The Anatomy of Excuses

28 March 2016

I find Jeremy Vine’s cycling-related tweets sporadically rather interesting, for one simple reason: since his audience is in no small part derived from his radio talk show, they provide a way of dipping real-world cycling experiences into the world of the sort of person who listens to radio talk shows. (I suppose I could gain the same insight by listening, but—sorry, Jeremy—I can’t stand the show or any of its ilk.)

Some time ago (apologies: this post has been dragged from a large and dusty pile of unfinished drafts) he tweeted the following:

So, let’s say you wanted to ignore the unequivocally stated fact that it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure that they open the door safely, and preferred to blame the person who was struck by it. How might you go about doing that?

Obviously, you could just go in with the direct approach: blame the victim, and ensure that others can feel justified in doing so, too.

But that’s a bit easy. A bit simple. Doesn’t really shine a light on how people think; more a light on how people don’t.

There were, of course, many other replies.

One classic reaction is both dismissive and deflective: “someone else did something wrong, and I equate that person with the victim in your example, so your statement should be ignored.” It’s completely irrelevant to the original point, but other people buy into it because they equate disparate people in the same way.

Of course, when your reaction to a single, specific incident is to say that you’ve seen some completely different people doing something completely different, you can defend attacks against the irrelevance of your statement by pretending that the original narrative wasn’t “X is a bad thing” but was “Y are bad people, Z are good people”, and that you’re actually combating this. A moral high ground built on straw men, if you like.

If you prefer a less nuanced but more resistive approach, why not take this tactic to its logical conclusion and simply dismiss the single, specific statement as being intended purely to vilify the in-group?

Let’s focus on the out-group again. You could take the “cyclists as a homogeneous group” thing a bizarre step further and actually imply that they possess collective intelligence, each assimilating the details of one another’s experiences into a hive mind. Evidently the chap who was knocked off hadn’t realised that he was supposed to be part of a sort of botnet that transcends human limitations, and not only is he to blame but everyone in that network ought to sort it out, too. (Note: this doesn’t work when it comes to collectively being aware of the law about opening car doors into people’s paths: presumably car bodies act as sort of tin foil hats.)

Next up is a perennial excuser: the person who’s been told (or who’s learned) how to ride defensively, and has focused so much on these principles that they think they’re mandatory. No sympathy for anyone who’s not learned, no circumspection of scenarios which may make such defensive strategies impossible: if you got hurt, you clearly weren’t capable of entirely preventing anyone else hurting you. Stockholm syndrome, essentially.

Obviously, this response is usually accompanied by “As a cyclist myself…” or “I’m a cyclist too”. This means that everyone who never rides a bike (and assumes that everyone who does is basically a clone with a shared consciousness) will know that you speak for all people on bicycles; and they will know that since you clearly agree with them, they must be right. Stockholm to the max.

Closely related to this is the promotion of defensive advice to a form of responsibility. It’s a handy device for perpetuating any “might is right” status quo: you give the likely victim an inevitably fallible strategy for defensiveness, which may reduce the chances of some events but which can never defend against all; then you make this an expectation or even a de facto mandate, so that if they don’t (or can’t) follow this advice then you point to that, instead of to the fact that the negligent or malicious behaviour of the other party hasn’t been addressed.

This is what happens when “safety campaigns” become a game of diplomacy: the distinctions between statutory offences, defensive tactics and even courtesy and generosity become blurred and, whether inadvertently or intentionally, people confuse them. This is why such campaigns hinder progress: they provide a very effective means by which attention can be deflected from the harmful factors onto the benign; and thus, in most contexts including road use, generally from one group (perceived or real) to another.

Advice aside, some people simply think failing to predict the future is tantamount to legal culpability.

Maybe you want to excuse clearly illegal actions but you don’t feel well-versed enough in behaviour-oriented tactics. Then why not take the Iain Duncan Smith approach: redefine the common language so as to eliminate the issue with which you’re uncomfortable. In this case it only takes the perversion of one word to imply that only malice, not negligence, can cause harm.

It would be easy to make some facetious points from such a ludicrous statement, but the harsh reality is that this sort of reaction fits a common pattern: that of believing that as long as you don’t mean to harm others, it’s no biggie. Unfortunately, this excuses the overwhelming majority of the danger on the road, which arises not from people who get into their vehicles with the specific and constant objective of causing harm to others, but from those who get into their vehicles without the specific and constant objective of not causing harm to others.

Another common attitude is the assumption of logical commutativity: “if X→Y, then how can Y→X possibly not be equivalent?”

Here’s just one reason, of course.

Then again, you could choose to reluctantly accept the law, but give it a “political correctness gone mad” subtext by conceding that the law says don’t injure people, even those people, for flip’s sake.

Of course, if you can’t even be remotely arsed with the discussion at hand, simply reach for your nearest hornet’s nest.

And then, there is still one last tactic.

Or, y’know, you could just obey the law and look before opening a door.



  1. dr2chase 29 March 2016 4:11am #

    As a driver myself, I cannot help but think that gas taxes are too low, speed limits too high, parking too abundant, and enforcement too lax. It’s embarrassing how badly some people drive, and it makes all the rest of us drivers look terrible.

    • Sharpie 20 May 2016 3:40pm #

      No, the way other people drive doesn’t make my driving look terrible. It makes their driving look terrible..

  2. D. 29 March 2016 8:13am #

    I remember having a ‘discussion’ with a motorist at the next traffic lights after they had taken exception to my riding some distance out from a line of parked cars. “Do you know how long a car door is?”, ask I. “What’s that got to do with anything?”, replied the motorist.

    • Henz 29 March 2016 1:14pm #

      This. (@D.)

      Somehow I managed to breathlessly explain this to a British Gas driver some years ago. We parted on quite good terms.

      As long as there are people in cars “sharing space” with people on bicycles this will keep happening, and yet highway designers still propose painted door-zone cycle lanes.

      • D. 31 March 2016 3:03pm #

        “… painted door-zone cycle lanes.” – The bane of my life!

        Who really thought that painting a narrow lane between the parking bays and the moving traffic, just where a door opening will push you out into said traffic, was a good idea?

        And if you choose not to use that lane, the motorists get all cross because you’re not using the cycle infrastructure that tey think they paid for.

  3. Notak 29 March 2016 5:19pm #

    None of the links in the text are working.

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