March 2019 saw me in my new home city in Central Germany and two years on I am living in a time of a pandemic.
I began writing these letters at the start of the pandemic in an attempt to understand Germany better and to get to grips with my relationship with the United Kingdom.
Letter from Germany – March 26 2021.
The question of the dangers associated when given a Covid-19 vaccine got my mind rolling about risk.
I once undertook a course concerning risk in the housing sector and the obligations of a housing provider (I was a member of a housing co-op); one example given was that although the risk of falling out of a window in a block of flats might be generally the same, the outcome from doing so was hugely different depending on whether you fell from a ground floor flat window or from the top floor.
In my time as a cycle sport commissaire people told me to use my common sense regarding a potential risk; what are the chances of that happening they would say? I would often reply asking whether common sense would be a good defence if I might have to stand up in court and face a hostile barrister keen to get the best for a client (life-long care etc.). I would also talk to organisers advising them not to name gnarly sections of a cyclo cross course such as death corner or suicide leap etc., because this would be bread and butter to a lawyer especially if a feature is not natural. In addition, I would make it clear that once a concern was pointed out, then I would be an idiot to ignore it without taking a hard long look and then decide on an action which I could justify later.
´I can´t imagine that happening´ are famous last words because shit happens, and people make mistakes! In the words of Donald Rumsfield (ex- USA Secretary for Defence); “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. Risk and outcomes are known-unknowns, sort of.
How you perceive or appreciate risk can depend on what you are endeavouring to do and your level of enthusiasm – to spectate, to organise, to compete, to police, to govern, to report or to insure. As a race official I see the world differently than when I am simply watching. We often live within differing bubbles and when I read that people such as fans and the press were advocating that riders should be allowed in the race regulations to be paced back by team cars when they lost time because of a mechanical, my first thought was whether this would alarm the insurance brokers (who underwrite events) and the local police. They might baulk at the idea of cars being sanctioned to speed through the race environment driving with a sense of ´legalised´ privilege (which no doubt they would stretch) with a rider/s on their bumper.
I was once on a race when the UCI Commissaire turned to the lead policeman and said: ´Our purpose is to protect the riders in the race´. Quick as flash the policeman replied, no, it is ´to maintain the law and the safety of the public´. The police had halted the race and negotiations were being conducted whether to restart (they did after a huge warning about rider conduct). It was a clash of perspective and I often find myself shouting at the TV when a commentator exclaims some heinous crime which they have filtered purely through a narrow personal or occupational lens.
No one is immune from a responsibility to act with a degree of care and that includes looking out for those around you. Every sign, turn, motor bike or team car etc. are in play when inside the race bubble, all participants working on the race including the riders must look out for each other and this includes all riders needing to look over their shoulder no matter what (maybe another rider or a motorbike is passing?). Nor should riders purposefully race up to a motorbike if they are quicker (especially when descending) only to get delayed; rather they should slow down before they catch the slower machine even if it is hugely frustrating. They should allow it space to move away.
For too long the need for action and hero worship has given riders a sense of entitlement and carte blanche to indulge in a rush of blood; it is just as in society at large: as soon as one group feel that they have such a privilege they will subjugate the general principle of group solidarity and garner a belief that all that matters is what is best for themselves.
I feel that rider responsibility in a race is paramount. Work of course should be done to mitigate dangers on the road of a cycle race by the organiser, but in the end, it is up to the rider to judge how fast they might take a corner etc. I recall officiating at a race when it began to rain, and a rider shouted a complaint; my reply was to suggest that he slow down (I then considered the risk and possible outcomes).
We must remember that road racing (or any promotion in a public park etc.) is played out in the public domain and as one top UCI Commissaire told me, ´even in Belgium the public are not as accommodating as they once were´. It´s no good turning a blind eye or condoning a rider when they mount the pavement or jump onto a cycle path; by doing so they have deviated from the sanctioned racing area and this could bring them into possible conflict with anyone who has without thinking stepped out of a house or is simply going about their normal business. If something were to go wrong, and it has, then the organiser or rider will be placed in legal jeopardy. This in turn would be noted by the insurance brokers etc., potentially pushing up premiums and event financial overheads to a breaking point.
The cycle race environment can be a dangerous one and anything can happen, and it often does, and an organiser or a group should spend huge amounts of time considering the worst-case scenario/s, but at the end of the day, and as I said before – shit happens, and things do get missed. Thus, it is vital that all, from the spectator wanting to get a better view to a rider wanting to get ahead of race or the public going about their lives – all should act with due care and attention (and be well informed of what´s going on).
