This weekend there was an interesting article in the New York Times, written by Daniel Duane, titled Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?.
Duane relates how dangerous it can seem to ride a bicycle in the US, and the fact that people driving cars are rarely prosecuted for car crashes that kill people riding bicycles.
I agree with Duane’s assessment of the difficulties of riding a bicycle in cities: “… the social and legal culture of the American road, not to mention the road itself, hasn’t caught up. Laws in most states do give bicycles full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials — bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash — make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level.”
Like the writer of this opinion piece, I love riding a bicycle. Unlike this writer however, I don’t find that cycling is automatically dangerous. Bad things absolutely happen to people doing all kinds of things, including riding a bicycle. I’ve been in many crashes on my bicycle over the years, thankfully, none of them fatal. On the other hand, driving a car is dangerous enough that 33,803 people were killed in automobile accidents last year in the United States. And according to the World Health Organization, automobile accidents have become the 9th leading cause of death worldwide.
I know that not as many people ride bicycles as frequently and as far as we drive automobiles, but why do you suppose people’s perception is so skewed? The rare fatal traffic accident involving a bicycle here in Seattle almost always becomes front page news. Compared to fatal car accidents? Maybe a line or two in the local section, but it is so common place to die driving a car that it barely rates mentioning in the news media.
Duane finishes his article with a lame plea that relies on personal responsibility as the answer to create the view that cyclists deserve respect:
“So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation. That alone will make the streets a little safer, although for now I’m sticking to the basement and maybe the occasional country road.”
Traffic laws, and car focused road infrastructure are reasons why use of the road is often difficult for cyclists. This is why a law abiding citizen will break the law while riding a bicycle. Respect? At many intersections, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person on bicycle stopped in the road at a traffic light, to be able to make the traffic light change. We need to make the roads work for all users. I have wondered for a long time why a pedestrian waiting to cross the road has to wait for an entire light cycle to get a walk signal. Wouldn’t it be nicer while on foot, to hit the walk button, and have the light change so the pedestrian has the right of way? Instead, we’ve made it easiest for automobiles at the expense of other modes of transportation. To change this attitude will take a fundamental shift in how we view automobile transportation in the United States.
Washington State passed the Vulnerable User Law in 2012. This kind of law helps underscore the seriousness and the possible consequences involved when driving an automobile. These kinds of laws are a good legislative step, but only help close a loophole after the fact. I believe that attitudes about transportation choices are slowly changing for the better. This won’t happen overnight and will probably take a generation or more for it fully take hold. It will take work by a legion of people who believe that it is fundamentally fair and economically necessary to promote transit, cycling, and walking as alternatives to driving a car. The plea by Duane for cyclists to always follow the rules of the road to the letter of the law, and stay in the basement isn’t going to help make it happen.