Going About This the Wrong Way

Yesterday, Streetsblog linked to this piece by Boston Biker on that city’s new “No Excuses” public safety campaign, an effort to terrify people into wearing helmet and – potentially – not bothering to ride a bike in the first place.

Ad from Boston’s “No Excuses” bike helmet campaign | via the Boston Biker blog

Helmets are good, and people should wear them. But showing a kid who looks like someone took a bat to his face is not going to get more people to ride their bike, and I think we would all be better off if more people rode their bikes, with or without helmets.

Absolutely.  I’ve often thought the breathless exhortation to wear a helmet you get from some folks does more harm than good, painting riding a bicycle as an extremely dangerous activity in which you are likely to get maimed or die.  I don’t think it’s helpful to make people terrified of doing something that’s good for them, particularly when wearing a helmet is no guarantee of safety.

A year or so ago, I sent a critical letter to a writer at The Roanoke Times who had summarized several bicycle fatalities that had happened over the course of the previous year or two.  In that article, she highlighted the fact that one of the riders was not wearing a helmet, intimating that somehow that cyclist’s death (and, by proxy, the death of the other cyclists mentioned) was a result of being helmet-less.  When I researched each of the cyclists mentioned, it turns out that only one wasn’t wearing a helmet.  The two that were were hit by large trucks driven by distracted drivers, and the one who wasn’t wearing a helmet blew through a stop sign (possibly because of equipment malfunction) and was struck by a tractor-trailer.  In each of these cases, the wearing of a helmet was a non-factor in the cyclist’s death, and yet it was presented as if it was.

Wearing a helmet is no replacement for a) safe riding practices, b) good bicycle infrastructure and, more importantly, c) good driver training.  As Boston Biker points out.

I would have rather these dollars spent on ad’s that warn car drivers about checking their mirrors before making turns.  You could use the exact same image, but instead put it up on a billboard near known traffic jam locations, with the text “Do you want to be responsible for the death of someones son. Check your mirrors for cyclists before turning.”


The Continuing Scofflaw Debate

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.

An accident probably caused by a scofflaw.

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.

Red Light Leeway for Virginia Cyclists

Officer Jared Wilburn, captured here in our 2010 Sweet Ride promotion, is not likely to ticket you for running a red light | Photo: River Laker

Scofflaw?  Not so much.  Cyclists in Virginia can now run red lights.  Via the Virginia Bicycling Federation:

Traffic light sensors may not detect bicycles, making for unreasonably long waits at intersections where few cars show up to trigger the signal. So bicyclists (and motorcyclists) may take it upon themselves to run the red light anyway, which has always been illegal — until now.

A new law that took effect July 1 allows cyclists to run an unresponsive red light after waiting through two cycles or two minutes, whichever is shorter.

The full text of the law can be found here.

Don’t be Nice, Be Predictable

Talk to any cyclist or cycling advocate about safety and you’re bound to hear the word predictable, as in, “Cyclists are safest when they are predictable and behave like any other vehicle on the road.”  This is true, but so is the reverse:  the road in general is safest when drivers behave predictably as well.

In my case, this is particularly true as a pedestrian.  Specifically:  in the mornings, I walk my daughter the block or so down to her elementary school.  The streets around that block are crowded with a combination of morning commuters, parents dropping their kids off at school, and (a satisfying number of) parents walking their kids to school.  I cross one of the main thoroughfares that cut through the neighborhood – still a two-lane road, but just wide enough with few enough stop signs that cars tend to zip down the street pretty fast as they head to, from, or past the school.

Increasingly, while my daughter and I have waited to cross the street at the end of my block, I’ve had cars stop at the intersection (which does not have a crosswalk or a stop sign) to kindly wave me across.  Most of the time, I can’t actually see the driver doing this past the glare on the windshield.  Since it’s a school zone, I’m also not sure if I’m being waved across or if a kid is about to jump out a side door.  In the meantime, cars coming from the other direction aren’t necessarily stopping, nor are the vehicles turning onto the street from side streets, none of whom may even have seen the first driver pause to let me cross, or have even noticed me yet.  In the meantime, other cars start to back up behind the first.  I’m not sure if these even have a view of me, and I have seen many occasions where impatient drivers decide to whip around vehicles that are stopped for no apparent reason, which makes me hesitant to take the invitation to step into the street.  Since there’s no crosswalk on the street or pedestrian signs along the side of the road, it’s not clear how many of the cars at the intersection might be looking out for me if I make a run to the other side.

