The ‘A’ Word

When people complain about rule breaking by cyclists, it’s common to see a response that goes something like ‘24000 people are killed or injured by drivers in the UK every year – what about drivers?’ And then it’s equally common for those who began the conversation by complaining about cyclists breaking rules to accuse their interlocutors of whataboutery . That is, of trying to move the conversation away from cyclists’ wrongdoing, by deflection. Whataboutery, it’s implied, is always an illegitimate debating tactic. Not strictly true. You’ll find an early example of what might nowadays get labelled whataboutery in the New Testament:

‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

Matthew 7:3

Or shifting to more modern parlance, don’t ignore the elephant in the room, particularly if you happen to be sitting on top of it.

The point is, there is simply no valid comparison between the consequences of cyclists breaking rules and the consequences of drivers doing so.

Let’s start here, with the absolute basics.

There is no ‘equality’ on the roads. There is no ‘shared responsibility’ which means we have to ‘look out for each other’. There is a responsibility to not endanger road users more vulnerable than you (which is why the Highway Code has a section addressed to drivers entitled ‘Road Users Requiring Extra Care’), and a need for courtesy (where it doesn’t get in the way of this responsibility or in the way of you looking after your own safety either) to help ease friction, and that’s basically it.

Cyclists do not injure or kill drivers. They occasionally injure and even more occasionally kill (less than 1 per year in the UK on average) pedestrians, and on occasion annoy horse riders and motorcyclists. Pedestrians and horse riders do not injure or kill motorists or motorcyclists in traffic collisions either. Drivers, however, regularly injure or kill

  • each other,
  • cyclists,
  • horse riders,
  • motorcyclists
  • and pedestrians

in traffic collisions.

Now it’s important – generally – not to generalize. Not all drivers do these things. Some drivers drive like idiots. And some cyclists cycle like idiots (for that matter, some pedestrians behave like idiots). This does not mean that all cyclists are irresponsible road users or that all drivers are. It means that some of us, when cycling, driving or walking, can be idiots.

But what is a perfectly valid generalisation is that humans, when driving cars, have a unique power to harm others due to the mass and speed of their vehicles. This, in turn, places upon them a unique responsibility not to harm others that other road users simply don’t have. When you get behind the wheel of a car, you gain the mechanically assisted power to injure or kill with great ease, should you act recklessly or maliciously. We climb to the top of the hierarchy of road users, in the sense that we become like an apex predator.

Now we’ve established these basic foundations, we can get to the ‘A’ word. Which is not ‘accident‘, no, not on this occasion.

It’s a common complaint made about cyclists that they are not accountable. While motorists are. People even start (very poorly supported) petitions to call for registration plates for cyclists in response to this ‘problem’.

‘Accountability’ essentially means that you are able to be held accountable for your actions. There is, in other words, some mechanism, somewhere, that requires you to be prepared to give an account of what you’ve been up to. Seated up there at the apex of the road predation hierarchy, motorists kill or seriously injure around 24000 road users (including pedestrians, who it must be stressed are also road users, and are most often killed or injured by motorists while they are using the road) a year in the UK. They often drive into houses and other buildings, into bridges, into signs and street furniture. They kill a lot of wild and domestic animals.

Because of their massive – and once again, unique – capacity to do huge harm, there is a special mechanism intended to hold them accountable, should they do any of these things. Cars are legally required to have registration plates, drivers are required to have licenses, and drivers of cars which pollute the environment by burning fuel are required to pay vehicle excise duty in order for their cars to be allowed on the road.

By comparison, there are no such measures required of cyclists, or of horse riders, or of pedestrians, despite them also all being road users with right of way on public highways (except for motorways, of course). No horse rider or pedestrian needs a license or registration plates, or to pay excise duty due to their capacity to pollute. And the same is true of cyclists (no government anywhere in the world requires cyclists to display visible registration). What does make pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders unique is that they have a form of identification that identifies them uniquely – their appearance. Importantly, this identifies the road user themselves. Now, a registration plate doesn’t do this for a driver. It identifies the car, and enables the registered keeper of the vehicle to be identified. But this doesn’t necessarily help identify a driver who committed an offence.

