Harkening back to my days in the lecture hall of Economics 522: Economics of Law, I remember a particular model we used to see; how the structure of a law had economic effects on the actions of individuals. In this model, we twisted the definition of who was liable for damages in the event that a bicyclist and a motorist collided – to see how much precaution each would take (wearing reflective clothing, using better headlights, attaching blinkers, slowing down, etc.). We used extreme examples that always put the blame on one side, and more refined examples that took into account negligence and cost of preventing the accident, and argued over which one was the best.
Outside of the world of theory, we find that the debate rages on. In areas of high bike usage, such as Madison, where the two parties confront each other daily, it is not difficult to find individuals with strong opinions about how the other side should act, especially after incidents such as Monday’s hit-and-run accident that left a biker in critical condition. Though many people have the ability and the passion to list every transgression the have seen the other party commit, I’ve synthesized the results of my own informal polling of each side down to their biggest complaints. The motorists hate that the bicyclists do not obey traffic rules and ride recklessly, while the bicyclists rage that motorists never properly watch for them or consider their space.
There are plenty of people who rely on each type of transportation and many cities that want to encourage bicyclists to take to the streets to reduce congestion and decrease reliance on gasoline who must deal with their conflicts. If we really want to encourage people to bike, we first have to make the roads safe for them. (I realize that there are some drivers who may not want to encourage biking, but for argument’s sake, and for the economic incentive that less demand for gasoline leads to lower gasoline prices for drivers, let’s assume that most do.) That is the biggest obstacle to many would-be bicyclists.
Providing safe conditions goes beyond making bike lanes, though these do a great deal to provide a safe space for both parties, and must address the way people drive as well. Aside from continuing to watch for bikers, motorists need to realize that many of the assumptions they make about bikers are incorrect. The largest of these misconceptions comes down to speed. Though they may appear relatively slow, they can accumulate a great deal of speed in a short amount of time, and movements should be planned with great care for how fast a cyclist is really traveling. Many times this has resulted in accidents when a car slowing down to turn in front of a bike lane doesn’t realize that the biker they just passed has caught up to them. This also means that bikers cannot stop on a dime. Too often I have seen a car cut out or pull out in front of a biker without realizing that the biker cannot easily avoid them just because they have two less wheels.
Ultimately, however, bikers must realize that they are in charge of their own safety. Though the incentive for precaution theoretically goes down when liability is placed on a driver for all expenses resulting from an accident, the bicyclist must still live with the impacts that any accident has on his or her life. The biggest mistake that bicyclists often make is assuming that they are visible and that they will be yielded to. This mistake intensifies in risk when bikers do decide that traffic rules do not apply to them.
In my economics class, our goal was to find the liability law that would lead to the most efficient level of precaution. After looking at the risks, probabilities, and costs of each scenario, we concluded that such a law would encourage both sides to take some level of precaution. Although our criteria of wearing reflective clothing and buying better headlights is not entirely inclusive of the many precautions that each side can take, the empirical result is likely the same as the theoretical: both sides need to exercise precaution. Having been on both sides of this debate as a biker-turned-driver in the city, I can appreciate this result to its fullest extent. Just don’t get me started on those pedestrians.