This evening I will be attending the Road Share campaign for Strict Liability Parliamentary reception at the Scottish Parliament. Before doing so I though it a good idea to write a bit about use of the roads and moral hazard as a way of examining the concept of Strict Liability on the roads.
Imagine that you are walking along a pavement, a vehicle passes you, it kicks up a stone, which hits you and blinds you in one eye. Currently to gain compensation you must prove negligence, the driver is assumed to have done nothing wrong. Strict liability says that the possibility of kicking up a stone and blinding someone is an inherent risk of driving, the fact the driver chose to drive the car and put you at risk in that way means that they have accepted they will be held liable if that risk is realised. In the example above, this would be No-fault liability, which is defined as follows: “where a person is held responsible not for his failure to display the diligence of a reasonable man, but because he is in control of a source of danger to other people’s lives, health or property”
Strict Liability is not about criminal culpability, it is about civil liability. The concept of Strict Liability recognises that the driver is the one who has introduced the risk to the public space and they have done so for their own advantage, i.e. the person driving is benefitting from driving. Many drivers probably prefer not to see it that way, they prefer to focus on what they see as the high costs of driving. However, the perceived cost to the driver must be less than the benefit to themselves or they would leave the car behind and use another means of transport.
The driver accrues the benefits of driving but not all of the costs, many of those costs are externalised, and this includes an increased risk to other, more vulnerable road users. These road users do not benefit at all from a driver taking their car to the supermarket, but they do bear some of the risk. This can be seen as the moral hazard of driving.
The role of the law and justice system should be to attempt to rebalance the costs, so that if a driver does something risky they can be expected to bear the costs of this. Several methods are used: fines, removal of the licence to drive or finally imprisonment. However, these sanctions are not equal to the risk borne by other users. A driver is capable of killing a pedestrian, yet we do not expect the driver to be executed for doing so (nor should we).
All that Strict Liability does is recognise that if you wish to benefit from something but at the same time take risks at the expense of others, you should be prepared to pay up (or rather, your insurer should), if that risk is realised. Consequently strict liability isn’t limited to cars vs bicycles. It says the larger vehicle, the greater risk potential risk to others and therefore the greater the responsibility, leading to the following hierarchy: HGV > car > bicycle > pedestrian.
Strict Liability is reserved for “inherently dangerous” activities or products. A classic example would be that of a circus: If a lion escapes and injures a member of the audience, no matter how strong the lion’s cage was, or how closely the lion was watched, it is still the circus owner who would be held liable.
The reasoning behind Strict Liability is to hold whosoever benefits from putting others at risk – demolition, transporting hazardous materials, using dangerous machines, etc. – accountable for any damaged caused by that activity. It is not dissimilar to the duty of care owed by employers to their employees, the employer benefits most from putting the workers at risk, therefore the law believes they have a moral obligation to take all practicable steps to keep the workers safe. Yet another example of where the Health and Safety Executive is steps ahead of other branches of government.
A final thought, a form of Strict Liability already exists on our roads: where two motor vehicles are involved in a collision and the second vehicle runs into the back of the first (a rear end shunt). The driver of the second vehicle is automatically held to be liable (unless they can prove there were extenuating circumstances). It is only fair and reasonable that the same principle be extended to vulnerable roads user, as is already the case in the majority of other European countries.
This post was inspired by a blog post from lovelobicycles.