Get Off My Bike!

Half Wheeler "is a kids bike that hooks u...You can

really learn a lot about the average American by riding a bike. When I’m on my bike, I get the chance to interact with people in a high-stress situation in which my life hangs in the balance. It’s then that I realize that all this talk about Americans pulling together and learning to get along doesn’t apply on streets and roads. Let’s take a walk through the different kinds of people whom I met today.

There was the little girl driver who had a real dilemma. On the one hand, she didn’t want to have to put down her cell phone. On the other hand, she didn’t want to be bothered trying to go around a bike. So, of course, the answer is to pretend the bike isn’t there and just keep driving. Yes–because if she actually does hit the cyclist, in didn’t really happen because he wasn’t really there. This is the result of virtual reality. The phone is reality and actually reality is virtual. Well, I’m really glad that my virtual handlebar managed to just clear your virtual bumper, or there would have been a lot of virtual blood and stuff, and that might have ruined your virtual day.

There are always drivers who quickly veer around me as I am slowing down to stop for a red light.  It’s true that I am not going the speed limit at the moment. But I have discovered that, even when I am flying down a hill faster than the speed limit, there must be something in the mind of auto drivers that tells them that all bikes must be veered around and then cut in upon, because they all must be traveling at a snail’s pace.  Anyway, they veer around me and then cut me off as they slam on the brakes to stop for the traffic light.  I tend to pretend I didn’t see that and just pass them on the right until I’m behind the car I was orignally following.  This often causes them to look at me indignantly and then try to close the right-side gap as they pass me as a way of showing their disdain.

The people who like to cut me off come from a species known as eroneous legalis spoutus.  These people like to tell you what the law says, even though they haven’t actually read the law and, in fact, are completely in error.  Anyone who reads the law regarding bikes understands two things.  Firstly, you must always allow a bike a reasonable amount of room, which is usually considered to be three feet, in which to operate.  This will assure that bikes aren’t being forced to ride over storm grates and smash their right pedals into the curb.  It also give them a little room to avoid road debris and an auto at the same time.  Secondly, if you have two lanes and can move over, you are supposed to move into the opposite lane to pass, just like you would for another auto.

There was the minivan with the large woman driver and her large family, who also is of the species eroneous legalis spoutus. She, like many other legally-challenged citizens, believes that bicycles should only be ridden on the sidewalk, even though they are classified in every driver handbook as motor vehicles, even though most places have laws against riding a bike on the sidewalk.  (My particular town has a waver of this law if you are under 12.)   And she feels that she can now justify endangering my life with an extremely risky pass by telling me that I am breaking the law. It doesn’t strike me as odd that she has no love for bikers. After all, she has obviously never been on one, and probably wouldn’t be able to walk one a block without needing resuscitation. But she has seen bike riders on TV (in front of which she and her brood obviously spend a lot of time) doing risky stunts over hills and motor-cross tracks, and she knows for sure that they are too dangerous to be allowed to play in traffic.

I have to pause her to inject the dreaded statistics. Twenty years ago, a car passenger was seven times more likely to be in an accident than a bicyclist.. Although I haven’t read a recent statistic, I believe that the ratio is changing as motorists become more careless and less tolerant of bicycles. Regardless of what the ratio may be, a bicyclist is far more likely to die in a collision with a car. In this way, it’s probably more in line with the fact that motorcyclists are involved in more accidents than cars.

The seven times more likely thing that remains is that a bicyclist is seven times more likely to have an accident on a sidewalk or bike path than on the road. Why? I have had accidents with cars in all three places. I nearly killed (= scared to death, fortunately, and not literally) a cyclist riding on the sidewalk when I was driving my car. The only accident I had on the road, fortunately, was the time I hit a car that pulled out of a parking spot right in front of me. We both survived. He didn’t see me. It happens. But I had time to react and slow down, so that the impact was minimal.

The poor cyclist I almost killed was a young man who thought that I should be expecting to see a cyclist racing down the sidewalk at 20 mph. This despite the fact that I couldn’t even see down the sidewalk until I cleared the brick wall that was blocking my view. The same thing occurred to me as a young boy when car suddenly pulled out from behind a building that I was passing. There is just no way for the car to see the biker coming and no way for the cyclist to react. In neither case was the auto driver at fault. Cases on bike paths usually go the same way. Someone backing out of a driveway will have to back across the bike path in order to get a view of street traffic, especially if there are bushes and trees in the way. It’s almost impossible to see a bike coming, or for the bike to see the car until impact is eminent.

