The Problem With Good People

Source: Beyond the Kerb

Trying to make sense of where the wheeled things live.

We would do well to remember that morals are not absolute, and that morality is not a measure of competence.

A good killer

News emerged today of a driver who was sentenced for causing death by careless driving. Deborah Lumley-Holmes struck Julian Evans from behind while he “was cycling on a straight stretch of road on a dry, sunny day with clear visibility“, fatally injuring him. She was given a suspended sentence, was ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, and was disqualified from driving for one year.

Some quite startling remarks emerge in the report.

The court heard that Lumley-Holmes, a practising Christian, had for many years made a important contribution to society through charity work, volunteering for the St Nicholas Hospice.

Judge John Holt said the death of Mr Evans had been a tragedy for all involved, including Lumley-Holmes who had made a ‘remarkable contribution’ to the community through charity work.

Lumley-Holmes’s charity work was, as far as I can tell from the above, admissible in court as part of her defence and was specifically mentioned in the judge’s comments.

It is unclear from that report whether the fact that she was “a practising Christian” was similarly admitted, or even presented in court, but at the very least it is considered by the reporter to be pertinent within a statement of another, apparently mitigating, factor.

Too good to kill?

Both of these aspects are reminders of the many reports of the recent trial of Helen Measures, who was cleared of causing the death of Denisa Perinova. For instance,The Telegraph wrote:

Measures, who has a doctorate in oncology and has worked as a scientist for leading pharmaceutical companies for the past 30 years …

Measures, a former parish church bell ringer, sobbed in court …

Spot the pattern here? Someone who works for charity and goes to church; someone who works to fight cancer and goes to church…

There is a very clearly implied message: These acts are Good Acts. These people are Good People.

A Good Person

I’m sure we’re all just as aware of the abuse scandals in the church as we are of our own recent embarrassment at having spent the 80s thinking what a lot of lovely work for children’s charities Jimmy Savile was doing. Let’s not pretend that either doing some charity work or, even less, being religious are accurate litmus tests for a Good Person.

But, even if they were, there is a huge problem here, a more fundamental problem.

Good morals are not good skills

Death on the roads is, except in incredibly rare cases, not a malicious act. It can be negligence, disregard, incompetence, distraction, impairment, irresponsibility basic human fallibility… Attribute each incident to whatever you will, but even the most incredibly stupid and safety-ignorant driver who kills or injures does not do so because they intend to kill or injure.

Killing or injuring someone with a car on the road is not like doing so with a knife in the street, or a bottle in a bar, or a gun in a bank. Yes, the result is broadly the same, but the process is worlds apart.

Being a Good Person – whatever you consider to be the Good Acts that define them as such – does not make you a Competent Person. It does not make you a safe driver. It has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The huge problem here is that the media and – far worse – the courts are allowing character statements to alleviate the burden of responsibility in cases where the defendant’s character is of absolutely no relevance to the offence.

And, you know what? That’s not even the most fundamental problem, either.

A blurred boundary

The truly fundamental problem is that the law does not really seem to separate negligence and incompetence from malice and intent.

“Causing death by dangerous driving”, for instance, is a crime just as robbery or murder are crimes. And we all think Good People don’t commit crime. Good People don’t kill. So can we really punish this Good Person for this crime of killing? Is it a proper crime?

The system doesn’t really care which crime you committed. The court in which you are tried for one offence is the same at the one for which you are tried for any other. The prison to which you may go for one offence is the same as the one to which you would go for any other. The unpaid work you do is the same. The tools at the judge’s disposal are all the same.

Except one.

A good sentence

There is one available sentence that is both pertinent and differentiates incompetence from intent.

And that is the revocation of a driving licence.

In these cases, the incompetence is so great that it has resulted in death. Patently, anyone who is so incompetent at driving as to cause death should not be driving.

Yet Lumley-Holmes will be allowed to drive again in a year. Someone who has demonstrated that they cannot reliably navigate a straight, clear, dry stretch of road without causing the death of someone else is given only a year off.

This difference between intent and incompetence is why I’ve always felt that most drivers should not be imprisoned, but drivers who kill should be disqualified permanently.

The law, the courts and the media need to understand the difference.

The first reaction to fatal incompetence should be to simply prevent that incompetence being an issue. Take killers off the roads. There is no moral judgment in this: it is purely a matter of a driver’s qualification and other road users’ safety.