The effect is a few heartbeats of complete confusion on the part of almost everyone at the intersection as we’re all waiting to figure out what to do next.  Add into the mix that the majority of these cars are giant SUVs (a topic for another time and, probably, another blog), and there are multiple visibility and predictability issues at play all working to make the situation completely unsafe.

I understand the driver is trying to be polite.  I appreciate it.  But because they’re behaving unpredictably, there is confusion, and therefore danger.  Do I take advantage of the moment to cross, risking that other drivers – who are only following the rules – may not be looking for me?  Do I wait while cars back up and the polite driver gets increasingly annoyed at my inaction?  Do I wave the driver on with a smile?  Or do I start talking to my daughter and pretend I didn’t notice any of this happening until the next break in traffic?

In this case, behaving predictably is a lot more appreciated, and a lot safer, than being nice.  As long as we’re all following the rules, we know what to expect.

In Defense of Scofflaws

Over at the Virginia Bicycling Federation, a recent post about “bicycle scofflaws” has generated some interesting comments.  The author brings attention to an attitude that some cyclists have, believing they are exempt from traffic laws.  He goes on to point out the necessity of everyone obeying law.  The first response, from Peter Smith, reads:

[I]t’s unfortunate that anyone could still write an article like this. after yet another week of terror and mayhem created by cars, and all you can do is rail against….bikers. that’s a level of moral depravity that is difficult to find words for. keep up the good work.

Ouch.  A little harsh, perhaps, but the sentiment is echoed elsewhere in the comments thread.  I had to chime in, and I’ve reprinted my comment, below:

I think the tension here is between ideal behavior of all users of the road, and the real behavior. That is, James Rosar is absolutely right that all users of the road are vehicles and all should be behave consistently and predictably (and I believe most tend to), but the reality is that roads have been primarily engineered for the speed, size, and maneuverability of motor vehicles, and most drivers have not been trained to look for cyclists. So, when we’re sharing the road with motor vehicles, even behaving predictably and following all the rules, we’re at a severe disadvantage. I think that disadvantage warrant occasional “scofflaw” behavior for our own safety.

Until roads are better designed or parallel accommodations are consistently established, the functional differences between cyclists and motor vehicles will always keep even well-behaved cyclists at a disadvantage.

However, these points are, I believe, secondary to my real objection to this post. I don’t object to its subject, which I think is really not all that controversial. What’s frustrating about “calls to virtue” like this is that they reinforce the idea that cyclist’s are ultimately responsible for the danger they face. That is, taking River and Pete’s points, no cyclist, no matter how poorly behaved, no matter how much of a scofflaw, roustabout, hooligan or ruffian, has the potential to cause the amount of damage and death as a single driver distracted by a cellphone call. Take the incident earlier in the year where a driver in Richmond, paying more attention to her GPS than the road, rammed into and largely demolished an entire building. Recently on this blog, there is a post lauding the accomplishments of Radford in improving bicycling accommodations. That only came about because a cyclist was hurt in an accident earlier in the year; not because he was a scofflaw, but because of a distracted or untrained driver.

There have been three bicycle-related deaths in the greater Roanoke region in the past several years. Two of them were from professional cyclists, acting predictably and wearing all appropriate safety gear, who were struck by motor vehicles and killed. The third was a young man whom, it appears, blew through a stop sign onto busy Route 460. He was struck by a tractor trailer and died. His death is unfortunate, but simply reinforces the point that his scofflaw behavior harmed no one but himself.

Meanwhile, the scofflaw behavior of motorists killed two cyclists, and kill more pedestrians and other motorists every day.

Calling out bicycling scofflaws is therefore frustrating, particularly when it comes from within the bike advocacy community, because, frankly, bicyclists are far more vulnerable and far more often the victims of erratic driver behavior. And yet, all across the country, cyclists who have been harmed by motor vehicles are waging uphill battles in court for justice, such as the rider in Texas who was struck by a truck but was himself charged with reckless driving because it was determined that bicycles did not belong on the road.

The guy blowing through a stop sign is not doing nearly as much harm as the judge who made this ruling. The drivers who struck Mark Wiley and Fess Green in Radford did far more harm than the guy blowing through a stop sign. Unless there is a specific, recent case of a bicycle scofflaw causing significant harm or public nuisance that requires a reminder than we should all obey the law, I’m not sure of the benefit of calling them out. My response, and I think the sentiment behind folks like River, Pete, Chris, and John is an exasperated, “Yes, we know, we know. Now please get back to work reminding the drivers.”

If you’re interested in the subject, I’d encourage you to jump in over at the VBF blog and make your opinion known.