With no power comes great responsibility

The trope of ‘sharing’ comes up a lot in the road safety industry. Way back even before the embarrassing and actually borderline insane Niceway Code, this has been the established way of framing messages on road safety. Share the road. And above all, share responsibility. We all have a responsibility to each keep each other safe on the roads, so this messaging goes: car drivers, lorry drivers, horse riders, cyclists, pedestrians. Immediately this answer to road safety raises a whole lot of questions. What responsibility does a horse rider have to a lorry driver? What responsibility does a pedestrian or a cyclist have to a car driver?

Given that most media reports of collisions between pedestrians, horse riders or cyclists and drivers tend – after detailing the carnage inflicted on the vulnerable road user involved – to end with a sentence along the lines of ‘the driver of the vehicle was uninjured’, it’d be surprising if horse riders, pedestrians and cyclists were being asked to take responsibility by not maiming and killing drivers of motor vehicles.

Now, it’s common for the logic of ‘they’, of sterotyping and generalisation, to enter discussions about road safety. ‘Drivers always do this….’, ‘cyclists, you know what they’re like…’, and so on. But one generalisation is valid here: every driver, every single one, is operating dangerous heavy machinery in a public place, and so has a special responsibility to do so in a way which does not harm others.

Every driver is responsible, just by being a driver, for imposing a special risk of harm on others road users, in a way no non-driver can be (to emphasise just how, erm, ‘special’ this is, have a browse of #AmbassadorsOfSharedResponsibility). That much is recognised in the Highway Code, which helpfully tells drivers that they will be sharing the road with Users Who Require Extra Care (something soon to be formalised in the Code via a formalised ‘hierarchy of responsibility’, which has some motor vehicle lobbyists, to put it bluntly, shitting bricks, and calling instead for more cyclists to have lights – see below).

So, if responsibility for road safety is to be shared out, what share of it do vulnerable road users get to enjoy, given that they just don’t have the same power to harm as drivers? Well, you get reminded of the answer ever year, as we approach Hallowe’en, the clocks go back, and graves yawn wide and vomit contagion out into the world. Among the shambling revenants that return to plague the living each October are tweets like this:

The massive and often vitriolic response to that tweet indicated 1) how pissed off cyclists get at messages like this and 2) how little non-cyclists understand why cyclists get so pissed off at messages like this. Going beyond the blatant playing up of contrast between the two images (shine a headlight on the guy on the left in the same way as it’s shining on the right-hand guy and he’ll be pretty conspicuous to a driver, unless said driver has serious sight problems) , the main issue here is that cyclists are being told to take responsibility for their own survival.

Remember, oviously they can’t hurt drivers. So this instead is their share of the delicious responsibility pie. Lights and hi-viz, always lights and hi-viz (comparatively little is said, interestingly, about widing well out into the lane and other forms of assertive, visibility-conferring riding) otherwise you risk non-survival. What could be more obvious? Well, as I pointed out previously, this isn’t at all obvious, when you look at why collisions between drivers and cyclists (or motorcyclists, for that matter) happen in the first place. Drivers are not, unless they are cyclists or motorcyclists themselves, sensitised to the presence of these other road users in ‘their’ territory, unless they have been specifically trained to be.

A few years back, a lot of posts like this were being shared in relation to road safety, pointing out that drivers tend to hit cyclists or motorcyclists because ‘our eyes aren’t suited to driving’. People got quite excited about the idea of ‘saccadic blocking’, that is, the ways in which our eyes tend to ‘skip’ between points of focus, leading to relatively small objects being lost in the gaps between these points. But it’s not saccades which contribute the most to the problem of ‘inattention’ in drivers. It’s the fact that inexperienced or badly trained drivers just don’t expect some vehicles to be there in the first place. They are literally not looking for them. Many drivers – a fairly large subset of that class of road users who, let’s recall, are responsible for introducing dangerous, heavy machinery to public places – are operating that machinery without training that adequately sensitises them to the existence of cyclists and motorcyclists.

Given this fundamental point, we have to accept that conspicuity or visibility makes relatively little difference, when compared with the risk factor that inadequate training/experience presents. This counter-intuitive point is what (as revealed byt the debates under Olly Tayler’s post) non-cyclists tend not to understand. Just wear hi-viz!! Isn’t it obvious why you should???!? But if you combine the psychological research on how collisions between drivers and vulnerable road users happen with the STATS19 collision data collected by the Department for Transport, and you will see just how little difference hi-viz and even lights make.

With all this in mind, back to the theme of responsibility. If drivers should bear the lion’s share of responsibility, not only for being the source in the first place of risk to other road users, but also for being the cause of most collisions with cyclists and other vulnerable road users, then it would surely make sense for road safety professionals to devote the most resources to tackling the problem of ‘driver inattention’ first, right? Right?

Except this doesn’t happen, as the zombie tweet from the traffic cop above proves. It’s a hell of a lot easier, and cheaper, to promote lights, vests, lanyards, bracelets and other trinkets as ways in which vulnerable road users can perform and demonstrate shared responsibility, than it is to come up with effective messages and enforcement strategies to ensure that drivers are better able to live up to the responsibilities they have thanks to their special privileges.

But take things a step forward, and focus now on the unintended consequences of the idea of shared responsibility. Because it is a hell of lot easier and cheaper to focus on actions that vulnerable road users can take (irrespective of whether they actually be effective or not), then all the focus shifts to them, as these cheap and convenient messages are repeated again and again across all media. So that, when one of these road users is injured or killed and has not taken the recommended actions, then it is they who will be blamed for what happened – irrespective of whether or not they actually had the power to avoid those events.

So in the end, the ultimate irony of the idea of shared responsibility is quite simple: that it succeeds in completely absolving drivers from any responsibility for one of the most common forms of collision they cause, the ‘failed to see’ collision. And it therefore also succeeds in displacing responsibility for such collisions onto those with the least real power to prevent them. The myth of shared responsibility makes the roads more dangerous for those with the least power to protect themselves.

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