A significant majority

There was an interesting comment nestling in a report of an inquest into a cyclist’s death, from road.cc yesterday -

Police Constable Ian Clark said it was “likely” the cyclist had been wearing earphones at the time of the collision – the implication being he may not have heard the vehicle behind him – adding: “I think a significant majority of motorists would have done as Mr Coggon [the driver] did,” he said.

It seems the cyclist was moving out to turn right, and was hit by a car that happened to be overtaking him. Obviously a tragic incident. Given that there are sparse details about what actually happened, it’s hard to say whether the verdict of accidental death is a reasonable one.

My concern here, however, is specifically the highlighted statement from Constable Clark. You can see that Mr Coggon is being defended in terms of how ‘the majority of motorists’ would behave. Put simply, Constable Clark is suggesting that Mr Coggon wasn’t doing anything wrong – couldn’t have been doing anything wrong – because he was driving like everyone else. The standards of driving set not by what is objectively safe, or proper, but by how ‘the majority of motorists’ would behave.  

Is that appropriate?

In my experience, ‘the majority of motorists’ do not pass me with anything like the recommended passing distance covered in the Highway Code – Rule 163. ‘The majority of motorists’ do not overtake me in a way that gives me the maximum amount of safety while I am cycling.

hc_rule_163_give_vulnerable_road_users_at_least_as_much_space_as_you_would_a_car

Equally, the ‘majority of motorists’ seem quite happy to overtake me around junctions, in plain contravention of Rule 167 -

DO NOT overtake where you might come into conflict with other road users. For example… approaching or at a road junction on either side of the road

This happens to me each and every day, and I’m sure (anecdotally, of course) that any person who rides a bike can report that it happens to them too, with remarkable frequency.

Now of course we don’t know the extent to which Mr Coggon flouted these rules of the Highway Code. He may well have been driving perfectly, and the cyclist was entirely to blame, swerving out randomly into the middle of the road.

The issue here, rather, is a police constable appearing to believe that the way ‘the majority of motorists’ behave is a reasonable and sound guide to what constitutes good driving, when in reality a ‘significant majority of motorists’ will quite happily overtake a cyclist, at close proximity, through junctions. The way the majority behaves is obviously not a sound guide to good driving.

The unspoken assumption behind a statement like this is that everyone behind the wheel is intrinsically well-behaved and reasonable; an assumption quite naturally shared by the general public, who make most day-to-day trips in their motor vehicles. If an individual crashes their car, news reports will describe how a ‘car crashed’ (even, bizarrely, that a ‘car lost control’), as if something unspecified went wrong with it, rather than a human being making an error. Likewise, if we get caught breaking a law, then it is the law that is wrong, and sneaky, and not our behaviour, which is obviously reasonable, because everyone else is behaving the same way.  See how speed cameras are described as ‘traps’ that unfairly catch out ‘otherwise law-abiding’ motorists, snaring them in a moment of weakness. ‘Ordinary’ drivers are good; circumstances, or the government, conspire to make them momentarily ‘bad’.

This logic is reflected in this remarkable statement from Ken Clarke, the former Justice Secretary, made in the House of Commons -

In the case of ordinary dangerous driving without any serious consequences, although I deplore all dangerous driving we cannot start imposing heavy prison sentences on everybody who might otherwise be a blameless citizen and then behaves in an absolutely reprehensible way when driving his car.

In the first place, we have the description of dangerous driving as ‘ordinary’ merely because the person behind the wheel had the good fortune – or blind luck – not to maim or seriously injure someone. A ‘blameless citizen’ who blasts through a zebra crossing at speed, while someone is on it, would only be engaging in ‘ordinary’ dangerous driving, not the kind with ‘serious consequences’.

In the second place, we can see that behaving ‘in an absolutely reprehensible way’ in a car is a completely different kind of reprehensible behaviour than the kind which might pose an identical – or even lesser – amount of danger, but doesn’t involve a car. It’s almost as if we expect people to behave badly in cars, that there’s something about a car that can turn ‘blameless citizens’ into ‘reprehensible drivers’, and we should make an accommodation for that kind of behaviour. Indeed, there appear to be so many of these ‘blameless citizens’ behaving reprehensibly in cars that we couldn’t possibly lock them all up!

I suppose it is natural that in a motorised society ‘reasonable behaviour’ is defined by how the majority behaves, even if the consequences of that majority behaviour could turn out to be appalling for who happen to be travelling by minority modes of transport. A jury apparently considered that a lorry driver who failed to spot Mary Bowers, clearly visible in front of him while stationary for at least ten seconds, could not possibly have been behaving dangerously, despite a catalogue of other offences. These kinds of extraordinary lapses are presumably not quite so extraordinary for these juries. A strange form of moral majority, that I hope will begin to dissolve, and soon.

