Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Falling scaffolding, a sidewalk driver and how safe it's your job to be

Unusually early for a Saturday, I cycled off September 14 towards Sheepshead Bay, a distant corner of Brooklyn, to help out with a relief project dealing with the continuing unrepaired damage from last year’s Superstorm Sandy. Running late as ever, I started off at a sprint over a lift bridge near our apartment that takes Brooklyn’s 9th street over the Gowanus Canal and under Smith and 9th street subway station. The subway sits high on a viaduct above.
 
The great 9th Street scaffolding collapse: I can't think how
anyone would have blamed me if I'd got caught up in this.
But I'm sure they'd have found a way.
A couple of hours later, a large truck carrying building materials made the same journey over the bridge as I - but with a crane on its back sitting a little higher than it should have done. The crane caught a piece of corrugated iron on a vast network of scaffolding erected for a renovation project on the subway station. I returned from Sheepshead Bay to find 9th street barred to me and police and fire officers milling around a tangled mess of truck, corrugated iron and other bits of the scaffolding. Had I been riding over the bridge at the same time as the truck, I would have been helpless. Sheets of metal and steel poles would have tumbled on top of me, while the driver, protected by his cab, was unhurt.

Yet, had I found myself crushed under the scaffolding, at least some people, I’ve come to realise, would have blamed me for not looking after myself better. That’s the implication of the response to an appalling incident on September 12 when a motorist in Maspeth, part of the New York borough of Queens, drove onto a sidewalk and hit five children, three of whom are seriously injured. One child, although initially regarded as only slightly hurt, has since died of an asthma flare-up which, the laws of probability suggest, was probably related to the crash.

In the wake of the incident, the school’s principal wrote to parents asking them to ensure their children avoided wearing earphones or using mobile devices when walking to school. The suggestion – not borne out by the horrific, disturbing video of the incident – was that the hospitalised children should somehow have avoided the speeding vehicle by paying greater attention.

The letter – which education officials seem to have insisted the principal sent, over his objections – is all the more astounding since it makes no suggestion that parents drive more carefully – and the driver responsible seems to have been dropping his own child at the school.

The education system’s reaction was far from unique. I recently read with dismay the comments under an old news article about the death in 2011 of Johannah Bailey, a cyclist hit by a van driver on Cavendish Road, part of London’s South Circular in Clapham, that I’ve often ridden myself. The van driver, Andrei Dulgher, rounded a bend in the road so fast that he drove over a traffic island before hitting Ms Bailey – on a turning lane in the centre of the road - and sending her body flying high into the air.

One ostensibly sympathetic comment from someone who’d witnessed the horrific incident – which came to my attention when Dulgher was cleared of causing death by dangerous driving – expressed horror at what happened and appealed to all cyclists to “take care” when riding. How cyclists were meant to “take care” around vehicles coming round blind bends at speed in the wrong part of the road was not made clear.

The scaffolding incident and the strange comment on Ms Bailey’s death have prompted me to think hard not only about how other people think vulnerable road users should behave but how I myself think. Where is the line between a crash that the victims clearly couldn’t have avoided – such as that in Maspeth or Johanna Bailey’s killing – and an incident where the victim’s negligence clearly contributed to what happened? Why do so many people place the blame so firmly on the vulnerable? How does that affect my own road behaviour?

The Invisible Visible Man is comfortable with fewer risks
than this helmetless, dark-clothed midtown Manhattan
cyclist. But he still recognises it's the cars that pose the
main risk
I don’t, unfortunately, need to think too hard to imagine the circumstances of a crash for which I’d blame a cyclist. It happened at 1.30am one Saturday a few months ago as I cycled home from a very late night at work. Tired and feeling stressed by the speed and volume of traffic in downtown Brooklyn, I took a rare opportunity when no traffic was on my tail to make a rapid left turn across Boerum Place’s six lanes, into quiet State Street. I’d forgotten that traffic heading the other way along Boerum Place wouldn’t have a red light. Suddenly, an SUV came tearing around the corner from Atlantic Avenue, the next intersection along, and hurtling towards me. I jammed on my brakes and the SUV swerved and also braked. Catastrophe was averted – but I could have had little complaint, despite the road’s confusing layout and the driver’s speed, if the car had hit me. I’d made a stupid – negligent – mistake.

