The recent comments by the Coroner have led me to thinking about ‘what is normal?’ The coroner is considering introducing compulsory hi-vis and making the use of cycle lanes compulsory. These moves would drive New Zealand in the exact opposite direction of the countries where cycling is considered ‘normal’ and ‘safe’. While the safety of cycling in NZ has room for improvement, I have yet to find an example where making hi-vis compulsory has led to a safer cycling environment. This is because no other country has even considered it. Improving infrastructure, and thereby obtaining critical mass, are the only sensible and effective solutions to the question of cycling safety… and worldwide they are considered the most ‘normal’ and obvious approaches. So, given the obvious benefits of increased cycling and the interest in improving safety, why isn’t NZ investing in these measures? This leads me to think about what most New Zealanders consider to be ‘normal’…
Every morning we get up out of our ergonomically designed beds, wash ourselves under warm water which is delivered to our house and heated without any effort from us, we eat our breakfast – perhaps bread baked and sliced, or cereal mixed and packaged, with milk which we buy in a tetrapak from a store which supplies all these things – and then some of us hop into two tonnes of steel and drive, at speeds well in excess of what we would otherwise be capable of, to our work, where many of us sit behind magical boxes that (arguably) have processing power more powerful than the human brain (unless you work in the public sector… I hear their computers are somewhat more archaic!).
Technology is a wonderful thing. Plumbing, sliced bread, cars, computers… yet only one of these things is responsible for a large number of unnecessary deaths and injuries. No, I’m not talking about sliced bread.
We take most modern gadgets and systems for granted. Cars have been around as long as any of us have been alive, and many of us cannot remember a time before computers. The convenience and time saved has enabled us to make many more discoveries and advancements. Our quality of life has improved immensely. The last one hundred years have been a spectacular period of progress for the human race. Yet sometimes we forget what the consequences of these ‘improvements’ are.
Of course, there are some obvious consequences which we are aware of. The effect on the environment and causes of pollution have been moving higher and higher up the political agenda over the past few decades, with good reason. These are issues which more and more people consider when choosing their mode of transport. Smaller cars, public transport, walking, scootering and cycling are becoming trendier… or so it seems. Which is great. New Zealand performs quite poorly when we look at health statistics – we live less and less active lives, and our bodies bear the burden of this.
What I’d like to know, is how did it become normal for us to choose to move two tonnes of steel to pop down the road to buy a litre of milk? When did it become normal for us to accept the hundreds of deaths annually and many more injuries caused by use of these motorised metal boxes?
If you look at the impact of these choices on our most vulnerable citizens, our kids, it seems outrageous that we sit back and accept it. About 10% of all unintended child injury deaths are caused by vehicles hitting child pedestrians. What’s worse, is that 17% of child deaths involves children as passengers in motor vehicles.
I rarely travel more than a few hundred metres down the road (whether walking, by bike, or in a car) before seeing someone breaking the road rules or doing something incredibly stupid and dangerous. Lack of indicating, illegal parking, using cell phones, speeding, and the worst in my book, running red lights, are everyday, mundane parts of any traffic encounter. We expect it. We joke about it; “You don’t need to indicate in this town; everyone knows where everyone else lives”. Just yesterday I saw a car run a red light in front of a police car. And they got away with it. There isn’t the level of responsibility – the seriousness – placed on it that seems only reasonable to me. We aren’t held to account. Collisions are called ‘accidents’, and if you appear sorry enough, you won’t be held responsible. Even financially – your insurance takes care of that. You aren’t stung for your mistakes in any meaningful way.
Driving is normal. We do it everyday. (Well, maybe not the audience reading a cycling blog…) It’s become such an extension of who we are, as modern humans, that we place very little thought on it. We eat while driving, we chat, sometimes on the phone, have meetings, we search our handbags for things, read maps, drink coffee, listen to music, yell at talkback stations, yell at other drivers, we plan our day, think about our lives… some of us live in our cars. It’s not unusual for people to spend more time in their cars on their daily commute, than sitting down eating during the course of a day. Only one of these things is essential for our survival. Some spend more time in a vehicle than they do sleeping.
Motor vehicles are an integral part of our society. But they are also lethal in the wrong hands. Excepting that there are always idiots out there who will drink and drive, or speed. Those people are already targeted by very expensive advertising campaigns, which will never reach everyone. But what about those ordinary folks who have slipped back into bad habits? I see more people talking on phones now while driving than I ever noticed before the law was changed. Maybe I just pay more attention now? About half of drivers seem to have forgotten the new Give Way rules already, by my count. This is indicative, I think, of how blasé many drivers out there are about driving. It’s not a big deal, of no consequence, to occasionally do something you’re not supposed to.
I’m not a stickler to the rules. I’ll admit to receiving a few speeding tickets in my younger days. And I’ve gotten away with more dodgey parking than I should have. We live and learn. Perhaps I’m lucky though – my mother briefly was a driving instructor and my father is ex-military – so I had a very thorough driving education. I knew the Give Way rules and could pass a theory exam at age 8, which shows that they really aren’t that complicated. And I never forget what it is I’m doing… I’m driving around two-tonne of steel, at speeds I’m not capable of reaching by any other means, and any slip up, any moment of inattention, could be that moment – the one where you f**k up and hit someone.
No one who has accidentally hit someone has intended to do so. That’s the definition of the word ‘accident’. Almost all those people would have thought at the time that they were taking reasonable care. How many were? How many actually took the responsibility they held over other peoples lives seriously? How many of them, how many of you, think that driving is ‘normal’?
The message I’d like to send to the coroner – and the many police officials who make silly comments in response to cycling accidents – is that the problem isn’t that cyclists aren’t visible enough. The problem is that cyclists aren’t seen. You can’t fix that by applying the band aid that is hi-vis. If that worked the cyclists who were wearing hi vis when killed would still be with us today. Drivers need to be more attentive. They need to be on the look out for potential hazards. Defensive driving courses should be compulsory. Drivers who have lost their license need to earn it back. They need to realise that driving isn’t normal. It’s a privilege. Drivers kill and injure more people than there are cyclists on our streets. It’s time to stop ignoring the elephant on the roads.
If Coroner Gordon Matenga wants to effect real change, and make New Zealand roads a safer and more pleasant environment for all road users, he would recommend compulsary cycling and driving training at schools. He would recommend better infrastructure above all else. Cycle lanes that don’t end after three metres, or at a pinch point. Roads which aren’t too narrow to share. Bike lanes which aren’t in car door zones. Bike traffic lights. Simple effective infrastructure and education, as seen in many countries around the world.
The Coroner should look at why cyclists behave the way they do – why would someone choose to share a congested road rather than ride on a cycle lane? Why would someone risk getting ticketed for running a red light, when they’re the one likely to be injured by doing so? Why would you ride on the footpath rather than on the road? It’s all about infrastructure and education. Because you can’t fix every problem with some Styrofoam and shiny yellow fabric.
Cycling isn’t dangerous. Cycling in an unsafe environment is. In a world where driving is the norm, we need to consider how this impacts on the rest of our society. The decision-makers and important people in this country need to stop blaming victims and accept some responsibility for their mistakes, or their lack of care. They need to be held to account. If we want to change the norm, it appears we will need to fight for it.