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24 Responses to A significant majority

  1. Christine Jones says:

    Good post. Cars squeeze past bikes at junctions and it’s taken me years to practice that slightly wobbly, look behind me, wobble, stick my arm right out and go for it before they get to overtake on the junction where you want to turn right. Vehicles shouldn’t be overtaking at junctions at all or on roundabouts in some cases but they just want to get in front of you.
    I don’t know what happened here but what’s the difference between headphones on a bike and being cocooned in a car with the radio on? It’s your eyes that matter and visibility in cars is rubbish, I’ve no idea how manufacturers get away with it. Not mention pretty much every time I get a lift, the driver’s mirrors aren’t properly set or aren’t working at all. There’s your average driver, is normal behaviour according to the police?:
    Mirrors not working, on the phone, doesn’t indicate or indicates one flash way too late, driving a car that he probably can’t see out the back of or very restricted visibility.
    All these things are normal and we see them every day.

  2. Greg McNeill says:

    Great piece. Summed up my thoughts and then some. Perversely there was a nice advert showing young men playing frisbee while driving an MX5 at the foot of this piece for me!

  3. Nico (@nfanget) says:

    Just this morning someone tried to overtake me in a blind, tight corner under a railway bridge (here going south, but happens just the same going north https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=51.550378,-0.22812&num=1&t=m&z=16&iwloc=A), and almost got into a head on collision with another car coming the other way (I was taking the lane). I get that almost every day I go through this route and a driver catches up with me, so the most common standard of driving is clearly a pretty poor one.

  4. pm says:

    I think this touches on a general issue – an issue of which I have become much more conscious as a direct consequence of taking up cycling. Its that what passes for common-sense morality is much of the time strongly inflected with issues of power. Acts are ‘moral’, or at least ‘not serious’, if they involve the self-interest and habitual behaviour of people with social or economic power. And the people making these judgements (as with Ken Clarke here – who infamously got into trouble by making a not-dissimilar gaffe over sexual crimes) are invariably complacently unaware of their own limited perspective.
    It seems that not only does cycling exercise the body, it can also make one more reflective about one’s moral judgements!

  5. Paul M says:

    I think if this remark had come from a more typical Tory Justice Secretary, it would have been remarkable, but to give credit where it is due, Ken Clarke is not in the hang’em&flog’em wing of his party, unlike Michael Howard he does not believe in “prison works”. It doesn’t strike me as all that inconsistent to apply that view to motoring offences born out of inattention or complacency. That is not to say that offenders should escape without penalty, as they so often do these days, just that heavy fines and long driving bans might be more appropriate in most cases.

    What is an entirely different proposition of course is specifically reckless or aggressive driving behaviour. In my own experience I would say that serious aggression is thankfully quite rare, but where it occurs I gather that police statistics show that the culprits are frequently criminals in a wider sense, with records for assault, GBH, robbery etc. I had just one such experience only this morning, cycling the final yards to the station entrance, which is just behind the green traffic light visible here http://goo.gl/maps/i9PEC . I am only on this stretch of road for about 200 metres (the Google streetview images have a tendency to make things look further way than they really are) after 1.5 miles of quiet lanes, but in the morning peak it can be quite busy with traffic in both directions, so I “take the lane” in good Franklin style so that no idiot can squeeze past me against oncoming traffic. Normally drivers wait patiently – they know it will be a few seconds at most before I am out of their way – but this morning a thug in a large, fairly old Mercedes got very aggressive indeed.

    Which is something else I have noticed – I hope this isn’t just some form of snobbery, but when I have unpleasantness of this kind, it is almost always from middle aged men with tattoos, driving more powerful but rather old cars.

    • pm says:

      “…where it occurs I gather that police statistics show that the culprits are frequently criminals in a wider sense, with records for assault, GBH, robbery etc.”

      I am not convinced this point means a great deal. The problem is that ‘criminals in a wider sense’ (if you are defining it as ‘having a criminal record’) actually covers quite a large proportion of motorists. Home Office figures show that one in three British men has a criminal (non-motoring-related!) conviction by the age of 30. And suspect that its significantly higher in poorer inner-city areas.

      I also disagree with your first paragraph. If you are wielding a deadly weapon then in my opinion being inattentive is scarcely any better than being deliberately aggressive. I certainly don’t accept its ‘an entirely different proposition’, indeed I would say that inattention in such a situation _is_ a form of aggression.

  6. PaulC says:

    Completely agree. There is a pedestrian crossing right outside my office. Drivers are frequently concentrating on other things (or not concentrating at all) and completely miss the lights. On more than one occasion I have seen pedestrians almost flattened by drivers who have shot through red lights and not even noticed! I’m sure many of them would be appalled at what they have done, if they realised. But that’s not good enough. They are in charge of a large dangerous motor vehicle and are responsible for their actions. But when someone inevitably gets killed, I’m sure it will be portrayed as a ‘tragic accident’ in the local paper.

