This piece was written in 2013 and was originally published in issue 8 of The Ride Journal.
You probably don’t know me, nor I you. But if you’re reading this then you probably live in a society that recognises something fundamentally important: that you and I are equal.
We’re not the same, of course. Good grief, no. (You’re probably glad about that; you probably have an easier time finding trousers that fit, for a start.) But we’re equal. We have the same right to be educated, to earn a wage, to vote, to walk down the street without harassment or fear. You and I, we’re privileged to be alive when the world has largely reached the point of realising this.
But note that key principle: our equality is not founded on the idea that we are the same. No, quite the opposite: if we are to be equal, if we are to have equal opportunity and to be able to achieve the same goals, then the first and most fundamental step is to acknowledge that we are different. This is, indeed, the basis of UK equality law: an equality of goals, not a sameness of individuals.
We may share a goal of going to the theatre, and perhaps I am confined to a wheelchair, so as a society we try to ensure the theatre has ramped access.
We may share a goal of learning from the Internet, and you may be blind, so we try to ensure that content can be delivered to you aurally.
We may share a goal of getting to and from work safely and seeing our families each evening, and perhaps I have a car whilst you ride a bicycle, so…
Well, what do we do?
Often, we do little. In places we provide segregated routes, but for the most part you and I currently share the road. And no matter how different we are individually, once we become the sum of ourselves and our vehicles we are poles apart. I am shrouded in crumple zones, impact bars and airbags; you, the shirt on your back. Even at relatively low urban speeds in a modestly sized car, I have at least a hundred times as much kinetic energy as you.
We are so very different.
Then what is there to ensure the equality of our goal, our simple need to arrive at our destination safely? What is there to address this stark disparity of both protection and momentum?
In reality, there is precious little.
I could offer my good nature and my competence, but as my car approaches from behind, is the mere hope of that tacit offer from a stranger enough for your peace of mind?
Of course, you have some reason to believe I have a certain level of confidence: I presumably passed a driving test, after all, but how long ago was that? What habits have I acquired since then? Have I bought a satnav that I haven’t quite worked out how to use? Have I ensured my windscreen is clear enough not to become opaque when the sunlight glances it? Have I ever even experienced what it’s like to be on a bicycle and be passed at close quarters and at speed?
You have only hope, because our systems offer you nothing more.
Our training system does not require drivers to experience roads from others’ points of view. There is no necessity to experience traffic on a bicycle, an e-bike, a tricycle or a mobility scooter, and thus there is rarely an empathy for the people outside the tin box.
Our licensing system allows drivers to drive unchecked for decades. Drivers are left to voluntarily deem themselves medically unfit and – despite more than half claiming they wouldn’t be able to pass a test today – drivers go entirely untested once they’ve gained their licence.
Our legal system tolerates drivers acquiring negligent habits, barely punishing them if caught. The fines for safety-related offences such as speeding and mobile phone use are so affordable that they are bemoaned as “a tax on the motorist” – one which drivers choose to continue to pay – rather than being recognised as a punitive measure.
In fact, our legal system tolerates bad habits so openly that there is an explicit statutory loophole of “exceptional hardship”. This allows the most persistent offenders to evade disqualification and has resulted in over eight thousand drivers on British roads who, despite having accrued at least 12 penalty points (the record is a staggering 42), have not been disqualified. This perverse loophole lifts the punishment from the offenders and places it on the shoulders of the most vulnerable road users who must bear the additional risk that these drivers present.
Our legal system is incredibly reluctant to revoke licences at all. Taking only the most prominent sentences from just a single week, seven drivers killed seven cyclists and pedestrians and were disqualified for an average of less than 20 months each. Even a driver who killed twice in two separate incidents received only a five year disqualification for his second killing, a sentence that was supported by three further judges at appeal.
Our legal system lets many killers go entirely unblamed for deaths: whether overtaking and driving head-on into cyclists on the wrong side of the road, pulling away at a pedestrian crossing and driving an HGV over someone on it, tailgating a van so closely as to be unable to see a cyclist before driving straight into the back of them, or opening a car door without looking and sending a cyclist to their death under a bus. In each of these very real cases, and many more, the drivers were not deemed culpable for having caused the death that resulted from their vehicles.
One of the key reasons for these startling acquittals is that our legal system fails to provide a clear definition of driving offences. The statute is nebulous, and is written in relative terms with a subjective baseline; the definitions are not absolute, nor are any specific behaviours mentioned. Jurors are left to use their own competence (or lack of: remember, more than half believe they’d fail a retest) as a yardstick, and are required to make a subjective view as to the degree of incompetence required for each offence.
So bad are these definitions, and so vulnerable to subjectivity, that the Crown Prosecution Service regularly appears to ignore its own advice, usually opting for a lesser charge than its guidelines would support. They appear, whether consciously or otherwise, to recognise this critical failing of the statute. Yet nothing is done. There is no appetite for rigorous enforcement.
Our legal system fails to provide safety on the road. It fails to prevent incompetence, inattention and impatience from causing death. It fails to protect for one simple reason: It fails to understand equality.
The laws of physics cannot be changed. But the laws of the land can, and it is people like you and me who can start the fight for change. We can fight to close the loopholes. We can fight to permanently remove killer drivers from the road. We can fight to clarify statutory definitions. We can fight to eliminate dangerous habits before people die.
It is time to fight for these things. It is time to stand up for all those for whom the law did not.
It is time to demand nothing more than equality.