Death on the streets: competing rights and close encounters

Forgive me for provocative titling, but this post makes only passing reference to the massacre in Las Vegas in order to introduce the idea of competing rights.  It’s really about the close encounters between road users sharing City thoroughfares in calm, leafy, peaceful Toronto.

Here’s the gratuitous reference to Las Vegas: there is a constitutional gun fight going on in the United States. Gun owners believe that they need combat weapons to fight the state when, as anticipated in the 2nd Amendment, tyranny seizes the Republic and soldiers come to disarm the populace.  That’s why, under the guise of hunting and target shooting, the market has shifted from bolt-action rifles to semi-automatic rifles, with armour piercing bullets and 100 round clips.

Gun control advocates don’t see this as a fight with the government.  They’re generally okay with the idea of government, and they submit to it as a preferable way of organizing than gun-toting individualism, under the constant threat of violence.  They see gun control as a way of balancing their rights and those of the militants in their midst.  Although most recognize some gun ownership rights embedded in the constitution, they also believe that overzealous gun nuts infringe on their right to the pursuit of happiness.  Gun ownership begets gun use, and, one way or another, Americans are shooting themselves and each other faster than foreign combatants are shooting Americans in two simmering wars.

So one side is declaring the right to own combat weapons in order to feel safe.  The other side is declaring the right to feel safe in demilitarized zones such as public squares, city streets, public schools, movie theatres, and all the other places mass shootings have occurred in the past few years.  The challenge is to balance these rights in a way that satisfies both parties and to do so without appearing to declare war on one side, or to have surrendered the rights of the other.  Faced with the need to do both, politicians have chosen to do neither.  Instead, they console the families of victims while perpetuating the problem through inaction.

The devil is not in the details.  It’s in broad principles and values.  Somehow it must be possible for people to feel safe in public while some may choose to arm themselves for resistance when jackbooted government thugs kick their doors in. That most people aren’t exposed to gun battles on the steps of their city halls and that there is no danger of government trying to disarm them, is beside the point.

We have a parallel problem with traffic fatalities here in the City of Toronto, and if you think that’s a dizzyingly inept segue, you haven’t cycled or walked the downtown streets.  Both Las Vegas and Toronto illustrate that the world has changed faster than the law and that politicians would prefer to pit citizens against one another, often creating mortal danger, rather than face electoral defeat by using the law to rebalance civic rights.

Toronto is leading the nation in traffic fatalities.  We manage to kill and maim more cyclists and pedestrians than other Canadian cities.

Like the debate over guns in the US, we have allowed the practical problem of vehicle collisions to become a conflict over rights in the public realm.  War rhetoric was introduced by the late Mayor, Rob Ford, who believed that any effort to share public road space with public transit, bicycles, and pedestrians, was an assault on the rights of car owners.  After seven more pedestrian fatalities, Edward Keenan published an article in The Star yesterday pointing out that it can hardly be considered a war, let alone on cars, if the other side suffers all the casualties.

Of course, it’s not an assault on cars.  Car owners are sometimes cyclists and pedestrians, and all have an interest in reducing injuries or deaths.  Most cyclists and pedestrians are at least occasional users of cars.  These groups are not mutually exclusive in their membership, so their interests cannot be in perfect, insoluble, opposition.

Americans are looking for a way to define the limits of their constitutional right to bear arms.  They look to find these limits in the historical moment when the Bill of Rights was drafted.  The 2nd Amendment, they contend, pertained to single shot, long guns and pistols, which must be kept ready to resist tyrannical government, as the revolutionary firebrands had driven the English from their colonies on the eastern seaboard.  In this context, the idea of an armed, citizen militia didn’t seem as antidemocratic as privately armed hit squads, operating without government authority in various war zones around the world.   As the body count rises, the incidence of mass killings becomes more frequent, and military grade weapons are deployed, the difference between a war zone and an American street can be difficult to discern.

So, the historical argument is pretty logical.  Change is accelerating and history isn’t waiting for lawmakers to update statutes to reflect modern realities.

In the ‘war on cars’, here in Toronto, we can make a similar argument.  Bicycles predated cars, but it was the carnage resulting from automobile traffic, that prompted drafting of the Provincial Highway Traffic Act, in the 1930s.

Back then, there were no laws to enshrine rules of the road, there were few traffic lights, cars were relatively slow, and people were still accepting of the occasional horse drawn wagon or carriage ahead of them.  The Act didn’t anticipate the doubling of car speeds, the exponential increase in traffic volume, the centrifugal attraction of cheap, suburban real estate, and the inescapable contact of metal on flesh, anywhere and everywhere vehicle traffic intercepted pedestrians or cyclists.

