The Virginia Bicycling Federation’s Scofflaw blog post continues to get traffic and comments over a year later. I understand it’s one of their highest-trafficked posts of all time. This debate over whether bad bicyclist behavior reflects poorly on all bicyclists, how much self-policing the bike community should be responsible for, and the relative risk of bad bicyclist behavior vs. bad driver behavior continues to rage with no clear clear winner.
So, an anecdote.
Last night, I was driving my daughter home from her karate lesson along I-581. It was about 8:00 and full dark. At the Orange Avenue onramp, a sporty little red car leaped from the merging lane, climbed up behind me with its engine gunning, then flew into the far left lane. It sped up until its front bumper was nearly touching the rear bumper of the car in front of it, and proceeded to sort of weave back and forth within the lane in obvious agitation. As soon as a space had opened up, the car in front of the sporty red speedster ducked back over into the right-hand lane, at which point the impatient driver gunned the engine of his car and leaped forward down the lane.
He was easily going 5-10 miles an hour over the speed limit, flying recklessly through traffic, and following at an unsafe distance, all at night where reaction times and visibility are already compromised. This clearly was a bad driver. He (or she, to be fair) was a clear and verfiable scofflaw.
I didn’t think, “Geez, people like that shouldn’t be on the road.” I didn’t think, “It’s drivers like that who make driving unsafe. Sports cars just don’t belong on the road with minivans like mine.” I didn’t think, “See? That’s why cars shouldn’t be on the road, because of lawbreakers like that.”
I thought, “Geez, what a jerk.”
One driver behaving badly doesn’t reflect on all drivers. We know that. And yet, not only do drivers think that about bicyclists, we in the bicycle advocacy profession have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce that perception because of our – understandable – habits of self-policing and calls to behave to a higher standard.
Vehicles on the road – no matter what they are – are operated by people, and many people are jerks. They’re going to operate their vehicles like jerks. They’re going to get impatient, or not pay attention, or participate in any number of bad behaviors. For those people you enforce the law, you punish them when they cause accidents and dangerous situations, and you move on. You don’t extrapolate their behavior to their whole community, you don’t lecture the whole community because of their actions, and you don’t lose focus of what’s really important: the commitment to make the roads safer for all users.
You don’t make the roads safer for cyclists by calling out a few bad apples and telling them to behave. You’re not going to encourage new riders if you make them think they’re automatically going to be associated with the existing bad ones. You improve infrastructure, you train drivers and cyclists (who, remember, are generally the same people in different situations) on the rules. Ultimately you create the circumstances which get more people on the road and visible, and you make them more and more a common part of the everyday traffic that every vehicle deals with.