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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Dangers of Cycling and Favorable Legal Treatment of Drivers

I have never been a regular bicyclist.  When I lived in Iowa I either lived too far from my destinations for biking to be practical, or so close to my destinations that biking was unnecessary.  Now that I am in Los Angeles, I recognize that biking might be a quick way for me to get places, but I am far too intimidated to brave this city's traffic.  After a harrowing near-miss with a very speedy, reckless driver, I find that I am sometimes jittery around pedestrian crosswalks.

In an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, "Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?", Daniel Duane writes about the dangers of travelling by bicycle in traffic.  He notes that drivers who kill or injure bicyclists often receive extremely favorable treatment from law enforcement -- often receiving only a minor fine, or avoiding prosecution altogether.  Considering why this is the case, Duane writes:

Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.
The Economist follows up on this op-ed, reiterating the dangers that American cyclists face, and recommending that United States jurisdictions adopt laws similar to those in the Netherlands that make it much easier for cyclists to sue drivers who injure them:

To sum up: in the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver's fault, not the cyclist's. As explained in this FAQ from the ANWB, the Dutch tourism and car owners' organisation, "the law treats pedestrians and cyclists as weaker participants in traffic... The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control (overmacht). The driver must thus prove that none of the blame falls on him, which is extremely difficult in practice."
I think that the comparison between the two systems' tort laws is interesting, and while I am not sure if I agree with all the provisions of the Netherlands' approach, examining that system provides an interesting perspective.

But even if the California reformed its tort law to match the Netherlands, I would probably still be too afraid to ride a bike in Los Angeles.

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