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Kim Harding, and others, are trying to get trying to Strict Liability back into the political agenda in Scotland. Strict Liability is part of traffic law in Germany, and in fact most of the world, outside of the UK.
Some time ago, Eldest Son had a very minor collision with a car on a Spielstrasse (shared space street, 7km/h limit). Being about six at the time, Eldest Son didn’t know that in Germany you give way to vehicles coming from the right, didn’t stop on a junction, and was clipped by a very expensive vehicle speeding up the hill. Eldest Son was fine, but Expensive Car had some minor damage.
Beautiful Wife learned to drive in Japan, and didn’t know that in Germany you should always call the police when you have an accident, so when the driver said “we don’t need to bother calling the police”,* gave her his address, then drove off saying he needed to go to an appointment, she accepted it.
A few weeks later a rather large bill arrived.
We have liability insurance, so we wrote to our insurance company and explained what had happened. They found it very amusing, wrote to the driver and reminded him about Strict Liability, in particular that if a car hits a child, the driver is always liable. (Driving over the speed limit was also a bit naughty, as was not calling the police, which in Germany made it a hit-and-run, but we’ll ignore that)
The driver tried to make much of the point that he technically had right of way on the junction, and his lawyers sent us a threatening letter with an even bigger bill in the hope we’d panic and pay up, which we passed on to the insurance company. They wrote to said Lawyers and asked them to kindly stop messing about, and that was that.
Had Eldest Son been injured, the rules would mean the driver of Expensive Car would be held responsible. whereas in the UK it would have meant a long legal battle for us to get compensation or simply not be held liable for scratching his paint. His insurance would have had to pay, at least partly, for treatment and rehabilitation, pushing up his premiums. Drivers -unfortunately- seem to be more aware of this than just the danger posed by a ton of metal to vulnerable road users, and it makes them slightly more careful. As I recently heard a policeman complain: “Unfortunately, as soon as you drive a car in Germany, you are assumed to be responsible if any accident happens” ** I’m still convinced that German drivers are more cautious around pedestrians and cyclists than British drivers, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t because German drivers have a better understanding of the value of human life.
It also sends a clear message that the law is there to protect more vulnerable people. I’d have thought this was a given in any civilised country, but that’s just me.
*A phrase rarely heard except from drivers involved a motor vehicle collision and from people with a black jumper, crowbar and torch, kneeling in front of a broken safe at midnight. They could be right, of course.
**And this was the policeman supposed to be telling us about pedestrian and cycling safety. The mind boggles…
Our local town has a free newspaper printed by the local government. It is as exciting as you’d expect.
This week the headline is about how our town is a ‘safe place to live’ according to the police (which would explain why they closed the police station).
They do admit that there was a 6.5% increase in traffic incidents, which would seem rather a lot for a ‘safe town’. This includes two fatalities, but with about eleven fatalities a day in Germany, most towns will get a couple each year. Two deaths aren’t enough to make the traffic situation officially ‘dangerous’.
No mention is made of motor vehicle vs. pedestrian/bicycle collisions involving adults but we are told that there were seven ‘accidents’ which involved children under thirteen. The article tells us: “It is noticeable that three of the children were riding on Roller Scooters. A further three accidents involving children occurred on traffic lights on a pedestrian crossing with a red light showing.”*
So they were all ‘accidents’. Not the driver’s fault: all the fault of those irresponsible children, as the ‘official in charge’ concludes: “It is important that children are carefully prepared for road traffic”.
At no point does anyone seem to stop and ask any further questions.
For example, how fast the vehicles were being driven, and why they were unable to stop in time. Weather conditions or the type of vehicles involved are not mentioned.
We don’t know if the children were driving on a pavement or a ‘Spielstrasse’ (Lit: ‘Play Street’, a street where children should be able to play safely). The speed limit is 7km/h (4mph) on these but motor vehicles normally bounce down them at twenty or thirty Km/h.
We don’t know if the drivers were using their phone or adjusting their navigator.
There are no details at all about the seventh ‘accident’.
We are left to assume we have the information we need: children were driving on roller scooters or crossing the road. Tut, tut, they should know better.
