When I was in Ireland recently, I heard about a cyclist who had been killed the day before when struck by a vehicle. The person who told me the story went on to tell me that: they shouldn’t have been cycling in the fog; they probably didn’t have lights and they almost certainly had earphones in so they couldn’t have heard the oncoming vehicle. The same person went on to tell me about the time he’d nearly struck a 14-year-old schoolgirl who’d got off the bus and walked out in front of him; the schoolgirl was looking at her phone so obviously wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the traffic.
It struck me that the only facts the narrator knew about the dead cyclist were that (a) it was a foggy day and (b) the cyclist had been struck by a vehicle. Everything else was speculation and the construction of some sort of narrative. What sort of narrative was being constructed and why was one necessary beyond the bare facts? Partly because we tell stories to each other and passing on bare information without adding a personal perspective seems inadequate in our social discourse. And partly because, in telling a story like this, we are inviting the other person to enter into the narrator’s construction of the story and support their interpretations of the events as described.
It seems to me that there were a number of interesting elements added to this story. Firstly, the cyclist shouldn’t have been out in the fog, but people need to travel for their own purposes and can choose the mode of transport they wish. Secondly, assuming that the cyclist wasn’t well lit and therefore the driver might not have been able to see him in time. Thirdly, and for me most tellingly, that the cyclist probably had earphones in and was unable to take avoiding action. All of these added elements are essentially laying blame on the victim and seeking to excuse the fault of the driver. This version of the story discounts the cyclist’s right to share the road and for other road-users to look out for them. This also acts to justify the narrator’s own position in case he is ever in a similar situation.
I agree that there are a whole load of other factors about which we know nothing. Was the driver speeding? Did the cyclist join the road without making proper observations? Was either party intoxicated? But these are testable objective facts, not speculations added to sparse information.
Both these stories are about victim-blaming. It’s not the driver’s fault because, because …. Yet any driver in is charge of a couple of tonnes of metal travelling at speed. The driver is the person who’ll walk away from either collision with zero harm because of crumple zones, seat belts and air bags; the cyclist or pedestrian has no such protection and will be lucky to survive without life-long injuries. These are not symmetrical outcomes.
Victim-blaming happens all the time and will keep on happening until society really gets its head around what equality means. Equal access to the roads means that cyclists have the same rights to careful regard as any other road user. Children are going to be careless and drivers must expect them to walk out from behind buses and slow down or stop accordingly – indeed, in some countries, but regrettably not Ireland nor the UK, it is an offence to pass a stopped school bus for this very reason.
Victim-blaming is also about othering; putting the victim into an out-group who should not be afforded the same rights, privileges and protections as “people like us”. This helps to develop a meta-narrative that actually justifies victimhood and excuses personal or societal culpability for the protection and dignity of all people. Essentially, by blaming the people we run over in our entitlement, we preserve power and privilege and obstruct the building of a better society.
There are many cyclists in our own thinking and world-view. Refugees, the victims of rapists, LGBTQ+ people and those in receipt of welfare benefits to name but a few. In fact, it’s always the powerless who we put up on two wheels in the fog and then casually drive over, making excuses for their invisibility.