In Chris Boardman’s otherwise excellent video about Utrecht, there was one dim patch – his claim that “the presumed liability law … ensures every road user is obliged to look after the more vulnerable”.
I don’t know who is briefing Boardman, but it’s extremely naïve to think that anyone is worrying about the fine print in their insurance documents while driving – especially someone who drives badly anyway. If they’re not worried about dangerous driving laws, then they won’t care about a small aspect of their insurance policy.
It’s a popular myth among cycling advocates that presumed liability (or strict liability) changes driver behaviour, even though the reality has been explained time and time again by people who live with it every day.
Yet the claim of massive behaviour change is still repeated, with headlines suggesting it will “hold drivers automatically accountable” and articles suggesting that “motorists [will be] automatically at fault“. (Even if it was true, this sort of language will only alienate huge numbers of people.)
The liability myth also ignores the fact that while almost every European country has such laws (the exceptions being the UK, Ireland, Romania, Cyprus and Malta), the cycling rates and safety statistics vary massively across Europe, with no clear correlation to liability laws.
The mythical land of meek drivers
My introduction to the concept of presumed/strict liability laws – and the hyperbole surrounding it – was on one of the first cycling protests I ever went on. I didn’t even own a bike at the time, so took part on foot instead.
One guy on the protest told us that Canada had an amazing law which put all responsibility on to motor vehicle drivers, and punished them harshly if they caused any harm, causing them to drive extremely carefully. “If you’re walking along, and even put one foot on the kerb, all the drivers suddenly stop,” he enthused. “They’re terrified of hitting a pedestrian, as they know they’ll get the blame. It’s amazing!”
This sounded extremely unlikely to me, but having no knowledge of the situation in Canada, I didn’t challenge it. Having researched the matter since then, I can say that he was talking utter nonsense. (I haven’t been to Canada, but do have friends there, who have confirmed to me that it’s nonsense.)
Well, for well over a year now I’ve been living in a country which has presumed liability laws, and I can tell you that the human beings here aren’t fundamentally different from the human beings elsewhere. Here in Berlin, drivers don’t seem to possess that irrational hatred of people cycling as is common in the UK, but they can still be just as inattentive, aggressive or selfish when driving.
Van drivers will still speed up to get through an amber traffic light. Young men still let their testosterone do the driving. People still use mobile phones and sat-navs while driving. Lorry drivers are still paid to deliver as quickly as possible. Taxi drivers still suddenly pull over into the bike lane for their passengers, or creep into the pedestrian crossing while the green man is lit. And arseholes will still pass dangerously close if they decide you’re not riding with due deference to motor vehicles (i.e. in the gutter).
I’m not imagining all this. It’s real, genuine crap driving. I’ve seen so much of it. I was recently “punishment passed” – on the wrong side – so close that I could have stuck my finger in the driver’s ear. Every time something like that happens, I mutter a curse to those who claim that drivers can be forced to be considerate by law. (Even the Stalinist dictatorship of East Germany, with its huge network of ruthless secret police couldn’t achieve compliance from the entire population – so what hope does a bit of insurance law have?)
The only time I know I won’t experience bad driving is where there are no cars (due to filtering) or where there’s a cycleway. Those are the real changes that genuinely make cycling safe and attractive.
After all that, yes to liability laws!
Having said all that, I do believe that the UK should have presumed liability laws – it makes sense that a person who is injured by dangerous machinery shouldn’t have to worry about the financial effects of the incident while they’re recovering. Those expenses should be covered by the insurance of the person operating the dangerous machinery.
But that’s all it is – it’s a piece of insurance law, a civil matter. It has no bearing on criminal liability. Such legislation is a good thing, but it won’t mean that dangerous drivers are automatically considered guilty after a crash. Liability laws aren’t a stick with which militant cyclists can beat drivers, no matter how much some may wish that was true.
So by all means campaign for liability laws, but let’s stop pretending that they’ll create respect on the roads or cause bad drivers to reconsider their behaviour. Instead, campaign for the genuine benefits that they bring, which would be a positive change for all people injured by motor vehicles, way beyond these mythical claims.