Yet, if the SUV had hit me, it would have been a relatively unusual type of crash. Every survey I’ve read, including a very detailed one from Transport for London, attributes most crashes involving cyclists to a relatively small number of causes – motorists’ failure to look properly, motorists’ failure to judge cyclists’ speed or direction and motorists’ passing cyclists too fast and/or too close. It’s not, in other words, that common for cyclists or other vulnerable road users to take suicidally silly risks or make utterly inept mistakes. The people who are hidden inside steel shells so have least to risk tend to be the biggest risk takers.
 
I ride in such a way as to reduce my risks. I wear – unlike many of my fellow New York cyclists – a high-visibility vest and even a reflective snap bracelet, intended to help drivers to see when I’m signalling left. Convinced that protection for my body’s densest, most sensitive part must do some good, I use a helmet. I also – again, unlike a puzzlingly high proportion of New York cyclists – use lights at night, two at the rear and one at the front. When riding on a cycle lane between a line of halted or slow-moving cars and parked vehicles, I ride slowly, aware that a door could suddenly fly open or a car lurch suddenly into my lane.

Possibly most importantly of all, I try to communicate with drivers. “I’ll be going straight ahead here, OK?” I occasionally say through an open window. “Stop! Wait there!” I’ll tell one who’s turning illegally across my path. “Please stop using your phone,” I’ll tell another. “It’s making you drive badly.”

It’s no coincidence, however, that my efforts are designed either to help me to react in circumstances where I know drivers are likely to be negligent or actually to influence drivers’ behaviour. I concentrate on taking reasonable steps to mitigate the most serious risks. I don’t pretend that, walking on a sidewalk, I could protect myself against an out-of-control SUV hurtling towards me. I don’t believe I – or the poor children so horribly hurt in Maspeth – bear responsibility for crashes where the driver has been negligent and the victim wasn't.

These drivers blocking a crosswalk on W54th street know
who's boss: and it ain't the pesky people on foot
But the reaction to Johannah Bailey’s death perhaps explains why so much thinking on this subject is so woolly. Both the commenter and, perhaps, the jury that acquitted Andrei Dulgher probably thought of themselves mainly as drivers. That seems to create a barrier as impermeable as a car’s body shell between the driver and the complex reality of life outside the car, including its destructive potential. When that destructive power crushes a pedestrian or throws a cyclist 30ft into the air, it can be hard for motorists not to put themselves mainly in the place of the driver, rather than the cyclist or pedestrian. No matter the circumstances, there seems to be a thought that motorists drive of necessity and are a fact of life. Others have made a conscious, eccentric decision to walk or cycle – and can’t complain too much when a motorist’s negligence makes it go wrong.
 
That thinking, it seems to me, lies behind responses like that of the New York Department of Education to the Maspeth tragedy. Many people seem to see cars as the natural, inalienable rights-holders in public places. Cyclists and pedestrians are the parent-in-law house guests – just about tolerated, but only with the poorest of graces. The streets would surely be safer if more people thought of roads as places where multiple types of road users mixed, rather than places where cars drive and others fit around them.

It will, ironically, be when most people think automatically on hearing of incidents like the Maspeth crash, “How negligent of the careless driver” rather than, “How negligent of the walking teenagers” that people will start to hear of far fewer happening.

19 comments:

  1. With regards to victims being being blamed for accidents outside their control, I think there is an element of people essentially reassuring themselves that it couldn't happen to them, that at some level there was something the victim was doing differently/wrong, that means they were vulnerable.

    This allows them to carry on with their life without breaking down at the sheer randomness of our existence, our relative unimportance and the inevitability of our own ultimate fate.

