Ethics, Responsibility and Transportation: Getting the Balance Right

Empathy for the plight of those who drive cannot be an excuse for failing, through appropriate public policy, to try to get the balance of responsibility right.

  1. Let’s take a step back from current transportation debates for a moment (we’ll get to them later) and attempt to apply an ethical frame to the maintenance and use of our streets and roads.
  2. To start, let’s lay out what should be a broadly accepted principle: Any operator of a machine bears moral responsibility for its use in proportion to the damage that machine can cause to the lives and property of others.
  3. For example, we expect people in the nuclear chain of command to meet higher standards of reliability and personal rectitude (and to be far better trained and regulated) than kids carrying Nerf guns.
  4. When it comes to roads: the damage a vehicle can cause in a crash increases linearly with mass and exponentially with speed.
  5. The damage a vehicle does to a road surface, a form of property damage, generally increases with the fourth power of vehicle weight (assuming the vehicles have the same number of axles). A doubling of vehicle weight, in other words, increases damage sixteen-fold.
  6. So, conceptually, operators of faster, heavier vehicles bear not just greater responsibility for their actions but, at least in some senses, exponentially greater responsibility than those traveling in lighter, slower vehicles (or without a vehicle at all).
  7. One can therefore imagine that the level of responsibility for one’s actions on the roads increases along the following continuum in relation to vehicle weight and speed: child pedestrian, adult pedestrian, bicycle, e-bike, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, light truck, medium-duty truck, heavy-duty truck.
  8. To put a finer point on it: the decision to walk somewhere imposes near-zero damage on street surfaces and poses risks largely to the pedestrian. The decision to drive a truck imposes meaningful damage on collective property and poses a meaningful risk of harm to others.
  9. Our laws should reflect this differential level of responsibility – in licensing requirements, liability and insurance rules, the allocation of costs for maintenance and operation of the transportation network, and the way in which we regulate the use of shared infrastructure.
  10. Failing to allocate responsibility fairly results in condoning and enabling irresponsible and socially damaging behavior. When driving is subsidized, more people drive, creating congestion and harming quality of life for others. When drivers engaged in dangerous behaviors are not held accountable, other drivers learn quickly that they can behave with impunity – putting vulnerable road users and even drivers of smaller, lighter cars at risk.
  11. U.S. transportation policy usually fails miserably at getting this allocation of responsibility right. Pedestrians – the users of the transportation system whose behavior has the least impact on others – are expected to defend themselves against heavy, fast-moving vehicles. Traffic law as it is currently enforced, and transportation infrastructure as it is currently built, offers little protection to them or to other vulnerable road users. Driving is subsidized; truck driving especially so, creating costs that are borne by others throughout society.
  12. The accommodations we have made to try to balance the scales – protected bike lanes, traffic calming, subsidies for use of less-impactful forms of transportation – have, to date, been so small and so inadequate as to be without great effect.
  13. Moreover, our ethical compass when it comes to transportation is so out of whack that each of those accommodations comes off as a form of special pleading. Want to get where you’re going safely? Buy a damn SUV like everybody else!
  14. And when accommodations are made, the ensuing cry comes from some segment of drivers to other transportation users: play by the rules. After all, we are licensed, pay taxes and are required to follow onerous traffic rules, you should be as well.
  15. This is how you get to proposals to license or tax cyclists, or target jaywalkers for fines, or force people on bikes to stay in narrow, dangerous lanes and follow car-oriented traffic rules that do not prioritize their safety. It is how drivers who think (erroneously) that they are paying their fair share of the cost of their behavior can gripe endlessly about the miniscule amount of resources spent to accommodate other transportation users.
  16. The point is not that pedestrians or cyclists don’t bear responsibility for behaving reasonably and ethically and for paying their fair share of the cost of the transportation system. They do. Rather, it is that their level of responsibility is so infinitesimally small relative to that of motor vehicle users – and the failure of motor vehicle users to be held to their appropriate level of responsibility often so egregious – that focusing societal energy on it at this point is a laughable misallocation of resources and attention.
  17. It’s important in all this to maintain a sense of empathy. Driving is necessary for most Americans (in part because of how we have built our communities and the transportation infrastructure investments we have made in recent generations). Driving is also difficult, frustrating and dangerous for those who do it. The addition of, say, cyclists to city streets amps up the level of uncertainty, anxiety and frustration of urban driving to another level. It is no surprise that people lash out.
  18. But empathy for the plight of those who drive cannot be an excuse for failing, through appropriate public policy, to try to get the balance of responsibility right.
  19. This is the reason that, as I’ve written earlier, movements like Vision Zero are potentially so profound and transformative. They challenge us to reset our moral compass, to re-evaluate what’s truly important, and to bend our infrastructure investments and policy decisions in ways that track more closely with a clear and reasonable ethical vision.
  20. Like everything, the issue is not quite as clear-cut as I’ve laid it out above. There are places and situations where the need to move vehicles, people and goods rapidly takes precedence over other prerogatives. There are times and places where accommodating people on foot, on bikes, or using other light, low-speed vehicles is difficult or impossible. There may even be times when travel in heavy, fast vehicles should be encouraged or subsidized by society.
  21. But, especially when it comes to city streets that are shared by all, we need to recognize those situations as exceptions to a general rule of equitable access and proportionately distributed responsibility – not as the default condition. In general, we should adopt policies that maximize the safe freedom of movement and minimize the cost of people traveling without a vehicle or in slow, light vehicles, while ensuring that travel in heavy, fast vehicles is closely regulated for safety and priced appropriately so as to fully internalize the external costs of the behavior.
  22. When we do, we will have gone a long way toward making our streets and roads more humane, efficient, and consistent with the values that many Americans share.

Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.