I ride my bike with as much due care and attention as I can and with a respect to all around me and that is the best I can do in this motor vehicle centric world of ours.
It might seem natural for calls for a barrier to be erected near water or by a cliff edge for instance after a tragedy has occurred etc., but you can´t place signage or fences everywhere and in general we should have learnt as part of our life skills that one should be aware that dangers do exist and thus be able to anticipate them. I do not believe we live in a Nanny State, rather we live in a society where people have high expectations for their own safety without quite taking it as seriously as they might. There is an onus placed on the state, organisations, promoters etc., being required to second guess the public.
The thing about risk is if you continue with an action even though you know of a possible danger, then you are likely culpable, but if you are clear and present the danger openly with considered information, then you are allowing people the option to take risks that might be acceptable to them. But even this does not excuse you of a possible liability.
Honestly, she shot someone
In Germany it is common for people to take out personal liability insurance in case they cause damage etc., a family member of mine fell back on her liability insurance many, many years ago when a gun she was being shown at a cocktail party (yes, people do such things) went off grazing a fellow guest when she pulled the trigger (I kid you not – it was loaded). The more classic narrative is damaging a priceless Ming vase or similar.
In the UK when you enter an event you sign a waiver saying that you understand that the event may have associated risks which you accept. This waiver is only as good as the organisers measures to mitigate risk – in many courts a waiver does not sign away an organiser’s duty of care.
Away from sanctioned race programmes run by German cycling bodies, many events are often organised by individuals in an ad hoc manner and the hosts will rely upon their personal liability insurance and those of the participants (many people also have legal insurance). I have been thinking about running some rides in my home city of Göttingen and if I do, I will take out such insurance. If I organise a bigger event then I will join a cycling body and rely upon their legal department to help me in case of incident (in the UK, British Cycling´s legal team is a busy department). A little while ago big races in the UK began to insist that photographers or persons of the press had some form of liability insurance; at the time (a few years ago) it was quite novel.
Recently I remarked that there seemed to be less Keep Out signs in Germany and that the land was more accessible, I can also say that I think there are less danger signs here. Of course, they exist especially when a private landowner wants to mitigate any claims for injury that might occur on their land. In Austria landowners have a legal duty of care regarding their land but in Germany much depends on peoples’ own decision making.
Falling off a Cliff
In England it is at times rather amusing to be reminded by a sign that falling off a cliff can be life threatening, in fact as a boy I have fallen off a cliff, but I was climbing it rather than walking off into an abyss. Health and safety seem less so in Germany, e.g., when new pipes were laid in the main shopping street of Göttingen no attempt was made to barrier it off or even warn of diggers and lorries manoeuvring. If you wanted to take a short cut across the construction site and were able to dodge under the hydraulic buckets etc., then on your own head be it. In the UK, the site would have been most likely sealed akin to a hostile border.
Acceptable Risk and Vaccines too
Risk is often quantified on a basis of probability but if you or a loved one are unfortunately ´one in a million´ then you might think the risk was too high.
From April 1, 2021 the governing body of cycle racing, the UCI will ban riders from tucking themselves down low straddling their legs over the top tube arguing that this is an accident waiting to happen and the outcry against have been centred upon arguments that the riders have the skills (be they gods?), that the UCI are little Hitlers, and no one had crashed yet (A known unknown?). With my race official mindset in gear, I see that by making these rules the UCI has passed a good deal of the liability onto the rider, and should the worst happen the rider or the rider’s lawyers can´t argue that it wasn´t against the rules – after all it is probably a known-unknown-known risk.
I would add to the list of new regulations by banning the wearing of pocketless skin suits and riders should be mandated to place their litter in their pockets and take it home (and yes especially on the Tour de France!). Watching the riders after a major woman´s race I noted that the winner popped her hand in her jersey pocket and handed her team helper a handful of wrappers – so cool! Not to do so also risks the future of our sport in the public eye. Allowing riders to litter is another entitlement that should concern all, in fact fighting entitlement or a sense of privilege wherever it may occur in society is the best for us all.
A big risk for me at the present time is catching Covid-19, especially the more virulent UK variant spreading across Continental Europe and whether I might pass on the virus. I am naturally taking mitigating measures to lessen the chances of this happening. The outcome from catching the virus range from unpleasant, to life changing or death and the latter increases with age. On the balance of probability, I will take my chance with the vaccine.
Picture: You have been warned! Ticks!