Crash of the Norway team car pictured during Championnats du Monde UCI CL / UCI RR World Championships. Poolfoto/GW/Cor Vos © 2014

JRA with the Angry Asian: Unexpected ammo in the battle for cyclist justice

A major auto insurance group admits drivers are most often the cause of crashes. What does that mean for cyclists who get hit by them?

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There’s been a fair bit of attention paid to a recent press release put forth by The Auto Club Group — the second-largest independent club affiliate of the American Automobile Association (AAA), and a provider of a variety of insurance, financial, and travel services to more than nine million members spread across 11 states. 

Most of that attention has been devoted to how ACG has clarified its position — rightfully so — on calling something a “crash” versus an “accident.”

The language we use to think about and describe things affects the value judgments we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an “accident,” we imply that these tragedies are inevitable, and that they’re beyond human influence or control. After all, “accidents” happen, don’t they?

Crashes aren’t accidents, and they don’t have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life.

…use of the word “accident” tends to shift blame to the victims of car crashes, and prevents people from thinking about these deaths and injuries in the context of a preventable public health challenge.

When a plane crashes, we don’t call it an “accident” — in large part because we demand answers, and that it doesn’t happen again. In 2021, let’s change our language to reflect the fact that car crashes aren’t something that just happen. They’re something we control. They’re a problem we can solve. Accidents happen, but most crashes don’t have to.

Without question, this is a good thing, and we should be celebrating it as a small victory. However, such directives to properly describe a crash as a “crash” isn’t entirely new. 

For example, the Associated Press style guide has advised since 2016 that describing something as an accident “can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible.” 

Since 1997, the US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stressed that calling something an accident “suggests something of the unforeseen, an event that could not have been anticipated and for which no one can be blamed.” 

And as part of its “Vision Zero” initiative, New York City stated in 2014 that it “must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents,’ but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed.”

These sorts of written efforts may be helpful in terms of slowly altering public perception of these incidents, but they obviously don’t actually makes roads safer for cyclists. In fact, 2020 was a particularly brutal year in New York City with roughly two dozen cyclists killed, and it’s not like these initiatives are reliably treated as gospel by local news outlets (although a Google search suggests that it’s gotten a lot better).

Nevertheless, it’s a start. And it’s helpful. And yes, I’m happy to see that word of ACG’s position is getting passed around in various publications and blogs.

What I find far more interesting about ACG’s release, however, is this passage (emphasis mine):

When it comes to car crashes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to comprehensive research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error. That means that 36,000 of the 38,800 people who lost their lives on American roadways in 2019 could still be here today if drivers made different choices. Consider also the outcomes for the 4.4 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization –  or the billions of dollars spent on auto insurance claims, incurred losses, medical bills, and litigation each year. All told, nearly 95 percent of it could have been avoided completely.

It’s followed by a rundown of specifics (limited to the state of Colorado in this case, since the releases were distributed on a state-by-state basis), like how “fully 26 percent of all crashes between 2005 and 2018 were the result of driver distraction,” “substance-impaired drivers caused 10 percent of all crashes,” and “of the 3,700 fatal or injury-causing crashes investigated by the Colorado State Patrol in 2014, 17.2 percent were linked to speeding, 13 percent were linked to lane violations, and 6.6 percent were the result of failures to yield the right of way. Had drivers simply chosen to behave differently behind the wheel, lives would’ve been saved.”

Consider the weight of all of this. Again, although ACG is but a single club member of the AAA insurance company, it’s not exactly small — and AAA itself is one of the largest players in the auto insurance space in the United States with over 61 million members and more than 1,000 offices in North America. 

And this entity just openly admitted that the vast majority of car crashes are the result of driver error. 

Granted, ACG likely put out this statement in the context of crashes that occur between multiple motor vehicles. But why wouldn’t this also apply when the driver of a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, pedestrian, or another vulnerable road user? Is this ACG tacitly admitting that, with few exceptions, most drivers — presumably its own clients included — would be at fault if they hit a cyclist on the road? 

At least to me, this feels like informational ammunition from a fixture inside the automotive hegemony, and could potentially be huge in terms of its effect on driver-vs.-cyclist crash litigation.

But then again, I’m no legal expert on this sort of thing, so I went ahead and contacted one.

“The point the article makes is that humans’ decisions are what cause most collisions,” explained attorney Megan Hottman of Hottman Law Office here in Colorado, who specializes in cases where a cyclist has been hit by a driver. “If we all operated our car/bike/scooter/motorcycle more carefully, most collisions could be avoided. This is why they are removing ‘accident’ from their vocabulary — because an accident signals that this thing truly wasn’t avoidable, which isn’t the case. When people decide to speed, to run a dark yellow/almost-red light, when people don’t check the bike lane for a cyclist before making a right turn, those human errors cause collisions.”

That said, Hottman also points out the potential significant of the wording in ACG’s statement, which is particularly ironic given that the subject of the statement is careful word choice.

“Generally speaking, what I think they honestly really meant to say was ‘operator (or human) error’ to include not just drivers of vehicles, but also motorcyclists, bicyclists, scooter riders, etc. I don’t read this statistic to mean it is only car-driver error. But I think they are going to ‘facepalm’ when they realize the ramifications of using ‘driver error’ so broadly in these publications.” 

Hottman also was quick to point out that in cases where auto insurers attempt to assign fault to her cyclist clients, she’s planning to happily refer to this article as a reminder that “drivers” cause the overwhelming majority of collisions. She admits that it’s a thin argument, but given the weight of this kind of public statement, that it’s still one worth making, anyway.

In other words, ACG’s wording maybe won’t be as impactful (no pun intended) in terms of assigning fault in cyclist-vs.-driver crashes as I’d hoped. But it sounds like it might not be totally insignificant, either.

Given the current state of affairs where, more often than not seemingly nothing at all happens in these cases, I’ll take what I can get.

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