Speaking of eroneous legalis spoutus, it’s about time for parents to stop setting up their children to be road kill. Most of us were told, back in the day, that a pedestrian should walk facing oncoming traffic. It’s a good idea, because you can see if any cars don’t see you and you need to step off the road. But, this is terrible logic when referring to bicycles. Yes, maybe your little one is not riding very fast yet. But, soon they will be riding ten mph or faster. Now you are recreating that age old math problem, and the answers are a matter of life and death. If Johnny is traveling west at 10 mph and Mr. Smith is traveling east at 30 mph, at what speed will Johnny and Mr. Smith meet? The answer is 40 mph. If, however, Johnny is also traveling east, they will only meet at 20 mph. This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, Johnny is much more likely to survive an impact at 20 mph than at 40. Secondly, and even more importantly, Mr. Smith has twice as much time to see Johnny and avoid colliding with him. No only that, but Mr. Smith is accustomed to seeing everyone on his side of the road moving in the same direction. Contrary motion could cause Mr. Smith to panic and react poorly, which endangers other drivers as well.

But back to my rant about human nature. Most people who get into their cars after work in the afternoon are either brain-dead or too preoccupied with getting home to be concerned with anyone else. That’s why you have huge back-ups at intersections caused by someone who didn’t pay attention and has now messed up the entire traffic flow, or who darts through out-of-turn because he feels that his attempt to get home and crack a beer or load up the jet skis is more important that being a courteous driver. (I especially love roundabouts. They are great 22 hours of the day and worse than teeth pulling the other two.) And, of course, people become road warriors as soon as the car door closes. Streets become testosterone-rich zones. Even the women act like they are on steroids. Highways and freeways become NASCAR tracks. People seem to forget that they are playing with two-ton killing machines surrounded by 40-ton 18-wheeled car compactors.

People tell me I’m nuts to be riding my bike in traffic. I tell them that I am the sanest person on the road. Without my armored personnel carrier to protect me, I’m going to be watching out for the other guy. And I’m going to be doing my very best to co-operate with my fellow motorists. And I think that, just maybe, even though I get a lot of road rage thrown at me, I am actually helping to prevent accidents. Most people have to pay closer attention, because they realize that killing a cyclist is not a good way to get home faster.

I was very sad to hear about the road worker recently killed while working on the Milwaukee downtown interchange. The biggest irony, of course, is the fact that some idiot thought he was saving a couple of seconds getting home. For his haste, he can now live for the rest of his life with the guilt of taking an innocent life. Also, his haste means that a family will never see their loved one on this earth again. Finally, his haste caused multitudes to be stuck behind the accident for several hours. Two seconds of haste caused a death, several ruined lives, and thousand of hours of wasted time.

I know that people care about their families. I know that they protect their children. But I want them to understand that, while charity begins at home, it ought to extend way past that. I want them to take a moment and ask themselves why, as soon as we step into cars, do we leave all civility behind? The Bible talks about the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you were on my bike seat, how would you like cars to treat you? How would you like cars to treat bikes if it were you child or grandchild on the bike? How do think you are helping your children learn politeness and civility by practicing road rage and driving is such a way that only be described as assault with a deadly weapon? Are you really able to salve your conscience with the idea that you have the moral high ground? Are you really ready to risk, jail, fines, injuries and death in the name of arriving at Walmart two seconds earlier? Do you really think that being the first one to the red light makes you a winner?

I’m going to continue to ride my bike. It saves gas. I makes me a happier, more stress-free person. It decreases wear and tear on roadways. It reduces air and noise pollution. It even reduces traffic congestion. Many will debate me on the last one, unless they have been to China before and after everyone bought a car. There is nothing about driving a car that beats riding a bike. If more people rode bikes, more of us could wave to, talk to, and, in general, enjoy the company of our fellow travelers. We would welcome and acknowledge the people of our community, instead of living in our glass and steel bubbles of isolation.

I know, I know. The whole idea that riding bikes instead of cars would somehow eliminate the selfish nature or our society is absurd. But these is something to be said for sharing in our common humanity. There is the ability to empathize with and bond with others who are experiencing the same things as we do. The more mechanized our society becomes, though, the more we disconnect from each other. The more we learn to live in our isolation, the more that interaction with others becomes an annoyance and a burden instead of one of the joys of life. So, if you aren’t going to join me and ride a bike, that’s fine. But please, please put yourself in my shoes for just a few seconds, whenever you see me. It’s safer for both of us, and we might even enjoy the feeling of being good neighbors, if only for a moment.


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Filed under On Family, Health, Environment and Ethics

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