Blaming the innocent bystander

In May 2010 I followed the Giro d’Italia for about 5000 km from north to south to north Italy. I flew along autostrada, meandered along country roads, and negotiated the Alps and Dolomites. I loved every minute (except perhaps the long tunnels with an infinity of trucks for very close company).

Dutch cycling journalist Timo Bruijns taking in the Gavia scenery on the up slope
Dutch cycling journalist Timo Bruijns taking in the Gavia scenery on the up slope

The ‘queen’ stage of the Giro that year summited the Passo di Gavia, at 2618 metres, after going over three peaks higher than 2200 metres. I drove over the Gavia before the race along the only piece of the mountain cleared of snow, the thin ribbon they called a road.

Going up might be harder work for the riders but descending from 2618 to below 1200 metres in 17 kilometres in my rented Fiat Panda was terrifyingly difficult. No room for two-way traffic except for occasional passing bays; no guard rail protecting me from the precipice a metre from my wheels; no chance of taking a photo. Switchback after switchback after switchback, and a tunnel of course. The only thing better than the constant sleet/rain/sleet was the snow melt gushing across my path. It was second gear from top to bottom, and even my youthful Dutch companion was perfectly happy for me to drive that slowly.

Yes, I drove to the conditions. Chances were I would make it home alive and if I made a mistake I could probably correct it.

I didn’t drive to the conditions later that same year on Kangaroo Island.

Cape Willoughby Road was a sieve of potholes and the dappled light hid the monster crater from me until I was in it – and then bouncing out of it towards the nearest tree. But I wasn’t going so fast that the seat belt and airbags didn’t helped me survive the impact with the tree without losing consciousness. My damage was limited to a diagonal super-bruise across my upper body. The car was a write-off.

This innocent bystander of a tree probably protected me from driving into a much harder rock, or rolling the car, or sinking in a dam in the field behind it.

How many people die in cars when there is not a tree to be seen? Well more if the chairman of the South Australian Motor Accident Commission has his way and gets rid of even more trees. To him the large trees beloved of Hans Heysen, that make the Adelaide Hills a joyous meander, that house a myriad small mammals, birds and other creatures, that supply free pest protection to the fields they line, are up to no good when they line our roads.

Car hit tree, tree must die!

Is that really the answer? Should we be ‘fixing’ things so people can become less and less able to make responsible decisions for themselves?

Avenue of Narrow-leaved Mallee above Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island
Avenue of Narrow-leaved Mallee above Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island

Could we could improve driver training and decision making? Could we acknowledge trees and other natural features for keeping drivers more alert than monotonous, barren roadsides? Could we all drive just that little bit slower and make it to our destination just a little later?

Could we acknowledge the bigger, and much more complex, picture – that trees and other vegetation keep us alive in so many way? Or are we doomed to decision makers seeing smaller and more isolated pictures, and finding smaller-minded solutions, until we disappear up our own backsides?

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