Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Front Page, Above the Fold

Alternate Title: Is it finally time to have an adult conversation about bikes and cars?

Today's post is on a very serious, very sad topic, and I hope my title doesn't trivialize it. On December 1, Chelsea Norman, a 24 year old employee of Whole Foods Supermarket, was bicycling home from work in a dedicated bike lane when she was killed by a hit and run motorist. At first, the Houston Chronicle covered this as a relatively minor story buried deep inside the newspaper. However, as the reaction of the Houston cycling community to this tragedy has grown, coverage has grown along with it, and the report of the memorial ride for Chelsea was sufficiently newsworthy to make the most prominent part of the newspaper, on the front page of the first section, on the top half of the page (above the fold) where everyone who even glanced at the paper saw the story. The driver who killed Chelsea has not yet been identified. If they are caught, they are likely to be severely punished, but only because this accident was a hit and run. Not so for the driver who struck another cyclist some months back here in Houston. Fortunately, this earlier cyclist did not die but he did sustain injuries that could limit his activities for the rest of his life. To his credit, the driver who struck him stopped and rendered aid, and has been most apologetic and regretful. However, in describing how the accident occurred, the driver mentioned that he had a significant visual impairment that prevented him from seeing the cyclist. Despite having seriously injured another person due to driving with a known condition that made it unsafe to drive, the driver has received no punishment for the accident. These are but two stories. Such stories, many tragic beyond belief, are repeated on a regular basis in every part of the United States.

What is the meaning of these stories, what are they telling us? We should all know by now that automobiles are one of the most dangerous elements of modern life. Wars make the news and citizens are appropriately horrified by their casualties, but even during the peak of fighting, the death rate due to automobile accidents in the participating countries usually exceed the casualties of war by a large margin. As cyclists, we should all know that because of our relative lack of protection (whether we are wearing a helmet or not), we are more exposed to this danger than most. This is an issue which society ought to address globally, and I for one welcome the day when Google's self driving cars replace error-prone human drivers. But I would like to focus on one specific part of this problem. I noted above the driver who, due to a known visual impairment, injured someone seriously but was not charged with any crime. Bike Snob has been relentlessly documenting the extent to which automobile drivers suffer few if any consequences in auto-bicycle accidents. Why is this? One explanation I have heard, which rings true to me, is that the police are reluctant to bring charges because they have learned that juries, consisting mostly of automobile drivers, are unlikely to convict. One reason for that is that the jurors identify with the driver and not the cyclist, but more than that, it is apparent to me (and probably most of you) that most drivers don't really believe that cyclists belong on the road. At the risk of being one more boring voice in a long litany, that is the issue I would like to address.

On a recent ride, I was stopped at a red light. A car came up behind me and was obviously impatient, pushing up closer and closer to me, apparently trying to signal me to  ...  do what? I had no idea. At some point, they lost patience, came around me on the left and made a right turn in front of me. The turn itself was legal, right turn on red being legal in Texas, but the coming around me was not, nor was it safe. If I had been a car, this never would have happened, and that's the point. Had I been a car, the driver behind me might have been annoyed at the delay, but would not have blamed me, but rather seen the delay as just bad luck. However, in their mind, as a cyclist, I did not belong on the road in the first place, and because I was on the road nonetheless, it was my fault they could not make their right turn.

There was a recent thread on the listserv for my bicycle club, the Houston Randonneurs, about signs that were put up by residents on one of our more popular rural cycling routes. These signs argued that cyclists should be banned from this road because it has no shoulders, a speed limit of 60 miles per hour, and is winding, making overtaking and passing dangerous. According to their logic, the cyclists were creating a dangerous situation, the conflict between fast trucks and slow bicycles. The false logic here rests on the incorrect premise that a speed limit somehow guarantees a minimum speed. Legally, the speed at which one should drive is the maximum speed that is safe; the posted speed limit is not a promise of a safe speed, but rather a guarantee that any vehicle, even under the most ideal of conditions, will be driving unsafely if they drive faster. That is,  you may never drive faster than the speed limit, but you must often drive slower. The farmer in a pickup truck pulling a trailer full of horses complains that when they come around a corner at 60 miles per hour and suddenly see a cyclist, they cannot slow in time. What if, instead of a cyclist, they should see an automobile accident in the middle of the road, or a slow moving tractor pulling farm machinery? If the nature of their vehicle, the curves in the road, and their speed prevent them from slowing or stopping when necessary, then legally, they are driving too fast. This has absolutely nothing to do with bicycles.

