Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dodging bullets

A couple of days ago one of my co-workers was clipped by a car on her ride into work. It happens to cyclists everyday. It happens to many, many cyclists everyday. In a town as bike-crazed as Fixed-tropolis you can't swing a fried-Snickers-bar-on-a-stick without hitting a cyclist. And almost every serious cycle commuter would have a story about contacting a car, maybe even more than one story. Luckily (as was the case with my co-worker), these things are often simple scrapes -- bike is fine and rider is mostly fine, except for the psyche. A lot happens upstairs to a cyclist when s/he tangles with the internal combustion beast, no matter how minor the incident.

Now, I'm not here necessarily to assess blame. It is far too easy to say: "Bike good. Car BAD!" Indeed, it is much too easy for cyclists to implicate motorists. The reality is that cyclists screw up and motorists screw up. Is it really about blame? When things go horribly wrong, and a cyclist is pronounced DOA do you really want to split hairs about who was at fault? Because, by that time you're only going to get one side of the story.

Sadly, when it comes to car-bike incidents, blame (let's politely and constructively relabel it 'responsibility') is quite neatly, like swept glass and blood residue, left by the wayside. Call it a human tendency to seek the definitive word, to attempt to ease the conscience, to provide closure -- we seem to naturally want to know whose fault it was anyway. To collect data on the freakish facets of car-bike "accident assessment," one needs to look no further than your local newspaper. Make a point to scan it for a couple weeks looking specifically for reports of deaths by impact with car. You'll have to look hard -- they're rarely more than a paragraph or two in length. I'll give you more to look for (after all, don't let a self-righteous cyclist paint this picture as if it only pertains to bikes): news of pedestrians being struck in crosswalks; wheelchair bound folks using the shoulder out of necessity; or children getting hit while playing on residential streets. Some interesting patterns will emerge. One is the overuse of the highly ambiguous noun 'accident.' Another is a deliberate notation regarding whether or not (if a bicyclist was involved) s/he was wearing a helmet. A third is the cursory dismissal -- "no charges were filed," etc.

Let's take a look at these three facets of your typical car-bike/ped incident editorial slot in reverse order (because I'm building to a climax here):

First, the cursory dismissal. Need I say more? Cursory. Dismissal. Someone is dead but no one is being held responsible. Do you think victims' families like to read these ice-cold, cut-and-dried ink blips? Next is the mention of the helmet. Bicycle helmets are meant to protect riders' heads in the event of toppling at the relatively low speeds of bicycle travel. They are a moot point of mention when discussing the finer points of a cyclist being mowed down by a car at high speed. Look at a motorcyclist's helmet. Look at a bicyclist's helmet. Big difference you think? But even a motorcyclist's helmet is of little consequence if s/he is struck by a car. Lastly, we come to the term 'accident.' Even our highly precise friends Merriam and Webster are a bit obtuse when defining the word 'accident.' I managed to pluck one nuance from the dictionary entry which seems to sum up how we commonly define an 'accident': "An unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance." Hmm. When authorities discover motorists operating their vehicles with "carelessness or ignorance" usually they issue a citation to the operator. Since, the good reader will note, the vast majority of newspaper reports indicate such was not issued, it may be presumed that the (now dead) cyclist or pedestrian was deemed to be acting with carelessness and/or ignorance (and therefore cannot be cited.) Maybe this is the case, maybe not; convenient nonetheless for the scot-free motorist. The problem with 'accident' is that we all too readily throw the word around like there are a myriad everyday occurrences totally beyond our control. "Totally beyond our control." Let that phrase sink in for a moment. Totally beyond our control is the child darting out into the path of the car, the pedestrian walking into the crosswalk I happen to be turning my car through, the cyclist weaving suicidally into the path of the front bumper, right? That's certainly one way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is that an automobile becomes a deadly weapon when it is operated with inattentiveness or negligence. Cars are not unlike guns. Just like guns, cars are bound to be abused by a perverse subset of the population. But even law abiding gun toters, like upstanding car drivers, are bound to have a great many "accidents" as well, even while they are operating their contraptions in a legally-condoned manner. "I didn't notice the other hunter dressed in blaze orange stepping out of the bushes when I fired"; "I didn't notice the other human being co-existing beyond my car when I ran over him." (Melodramatic emphasis intended.)

Could it be, just maybe possibly be that travel by automobile is given precedence and, therefore, too much leniency in matters regarding roadway incidents? Whoa. That's wacko. Sorry. Don't I realize that roads were made for cars and bike paths were made for bikes? If you believe this, I have one request: Wake the fuck up. Because history, precedent and practicality are not on your side. If it weren't for initiatives created by the boom of bicycling in the 1890's there'd be no improved roads. (What happened to the concept of the improved road? We made it smoother and wider. And wider. And wider. And ... wider. And still what happened? Traffic jams! Imagine that.) The way things have gone it's amazing that laws still exist in all our grand 50 states (however arcanely crafted and pathetically enforced) that dictate the proper and legal treatment of bicyclists by motorists.

True, some of my sentiments could be construed as threats. However, I prefer to think of them as emphatic invitations to re-assess current behavioral patterns. Friends, the Age of the Automobile reached its peak before anyone reading my rant was even a glimmer in their sweet mother's eyes. The sun has set on car culture; the problem is the rest of our pragmatic culture has not kept pace. I'm not implying that cars are bad. I am, however, stating that the way we use and abuse the privilege of operating automobiles is very, very imbalanced.

Remember the playground bully? Didn't you want to kick his ass? Did you? No, probably not. But eventually someone, maybe several people, did along the way. Are you glad they did? Well, guess what? Automobile operators are playing the part of the bully everyday. Are they getting their asses kicked? Do you habitual drivers like your insurance rates, your maintenance and upkeep, your worry and fear that someone will harm your precious four-wheeled investment? Of all these, the pressure at the pump alone will quite soon burst the bubble of the automobile. Yeah, we had a taste after Hurricane Katrina. But that bump was oil companies simply protecting their profit shares. What will happen when the oil companies truly run short of supply? Quick -- drive to Vegas and place your bets now because you have a better chance of winning than predicting exactly when fuel will reach its honest price based on blood, supply and demand.

Put on your boots and the muck jacket, 'cause the shit's gonna hit the proverbial fan. My cycling friends and I will continue to do what we've been doing -- waking up and hopping on our bikes, dodging lazy drivers to do what we believe is sensical and right. Eventually the next motorist who swerves toward a cyclist will run out of gas in the process and stop -- dead in their tracks.

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