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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Culture and Biking

We have the perception that we're uniquely different than Europeans. As I've reported before, especially in the Northeast, we have many of the same needs as Europeans for cycling. Providence can be an excellent, world-class biking city, not some sniveling little brother to Boston (which sucks to ride a bike in, anyway. . .). 

David Hembrow tweeted today regarding the campaign in the 1990s to introduce strict liability in the Netherlands, and the backlash to try to stop it from some auto-oriented lobbyists there. I think it's a good example of how from afar, we can assume that places like Amsterdam, Portland, or San Francisco are unusual hippie magnets that have a completely different view of the way the world works, and can discount our own ability to make changes in Providence.

Strict liability means that a driver is always responsible for damage that they do, regardless of guilt. This contrasts with the law in the United States, or in the Netherlands before strict liability was passed, where one is responsible for a crash (or "accident", as we call them) only insofar as one has overtly broken a law. There's a long track record in the United States of drivers being held poorly accountable for the deaths of pedestrians or cyclists unless they leave the scene of a crime and/or are under the influence of alcohol. Even speeding, though illegal, very seldom results in prosecutions or convictions for the death of a pedestrian. Strict liability turns this idea on its head.

Here's the video, and I'll explain more. Pretty funny:

Now, this cyclist is clearly being an asshole.

But the idea behind strict liability is a good one. We already know that when we engineer streets to create a sense of safety from the wheel, for instance increasing signaling, widening lanes, removing obstacles to vision (i.e., trees), drivers take the sense of safety and speed more. This runs counter to what engineers originally thought, because the data they went off of at first was taken from rural roads and highways, where doing these things does improve safety. If giving a sense of teflon safety to drivers makes them speed when applied to the engineering of a road, it follows in some sense that the legal ramifications associated with liability will also have an effect. Drivers who know that their car is a dangerous and heavy device, and know that whatever harm their car does will have to be paid for won't rest on the hope that not being drunk and not leaving the scene will get them off scot-free.

The Netherlands has an extremely successful rate of driver safety, alongside other Scandinavian countries, with Sweden in the lead. But these changes were hard fought and hard gained--the Dutch had a very high rate of cyclist deaths in the 1970s when they began implementing reforms, in part because of a higher (but diminishing) biking population, and in part because their legal system was essentially the same as ours. Infrastructural and legal changes lie behind this success. We can't just hang a few green signs, give out lights and helmets, and paint sharrows for cycling success. It takes the vision to know that we can do what others have done, and the humility to admit that it has to be done using the same steps.



  1. I hope you don't start campaigning for Strict Liability as actually I don't think it is very important at all. What's more, it's virtually impossible for a small and disliked minority (cyclists are an out-group in the USA) to force this because despite the logic of the person driving the larger more dangerous vehicle being expected to take responsibility for the results of driving that vehicle, you're but a small number of people fighting against a majority who think you want to be treated specially.

    I've written about why strict liability isn't so important on a couple of occasions.

    What made cycling both safe and attractive in the Netherlands are the incredible high quality tight network of cycling infrastructure and that's been added to recently by applying the policy of sustainable safety. The latter means designing roads so that mistakes more rarely end with injuries and death, and improves safety for drivers and pedestrians as well as for cyclists. These things are worth fighting for, as is the right of children to freedom and mobility in safety - the issue on which Dutch policy changed.

  2. Hmm, no I think it's a good idea, but I think that my major point in this piece was not that we should go out and make this priority number one so much as that we shouldn't act as though there weren't difficulties in getting change elsewhere. I think it's especially pertinent in regards to other U.S. cities. Portland, Oregon, for instance is best known by its TV lampooning as "Portlandia: the place where 20-somethings go to retire" and people in the U.S. think that they got their bike infrastructure because it was always a den of inequity and sin, marijuana smoke and peace flags. But Portland was just a working town full of lumber unemployed lumber workers at some point, and not necessarily all that different from Providence. I just want us to have some ambition here and not assume that all Dutch people are super-left-wing hippies just because they've had success with biking infrastructure.

    Hopefully we'll get those protected bike lanes going on some streets like S. Main, and we'll start the ball rolling on Providence's cycling revolution. :-)

  3. It would be a very bad mistake to assume the Dutch are hippies. Actually one of the biggest exporting nations on earth with a very healthy economy. Cycling is a fiscal measure. It's not a cost but beneficial to the economy.