    Also they are tw@ts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. t.foxglove,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with most of it - except that, of course, these things aren't really random, are they? It wasn't a random event that the driver mounted the sidewalk in Queens. It happened because he wasn't paying enough attention. I agree people are keeping their distance from the horror of aspects of life - but I think in this case they're keeping their distance from a rather predictable aspect of reality. If one keeps driving a car negligently, it has the speed and weight to do serious damage to other people.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. I don't want to relate this to the incident on the pavement with the children as they are real people, with real families & friends going through a terrible experience, made worse by an insensitive jerk blaming the blameless for it.

      So stepping back to a hypothetical situation, if you throw a stone into a field full of people & hit one on the head. The action is deliberate, the outcome predictable but the victim is random, it could have been anyone in the field at that time to get hit.


      Delete
    3. t.foxglove,

      I see. I entirely take the point that it's random who the victims were - although, of course, they seem to have been pupils at the driver's child's own school, so it seems more random which pupils from the school he hit than that he hit pupils from that school.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Persons owe one another a Duty of Care to keep a proper lookout in order to see what should be reasonably seen in order to avoid causing injury. The implications of this are spelled out by Bob Mionske in "Bicycling and the Law." The problem highlighted by your post is that not only are people who ought to know better ignorant of Common Law and its derivations in their own jurisdictions, but even of commonsense and basic morality, faculties which I would hope would be developed in a principal, at least to the extent that he would realize that it sets a bad precedent, in terms of taking care of kids and raising them into creative and thoughtful members of a society operating under the Rule of Law, to run them over with a vehicle on the sidewalk regardless of what they may be doing or listening to at the time. "Attention Parents: please take due care to look out for children on the sidewalk so as not to run them over while dropping off," sounds like a reasonable stipulation to make at drop-off time, akin to making everyone drive around the circle counterclockwise, and making sure that kindergartners have a buddy and are only picked up by individuals who show ID and who are on the list. You're doing it wrong if you run over kids on the sidewalk. More importantly, and more seriously, it seems we have to refresh memories about the Duty of Care and the requirement to maintain a Proper Lookout, particularly in a school zone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. JRA,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. You're right about all of this. The whole point of this blog, I suppose, is to point out how divorced people's road actions are from basic principles of morality, one aspect of their behaviour at a time...

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. I'm sure it was not your intent, but your vest and your lights are NOT equivalent as being lumped into the same paragraph implies. Lights are a legal requirement while vests are a supplemental thing. At night, lights help FAR more than any of that other stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve A,

      I thought of you as I was writing this, knowing it would prompt you to comment. So, hi there!

      You're right, clearly, that lights are far more important than other aids to visibility. They ended up lumped in together because, you know, no-one wants a longer post, do they?

      They were also together because I am shocked at New York cyclists' general conviction that they're automatically visible when they're not. There's a section of the Brooklyn Bridge that's currently unlit and nearly every night I'm surprised by some dimwit riding across and nearly invisible for his or her lack of lights.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. My brother is a pilot, and is often on the receiving end of people telling him about the terrible pilots who have flown them (as perceived by them). Despite his assurances that turbulence isn't going to bring their plane down, a heavy landing can be the safest, they know better. The pilot clearly made a mistake, it was dangerous, my life was at risk etc. In reality, they have no idea what constitutes good or bad flying, but they perceive this as a dangerous activity, and judge it as such. My brother would assure you that in almost all cases there was no danger - flying can be bumpy, but that doesn't equate to a lack of control or safety.

    The example you give of Johannah Bailey shows how people do not apply this rigorous judgement to driving. In fact, quite the opposite. As you say, they see themselves as drivers, they shrug and accept deaths which were caused by blatant errors on the part of drivers. That you can come round a bend and smash into someone and kill them to me is equivalent to landing too fast in fog, and smashing the plane into the runway. Would that be tolerated? Should pilots be using mobile phones whilst they fly? Should they be drunk, or exceeding speed limits, or flying too close to other planes? There are more people on a plane, but there are far more drivers overall, their behaviour affecting far more people.