Failure to identify who was driving is a common way for law-breaking drivers to escape any consequences for their actions. In itself, it’s an offence – and can get you 6 points on your license. But even having the supposedly maximum 12 points doesn’t necessarily get a driver a ban anyway, thanks to the hugely flawed ‘exceptional hardship’ defence within the judicial system.

Opening the issue up to look at the wider judicial system and how it deals with motoring offences poses some interesting questions about what ‘accountability’ really means. As I already pointed out above, there is a lot less reason to even worry about cyclists in general not obeying rules in the first place. No doubt there are some idiot cyclists who have done terrible things to individual people through carelessness or even perhaps maliciousness. They remain rare, and when an incident like this happens, they tend to end up all over the tabloid press. Precisely because such incidents are so very very rare.

On the other hand, incidents involving drivers who are entirely unaccountable because they go unidentified are endemic. One in five road traffic casualties is caused by an uninsured or untraced hit and run driver. The Motor Insurance Bureau reported [PDF, p. 7, fn. 4] that around 14000 claims on incidents involving untraced vehicles are made each year. Police statistics on how many hit-and-run offences go unsolved are hard to gather, but one estimate puts the proportion of unsolved hit and runs in the UK at 90% of the total incidents reported.

What these points suggest is that accountability, in the sense of identifiability, is not something that automatically applies to drivers, despite claims that ‘drivers are accountable and cyclists are not’. What about ANPR cameras? Not only are there relatively few of them around the country, an unknown proportion of cars on the the UK’s roads have cloned number plates – an improbably high estimate is one in twelve , but police confirm the numbers of reports of this offence have quadrupled since 2012-13, with large under-reporting being likely.

Granted, the existence of car registration makes a problem that could be even worse less bad, but the problem of identifiability that this system permits and even creates is already massive. And yet again, the problem created by allegedly unidentifiable cyclists pales in comparison. Which is why no government anywhere in the world requires cyclists to display visible registrations – costs and complexity of running and enforcing such a system to tackle a relatively insignificant social problem rule it out.

Once again, motes and beams. Elephants in rooms.

But the question of what makes for accountability is not limited to identifiability, not by any means. Part of what makes someone accountable for their wrongful actions is actually being held properly accountable for them. That is, there has to be some way of making sure that the seriousness of their actions is properly registered, acknowledged and feeds through into restitution or punishment. In other words, if you’re identified as the person who did something wrong, but then no-one does anything about it, you have not been held accountable. And when we consider whether drivers are generally held accountable – this is when the thoroughgoing and systematic unaccountability of drivers really begins to emerge. In short, the judicial system fails again and again to hold drivers accountable for their actions.

Citing a representative set of cases would take all day. But again and again we see drivers committing serious offences repeatedly being effectively unpunished, and then injuring or killing someone. Because they were not held properly accountable for their earlier offences. The means to injure or kill – their possession of a vehicle – was allowed to continue. Again, the system of ‘identifiability’ we have permits this – indeed, it makes it possible. It even incentivises hazardous driving, with fatal results.

Then when drivers are finally ‘held to account’ for injuring or killing, the charging schedule (where charges of dangerous driving are routinely swapped for ‘careless driving’ thanks to evidential hurdles), they typically receive sentences that are ridiculously lenient. Not because judges are soft, but because the system of identifiability we have is not set up to do anything else.

Case upon case upon case of justice not done, because accountability of drivers is not something the judicial system takes seriously. Being identifiable is less than half the story.

And if you do get caught for killing someone with your car, plead guilty, and you won’t even get a prison sentence.

Looking at cases like these, and also facts about how identifiability simply doesn’t scratch the surface of the problem, points us to where ‘whataboutery’ is really at work in all this.

Trying to get us all to focus on the tiny mote of ‘accountability’ for cycling, rather than on the massive beam of unaccountable, unreported, unpunished driver criminality is simply whataboutery par excellence.

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