So that’s all right then, keep driving as fast as you like and if no-one takes those naughty children in hand and teaches them to be responsible with traffic, it isn’t your fault if you ‘accidentally’ run one down.
*German: “Auffällig sei, das dass drei der Kinder jeweils mit Tretrollen unterwegs waren. Weitere drei Unfälle mit Kindern ereigneten sich an einem Fußgängerüberweg bei roter Ampel” Any native German speakers are welcome to correct my translation.
My experience with the infernal combustion engine is limited, which was fine until someone at work realised that the apprentice lurking in the corner could drive back to the workshop and get whatever had been forgotten, so I’m getting a lot of quality time with the two company vans. These are both rather elderly and probably not in showroom condition. Other vehicles seem to be magnetically attracted to them and roads magically become narrower as I approach. I have yet to successfully make a hill start in the largest of the two, and every gear change is an adventure.
So last week, when I was working within the village and I’d just got back to the workshop to collect something, I realised I had an empty van and threw the Xtracycle inside before anyone could object, on the basis that I’d probably be sent back to get something else fairly soon, and sure enough, my supervisor found he was missing a small but rather important bracket that he needed, as in, now.
Downstairs, Xtracycle out of van, off we went. Through industrial estate, round shunting trucks that would have held up the van, a braked briefly for driver turning in front of me because despite having lights on I was still apparently invisible, into the village proper, past some children playing, into residential streets, where I was buzzed by a large SUV until we came to cars parked on both sides of the road that left him trying to squeeze through the remaining gap without losing his mirrors, and through the secret bike and pedestrian cut through (although not so secret that the town hasn’t managed to add a chicane halfway through to make it that little less convenient). I popped out of the other side, through more houses, over the main road and down through the old village centre to the workshop.
Off bike, searched workshop, no sign of bracket.
I got back on the bike, made the same journey in reverse*, and used all my acting skills trying not to look smug at “How did you get here so fast?” look on supervisors face.
We found the bracket under a toolbox.
*Even down to being buzzed by another SUV: it was one of those mornings…
Yesterday evening I had an invitation to visit a friend in York, and decided to ride. I’d borrowed a bike*, and York is one of the UK’s three ‘cycling cities’** that were being trumpeted to rival Amsterdam and Copenhagen as world-class cycling centres, so I figured I’d be okay. And I was, mostly because I started on a fairly minor road and some kind soul reminded me that in the UK people drive on the left before I met any traffic.
I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the bike lanes: certainly I’d have preferred them to have priority over side roads like in Germany, and it would have been even better if the one I was using hadn’t given up after a couple of hundred metres and pitched me into the road, but it wasn’t too bad.
In the other hand, I liked these nifty speed lumps in the roads. I’m sure you’re all used to them by now, but humour me while I ramble on about them like some country cousin discovering electricity: they are just narrow enough for a car to drive over them fairly quickly without spilling the drivers coffee, so cars seem utterly focussed on keeping their wheels either side of the things. I soon noticed that vehicles overtaking would go over (round?) the more distant bump, giving me a reasonable amount of room. Just as well as I was on the road all the way to my friend’s house and back: if I’d followed the designated cycle route I’d most likely still be out there.
Come to think of it, none of the drivers who passed were using their phone either, because they had to concentrate on the road to avoid leaving part of the car on the road. If only we could get them to treat pedestrians with the same respect as their own vehicles…
**The others being Bristol and… where are the others exactly?
This weekend I made a trip to Bad Urach, in the hope of making a metric century.* Bad Urach is the sort of German town you see on calenders, with a medieval centre, winding cobbled streets, timber framed buildings, street cafés and a chemist claiming to have been in business since 1429. The town has been thankfully well looked after too, with a merciful absence of ugly modern buildings, apart from one brutalist concrete monstrosity that the council must have approved during an office party, but even that was tucked down a side street. The council did manage to make most of the old town pedestrianised so that instead of cars in the centre you get scenes like this.
