One More Time: Penalising People for Accidents Doesn’t Help

The Herald has an article concerning the sentence handed down to Christopher David McClelland following an accident which killed a cyclist, Patricia Anne-Veronica Fraser, on the 13th of November.

Patricia’s mother, of course, can hardly be expected to take a dispassionate viewpoint; nor can her husband.  It’s very human to seek someone to blame, and in a situation like this it would surely be almost impossible not to.  I’m concerned with Suzanne Charles’ comments, though, particularly in comparing this case with the accidental fatal shooting of Rosemary Ives.

Now, the only information I have on these accidents is what has been in the news, so perhaps I’ve missed an important point, but from what I have read it really was an accident.  Mr. McClelland misjudged the relationship between his car and the cyclists, and struck Mrs. Fraser while passing.

The important difference between this accident and the fatal shooting of Ms. Ives is that in the latter case the killer was not taking those precautions that are appropriate and usual when handling a firearm.  It could be argued that Mr. McClelland did not take an appropriate precaution (pulling into the oncoming lane in order to overtake a cyclist) but it cannot be denied that this is not a usual precaution.  (It’s one I take myself, but that’s because I’m paranoid, and I’m also well aware that I both annoy other drivers and worry the cyclists by doing so.)

My conclusion is that (almost) anyone could have had the same accident.  Punishing Mr. McClelland won’t make cyclists safer.  Neither will changing the law to increase the maximum sentence in future similar cases.  In particular, note that keeping Mr. McClelland off the road for longer wouldn’t make anyone safer, because he is no more likely to cause another such accident than is anyone else; probably less so, in fact.  (Please note, however, that I do not disagree with the sentence that was in fact handed down, but only with the argument that it should have been more severe; there are quite rightly other considerations than road safety.)

The same fallacy comes up regularly in the context of dog safety.  Punishing people whose dog has attacked someone is neither fair nor helpful, unless they actually did something unusual to increase the risk, or failed to take some appropriate and usual precaution.  Nine times out of ten the dog owner being prosecuted acted no differently to any other dog owner, but was merely unlucky in his or her choice of canine.

If we want to change the law, we should determine what precautions are appropriate, and mandate them.  To reduce the risk of dog attacks, we could (for example) require all dogs to undergo some appropriate level of professional training.  Punishing people who failed to have their dogs properly trained (regardless of whether or not there has been an incident) would then encourage people to comply, therefore (presumably!) reducing the risk.

To reduce the risk of cyclists being killed by passing vehicles, the only suggestion I can think of is to make it illegal to pass a cyclist in your lane without pulling into the lane to your right (as you would if overtaking a car).  We would also need to create national standards for cycle lanes, many of which seem far too close to the motorized traffic.

Of course, in many cases this would mean a long queue of traffic waiting behind the cyclist for an opportunity to overtake.  Impatience would be likely to cause accidents with oncoming vehicles, so this might well increase the net risk to the population at large rather than reducing it.  It would be better, perhaps, to prohibit overtaking moving vehicles altogether [1] which would also reduce certain risks at intersections, especially those associated with the right-hand rule.

Realistically, such a law would be impossible to pass, because it would annoy far too many people.  But these, as far as I can see, are our three choices: ban overtaking, ban cyclists from the road [2], or accept that there will be accidents [3].  If anyone has a better idea, speak up – please!


[Added 16 March: please see my earlier entry on a related subject.]

[1] Not including the case where you are in a separate lane, obviously. 🙂

[2] Ideally, we’d put in cycle lanes everywhere instead, perhaps located next to the sidewalk, on the side opposite the road.  We couldn’t possibly afford to, of course, unless perhaps we did it as part of a work-for-the-dole scheme – which is also politically infeasible.

[3] Actually, given my druthers, I’d probably compromise for urban areas: have slow-moving roads (20kph) which cars share with cyclists and pedestrians, plus faster roads for cars only.  The idea is that any trip by car should involve traveling through at most two slow-moving areas, one when leaving your house and the second when arriving at your destination.  Ideally people would also be able to cycle between any two points without dismounting too often.  Whether or not this would be practicable would depend largely on the existing road layout.  Whether it would be acceptable to the public in general is anyone’s guess.


One Response to “One More Time: Penalising People for Accidents Doesn’t Help”

  1. Kuba Ober Says:

    Wait a minute, you’re so rational about all this. That’s almost unheard of. You actually have the guts to say that we, humans, are not perfect, and should not pretend otherwise in our laws. What a revolutionary idea. If only other humans could step off their high horses and have a long look in the bathroom mirror, and come up with a similar realization. We’d be all so much better for it. +1

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