    I think the point here is that cyclists are an out group, drivers are the in group, so what they do is regarded as normal, even if illegal and dangerous, whereas what cyclists do is regarded as weird and unpredictable, even if otherwise perfectly safe and legal.

    I’m afraid I regard much of the UK population as brain dead, particularly in relation to their cars, so expecting better of them seems like a big ask. What really depresses me is the extent to which the police, politicians and media buy into this normalisation of illegal and dangerous activity.

    We’ll know cyclists are becoming mainstream when this weird way we are perceived in relation to drivers becomes more balanced.

  7. This kind of sums it up for me – I think it is from the 1950s and seems rather prophetic!

  8. Splendid piece.

    The assumption that most motorists are going to behave in a rule or law breaking way is the fundamental feature of “road safety” ideology. Whether in car or highway engineering, rule and law breaking is accommodated as a matter of course.

    That is one of the reasons why presumed/stricter liability (for motorists in collisions with cyclists or pedestrians) should be in place, as well as the right kind of highway and vehicle engineering to reduce danger from motorists to cyclists and pedestrians. As a matter of course.

  9. Putting aside the bonkers double standards of Ken Clarke’s idea of “ordinary” dangerous driving, and Ian Clark’s (no relation) suggestion that everyone does it so it’s OK, there’s still the issue of the Highway Code:

    The picture they use just doesn’t match the words. Drivers routinely overtake other cars leaving only inches to spare, and the slower the car, the closer they seem to drive as they pass. This is why drivers now routinely park with one wheel on the kerb, and why folding in the wing mirrors is now also commonplace.

    The words of the Highway Code need to change, and what it should say is something like…

    “Give vulnerable road users far more space when overtaking – at least a metre in a 30mph zone, and more on higher speed roads”

  10. Neil Jones says:

    A very good post. On the point about the wording of the Highway Code (‘at least as much space as you would a car’), I’ve always found this ambiguous. It might mean, behave as if the person on a bicycle being overtaken is as wide as a car. But it might also mean, leave as much space between your (overtaking) car and the person on the bicycle as you would leave between your car and another car when overtaking a car. The latter space is clearly much smaller than the former space. The picture seems to be meant to illustrate treating the person on a bicycle as though he or she were as wide as a car, but the wording doesn’t make this clear, and this probably doesn’t help discourage overtaking too close to those on bicycles.

    • Christine Jones says:

      I don’t know what it says about indicating in the highway code but that’s optional for half the drivers I see round here, sometimes more. You can be waiting at a roundabout and 4/5 cars don’t indicate. The police have very low expectations of drivers, and if you were to ask the emergency services workers how many of the RTAs they attend where it’s the minor offences like seatbelts, distractions and overtaking at inappropriate times that cause the most crashes. They don’t generally get to analyse what caused it but in a lot of cases it’s probably pretty obvious.
      The justice system sees taking away a person’s driving licence as an absolute last resort because there simply isn’t really an alternative any more – public transport just doesn’t get enough people where they need to get so the implication is you are taking away their livelihood.
      That seems to me the first step to making roads safer, make it so there is an alternative, then you can start being more picky about how rubbish their driving is.

    • Tim says:

      @Neil, I was about to make exactly this point, so thank you for saving me the effort and plus one for the sentiment.

      Guidance like the highway code should leave no room for ambiguity.

  11. Har Davids says:

    If someone’s driving behind me, am I supposed to be aware of that all the time? There may be other sounds, drowning out the noise of the vehicle. And basically, it someone’s close enough to hit me, he should be aware of my presence under most circumstances. I never wear ear-phones while on my bike, and I never play music very loud when driving, and we all know that some motorists play their stereo loud enough for the music to be heard, even with the windows of the car closed. Whenever I read about ‘accidents’ as these, the motorist seems to be let off, as the cyclists was in the wrong, somehow. This way, the law basically issues a license to kill to careless drivers, as cyclists (and pedestrians) shouldn’t hinder those with lots of horse-power at their disposal. This may change in some near future, but it feels as if riding your bike in some countries is like volunteering for a suicide-missions, so that future generations will be safe on the road and I don’t think that’s right.

  12. jake says:

    As is pointed out in comments on the linked article, the idea that the driver might have hit the brakes and performed an emergency stop is not considered. Who would require a motorist to do something as outlandish as *stopping*?

