The Economist: Cycling v cars: The American right-of-way
Nov 11th 2013
ONION-LIKE though its title may be, Daniel Duane’s opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “Is It OK To Kill Cyclists?”, is in deadly earnest. As Mr Duane writes, motorists in America generally receive no punishment whatsoever for crashing into or killing cyclists, even when the accident is transparently their fault. This insane lacuna in the justice system reflects extreme systemic prejudice by drivers against cyclists, and would be easy enough to fix. All that America would have to do would be to adopt traffic regulations like the ones in place in the Netherlands, where the number of cyclists is vastly higher than in America while the rate of fatalities per kilometre ridden is far lower. To illustrate how traffic regulations in the Netherlands differ from those in America, here are a few mostly hypothetical Dutch cases to consider.
• Let’s say a truck is making a turn onto a high-speed four-lane street in The Hague, and rides over a cyclist in the bicycle lane. The accident is witnessed by a very reliable observer whose testimony is likely to stand up in court—say, the prime minister of the country. Who is at fault, and will have to pay damages and/or face criminal penalties? Answer: the truck driver.
• But what if the same accident occurs on a two-lane street with no designated bicycle lane, so the bicycle is riding out in traffic? And what if there are no witnesses or video evidence? Who is at fault then? Answer: the truck driver.
• What if there was a separate traffic light for bicycles at this intersection, and the cyclist was clearly running a red light? Answer: still the truck driver.
• Okay, so…what if the bicycle was coming the wrong way up a one-way street, arrived at the intersection at the same time as the truck, and despite the fact that the truck was on the right, the bicycle seized the right-of-way and dashed straight across the intersection? Answer: the truck driver would have to pay at least 50% of the cyclist’s damages, unless he can prove there was no way he could have seen the cyclist.
• Fine. What if a tornado is racing through the streets of some Dutch town, picks the truck up, and hurls it into the bicyclist, who is in the middle of running a red light while going the wrong way up a one-way street, no hands? Answer: the truck driver will probably not have to pay the cyclist’s damages, unless the cyclist was 14 or younger, in which case the truck driver will have to make an extra effort to prove that there was nothing he could have done to avoid the accident.
To sum up: in the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver’s fault, not the cyclist’s. As explained in this FAQ from the ANWB, the Dutch tourism and car owners’ organisation, “the law treats pedestrians and cyclists as weaker participants in traffic… The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control (overmacht). The driver must thus prove that none of the blame falls on him, which is extremely difficult in practice.”
This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents. As the ANWB says, some drivers may think the liability treatment gives cyclists “a blank check to ignore the rules. But a cyclist is not going to deliberately ride through a red light thinking: ‘I won’t have to pay the damages anyway.’ He is more likely to be influenced by the risk that he will land in the hospital.”
Of course, the sacrifice is not all one-sided. Cyclists in the Netherlands learn to stay inside the country’s ubiquitous bike lanes, not to run red lights, and to signal before turning, and they obey those rules more scrupulously than Americans do—partly because if they don’t, they are likely to annoy or crash intoother cyclists, who will give them a verbal hiding. And traffic lights and road infrastructure are adapted to cyclists’ needs, which entails some inconvenience to autos, though probably not as much as having lots of bikes out in the middle of traffic, ignoring the rules.
Is this an unacceptable price to pay? Well, cyclist fatalities in America were estimated at somewhere in the range of 58 to 109 deaths per 1 billion kilometres cycled in the early 2000s. (It may have declined somewhat since, but probably not by too much, since the total number of deaths has remained roughly constant.) In the Netherlands, statistics on this subject are more precise: there were 12 deaths per billion kilometres cycled in 2010, down by a third since 2000. So I guess it depends on how much one values human life, as against the inconvenience of having to look in the rearview mirror more often.