I put out a call last week to get some help with a ramble. I had no idea how concise the ramble came back to me. Aaron Ball wrote this on the basic premise that the law was supposed to protect the weak and vulnerable, not to punish them.
The raising of fines in Queensland to match motorists fines sounds good to the motorists, but what does it achieve? No one should disobey the law, it is there for all. But we keep thinking of cyclists in lycra riding $10,000 bikes and not the utility or commuter on their bike that can not afford a car or have no job.
So what is the answer? I don't know now. But during the committees sitting, they provided an answer of raising only fines that put others in danger. It now appears TMR are going to raise all fines to equal the same as motorists regardless of their severity. We are not going to say do not fine people based on their method of transport, but we believe there is a more responsible process in doing so.
Here is what Aaron wrote:
Laws, whether they based on utility or some normative moral code, are designed to protect from evil or danger. We have the wonderful luxury of living in a ‘free country’: where people can do as they please except those things specifically prohibited by law, and those things are prohibited for identifiable reasons albeit sometime contentious reasons. The alternative to a free country is an extreme totalitarian state where people can do only what is explicitly allowed by law, with everything prohibited that falls outside explicit permissions.
The ideal of a free society is evident in our State and Federal constitutions: each State constitution creates powers administered by State government agencies, with limited powers reserved for Commonwealth government by a Federal constitution, with oversight by cabinets of ministers chosen from democratically elected parliaments.
Hand in hand with the need for laws to protect us, is the notion of equality before the law. A ‘fair’ law can mean a law that treats everyone equally, as well as meaning a law that is justified in the protections it provides.
However, as Thomas Jefferson popularly said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Social oppression and the loss of freedom often comes in increments, and not in the form of sudden revolution. For this reason, we must speak out against laws that are ostensibly created to protect us, but come at too great a cost of personal liberties.
Governments can often impose laws that remove freedoms in the spirit of ensuring social or individual protection. Sometimes, those protections aren’t really necessary, or the loss of personal freedoms resulting from the law far outweighs the protections created.
Sometimes laws are imposed in order to create ‘fairness’: so that all are treated equally, when in fact the law inequitably advantages some over others.
Often governments impose these laws with an honest intention to do what is best for us, but sometimes laws are imposed to appease populist opinion: cabinets and their ministers are elected popularly under our two-party democracy.
To quote another great American author, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If more and more social protections are imposed without justification for the loss of personal freedoms, our general social acceptance of more legal regulation increases. We then risk drifting away from the ideal of a free country, through the spectrum of ‘nanny-state’ and further towards the extreme of totalitarianism.
To guard against this we have to ensure that new laws, or changes to existing laws, will achieve true fairness and protect us from real dangers. We have to argue against rules that are implemented just to appease simplistic, popular ideals of fairness and protection.
The laws being considered in Queensland, as a result of the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Cycling Issues, are an example of this. 4 of the report’s 68 recommendations relate to changes to the laws about bicycle helmets, safe passing distances and equalisation of fines for bicyclists and motor vehicle drivers.
The debate about mandatory bicycle helmets has raged since the laws were introduced across Australia a little over 20 years ago. The protection argument for them is that the imposition of having to wear one is an insignificant loss of personal freedom, compared to the potential reduction in potentially life-threatening head injury. The arguments against them are that the best research shows very little reduction in injury, and unintended consequences have been decimation of cycling numbers resulting in significant community cost. The fairness argument is that if helmets are mandatory for cyclists, then the laws should be equally applied to motorists who make up the vast majority of head injuries on our roads.
The arguments against passing laws is a fairness argument: if motorists have to pass with 1 metre to spare, how can bicyclists be allowed to pass congested traffic within 1 metre? No one, with the possible exception of some motoring industry representative bodies, is arguing that there is no real danger to passing bicyclists within 1 metre.
Queensland’s Minister for Transport Scott Emerson has announced that along with a trial of the 1 metre rule, fines for bicyclists will also be raised to be in line with fines for motorists. It is argued by Mr Emerson that this makes things fair: bicyclists and motorists should be fined the same amount for the same offense.
But this is a simplistic argument, driven by populist opinion and to appease voters, not based on the true ideals of fairness and not based on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry.
The Parliamentary Committee’s recommendation was that fines for bicyclists be equal to motorists only “where the potential to endanger other road users is greatest,” not that all fines are increased.
Mr Emerson has given the example of a bicyclist who doesn’t stop at a red light, who will soon be given the same fine as a motorist. Interestingly, the Committee made a number of other recommendations including allowing bicyclists to turn left on a red light after stopping and when safe to do so, and proceeding through stop signs without stopping (recommendations 18 and 19).
The Committee also recommended overhauling all road rules to ensure they:
“… accurately and consistently recognise cyclists as legitimate road users and, where appropriate, amend road rules to reflect the general principle that all road users must acknowledge the presence of and give right of way to the more vulnerable road user.” (recommendation 7).
The dangers posed to other road users if a motorised vehicle fails to stop at a red light or stop sign, or fails to obey most other road rules, is very high. People driving motor vehicles can and do regularly kill and maim other road users, as well as themselves. The risks posed to other road users by bicyclists disobeying the laws is significantly less. Imposing the same fines for extremely different consequences is not fair.
It remains to be seen whether Scott Emerson will implement all the Committee’s recommendations, or just pick and choose the ones that are politically palatable. He has already indicated he does not personally support changes to helmet laws. But if Scott Emerson only wants to make changes that are simplistically ‘fair’, perhaps all motor vehicle drivers and passengers should be made to wear a helmet.