    It has somehow become so accepted, and so normal for people to die on the roads, that people accept terrible behaviour in drivers (very often including professional drivers, with lorries involved in most cyclist deaths in London this year) in a way they never would with other forms of transport.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hannah,

      You are quite right in all this and, indeed, there may be a future post in it. My father was a railway engineer and exhaustively analysed risk factors to remove them. I used in my old job to read some accident investigation reports from ships and railways. People look hard at every aspect of the operation of these systems and seek to take out human error. In future, people will look back at why roads were exempted from such rigour and scratch their heads as we do at why children were put up chimneys or Africans captured and held as slaves.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. Replies
    1. It's a famous abuse of the Victorian era in the UK, Steve A. Children were employed as chimney sweeps because they were small so could go right up inside the chimney.
      I'm sure plenty of people at the time could explain its practical and economic necessity...

      Delete
  6. If we reported mass shootings like we reported car-on-cyclist violence, the reports on the DC Navy Yard would have been - "of the dead and injured, none seem to have been wearing body armor or to have taken any personal precautions to avoid this type of death".

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Vannevar,

      You are quite correct.

      And that's not the kind of thing I say to a commenter lightly.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. I´m terrified to call drivers out on their incompetence. Do they ever try to retaliate violently?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      I'm not, I'm afraid, an equal opportunities rebuker. If I spot an SUV with dark tinted windows being driven erratically along a deserted downtown Brooklyn street late at night, I generally confine myself to criticising him/her on this blog. I generally upbraid drivers on their phones when they're stuck in traffic in the morning rush hour, with plenty of witnesses. But I always point out that I spotted what they were doing not because I saw they were on their phone but because I saw they were driving badly.

      I once had a bus driver assault me in London because he didn't like my photographing his traffic violation. And it was only when I called police that another driver laid off what were becoming increasingly convincing threats to harm me. But those didn't precisely involve "advice" over driving standards.

      Most drivers, of course, aren't amused to be asked to stop their phone call. But one woman in Brooklyn Heights one morning looked at me when I told her her call was making her drive badly, looked momentarily ready to explode then visibly pondered what I'd said. "Sorry," she replied. She may actually have got the message.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  8. I look forward with optimism but a little touch of concern to the mass deployment of automatic driving cars such as google car. The ability of this technology to prevent ridiculous incidents as highlighted above is fantastic but I worry that other tragic accidents may happen. Your blog entries will be most interesting!

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    Replies
    1. Doug,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      I write a little in my day job about such things as driverless cars and I'm actually cautiously optimistic. They'll be programmed to drive within the speed limit, to give vulnerable road users space and not to take risks that they can't be sure are justified. Any mistakes will probably be glitches or malfunctions that don't get picked up in the initial certification process, which I'm confident will be pretty rigorous. They'll be rare, I'd predict, and will gradually get ironed out.

      There are two catches, I think. One is that engineers are probably a lot longer from getting this stuff to work reliably in a complex environment than most people imagine. To judge by most engineering projects I've covered, I'm sure the challenges are much further from being resolved than the engineers themselves imagine. The other catch is that it will drive existing drivers mad waiting for a vehicle that drives cautiously, safely and within the speed limit to make a journey. I predict lots of crashes where drivers have disengaged the self-driving mechanism out of frustration and then have to cook up some unlikely story about how it had failed or wasn't doing its job properly so they had no choice but to take over.

      Remember you heard it here first.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. All of that sounds likely, and mirrors my own expectations. Hopefully, though, all these distracting technologies that presently make the streets more dangerous will actually work in our favor once self-driving cars are widespread. Will the motorist care if the journey takes an extra minute if he's catching up on his favorite blogs?

      Personally, I think that self-driving cars can't come soon enough. People can't really be trusted with such dangerous machines at the low standards that drivers are currently held to.

      Delete

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