The low hanging apple: strict liability laws to protect kids.

Although my niche role in the cycling renaissance is in the specialised areas of architectural and urban design theory, I want to draw attention to something very general, that we all should be focused on. If bike advocates and our allies could band together to achieve this one objective, from it our entire wish list of infrastructure projects would follow.

Lobby politicians for a law holding drivers liable in any accident involving a minor, cycling or walking. Children don’t walk or cycle because their mothers are rightly paranoid about traffic dangers, so are happy for them to live inside. Mums are paranoid because they know drivers are talking on cell phones, playing with nobs, and treating the street as though it is no place to be without an airbag. Campaigning to change that for the sake of “lycra louts” will get nowhere. Bicycle commuters have hardly any more sympathy in the electorate. God bless kids, for getting so fat.

Kids are so fat nowadays, and so annoying when they hang around home all the time doing Minecraft and Skype, that hardly a voter would disagree when I say: “kick them outside!” If that means being responsible for kids in the way we all drive, most voters would see a fair trade.

traffic-cop

Frame it in terms of childhood obesity, the development of their cerebral cortexes and peoples nostalgia for their own knock-about childhoods, and our call for a strict liability law, specifically to protect minors, would have a chance in countries like Australia, the UK, Singapore and the US. The clever thing, if I do say so myself, is how the mere spectre of being held liable though you weren’t at fault, would wake everyone up. Public awareness campaigns are toothless. It’s the hip pocket nerve, and fear of their third-party insurers, that people respond to. Humans are too selfish to take notice of messages such as this:

So I’m issuing a challenge. Let’s all band together and make this a chant, and meet again to argue about the best kinds of infrastructure when we have won this most strategic of battles.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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8 Responses to The low hanging apple: strict liability laws to protect kids.

  1. Luke says:

    Legal pedant alert, but do you mean civil liability (which in practice means your insurance company pays) or criminal liability (prison/fine/lost licence)?

    If you mean civil liability (see below), I am all in favour, but I just query how much it would change behaviour. In practice a driver’s chances of getting off scot free if they hit a child is pretty well nil. But it’s the insurer who pays. Do people really drive round in mortal fear that their insurance premium might rise next year?

  2. Luke says:

    If you mean strict civil liability, I am all for it on a number of grounds. I’d make it for any powered thing hitting any unpowered human – child, adult, cyclist, roller blader, and none of this wishy washy rebuttable presumption of liability like in NL. Car hits person – car driver/insurer pays. And no reductions for contributory negligence ever, under any circumstances. Drunks on wandering onto motorways? Driver/insurer still pays, 100%. FWIW, I even doubt this would mean an increase in insurance premiums.

    Patrick Atiyah said much the same in 1970 in relation to fault/compensation – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-6478.00091/abstract

    But although his book has gone through a zillion editions since then, and is still the standard text book on personal injury law, no one has done anything about his/your idea.

    But after being rather negative and defeatist, may I just say that you might have hit on something – if we’re doing it “for the cheeldren”, something might actually happen. Add in lower fees for lawyers (there’s not much to argue about), and we have a crowd pleaser.

    • Steven says:

      All that went way over my head Lawyer Luke. Unlike you I know nothing at all about the law, really. I would consider myself just ignorant enough to have a head for the politics. I’m also ignorant enough to understand how drivers think. They laugh off their responsibility and have no idea what they have done to street life with their attitude.
      Not sure I got it across in the post, but my assumption is a driver will not know in the blink of an eye whether a cyclists is over or under 18.
      Is it time for another guest blog post? A little more serious than your past two, as thousands of people would be mailing your draft law to politicians. I’m especially thinking of the UK, Singapore, Australia, and any other country to have inherited the mother land’s fine legal system.

  3. Luke says:

    Me posting about something I know a bit about? Hmm, a novel idea. Though I’ve never really done injury work, so in part I’d be keeping up with tradition.

    • Steven says:

      Looking forward to it! Even thinking of ways to secure retrospective ethics approval to publish your draft law in the next book.

  4. I understand from messages on twitter that you initially compared with The Netherlands but backed out of this after reading a blog post of mine which explained that strict liability has little effect in The Netherlands.

    I still think you are putting far too much emphasis on a legal change making any real difference to cycling. It’s true that many countries in Europe have strict liability, but also true that most of them have very little cycling. The Netherlands achieves its very high modal share for cycling and very high degree of safety because of a whole range of infrastructural measures, not because Dutch drivers are made to behave in a saintly manner because of a law. Strict liability is a side-show. A red-herring. It’s contentious and difficult to get into law because it’s not a low hanging fruit at all but something seen as a fundamental injustice. What’s more, it will never lead to mass cycling. If you wish you can read my full reply to your post and another recent strict liability post that I read elsewhere.

    • Steven says:

      Hi David, I read and enjoyed your post on the subject some time ago. No I didn’t change my blog post at all. All I did was remove a few “extra reading” links at the end, by others who naturally drew comparisons with Dutch strict liability laws.
      The situation in the Netherlands that you are so desperate to have me understand is about as interesting to an Australian as a violin lesson would be a one year old slapping a drum. The electorate I’m trying to sway has not seen a barrier protected cycle track, ever. All of them would answer their mobile phones while they are driving. They have not seen an adult riding a bike who was not dressed in lycra or day glow, and have not seen a kid ride a bike other than around parks where their parents arrive with bikes loaded on the backs of their cars. People talk about the Netherlands emerging from a dark age in the late sixties. It’s a primordial age down here in Australia. But then other places on my rounds are worse: Boston and Singapore are two that come to mind. The Dutch can’t help us out of this quagmire. The Dutch have never been in this quagmire.
      Thanks for taking the time to respond. It’s just, there was really no need to.

  5. A timely article – I’ve been thinking a lot about cycling rates for children after reading that while 82% of children here in Canada own bikes, only 4% bike to school.

    Meanwhile we continue a trend of closing neighbourhood schools and opening shiny new schools located conveniently at highway interchanges. Forget bike paths, there aren’t even sidewalks or crosswalks leading to these schools. On the plus side, we are investing heavily in expensive ice rinks, swimming pools, and such to try and get our fat children more active.

    If only there was an easier way… preferably something that at least 82% of children could participate in without any additional investment in equipment…

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