Some days, things seem futile.
On occasion, I’m accused of being anti-driver with the arguments I make on here. I’m not anti-driver (I drive a lot, for a start), I’m just in favour of people not driving objects into other people and killing or seriously injuring them. It’s like arguing against people getting stabbed with knives and then being accused of being anti-cooking.
But much of the time, it feels like the view that it’s simply not acceptable to kill people in completely avoidable collisions and then say “Well, it happens” is some form of extremism, and that the rest of society stands around blankly and says, “What are you on about? Of course it’s acceptable. You expect me to actually not drive into people?”
And today is, more than any other, one of those days. Today, any argument that people should control lethal vehicles seems futile.
Today, Southampton Cycling Campaign published a set of reports from a recent trial. Now, I appreciate this is secondhand information, but the reports – which I would heartily encourage you to read in full – seem sufficiently thorough and matter-of-fact to draw some inferences.
What these reports give us is a picture of what a trial looks at when someone is struck from behind by a motor vehicle.
If someone drives a vehicle into you from behind and you fall to your death, the court will ask the following questions: Whether you should have chosen a different route (despite being fully entitled to have chosen the one you did); Whether a route that you didn’t take is a convenient one (relevant how?); Whether you were experienced (as if you are somehow more to blame if you’re not); Whether you were wearing high-visibility clothing (despite multiple research studies and a collision investigator from the same police force having demonstrated its ineffectiveness); Whether you were in a certain position within your lane (despite being entitled to move around hazards such as potholes); Whether you had turned your head immediately prior to impact (I genuinely have no idea); Whether you were at a slight angle to the van due to road camber (again, I’m lost).
If you drive a vehicle into someone from behind and they fall to their death, the court will ask the following questions: Whether the wet road would have increased your stopping distance (the implication being that it’s not your fault if you didn’t account for it); Whether the position of the sun would have affected your visibility (the implication being that it’s not your fault if you didn’t account for it); Whether it would be reasonable to expect laterally-moving traffic ahead to indicate another road user being passed (as if this is some great leap of enlightenment); Whether traffic queuing at lights is a distraction (as if dealing such an extraordinary eventuality is beyond the reasonable expectation of a driver); Whether you were not yet an “advanced driver” and would thus not be expected to possess the “advanced driver skill” of forward anticipation (the implication, again, being that it’s not your fault if you don’t think ahead).
You see the pattern? When it comes to the deceased victim who cannot respond, they are scrutinised in depth and given every opportunity to be in the wrong; when it comes to the one controlling the vehicle headlong into the victim, the questions appear to mainly seek justifications for them not having seen the person whom they hit.
For the most stark illustration of this, look no further than the way the trial investigates whether the victim is an experienced rider and whether the defendant is an “advanced driver”. It would seem that in the case of the former, lack of aptitude implies greater blame; whilst in the case of the latter, lack of aptitude implies lower expectations. An astonishing reversal of attitude.
But that is far from all.
The truly jaw-dropping moment in this case comes at the end, when the judge allegedly states that the jury “will be directed to ignore Highway Code [rules 93 and 237, advising drivers to] slow down or stop if dazzled [because the] Highway Code is not law” and that the defendant’s failure to adhere to such rules “could be used as evidence of without due care and attention, or could be ignored“.
After all the detailed analysis of the victim’s movements and behaviour (including numerous aspects which are perfectly within the rights of the victim, others whose practical relevance is totally unclear, and still others whose practical relevance has been entirely disproven by multiple research studies) the single aspect of basic safe driving behaviour that underpins the entire case is – according to this account – explicitly dismissed by the judge.
Remember, crucially, that although the Highway Code is indeed not itself law, the specific charge applied here is based on the expected behaviour of “a careful and competent driver”. One might expect such a driver to – at the very least – broadly adhere to the advice in the Highway Code.
But the judge’s direction appears to be that the Highway Code does not have any value in that context: in other words, that one need not pay the slightest attention to the Highway Code in order to be legally considered a careful and competent driver.
It seems impossible to read through this case without feeling that the law is outrageously partisan. This would be no bad thing were it partisan in order to counteract the physics: to better protect people when they have less physical protection and to better control people when they present greater physical danger. But it is quite the opposite: Those with the kinetic energy get the excuses for not seeing; those without the steel safety cells get the scrutiny of inconsequential minutiae.
If only we were able to ask the simple question, “Did someone drive a vehicle into a person who was perfectly entitled to be where they were?” and to compare the answer with a simple piece of statute that says “If you drive a vehicle, you must not drive it into a person.”
But instead we construct unnecessarily complex and hopelessly vague statute that basically asks jurors: “This thing that happened here, is it quite significantly worse than however you drive yourself?”
Instead of simply deciding that driving into the back of someone is not acceptable, excuse after excuse is available and we will pick and choose when and to whom the Highway Code applies. If you’re not fully compliant with the Highway Code when you’re killed, you’ll be used as an excuse. If you can’t be used as an excuse yourself, we’ll claim the Highway Code didn’t matter anyway.
Not for the first time, the law appears to indicate that if you ride a bicycle you have no right to stay alive on the road.
The law says, simply: Do not be in the way of a motor vehicle. If you are, the physics will kill you, the law will scrutinise you, and then the public and the media will spit on you.
To conform to the law or to the Highway Code, whether you’re controlling a motor vehicle or hit by one, seems futile.
And right now, with the law stacked against vulnerable road users to this extent, to even argue for change seems futile.
Today, a lot of things seem futile.