If a pedestrian steps out into flowing traffic without looking, whether the vehicle that hits him is doing 30, 40, 50, or 60 kph, the collision is the pedestrian’s fault.
However, science confirms that if the vehicle is travelling at 30kph, the pedestrian almost certainly lives. If the vehicle is travelling at 60kph, the pedestrian almost certainly dies.
So while the pedestrian is to blame for the collision, who might be to blame for his death? That’s a question street and traffic planners, law writers and courts should ponder. And motorists, too.
It is a question that lies behind a much under-rated aspect of road safety: the moral attitude of people to road laws and traffic behaviours. Both those who make the rules and those who break them.
Rules are a direct reflection of our so-called “value system” — what we consider right or wrong, important or trivial, what we condemn and what we condone. And the degree to which we find a behaviour acceptable or abhorrent.
For example, are rape and stealing a chicken comparable offences? For many years, and not very long ago, our courts imposed remarkably similar penalties for the two crimes.
Whether you find that outrageous or reasonable says much about your “values”. And the consensus of our personal opinions represent the values of our society. And those, presumably, are what guide our national laws, punishment levels, and enforcement priorities.
So what “values” do our current road laws, punishment levels and enforcement practices represent — what message do they send to every road user? Do they tally with your personal values, or what you believe are our cumulative social or national values?
And if not, why not, and what should be done about that? By whom? It is a universal truth, now widely acknowledged, that a law must be “respected” in order for it to work. And to be respected, the framing and application of the law must resonate with our values.
Is causing death by dangerous driving the moral equivalent of manslaughter? A key answer is whether court sentences treat the two offences equally.
Ergo, if society does not (sufficiently) condemn lawless or dangerous behaviour on the road, the law will not be respected. And until it is, the laws will not be universally obeyed. And until they are, the roads will not be safe.
Through education and punishment, perhaps vehicle owners and drivers need stronger reminders that they owe a duty to the public; that a licence to drive is a privilege — the public is “trusting” motorists to obey the rules and exercise due care, and if they betray that trust the privilege will be removed and they will be treated and punished as “criminals”.
And if they kill someone through negligence, they will be punished as severely as society would demand if, say, a grocer sold arsenic in a packet accidentally marked “sugar”.
In absolutely equal measure, it is incumbent on those who make and enforce the laws to properly represent (and decently guide) social values with a degree of clarity, consistency, competence, diligence and equitability that will earn “respect”.
Does our social value system do enough to make both “sides” equally and adequately accountable?