Better Safe than Sorry?

Relations between people on bikes and people in cars are frequently strained, even though most adults who ride bikes also drive cars. What is that about, and what can we do?

Maynard Hershon is a writer about bicycles and motorcycles. Back in the 80s he wrote an essay for the California Bicyclist which changed the way I ride. I haven’t been able to relocate that essay, but I’ll put my own spin on what I remember of/learned from that essay and what I’ve learned in the intervening years.

When someone in a car cuts you off when you’re driving, you think, “What an @sshole!” When a bicyclist rolls through a stop sign when you’re driving, you think, “Those d@mn bikers!” What does that mean about us? First, we notice aberrations, not the norm. We don’t pay any attention to people doing what is expected of them. We pay attention when they don’t do that. Like the kid in class who never raises his/her hand is never noticed, but the kid who acts up get attention. So we don’t really notice all the cars that don’t cut us off and all the bikes that stop at stop signs. (And here someone is thinking, “no bikes stop at stop signs.”)

But there is something else going on here. We live in a car-centric society. Without consciously realizing it, we consider the driver of a car to be an individual, because driving cars is what we do. We consider the operator of a bicycle to be representative of a class, because that’s what they do. I can speed in my car, and I’m just an individual @sshole, but if I roll through a red light on a bike, I’m one of them, and they never stop at red lights.

But, guess what? Someone has studied this. Dave Schlabowski , former manager of the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program in Milwaukee, has wrtten extensively on the topic. He notes that “people riding bikes are more law-abiding than people driving cars.” Dave has revisited this topic and found a high incidence of speeding by motorists. How many people actually drive at or below 25 mph in a 25 mph zone? Not many. He cites another study (which I can’t find right now) that indicated that people tend to break laws that are convenient for them to break and where the consequences are minimal. Thus speed limit laws seem to be the least followed by motorists who break the law, and stop signals are the least obeyed by bicyclists who break the law. In Idaho, the law allows bicyclists to treat stops signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.

Version 2
Spring is coming late this year. This is all that’s blooming in my yard so far. Something was needed to break up all this text. Good thing I got the photo when I did. This crocus is now buried under 4 inches of snow.

Back to Maynard: the essence of his essay was that, if we are going to be seen as representing a class when we ride bikes, we should represent ourselves the way we want to be seen. Before I read that essay, I rolled through stop signs and went through red lights when there was no traffic. I didn’t know about the “Idaho stop” at that time. Now I make it a point to stop and, especially, to signal my intention and then stop and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. I’ve been known to move a bit to the left to make it harder for a motorist to blow by me and through the crosswalk. I’m still amazed by how many pedestrians are surprised to see a vehicle obey the law and yield the right of way to them.

My daughter makes a joke that no one seems to get. “Question: What do you call it when you kill someone?” Answer: Murder. Question: What do you call it when you kill a bicyclist with your car? Answer: An accident.” It isn’t funny, but it does appear that if you want to kill someone, that’s the best way to get away with it. The Des Moines Register studied 22 fatal car-bike crashes. The most common penalty (the mode, in statistical parlance) for drivers found at fault was $250. The joke actually stems from the article below.

Daniel Duane, in the New York Times, found that “studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, ‘Oh, well, accidents happen.’ If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, ‘Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,’ that will most likely be good enough.” (NYT 11/9/2013)

What does this mean to me? Whenever possible, I make eye contact with drivers. I figure it is harder to kill someone who is human and not just an obstacle. I try to communicate with other road users. I try to use clear hand signals (and no, the one consisting of an extended middle finger doesn’t count) and talk to people. I wear bright clothing. That way, if you hit me, I figure you were aiming, not that you couldn’t see me. I try to remember that you’re not an @sshole, but you weren’t paying attention. I was once wearing day-glo pink when a texting driver almost ran me down. I yelled to get her attention. She said, “I didn’t see you.” I (not so calmly) pointed out that I was wearing bright pink and of course she couldn’t see me while looking at her phone.

In honor of our unseasonably cool weather:

Next time: a look at some specifics of bike safety.

And finally, on the way home from a meeting Wednesday night, I heard a loon on the lake – the first I’ve heard this year. Our lake in on their annual commuting route to and from the north woods. For those who have never heard one (and those who want to hear it again), here is a Common Loon (from Peter JH, recorded near Ely, MN):

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us is riding coast to coast across the US. If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

3 thoughts on “Better Safe than Sorry?”

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