27 September 2013

Cyclist and Motorists and One Road for All.

So I've had some variation or another of this post pinging around in my mind in recent weeks and I had all these grand plans that I was going to look up statistics and studies to back up my facts and I was going to cite all sorts of scholarly articles to prove my point. But you know what - no. I'm not going to do that. I'm talking about cyclists and motorists and sharing the road and responsibility and ownership of your actions and how, with a little common sense, it isn't that hard. Statistics, articles, and citations should not be necessary when it comes to illustrating these points.

Let's get this out of the way first. There are both cyclists and motorists who do dumb things and are irresponsible and plain stupid and fortunately they are in the minority. I own a car and I ride a bike so I'm not trying to make this an us vs them thing. But there are differences in the ultimate outcome and level of danger and who the victim is when a driver is irresponsible and when a cyclist is irresponsible.

When a cyclist does something dumb or stupid, it's usually going to be his life and limb that's on the line and if he gets hurt, it's because of his own mistake. Unfortunately, critics of cyclists will pounce on these instances as fuel for why cyclists are a danger to the social fabric of America and how we're a terrifying two-wheeled menace who should be banned from the roads because our reckless behavior is wreaking havoc in cities across the nation. As a cyclist myself, I'm embarrassed when I witness the arrogance and irresponsible behavior of my two-wheeled brethren, as it doesn't give a good impression when we blow through stoplights and stop signs with impunity. I try to follow the rules and, for the most part, I do. One of the things I'm guilty of is starting to roll my bike through an intersection in the nanosecond between red and green so that I have momentum working in my favor and I'm already up and moving by the time the mass of cars behind me is stepping on the gas pedal. This way they aren't honking at me for holding up traffic for an extra second or two as I try to clip in and get moving from a dead stop. The other thing I'm guilty of is the rolling stop at a stop sign at deserted intersections. Cars do it all the time - I slow down to almost a complete stop, leaving myself just enough momentum that I don't fall over, and once it's clear that nobody is coming or going, I start moving. This way I don't have to unclip and further slow down either myself or any cars that are behind me. There. Those are my sins. Oh and sometimes I bike on the sidewalk to avoid running red lights in front of the Capitol building. I think one of the things that irks drivers about cyclists is that bikes are more agile than cars and, if the rider is careful, there is no reason why the bike can't be ridden on an uncrowded sidewalk to skip over some traffic. We have the flexibility to safely bend the rules (and many places do not have a rule against riding bikes on the sidewalk).

When a driver does something dumb, stupid, or irresponsible around a cyclist, it's NOT usually the driver's life or limb that's on the line because they are ensconced in a few thousand pounds of mental. And that car they are driving has just turned into a lethal weapon the moment a driver decides that surfing the internet is more important than watching the road. So while a cyclist has a responsibility to be aware and follow the rules, the responsibility of a motorist to do the same thing is even greater because a car is many, many times more lethal than a bike when being driven by a distracted or aggressive driver. And, sadly, sometimes all the awareness in the world cannot save a cyclist from an angry or negligent driver.

Just this past week I was almost run over twice while legally in crosswalks. One of those times the driver simply threw me a nasty look and gunned the motor as she made her lefthand turn, missing my front tire by inches only because I slammed on my brakes and skidded off my bike. The other time, the driver just sat there on his cell phone with an amused look on his face as he plowed through a crosswalk, scattering runners and bikers in all directions as they tried to get out of his way. I also saw a driver go the wrong way around a roundabout in front of the Capitol building (here in America, we drive to the right) and a few minutes later another driver decided that his lane of traffic was simply moving too slowly so he crossed the double yellow and just drove on the wrong side of the road instead, almost plowing into me head on while I was on my bike. I've had friends get hit by cars who see the "Stop For Pedestrians in Crosswalks" signs as just a suggestion, not a law. There have been other recent instances where a cars are too impatient to wait an extra minute to safely pass a cyclist and they make an unsafe pass. What is possibly so important that you cannot spare an extra thirty seconds out of your day to wait until you can safely make a pass? I was buzzed by a woman on Saturday in the one street block I rode on to get from the bike path to my house - she had an entire empty lane to the left of her and yet she chose to pass within inches of my handlebars. If I can touch your car, you are too close.

Did you know that there is a debate going on in Maryland as to whether or not it's homicide when a motorist kills a cyclist? Two years ago Maryland created a new law of vehicular negligent homicide which allows prosecutors to bring charges against a sober-yet-aggressive driver that causes an accident which kills someone. To be eligible, one's behavior must be "a substantial deviation from the duty of care." As a cyclist and a driver who routinely sees people behind the wheel who are glued to their phones (watching movies, playing on the internet, texting, talking), I absolutely feel like that sort of behavior is negligent and a deviation from being a careful and responsible driver. Some of the lawmakers don't want to prosecute people for making a mistake that any of us can make, such as taking our eyes off the road to look at our phones or fumble with the backseat DVD player so your child can watch a movie, all while moving swiftly down the road. While I am sure these people who do these things do not intend to cause harm, if you kill a cyclist because you weren't paying sufficient attention to the task at hand - driving - then you absolutely need to be punished. Every time you put the keys in the ignition, you are responsible for driving safely and being aware at all times and keeping your eyes on the road. I know that driving is so routine, it is easy to forget that responsibility, but it is there. If there are no consequences for negligent and aggressive driving, then there is no deterrent for irresponsible and dangerous behavior, intentional or not.

I know that I am making a choice every time I get on my bike to commute to work or ride for pleasure. I am making a choice to try and share the roads with vehicles much bigger and more dangerous than I am. I do it because it's a good way to get in exercise. My bike commute is a reliable 40-45 minute ride compared to the unreliable 50-90 minute one way commute offered by Metro. My bike commute is also about $8/day cheaper. I know there are many people who make the choice to drive instead. That is fine. But please, as a cyclist who enjoys riding to work and would like to continue to do so, and as someone who has just as much of a right to the roads as you do, please make the choice to drive responsibly and attentively when you are behind the wheel. Pretend that I am someone from your family. If you wouldn't try to run a family member over in a crosswalk or drive your car within inches of their handlebars, please don't do it to me.

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