In England, another move to drive cars off the road

Yesterday, while in San Francisco, I nearly got run over by a cyclist who ran a red light.  There was nothing new about this, except that I was a more vulnerable than usual position, being on foot.  Normally, I’m a driver, desperately trying to avoid bicyclists who run red lights, ignore stop signs, shoot across intersections, and drive in the middle of the lane on 45 mile per hour roads.

Not all bicyclists, of course, ignore the rules of the road, but a good number do.  What’s interesting is that it seems as if the statistical likelihood of fault — bicyclist’s or driver’s — may have a strong connection to whether riding a bike is a political act or a simple means of transport.  In Toronto, it appears that drivers are usually at fault in bike/car accidents.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, however, where bicycling is an aggressively political act, the numbers are turned on their heads, with bicyclists being at fault twice as often as drivers when bikes and cars collide.  I, of course, drive in the Bay Area, an area that is becoming increasingly known for its scary, aggressive bicyclists.

I think England is soon going to become one of those areas in which bicyclists rule the road.  Its government is on the receiving end of an aggressive campaign to bring England into line with the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, all of which hold, as a matter of law, that, in a collision between bicycle and car, the car is automatically at fault:

Motorists should be made legally responsible for all accidents involving cyclists, even if they are not at fault, Government advisers say.

Cycling England, an agency funded by the Transport Department, wants the civil law to be changed so the most powerful vehicle involved in a crash is automatically liable for compensation or insurance claims.

The proposal will infuriate drivers, many of whom are angered by the antics of so-called ‘Lycra louts’ – cyclists who sail through red lights, go the wrong way up one-way streets and intimidate pedestrians on pavements and zebra crossings.

It is modelled on regulations in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, which are heavily skewed in favour of cyclists.

Even in cases where a crash results from illegal or dangerous manoeuvres by the cyclist, the motorist is usually blamed.

The motorist is always legally responsible for any crash involving a child or elderly cyclist, even if they are cycling in the wrong direction, ignoring traffic signals, or otherwise flouting traffic regulations.

Now cyclists’ groups want similar measures to be included in the government’s forthcoming National Cycling Plan and Active Transport Strategy. As well as cyclists, pedestrians would also be assumed not to be at fault in civil law if hit by a car.

(That last quoted line also reminds me that, last night, while in the City, an extraordinarily drunken pedestrian walked right in front of our car.  If not for Mr. Bookworm’s quick reflexes and the fact that the lane next to us was fortuitously empty, this big, scary, drunken guy would have been very badly injured.)

I can’t tell you how awful I think this proposed law is.  Whenever one takes away from a human being any responsibility for his actions, that human-being, unsurprisingly, will start acting in a completely irresponsible way:

When someone insures you against the consequences of a nasty event, oddly enough, he raises the incentives for you to behave in a way that will cause the event. So if your diamond ring is insured for $50,000, you are more likely to leave it out of the safe. Economists call this phenomenon “moral hazard,” and if you look around, you will see it everywhere. “With automobile collision insurance, for example, one is more likely to venture forth on an icy night,” writes Harvard economist Richard Zeckhauser. “Federal deposit insurance made S&Ls more willing to take on risky loans. Federally subsidized flood insurance encourages citizens to build homes on flood plains.”

Naturally, bicyclists will claim that their real moral hazard isn’t the risk of economic loss, as would be the case with the stolen ring or the smashed car, but the risks they take to life and limb.  But we already know that’s not true, because we see that bicyclists do not believe they are fallible.  Each cyclist, the run running the red light or stop sign, the one making a left turn in front of an oncoming car, the one blocking the middle of a blind curve, is blithely certain that he (or she) has the skills and savvy necessary to outrun the Grim Reaper.  There are no constraints on them but for their mortality, and they seem bizarrely confident that this is not an issue.  Death seems so far away when you’re 26, in good health and cruising down the road on your bike.  On the other hand, tied as we all are to bills and rules, medical bills, legal liability and traffic citations have much greater immediacy and can be counted upon to constrain action.

Nor is the risk of “no risk” confined solely to bicyclists.  If I was unlucky enough to be driving the car that killed the cyclists who ran the red light, my knowledge that he was at fault would do little to assauge my horrible guilt over killing a fellow human being.  I’ve known people who were unwitting instruments of someone else’s death, with the victim being the one at fault, and that did nothing to do away with the nightmares, the fear, and the depression.  Likewise, if my Mom is the one knocked to the ground by an out-of-control bicyclist, and if she is the one who breaks a hip and then dies of pneumonia, both she and I have become victims of a class placed beyond the law.

Let’s just hope this type of insanity never hits America.  And if you’re traveling in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and, maybe, Britain, be very afraid of those bicycles.