Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cycling Tragedy, and Moving Forward

Bike Red Light RunnerThis week has not been a good one for cyclists. A commuter was killed in an accident with a security vehicle realted to the nuclear summit that took place earlier this week. In New York, three cyclists were struck and one killed in separate incidents.

My sympathies go out to the victim and her family. I don't know anything about the circumstances of this accident, but it is my hope that as they emerge, we will take to heart the factors surrounding the security measures that may have led to the accident and do better next time.

I'm not writing today to make any judgments about what happened here since, like almost everyone else, I don't know.

But I do want to say something about life in the city. A lot of you probably think I hate all things cycling. That is not true. I hate bad cyclists. I also hate bad drivers, and bad people.

I hate bad things.

So when I say something about cyclists, I really don't mean all cyclists. I'm just talking about the bad ones that I saw. The problem is, I see a lot of bad cyclists. I also see a lot of bad drivers, and just plain bad people. I tend to single out the cyclists, though, because as a proportion of the number of cyclists out there, there are really quite a lot of bad ones.

There's a great blog called Bike Snob NYC written by a daily bike commuter in New York city. Today, he addressed the accidents in his blog, and his comments perfectly align with my opinion on the whole bicycle versus automobile thing.

...while we undoubtedly need safer drivers, we also cannot drive people's cars for them, and so the most important thing by far is to operate the vehicle over which we do have complete control as expertly as possible.

This is not to imply in any way that any of these victims were at fault. However, from what I do see on a daily basis, there are a lot of riders who seem to want to completely outsource responsibility for their own well-being to the world at large.

My problem with the conduct of many cyclists is the attiude that because they are more vulnerable than cars, that they no longer bear any responsibility for their own safety.

Every time I get into a debate about a bike vs. car situation, some cyclist will just say that since drivers are surrounded by 2,500 tons of steel and cyclists are not, that it is, necessarily, up to the driver to ensure the safety of everyone else on the road.

This is, quite simply, an unacceptable mindset for a class of road users to live with. It recuses them of any responsibility for their own actions. It does not account for all things that might make it impossible for a driver to be aware 100% of the time that a cyclist (or pedestrian, or roller-blader, to be fair) may be crossing their path.

Everyone should drive with the utmost of care. Bad drivers should be dealt with harshly, and it is a failing of our local police department that traffic laws are enforced rarely (and, mostly, though automated cameras that really have no bearing on pedestrian and bicycle safety). But cyclists and pedestrians cannot expect to ride or walk anwhere they want without accounting for cars that can kill them in the road. Apart from the obvious, which is that some people are just bad drivers and may hit you no matter how righteous you are, bicyles are small, move much more erratically, and can be legally (or illegally) present in places that cars cannot.

If you ride on a sidewalk through a green light, and a car happens to be turning right at the same time, how would you have expected him to see you? Even if he did everything right, a cyclist could still be cut off through no fault of the driver. There might have been no way for the car to see him if he was obstructed by parked cars, or simply didn't look well outside the roadway for something approaching much faster than a pedestrian. Neither person, technically, would have violated the law. But only the cyclist could have prevented the accident in that situation.

The right to use the road comes with responsbility as well. Many cyclists I see in DC do not operate with the goal of being as predictable and visible to other road users as possible. To fail to act this way is to place a disproportionate burden of ensuring their safety on other road users.

All road users need to accept an equal share of this reponsibility. Drivers need to use greater care and accept that cyclists have a right to be there. They need to learn new driving habits when bike lanes are present. They need to be cautious at intersections.

But cyclists need to accept that drivers, too, are humans. They can only be looking in one direction at any given time. If a driver looks right, then left, then goes forward, and a cyclist comes from his right at 15 MPH, the cyclist may not be seen. As much as cars need to be wary of bikes and pedestrains in the roadway, cyclists need to share that burden and aware that cars they are approaching may not have been able to see them.

The debate rages on in blogs every time there is an incident. I am as guilty as anyone of fanning the flames, and I am going to do my best in the future to avoid divisive rhetoric. It's time to stop the vitriole. Its time for everyone to accept their responsibilities as road users if we want a safer city with better transportation options for all.


Daniele said...

Very sad, but I agree that cyclists need to be more caution...

Alex said...

I would agree that there are a lot of bad cyclists out there. However, the best bikers ride as if drivers can't see them -- which in fact is often the case. And that sometimes includes doing things that you would probably consider "bad."

Jamie said...

I agree with you on principle 100%. I think you should drive the same way. It's called defensive driving.

As long as that behavior doesn't put you in places that other road users don't expect you to be, I really don't care if you run a red light when no cars are coming.

I care if you fly up to a red light, from the sidewalk, and don't stop until you're halfway in the road, like the guy in my picture. I have no idea what this guy is going to do.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, cyclists need to take more responsiblity more their actions. Many run red lights without stopping to look for cars. Or to look for pedestrians on foot that are in the crosswalk!
ps I love biking and support safe riding!

Alex said...

I would also say that you should put more energy into improving your own safe driving efforts, such as not snapping photos while driving a moving vehicle (assume you were moving since your light was green in the photo -- even if not, stopping at a green to take a photo would also have been unsafe).

It's pretty common for drivers, pedestrians, and bikers alike to notice others' bad behavior while excusing their own, and the above is a perfect example.

Jamie said...

Alex, the picture is not supposed to prove anything. It's just a picture. If it's illustrative of bad driving as well as bad cycling, then so much the better, since that was my point. Both sides need to step up and stop blaming the other side for every accident.

Jamie said...

For the record - yes, I was stopped. For me, it's not unusual to stop when a bicycle crosses ahead of me in the road, when otherwise I might hit them.

I don't think I excused bad behavior on the part of drivers anywhere in this post. In fact I specifically noted the failings of MPD to enforce traffic laws.

My point was not to excuse bad behavior on anyone's part but to call for everyone to accept a role of equal rights and equal responsibility.