Monday, January 12, 2015

Jumping to conclusions about "red running"

There's a link or 2 doing the rounds, basically drawing attention to a sad incident where a young woman was allegedly struck by a cyclist whilst she was crossing at a traffic-light controlled intersection in Enmore, a suburb of Sydney. Allegedly (again, because in truth the "facts" are as yet untested) she had "the green" and thus, by logical extension, the rider was "running the red". Or so we are led to believe, anyway, as the cyclist's POV isn't represented in any story I have seen.

Now it's always unfortunate when people (or animals for that matter) are injured on our roads, and I extend my sympathy to anyone injured in this or any other way, simply "going about their everday lives". I too have been struck by cars, slipped and fallen on oil and grease left by motor vehicles and generally been beaten and battered by the poor state of many roads (as well as the attitudes of many road users). It happens. I've tripped and fallen whilst walking on poorly-maintained footpaths for that matter. So without detracting from the obvious physical pain felt by the young woman mentioned in these articles, for which the media concerned have kindly provided lurid images, I have to agree that life itself carries many risks.

OK, so that's the basic and largely sympathetic background to the story. But I wish to explore it a bit more. Whilst I have generally given up addressing the trolls who are attracted by such stories, once again I am drawn into the fray by the sheer ignorance of many comments. Essentially the debate becomes anti-cyclist, a blanket approach that life would be somehow transformed if "cyclists" somehow vanished from the planet.  Failing that, let's tax 'em into submission. Right - you've heard it all before.

I myself ride, drive and walk and can see (I think) most, if not all sides of this particular situation. I get delayed, I get endangered in all modes of transport. I even know the intersection involved. I don't know for sure (probably no one person has all of the facts) but I suspect that the traffic signals mentioned here are timed too finely for cars, not bikes. So a rider may enter on green yet still be passing through the intersection when it turns red. It's a fairly large, open intersection with a slight rise on the northern side, leading to a hill. Now I repeat again, I really don't know what happened here, but will conjecture that conceivably a rider could enter on the green yet still strike the woman concerned when they, the pedestrian had right of way. As I say, that's conjecture, and it doesn't erase anyone's responsibility; but I put it forward because we really have been led to believe only one set of "facts" so far.

Legally it's still the rider's responsibility to avoid any collision but it's probably not as clear-cut as a car driver deliberately "running the lights". Perhaps a witness can tell us otherwise, however sometimes bikes (and many other vehicles) just take longer to clear intersections. It's physics, not intent to harm. Coupled with a pedestrian lost in their own thoughts, or simply looking by sheer chance in the wrong direction, you have an accident. To label the cyclist (or pedestrian, motorist, or anyone) as "irresponsible" is moot, especially when we only have one point of view available. The legal situation will be resolved but the moral and ethical dimensions may be left unclear. 

In my experience as a road user, if I didn't think I could make it through safely, especially so when the lights had begun changing then I would take action to avoid hitting anyone, irrespective. However I know that sometimes these are split-second judgements involving braking, swerving, surfaces, speed and timing. Until you find yourself in that situation you can't really be certain how you personally would react.  

Now this matters mostly as an explanation, so we can learn from this, without exploiting the situation for other purposes. Indeed if we step away from the individual case here and think more abstractly about the contributing factors perhaps we can address a bigger set of issues about public safety in, on and around our roads.