Of course, just after I took this picture a car came trundling furtively down the road towards the café, probably having taken a wrong turn somewhere. I’m not one to criticise drivers for getting stuck on the wrong road, as I’m especially prone to doing exactly that: my dad still hasn’t forgotten the trauma of driving here while trying to follow instructions like “Turn left here… Oops, that’s a cycleway.” But, dear readers, I would ask one question: if you have unfortunately managed to find yourself driving along a pedestrianised street barely wide enough for your car, and come across a café whose furniture makes it even narrower and thus impossible to pass, do you:
A: Drive back the way you came and find one of the perfectly good, fast roads around the town to get to your destination, or…
B: …get your passenger to alight from the vehicle and move the offending furniture so that you can keep going, because obviously, you need to get somewhere and the furniture is In The Way?
I wonder what they would have done if the tables had been occupied…
*106km as you asked, at an average speed of 19km/h, and my legs let me know about it the next day…
Well, not a great deal seems to have happened this week, but that would be a false impression. It’s just that not a lot has happened that I can make an interesting blog entry out of.* I can’t even regale you with tales of horrific winter blizzards and drifts up to the windowsills because even the weather is just in a big grey sulk like a teenager being forced to do their homework. When you start blogging about the weather being apathetic then you really are short of blogging subjects.
Still, I suspect it’s the calm before the storm, as next week will be my Praktikum, a trial week with the local carpenter, who fortunately for me is within an easy walk of where we live. If I manage to convince the boss that I can handle a week of eight-hour shifts without tripping over, passing out, crashing the van, or amputating my own thumb, I can hopefully start a full three-year apprenticeship in this company in September. In Germany we still have this quaint notion that training people is a good idea, so a lot of people here do apprenticeships like this in just about everything from social work to engineering, and in many cases it’s seen a sort of ‘job for life’, or near enough: we see it more as a “Skill for life” which will mean we can keep working towards our goals. I’ll go on about those another time.
I have been cycling as well, but as it’s mostly been the “drive to school/kindergarten/supermarket/garden” type of trip it’s hardly exciting stuff, unless you count the early morning “Papa Taxi” ride which occasionally means dealing with commuters in a two tonne weapon who don’t know what ‘Shared Space’ means. Last week we were going uphill on a road just wide enough for one car -so of course there were cars parked all down the side of it- when a VW pulled out and started to come downhill towards us. Lacking the abilities of spiderman to climb buildings** we waited until the driver realised they would have to wait for us to pass them. As we walked by the vehicle the driver leaned across and shouted in a you-are-being-told-off-voice that “Your light is really bright.”
With hindsight, “Good” probably wasn’t the most diplomatic answer…
*Not that this usually stops me, of course.
**And I’ll bet even he wouldn’t attempt that with a Bakfiets.
To the driver going through the old town yesterday morning at about ten past seven, in the dark.
You see those soft, squishy things on two legs? The ones about the height of your wing mirrors? Those are children, and we’d appreciate it if you don’t run them over. We understand that anything or anyone in your way is In The Wrong Place, but -and I know this is a trifling detail that is often ignored by very important motorists- as you came up the road you passed a sign saying this is a Spielstrasse, which means that they, and indeed that person walking their dog, the two people on bicycles and even the even the Nordic walkers, have every right to be there, and that you, despite your big flashy car, are required to drive at seven (7) kilometres an hour, even if the town council can’t be bothered to repaint the sign on the road to remind you.
You may have been on the way to a Very Important Meeting. You were still going too fast.
You may be a very experienced and ‘careful’ driver; you were still going too fast.
Your sat-nav may have told you this was a nifty way through; you were still going too fast.
You may have a big white flashy 4×4 with a metallic paint job, racing tyres on shiny wheels that don’t look like they’ve heard of mud, and four exhausts the size of drainpipes; you were still going too fast.
I know that seen from a car this road looks like a nice quick short cut to the bakery for you to pick up some lunch, but you were still going far. Too. Fast.
Especially for someone talking on a mobile phone.
If you want to go fast you can use the main road through the village, which the mere inhabitants of this village all avoid because of all the traffic. The only vehicles which have a right to drive the speed you were driving have blue lights and sirens. And no, your horn doesn’t count even if you were using it most of the way down the road.
That is why the person on the very long bicycle didn’t just squeeze to the side of the road in the manner of a submissive peasant so that you could continue on your way, but instead rode along the middle of the road. Because I’d rather you are delayed for a few seconds than you drive into/over any of the little squishy things in your two-tonne car.