Do that first. Then, if there’s a need to make a moral judgment on other aspects of a case – such as fleeing the scene or becoming enraged or exhibiting flagrant disregard for safety – then that becomes something that can be judged in a “normal” criminal context.

But a revocation of a licence is simply pragmatic and sanguine. A churchgoer who does not drive is no morally poorer than one who does.

A good thing to remember

Good People, whomever they may be, can and do kill.

Going to church does not make you a better driver, because death on the roads is not an Act of God. It may, if your world view is so black-and-white, be the act of a Good Person or a Bad Person, but the only true fact is that it is the act of an Incompetent Person.

And it’s time that we recognised that an Incompetent Person is, nothing more and nothing less, not competent.


Background Reading


Blogs on Cycling usually take one of two tacks when attempting to deal with the Problems of Mayhem. They are either

  • very draconian when dealing with infractions incurred by motorists
  • or rather dismissive of those same infractions when committed by cyclists

This sort of dichotomy takes place whenever you treat Roadway Collisions or Driver Behavior as a “Zero Sum Game“. The problem is that we are talking about an organic situation where We The People are committing infractions or driving our vehicles in unsafe ways that often result in injury and even death. When you are killed your family is really not concerned whether you died from a collision (as a pedestrian) with an automobile in the crosswalk or a bicycle in that same crosswalk. Dead is dead.

It does not make a difference if you are operating a 2-ton automobile under the influence of alcohol or are riding your bicycle or even walking home from an Active Transportation Alliance “alcohol-themed fundraiser” if some sort of mayhem occurs that causes death or injury that is a problem for everybody.

Framing The Mayhem Problem As Solely The Purview of Motorists

When Bobby Cann was killed here in Chicago by Ryne San Hamel the Cyclist-friendly press had a field day laying blame on the motorist. But the source of mayhem caused that day, namely alcohol, is something that is endemic in our society. We seem whether to be drivers of cars or of bicycles to be able to enjoy ourselves without some sort of “lubrication“. We even use this as a means of attracting people to Bicycling Fund-Raisers of all things. That would be like having a PETA fundraiser where the door prize was a “fur coat“.

When any of us is on the roadway We The People are the cause of the mayhem. It is Our Problem that a pedestrian died at the hands of a bicyclist or a motorist. In fact we seem to understand this distinction (or lack thereof) when we try to frame the issue of increased Bicycle Infrastructure. We always like to say lofty things like “creating more bicycle infrastructure makes us all safer”. And I agree that this is the way it should be.

So why do we then play the numbers game? Take for instance this bit of cherry picking on the same blog:

Stopping at junctions

Most of us have been trained by our Bicycling Activist Community to nod knowingly at these statistics and say to ourselves, “see bicyclists are either no worse or less flagrant than motorists”. But that sort of thinking is really dangerous because it plays into the hands of statisticians.

If “your team” represent less than 1 percent of the road-user population and your statistics are as high as that of the motoring public then something is sorely wrong here. Why would cyclists who know that “amber gambling” or “speeding” or “failing to signal intentions” not want to demonstrate better behaviors have as high a level of the same inattentive activity as the motorists whom it seems they loathe?

Why indeed would cyclists who know the dangers of driving drunk when behind the wheel of an automobile, see nothing wrong with driving drunk behind the handlebars of a bicycle?

Some might argue that the mass of the vehicle is where the distinction should be drawn. They would claim that when mayhem occurs when driving a car it is far more likely to result in someone’s death than we that same person gets on a bicycle in the same intoxicated condition.

I would argue that the problem is not the vehicle but rather the person. If we have a society where alcohol is freely consumed and then we get out on the roadway riding a bicycle or driving a car we are capable of creating mayhem of equally proportions regardless of the mass of our vehicle. If a bicyclist who rides home “drunk as a skunk” veers into the traffic lane of the vehicles traveling adjacent to his and one of them decides to slam on the brakes or steers to avoid running him over and in the process hits and kills a pedestrian or otherwise causes a collision with another vehicle the effect is the same as if he (the motorist) were driving drunk.

If ever there were to be a group that understands the dangers of being on the roadway in an intoxicated condition it should be cyclists. But sadly even our Bicycle Advocacy Groups seem oblivious to the subtle messages they send when having alcohol-themed fundraisers. Again this is not so much the problem of these groups as it is Our Society. Having a “Good Time” is tied to “partying” and that generally means being “out of control“.

