Monday 3 June 2013

The Accidental Truth

I don't get out to the pub much days. Being a parent to three young kids and pubs don't mix. However, this means when I do get a chance to go out for a pint or three I jump at the chance, and so I was out at one on Saturday night.

The problem with pubs though is that the alcohol they purvey not only lubricates the mind, but it lubricates conversations as well. This is particularly dangerous if you are known to be a cycle safety campaigner to those you are at the pub with, and they aren't avid cyclists themselves.

Yes, you've guessed it, a heated conversation ensued. In fact it was heated enough that I decided to leave the pub early. Sometimes that is the best course of action for all involved. On reflection though (and after the alcohol has left the system), conversations like this, whilst not enjoyable at the time do focus the mind.

One of the main areas of conversation was the use of the term accident. As a cyclist I hate the use of the term as it is often used to describe incidents that I think are in no way accidents. In fact on the night I went one step further and explained to my audience that on the roads there was no such thing as an accident.

As you can imagine a statement such as this, in a pub after a few pints was met with gasps of horror.

You can't seriously be suggesting that there is no such thing as an accident?!?

Yes I was. Unfortunately, rather than me being asked to defend this statement further I was barraged with examples of situations which could not possibly be an accident. 

What if a bale of hay fell off a trailer, caused a car to swerve, and the car hit a cyclist?

What if a car just so happened to run over a nail in the road, caused a tyre to blow out and the car careered into a cyclist killing them?

What if aliens just so happened to......

...and so on.

I tried my best at the time to explain my reasoning however, a mixture of mild intoxication and my audiences incredulity at my stance meant that we just spiralled into a argument that got more ridiculous. I remember the usual comments being made about cyclists riding two abreast being a danger on the roads (I'm sorry, but the only reason you would hit cyclists who riding two abreast after going around a blind corner is if you are driving too fast for the corner), and suggesting that if there were more cyclists there would be more traffic jams.


That's when I left. Having met the families of cyclists who have been killed in supposed, 'accidents' and meeting fervent opposition to my views was no longer my idea of fun. Leaving was the best thing for everyone.

But what about my assertion about accidents? Can there really be no such thing as an accident?!?

Let's imagine that bale of hay fell from the tractor. Is this an accident? Not a chance. If a bale of hay falls off, then I think it is clear that whoever secured the hay was at fault. If your load falls off and causes an incident, then you are at fault. No question. But what if a strap snapped? The strap should have been better maintained. What if the strap was properly maintained and it failed unexpectedly? Then whoever produced the strap did not design or make it properly etc..... No matter the circumstances, there is fault.

That's outrageous! Surely that's just a blame culture and will lead to everyone being to scared to get out of bed!?!

No. The level of culpability for the fault is another issue completely. It's easy to imagine a situation where there is fault, but that no-one would be censured. For example, imagine the nail situation: A child has been asked by his dad to take a few nails across to his uncle, across the road. The child on the way over drops a nail without noticing. A car comes past, tyre bursts, and a cyclist is killed.

Who is at fault here? Perhaps the child should have held the nails more securely. Perhaps the father should never have asked his child to take the nails across. Perhaps there is some shared fault. Should someone be held liable for the accident though?

I'm not a lawyer of course, but in situations like this there are certainly lessons to be learned, and some might feel guilt, but there would probably be no recourse. There was absolutely no intent, and the outcome was completely unexpected. However, and this is the crux of the whole argument, this tragedy is not an accident, it is not just an unfortunate mishap. The word accident suggests there was nothing that could have been done, and that there is nothing to learn.

It suggests that accidents happen and will always happen.

It suggests that we should just accept that people die and are seriously injured on our roads.

It's just a fact of life.

I've described a case I came across before where a judge suggested that a cyclist was injured in an 'accident'. Just one of those things. Momentarily blinded by the sun. Hey ho.

Not acceptable!

'Accident' provides justification for situations that we are worried could happen to us. As drivers we are concerned that we could be blinded by the sun, we could suddenly come across 2 cyclists around a blind corner, that the aliens could land on our car....

The label of accident puts us at ease and justifies the fact that as drivers (remember I am one) we don't always drive as carefully as we should, or that we don't plan far enough ahead to take account of the weather conditions. It allows us to abdicate responsibility.

So if I find myself in a pub again, I'll do my best to steer the conversation away from cycling. If I do fall into that trap, it won't be an accident. I'll only have myself to blame.