  13. pm says:

    The comments on that article are interesting. I’m really not terribly confident that in general RTAs are investigated to Gil “CSI” Grissom standards.

    ts very difficult because obviously there are questions about taste, sensitivity and limitations of knowledge when it comes to commenting on any specific case, which we as outsiders only have a _very_ limited knowledge of (though I can’t help but wonder where the ‘likely to have been wearing headphones’ speculation comes from – what makes it ‘likely’? I often have my mp3 player on my person when cycling on roads, I just don’t actually use it)

    The problem is that I can’t be the only one who has had near misses (or indeed, minor hits) at the hands of incompetent drivers and who is consequently _very_ aware that had I actually been killed or somehow incapacitated there would have been nobody around to contradict any account the driver chose to give of events (e.g. would the misjudged-incomplete-overtake-and-left-turn-swipe by the motorist be recast as a reckless junction-undertake by me?).

    I fear there is an inbuilt bias in these matters in that the cyclist is the one who is likely to end up dead or incapacitated, and so in the event of a very serious accident we will tend to get a motorist-slanted account of the event.

    • “I fear there is an inbuilt bias in these matters in that the cyclist is the one who is likely to end up dead or incapacitated, and so in the event of a very serious accident we will tend to get a motorist-slanted account of the event.”

      This may be of interest to you – http://joedunckley.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/dead-victims-are-easier-to-blame/

      • pm says:

        Wonder if there’s ever been a formal scientific study of the issue? Is there a statistically significant greater chance of a successful prosecution in a road accident involving a car vs a more vulnerable road-user, where the non-motorist survives vs one where they are killed?

        A proper study would presumably need a large sample size to pick up a small difference with any degree of confidence, and would have to control for possible other factors (that is, any plausible factor that would mean incidents not caused by the motorist were in fact more likely to feature fatalities than those that were due to driver error – not that I can think of any such factor off-hand, but I suppose there might be something)

      • pm says:

        …Clearly that link would seem to strongly suggest that the answer to the question is ‘yes’, but was just wondering if its been asked in the context of a peer-reviewed journal.

  14. Richard says:

    Surely the police officer should comment only on whether the actions of the driver were lawful, not on whether the actions of the driver were common. His opinion about the “majority of motorist” is irrelevant, as it doesn’t state whether the majority would act within the law.

    To use an analogy, the majority of big brothers might threaten to beat up any kids that bully their younger brothers. But that’s not to say that the violent threats of the big brothers would be a right and proper response to the situation.

    • Christine jones says:

      Imagine if the police said ‘well I’d imagine the head on collision was due to overtaking where they shouldn’t, or they were on the wrong side because they were most likely texting’ you never get to read what the likely cause of a collision was, just how many involved. Invariably it’s going to be they didn’t check their tyres or a relatively minor offence that leads to a crash but that’s never talked about. All parties are seen as innocent, it just happened but add a bike into the mix and they must have been doing something bad like not being visible enough. It really is like saying a woman is asking for if for walking home on her own.

  15. The factors of generating set not by what is logically secure, or appropriate, but by how ‘the greater part of motorists’ would act. Whenever I study about ‘accidents’ as these, the driver seems to be let off, as the bikers was in the incorrect, somehow. This way, the law generally problems a certificate to destroy to reckless motorists, as bikers (and pedestrians) should not restrict those with plenty of horse-power at their convenience.

  16. Kim says:

    It is worrying that the police seem to think that majority of motorists don’t know how to drive safely and that this is somehow acceptable. A large part of this problem is that there are decreasing numbers of police officers who have been trained to investigate “accidents” correctly.

    It is also very worrying that there is a significant minority of drivers who blatantly ignore the safety of others, whom they feel to be in their way. I have on several occasions nearly been hit when signalling a right turn, on one occasion I had to withdraw my outstretched arm to avoid it being hit by an overtaking driver.

  17. Louise En says:

    I always remember one distinct incident, where I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ‘fall-out’ if the worst would have happened (fortunately, no contact was ever made).

    I was cycling along wanting to turn right, fortunately the road has a ‘right turn slip section’. I distinctively remember looking over my shoulder, there was nothing immediately close to me (or close at all). I signaled and pulled out, I fell into the ‘slow and fat’ category at the time, and half way across the lane had to put my hand back on the bar to gain power to cycle.

    I always signal again when I’ve gained that ‘momentum’ and reached the right turn box, at this point I’m very aware of a bus bearing down on my right shoulder and braking sharply and had no intention of turning right, and to this day I have no idea how they ended up there, or what possessed them to overtake at a junction (especially considering within a few yards on the left there is a single bus only lane they will use), or even how they had gotten there so quickly because it was 100% safe to cross a metre into a turn right box, and I was slow, but I wasn’t that slow!

    Now if I had been wearing earphones? I would have gotten the blame instantly, or it would have changed perception of fault, I’m sure the bus driver in some-way saw it as my fault considering their behaviour at the time, the most startling realisation I’ve had is that it would go down as my fault if I’d been taken out because the bus did ‘what every other driver would have done’ and that’s not watch the infront!

    Unfortunately I wasn’t savvy enough to take the license plate, but I wish I had.

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