How best to change driver behaviour and impose a recognition of responsibility?
Although an utterly impractical proposal, let us for the sake of argument consider what would happen if drivers were hypothetically faced with an automatic 25-year jail term if they were at all involved in the serious injury or death of a cyclist or pedestrian. It seems unthinkable that such a penalty would not serve to very effectively remind drivers of the potentially huge dangers of motoring and lead to a social climate of much greater caution towards vulnerable road users. If such a policy were to be introduced tomorrow, road casualties would surely drop overnight?
What is required, therefore, is some system of legislation which will ensure the same high duty of care and level of responsibility on the part of drivers without the need for unfeasibly harsh punishments.
The Cycle Touring Club would like to see several amendments to the Highway Code including the addition of the following rule for drivers: “Leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking a cyclist and more on higher speed roads” (CTC Press Release, 23rd October 2006). Could this be combined with the objective offences model used in drink-drive and mobile phone legislation (see chapter 3 of thesis) to introduce a legally binding minimum passing distance for car drivers? In this way, overtaking a cyclist with less than 1.5m of clearance would prima facie be deemed to be dangerous driving, and would lead to automatic legal penalty whether or not the cyclist happens to be struck, injured or killed. Similar laws could be used to regulate many other types of driving manoeuvre.
The danger with this type of very specific, prescriptive legislation is that it reduces the driver's own sense of responsibility. Driving might become an exercise in sticking to the letter of the law - observing the speed limit, measuring overtaking distances, checking road signs - rather than making proper first-hand judgements relevant to the particular situation in question. Another related danger is that an over-emphasis on these types of prescriptive, clearly defined laws could be disadvantageous to the cyclist or pedestrian: if a driver behaved exactly in accordance with the law but an injury or death occurred, the driver would claim that they did nothing illegal. Clearly, this would be counter productive. What is required is to engender a sense of responsibility and a duty of care, not to remove it.