If I do accidentally enter a discussion about accidents, I'll make sure I point out that it is time for all of us who use the roads, whatever our mode of transport to think again about our responsibilities to other road users. Otherwise there will be plenty more 'accidents' waiting to happen.


  1. I agree. I think the use of the word "accident" perpetuates the myth that there is an inevitability to road traffic collisions. I see plenty of bad driving on the road to know this "inevitability" is nonsense- it's poor driving, virtually every time, that causes these collisions. We should have our own Project Zero! Conflict of interest- I lost a sister to a road traffic collision.

  2. Very sorry to hear that Docroddy. :-( Vision zero is interesting. Apply that principle to cycling and segregated cycle lanes and 20mph zones are an entirely logical result.

  3. Excellent argument, I also see your point about the pub I have been there myself and there are now four topics to avoid in the pub, religion, politics,cycling and the other one

  4. The thing is that there's a whole transport industry which analyses carefully every time one of its vehicles is in a collision, and tries to make sure that the faults that caused it to happen never happen again. It also has annual away from vehicle testing of the operators, and vehicle operator monitoring.

    The result: 3 UK deaths in the last 20 years; approximately 5 billion journeys. This is the airline industry, of course. But there is an awful lot to learn from it, that's for certain.

  5. There is always a root cause to any incident. What that is determined to be is what determines the level of fault and any negligence between the parties.

    People seem to use the word accident to mean something which was unintentional, which is not the same as identifying a root cause, for lessons learnt or liability to be placed.

    That's not the issue. The real issue is the general casualness and flippancy people attach to road incidents. "Hit and run" is a prime example that really gets my goat. Society needs to get tougher about how it deals and describes road incidents.

  6. So if one of your children spills a drink then I assume you tell them that this was not an accident? If you bump into someone in the street then should we berate ourselves for being so careless? If something falls out my hand it is not just an accident?

  7. The thing is, there's a difference between "you didn't do that on purpose" (accident) and "you weren't at fault".

    If I drive my car down a residential street at 90mph and crash then the crash is an accident (assuming I didn't want to crash) but it doesn't mean that I'm not in any way at fault.

    The list of things by 'anonymous' above are all accidents but there is clearly fault, e.g "being careless". If I injure or kill someone else, even accidentally, through my carelessness then I need to accept the blame.

  8. Whenever I hear 'road traffic accident' I just want to shout 'collision'! In the media you read reports of "a car hit a tree/wall.." as if the car was somehow entirely responsible, not the driver. This attitude of accidents will always happen on the road being acceptable has to change.

  9. I agree that the majority of collisions on the road are probably not just 'accidents' however I think it is a dangerous route to suggest that there are no such things as accidents (I am talking about in a wider perspective rather than just on the roads) and that someone is always at fault. Do we have to teach our children that when they fall over that they were careless (therefore they are to blame, after all they shouldnt have been so careless) and it wasnt just an accident, when one of their friends accidentally hurts them when playing that it was actually their friends fault and not just an accident... I think it breeds a blame culture which doesnt need much help in our current climate of 'where there is blame there is claim'!

  10. The alternative word "collision"does not always work as a replacement for "accident" My firm won a claim for a cyclist where a van towing a trailer attempted to overtake and as the trailer came by the available road space narrowed rapidly. No collision but only because the cyclist took evasive action. I suppose you could say that she collided with the ground!
    There are accidents on the road. If a driver who was previously in good health and not driving against medical advice, has a heart attack or stroke and loses control of the vehicle, that's an accident. Apart from that, there are no accidents.

  11. Interesting post. I tend to use collision or crash (depends on the circumstances, outcome, mood I guess)- yes the heart attack issue does come up every so often, but it doesn't trigger an accident in the sense of how people often use the road - medically-linked loss of control???

    I think the real issue which has been well put here is that with RTCs, in the vast majority of cases, the crash has been caused by a party making a choice to do something wrong.

    The driver swerving to avoid a falling bale of hay may have its roots with the person who didn't secure the load, but the crash will be the result of a causal chain - perhaps the driver should have being going slower - if the cyclist had been 5 minutes earlier etc etc. Looking at casual chains can be helpful, especially if we are trying to look at physical issues of road layout for example.

  12. I think the problem comes from people changing the meaning of "accident".

    It doesn't mean something unavoidable or unpreventable. It just means that it wasn't deliberate.

    What is wrong is dismissing accidents as "just one of those things" and saying that nothing should be done about them.