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Defensive driving means more than just protecting yourself

A Supreme Court of B.C. verdict was issued Aug. 13, confirming once again that “autopilot” driving just doesn’t cut it. I suggest that most of us drive in autopilot most of the time. Autopilot is when your full attention is not paid to driving.

You may have both hands on the steering wheel and be looking straight ahead, but you are in that relaxed state when all you’re concerned about is stopping for red lights, hitting the gas on green, and taking the correct turns to get where you want to go. Autopilot is fine when you’re brushing your teeth. It is not fi ne when you are driving a 1,800-kilogram vehicle on the street.

Way back, when I was learning to drive, I was encouraged to drive defensively. I recall that driving defensively meant something more than simply following the basic rules of the road. It was an optional extra. Driving defensively was something your mother encouraged you to do, so you could watch out for other drivers who might not be as rule abiding as you, and to defend yourself from being nailed.

I have since learned that defensive driving is not a legal option. There is a positive legal duty to drive in a reasonably vigilant manner so you can take defensive manoeuvres to protect yourself from harm in the event another driver breaks the rules of the road.

If, by driving defensively, you can swerve out of the way and avoided another driver who blows through a red light, you will be found partly at fault if you fail to do so and there is a crash. Yes, you have a green light and yes, you have the right of way. There’s no question, the other driver should stop. The other will be ticketed if he or she doesn’t stop.

If you are paying attention, though, you may notice cues that alert you to a possible hazard. You may notice that the other vehicle isn’t slowing down at all as it approaches the intersection, for example. You may then have time to swerve out of the way and avoid a serious crash.

The legal requirement to be reasonably vigilant when you drive is not just about protecting yourself. You not only have a legal duty to yourself, to defend yourself from other drivers who fail to follow the rules of the road, you also have a legal duty to protect rule breakers from themselves.

Nowhere is that truer than with pedestrians. Yes, the rules require pedestrians to use crosswalks and cross only when allowed, but you will most certainly be found partially, if not totally, at fault if you mow down a jay-walking pedestrian if you fail to take reasonable steps to avoid him or her.

Degrees of fault are determined according to degrees of moral blame-worthiness. Who is more morally blameworthy— the pedestrian listening to an I-pod who absent-mindedly starts across a street in the path of a vehicle or the driver of a 1,800-kilogram vehicle who can easily stop in time if the driver is paying reasonable attention to the road?

That takes me to the case I just read. The trial was in Vancouver and Richard Parsons, one of this province’s finest personal injury lawyers, was acting for the pedestrian, a lady jogger, who suffered serious injuries in a collision. She was jogging across Howe Street, at the intersection of Howe and Smithe in Vancouver. Two lanes of traffic on Howe Street were stopped, even though they faced a green light, because it was rush hour and the intersection was blocked.

The jogger crossed in front of the stopped traffic, not noticing there was a pick-up truck approaching the intersection in the curb lane on the one-way street. The truck driver had a green light. His vehicle was travelling the speed limit of 50 kilometres per hour. There was no way he could have seen the jogger, because the two lanes of stopped traffic blocked his view.

The judge, not surprisingly, found the jogger negligent for attempting to cross in front of traffic that had a green light. The judge also found the pick-up driver negligent, though, for failing to slow down in the circumstances.

Seeing two stopped lanes of traffic facing a green light should have alerted him to a potential hazard. He was driving in autopilot and missed the obvious cues. The judge said the driver was 25 per cent at fault.

Published September 13, 2009 in the Kelowna Capital News