With admirable bureaucratic efficiency, the Act treated everyone equally.  Bikes and horses were grandfathered into the rules of the road as if they were cars.  There were some special rules, but fundamentally, they were all given the status of vehicles and subject to the same rights and obligations.

Of course, in fact, they are not equal.  There is a deadly asymmetry between the relative risks faced by the driver of a car and a cyclist or pedestrian.  One is protected by thousands of pounds of metal, driven by the power of many horses, with huge inertial weight, at speeds that are barely manageable for many drivers.  The others are simply exposed flesh, destined to suffer from every accidental impact that occurs.

Never do you see the headline, “Toronto cabbie killed in collision with a bike.” If I T-bone a streetcar with my bike, it’s unlikely to roll over.  Pedestrians have yet to trip a truck with their toes.  It just doesn’t happen that way.

Also, road design is far more sophisticated and complicated.  It’s more difficult to navigate the streets now than it was when the Act was drafted.  There are more lanes, more signs, more lights, more traffic, streetcar tracks, more one-ways, more speed bumps, and more pedestrians.  Mistakes are inevitable.

The question is how they can be minimized without a systematic overhaul of laws that insist that bikes act like cars.  Imagine if every cyclist asserted their right under the Act to occupy a full lane of traffic.  It would shut the City down.  In fact, cyclists in San Francisco staged a protest against an initiative to crack down on cyclists who disobeyed the traffic laws governing stop signs.  Their protest was simple yet effective: they obeyed the letter of the law.  Quickly, traffic backed up, motorists were confused and became frustrated, illustrating the cyclists' point that traffic laws are flawed, and it is in no one's interests to treat bikes and cars as if they were the same.

In practice, road users recognize the difference: we all respect the convention of forcing the bikes to the curb, where all the road debris goes, where the roads crumble at the edges, where pedestrians enter and exit the road, and where cyclists are often unseen by large vehicles and are knocked over by them at right hand turns. Along the curb, bikes must safely dodge in and out of traffic to avoid taxis and delivery trucks that dart in and out of their paths, opening doors suddenly, and discharging passengers or cargo.

All this is accepted, not because the law dictates it, but despite the law.  We all agree that bikes are in more danger if they block cars than if they hug the margins of the road.

My point is that the law is fundamentally flawed.  Instead of fixing it, we push cyclists to be safer, creating helmet, bell, and light requirements, with fines attached.  Legal liability for accidents can switch from driver to cyclist, if the cyclist has failed to meet the legal standard of preparedness for the inevitable accident.  No one believes that the ping of a little bell will make any impression on the driver of an SUV, with the AC and stereo up full and the windows closed.  It’s no more credible than a 1936 law intended to apply equally to SUV’s, commuter bikes, and stage coaches.  It’s ridiculous.

Yet it is in this context that we risk life and limb to reset the balance between the rights of car drivers and everyone else on public streets.  And politicians here, like Congress in the US, wring their hands in anguish and helplessness, instead of updating arcane legislation.

Meanwhile, their constituencies are needlessly torn between competing rights, and people are dying (we've noticed something similar in relation to speed bumps).  Lately, I’ve been noticing more and more commentary in which one group vilifies the others by ascribing motives to them.

Car dependent commuters are depicted as angry, impatient people, frustrated because they’ve made life choices that force them to spend too many hours on the road, in vehicles that cost them too much, and every minute extra they’re delayed by bike lanes, or pedestrian crossings, or road closures for construction, or charity runs, sends them into homicidal rage.

Cyclists are characterized as reckless and lawless renegades, blaming others while creating risk, using the roads less for travel than for ceaseless parkour.  And pedestrians are simply obstacles, to be slalomed around like parking meters and fire hydrants, distinguished only by the smart phone they stare at when they ought to be looking out for cars and bikes.

None of these generalizations are very helpful.  They only exacerbate a conflict that originates in bad law, bad road design, and a political class that contents itself with treating the symptoms of this conflict rather than the causes.

I am a cyclist, a pedestrian, and a driver.  I’ve been infuriated by the worst behaviours of all people in all three modes of travel.  I could blame them all for every delay and accident I’ve experienced, or I could look or the reasons we’ve become hazards to one another on shared City streets.

If I can do it, legislatures and road planners can do it.  And we can all be a little more forgiving when we have close encounters in traffic.

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