Cyclists are not unfamiliar with the effects of narcotics. They are as likely to be high on some pharmaceutical while operating their bicycles as a motorist might be on booze or beer.

There are no configurations of bicycle lanes (protected, buffered or whatever) that can overcome the inability of either the driver of a car or the driver of a bicycle to avoid causing mayhem. The problem has to be attacked at its root. We need to have a way to redefine what it means to have a “Good Time“. But even the Dutch and Danes are plagued with this problem. And “Goodness Knows” that the Brits are no strangers to booze. These folks are likely to create all sorts of mayhem while drunker than skunks and traveling to and from soccer matches. So no one is free to point the finger.

Actions Resulting In Death Are Not Special

First off let me say that I abhor the notion that someone getting onto the roadway and killing another ever happens. But it would seem that people are going to do stupid things regardless of the consequences to others. I always sit mesmerized but the Allstate Insurance Company commercials about “mayhem“. But that is because I do not deal with the mountains of stupid things (or as the author likes to call them “incompetencies” that we humans perpetrate).

There is nothing about a cyclist which makes him any less likely to cause a dangerous accident because his bike weighs less than a car should he try to bring home a water heater on the back of his mountain bike using weak bungee cords and it breaks free and rolls into an intersection just as a fast moving truck or fire engine is racing through and suddenly hits it and it flies into the air and strikes and kills a brain surgeon stepping out of his car at the hospital where the President of the United States is about to enter surgery to save his life. Whew!

Is a bus driver who has 30-years behind the wheel of a tour bus incompetent if he passes out while having a heart attack and drives off the roadway plunging down a ravine where dozens of his passengers are hurt or killed. What happens when a young woman is riding home on a Chicago street and loses a poorly attached pannier and somehow that pannier ends up causing another cyclist who hits it to do an “endo” onto the pavement resulting in a cracked neck vertebrae or even death? Is that cyclist incompetent?

Or how about the motorist who stops to help another (a pregnant mother) with a flat tire alongside the roadway and she decides to wait in the car while he changes the tire. But in her condition she struggles to get the driver’s side door open and a drunken cyclist comes speeding along in the Door Zone and whammo! He hits the car door and fractures his skull or worse yet he tries to avoid the collision by moving to his left but does so not realizing that a flatbed truck is bearing down on him on his fixed gear bike which he cannot stop without a skid.

Mayhem Is Not A Respecter of Vehicular Weight

The single most interesting thing about the discussion that surrounds motor vehicle collisions is how much mass a single car represents. We often use weight in pounds as an interchangeable quantity here. But it is the mass of the vehicle that is what we really mean to single out. But even then we get it all wrong.

The real problem is not the mass of any vehicle but rather its speed upon impact.

Drop the universal speed to 15 MPH throughout any city and you would see a marked decrease in the death rate. And probably for two very important reasons:

  • At slower speeds the release of potential energy has a less devastating effect on human bodies and other vehicles
  • But at slower speeds our ability to successfully avoid collisions altogether increases exponentially

In fact I would go so far as to say that if you really want to make cyclists safer, then drop the speed limit to 15 MPH and then you would have two situations solved simultaneously:

  • Cars and bikes would be traveling at speeds that either could maintain, so passing would be less important where cars are concerned
  • Collisions with cars or bikes by pedestrians would seldom result in death

We already know that the idea that Cars Kill and Bicycles Don’t is a lie. If anything is more dangerous than the perpetuation of this falsehood I do not know what it might be. It goes to the heart of how we as roadway users justify the things we do before getting behind the wheel of a car or the handle of a bike.

We have already have laws that make the distinction between deliberate indifference and simple mayhem. I certainly hope that losing your pannier at night on a pothole filled roadway and inadvertently causing a crash and eventual death of another cyclist does not result in your losing your right to operate a bicycle forever. But using this sort of draconian logic would certainly get you there rapidly.

I hope too that instead of having this false dichotomy between the mayhem caused by drivers and that caused by bicyclists we begin to realize that the problems of the roadway are the problems of We The People and not You The Damned Motorist. If we truly believe that motorists are the problem then we will likely have this sort of manifesto tacked to our refrigerator doors or at the very least made into spoke cars for our “fixie” bikes or passed out at door prizes to Active Transportation Alliance alcohol-themed fundraisers:

Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

And who do we point the finger at when the next pedestrian death here in Chicago is caused by a cyclist riding under the influence and striking a pedestrian crossing Damen Avenue just south of North Avenue?