Another part of the above narrative is that hard working farmers, trying to earn a living, are prevented from carrying out their work by cyclists who are just having fun. On the surface, this seems like an argument with some merit, but once again, carry it forward to its logical conclusions and ask yourself if people would be willing to live with those conclusions. Years ago, when I was involved with the Boy Scouts, I would frequently find myself driving east on highway I10 into Houston on Sunday afternoon after a campout. Much of the time, traffic moves along nicely on I10, but because it is a common route for Houstonians returning from recreational activities, it would fill and slow to a crawl on Sunday afternoon. This was irritating to everyone on this highway. Supposing the truck drivers who were tired of having their schedules ruined on Sunday afternoon made the case that they were trying to earn a living and ought not to be slowed by people who were just playing. If this argument prevailed, the State Police might note obvious recreational drivers (folks pulling boats, cars filled with boys in brown uniforms) and direct us off I10 so that trucks could drive unimpeded, causing us to get home many hours after we had planned. Can you imagine the uproar that would result? The tradition in our country is that why you are using the roads does not influence if you can use the roads, and once again, this has nothing to do with bicycles. Besides, the tragedy that inspired this post involved a cyclist commuting home from work. Some people on bicycles are working, some are playing. Some people in cars or pickup trucks are working, some are playing. There is no difference.

Another argument used to argue that cyclists do not belong on the roads is that cars pay gas tax whereas bicycles don't. This argument is false for two different reasons. In the first place, it is a broadly applied and accepted agreement in our society that the use of publicly funded resources is not limited to those who pay the taxes to create and maintain them. When we and our children were younger, we did a fair bit of family camping, often at State Parks. State parks have an entrance fee, but this does not cover all or even most of the cost of the parks. Rather, much of cost of state parks is paid for from general funds. Texas does not have a state income tax, but relies on a sales tax. Imagine the uproar if the Texas State Parks allowed families to camp there only in proportion to the amount of sales tax they paid, that families had to collect sales receipts to earn entry into a park. In fact, Texas State Parks are available to non-residents of Texas who pay little or no sales tax. Suppose one argued that because roads are paid for by gas taxes, they are different, they should only be used by those who pay gas taxes. Are we to ban electric cars from the roads, allow preferential road use to those who drive gas guzzlers compared to those who drive hybrids? Anyway, the second reason that this argument is false is that the roads are only partially funded by gas taxes, a substantial part of the funding comes from general state revenues which cyclists pay just like everyone else. Given how little wear and tear a bicycle causes to the roads, it could be argued that cyclist are already paying more than their fair share.

A final red herring I would like to dismiss is that cyclists deserve what they get because they ignore the law, running stop lights and refusing to yield the right of way when they should, for example. Of course some cyclists sometimes break the law. But in fact, where it has been studied, the rate at which automobile drivers break the law is higher than the rate at which cyclists break the law. Nobody is perfect, nobody should break the law, but it is certainly not the case that cyclists are the cause of the problem.

There are many things we could do to increase cyclist safety. However, I think driver education is one that could be particularly helpful. I think for most of us, attitude adjustment can be a powerful force for improving our behavior. For example, if we hear that only suckers give money to charity, our donations will almost certainly be less than if we hear that everyone gives money to charity, that it is a normal and accepted part of being an American. Similarly, I think if state and local officials calmly, repeatedly, and regularly explained to automobile and truck drivers that cyclists have a right to be on the roads, belong on the roads, and in some cases are required to be on the roads (as opposed to riding on the sidewalk for example) and that sometimes, automobile drivers will have to slow down behind a bicycle or wait to pass until it is safe, and that this is a normal and expected occurrence, automobile-bicycle interactions would become calmer, more pleasant, and most importantly, safer. Ways this could be communicated include being part of the drivers license written test and the manual used to prepare for that test, in public service announcements, and in special mailings. Nothing is perfect, there would always be people who would refuse to accept this message, but I cannot help but think that significant improvement would result.

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