more dangerous” party is the one that has the greater duty of care.

I am a big fan of New Zealand’s ACC “no fault” insurance system. It prevents huge administrative hassles, and keeps our health system thankfully free of American-style lawyers (I am okay with lawyers, I just think they can be more gainfully employed than than doing ambulance chasing!).

But the reason ACC system works with a “no fault” system is that few people throw themselves under a car to gain free medical treatment. Sadly, in situations where one party (motorist) has little bodily harm to fear while casually endangering the other party (cyclist / pedestrian), such an approach doesn’t seem to work as well.

The proposal to change the “at fault” rules may seem horribly radical for New Zealand, but is already in existence in a few countries (is anyone aware of any studies on the impact of such laws?). Also, we already HAVE a very similar law in NZ. If the person in the car in front of you brakes suddenly, and you hit the rear of his car, YOU are at fault (even if he/she only braked because he dropped his mobile phone into the footwell). In our daily reality, that law doesn’t create more crashes – it ensures people behind you are a bit more likely to give you enough space. The same applies once hitting a cyclist or pedestrian becomes a legal offence. [/Irony off – I believe it’s actually already sorta illegal.]

Anyway, what do you think? Guilty as charged, or innocent until proven?

Join us

Bike Auckland is the non-profit organisation working to improve things for people on bikes. We’re a people-powered movement for a better region. We speak up for you – and the more of us there are, the stronger our voice!

Suggest a new ride