Especially as two of them are mine.
Thank you for your time, and -I really mean this- have a safe journey.
A long-term friend in the UK is getting married next year, which means I have to find out a way to get to Newcastle via my parents house in York. Normally we go to the UK via the channel tunnel, but this time there’s a small complication because he’s getting married in August, when there will be some kind of sports event in London, so the city will be full to bursting point and beyond.
Fortunately my destination is Newcastle, far up in the frozen north where trolls live, so there are alternatives. Most likely is a train journey to Rotterdam, a peaceful nights sleep (optimism springs eternal) as we cross the North Sea by ferry and next morning, catch the train to my parents hom in York. Simple.
Except that the railway stations of both cities are some distance from the ferry terminals.
Okay, so take a bike: cycle from Rotterdam Centraal to the ferry, and from the ferry to Hull station, and while I’m at it, from York station to my parents house.
Look Rotterdam up on Google Earth. Can’t find a bike lane anywhere. Mutter dark mutterings about the claims of these blogs then realise the ‘road’ I’m looking at is a cycle lane. With a white line down the centre. Follow same from station to ferry port. Hooray for Dutch cycling infrastructure, and apologies to the above named bloggers.
There’s only a few kilometres between port and railway station, but it looks as navigable as a set from ‘The Matrix’ and slightly more dangerous. The roads are a mess of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts with enough space in the centre for a small farm, built when city planners knew cars were going to be the only way to travel*. There’s the occasional cycle lane for a couple of hundred metres, usually ending at road islands and dual carriageways.
Obviously the chief trolls don’t use bicycles very much.
I could give up and use a taxi through Hull, but that would mean I don’t have transport for the week or two that I’ll be in the UK, which would seem a bit silly for the sake of six kilometres, and nor would I be able to ride in Rotterdam.
The other alternative would seem to be finding a native guide, or at least a map.
So, if there are any cyclists in Hull who are versed in the secret ways of the Matrix, I’d be glad of any tips, decent maps, or better still, a local cyclist willing to guide me through hostile territory between ferry and railway station and back again a couple of weeks later.
Please get in touch through the comments or contact box. Many thanks.
*This was ensured by making lots of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts so it was impossible to travel without a car.
To the German car drivers club:
May I record my gratitude to you for the lurid ill-fitting plastic jacket you sent Middle Son through our local school last month. I’m not sure how large you think children are when they start school, or what you think they’ll be called upon to do: the reflective ‘Traffic detective’ written on the back is somewhat cryptic to say the least.
He will not, however be wearing the jacket unless we have an urgent need to be spotted by a helicopter rescue team. Middle Son’s backpack has a much more subtle design, yet still manages to have enough reflective material to be visible from space and frankly if your members can’t see it, then they really shouldn’t be storming about the village in their big cars. Mind you, as they seem to be incapable of seeing the big reflective sign with the black ’30km/h’ on our street, or the or the 2 metre (6 foot) long ’7km/h’ painted on the roads nearby, I’d suggest a large minority could do with getting their eyes tested anyway.
Your claim that you “want children to be safe” is a great way to make parents feel guilty unless they force their children into these coats, but it hardly adds up as we know that the best way to keep children safe is to keep cars well away from them or have stringent speed limits, and yet the mighty Google shows that your organisation is often quoted as opposing such measures.
This is hardly a surprise: you are after all a car owners club, not a child protection society, and as such your main concern is to promote the ‘rights’ of your members. They in turn seem to feel that anything on the road that is not a motor vehicle is trespassing on their territory.
Call me mister cynical if you will but the jackets you hand out look like another attempt to reinforce the message that pedestrians are only really allowed on roads -or pavements- under protest, and that anyone venturing out into the Sacred Space For Cars* must be dressed like a radioactive teletubby, and stay out of the way of the Very Important Drivers. If children are injured by a Very Important Driver it’s their own fault; in fact, they should really stay indoors, well of the way, or go to school in their parents car.
So the jacket will stay in the cupboard, but thanks anyway.
*Which apparently includes pavements/sidewalks.