You’ve heard it before:
Bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers.
I'm calling bullshit.
First, as a cyclist, you don’t have the same rights as drivers. Not only are there thousands of miles of roadway to which you have zero access, but you can’t even get service at the drive-thru. (Though maybe the fast food industry is doing us a favor there.) Second, the idea that cyclists and drivers bear the same level of responsibility is absurd as it defies the laws of physics. The operator of a two-ton Chevy Tahoe damn well better be a lot more responsible than the rider on a 20-pound Trek, and suggesting otherwise is like saying the “Enjoy Responsibly” admonition you see in booze commercials applies equally to Jack Daniels and chamomile tea.
To be fair, we do acknowledge this disparity in responsibility by requiring motorists to obtain licenses and to register and insure (at least in most states) their vehicles. We don’t acknowledge it, however, once a motorist collides with a cyclist. Indeed, in practice, cyclists often bear more responsibility than drivers in these instances, due in part to the common misconceptions that bikes don’t belong on the roads in the first place and that people out riding are just thrill-seeking fitness freaks who get what’s coming to them. On top of that, cyclists must then deal with all the ensuing legal and medical issues that come with being hit, and generally speaking, people aren’t exactly at their sharpest after they’ve been clobbered by an SUV. Forget standing up for your rights; you’re lucky if you can stand up at all.
In Australia, Bicycle Queensland is currently pushing the government for presumed liability laws, under which drivers would be liable in the event of a collision with a cyclist unless they prove otherwise. No, that doesn’t mean drivers would be denied due process, automatically convicted of a crime, and thrown in jail. Not even close. What it does mean is that injured cyclists could receive their due compensation from drivers’ insurance companies more efficiently. Bicycle Queensland CEO Anne Savage points out that in such collisions, drivers are at fault at least 80 percent of the time. She explains the law like this:
"In the event of an accident, the cyclist would submit a claim for compensation with the car driver's insurer," she said. "Unless the driver can prove they were not at fault, the claim for compensation would be settled quickly and easily, avoiding the distress that both parties commonly experience.
Sounds simple, right? But Paul Stewart, spokesman for the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland, sees it differently:
"We believe determining fault should be based on facts," he said. "(The new laws would say) if I ride I bike I am one person, then if I jump in the car, I'm a different person."
Nice try, Paul, but not really. What it says is that you’re the same person, but you’re a hell of a lot more dangerous when you’re in a car. Think of it this way: you’re also the same person whether your eat dry white toast or day-old Brussels sprouts for breakfast, but you’re a lot more dangerous after the latter because of the ensuing flatulence. Therefore, when an ungodly stench fills the morning meeting at RACQ and somebody asks “Who farted?", it’s not unreasonable that the presumption of liability should fall upon you.
Also, while presumed liability may sound scary to motorists who imagine cyclists will start flinging themselves under cars all willy-nilly because they now fancy themselves invincible, it’s in no way an exotic or controversial concept. We already apply it in other driving situations. For example, in most cases, you’re presumed liable if you rear-end somebody while driving, since crashing into someone from behind is a prima facie case of you having your head up your ass—and if it wasn’t up your ass then it’s up to you to prove otherwise. Certainly not hitting a cyclist is just as easy as not rear-ending another driver, so it seems perfectly reasonable to presume a driver who does so is liable—unless you believe that hitting cyclists is acceptable driving behavior, of course.
But perhaps the most seductive aspect of presumed liability is that it’s how the Dutch do things, and they certainly seem to have this whole cars-and-bikes thing figured out.
However, it’s worth noting that presumed liability alone isn’t even going to come close to turning Queensland into the Netherlands. For example, David Hembrow argues that cycling advocates put too much stock in presumed liability, that it’s only a minor factor in making streets safer, and that Dutch cycling culture was already well established before such laws went into effect. Furthermore, presumed liability is also the norm in many other places in Europe, yet plenty of these places remain abjectly lousy places to cycle. And while the idea of presumed liability is instantly attractive to anybody who’s been, say, harassed by the driver of a pickup truck, about a million cultural shifts have to take place before we start treating reckless pickup drivers as the Dutch do.
Nevertheless, regardless of how we handle driver-on-cyclist collisions, we need to move away from the idea that drivers and cyclists have the same responsibilities leading up to them. We’re big on equality in this country, but treating cars and bicycles as though they’re the same is like pitting a croquet player against an MMA fighter in a cage match: it’s a sham with a foregone conclusion designed to keep the weaker party down.
It’s time for drivers to accept more responsibility, and if they don’t want it, then they should be willing to cede the power that comes with it.