Stop the Madness behind the wheel

I was saddened to read yesterday of yet another cyclist hit and killed by a motorist. These stories occur all too frequently. Cyclists and pedestrians are run down almost daily. In 2012, cyclists were hit and killed at the rate of 2 per day in the US. Pedestrians at a much higher rate. Interestingly, when having conversations about this with non-cyclying folks, the excuses for the drivers are inevitable and the same: “Cyclists are careless, and don’t obey the law”. “I see them run stop signs all the time”. Etc. and so forth.

I try to be polite about this in public, but really!?  I ask you drivers . . have you looked in the mirror and checked to see if YOU always obey the law? Do you speed? Play with your phone while driving? Not use your turn signal (ever)? Always properly yield right-of-way? Ever pass on the right? Ever ride in the left lane of a highway? If you do any of these ever . . you are in violation of the traffic laws. Don’t go around casting the “obey the law” stone from inside your glass automobile. As a whole, there may be a few idiotic cyclists vs. the overwhelming majority that ride safely, but there is a far, far, far larger population of drivers that drive carelessly and with little thought to safety when behind the wheel. Additionally, having once seen a cyclist (or pedestrian) do something stupid doesn’t give you a permit to hit the next one you see.

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I had a conversation at work one day after an all-too-frequent report of a cyclist hit by car this summer. I was talking to one co-worker and another chimed in about how cyclists “have no business” on one of the roads she commutes on. She described it as a series of rolling hills that drivers can’t see over and when you come over the hill and a cyclist is in the lane you don’t see them until it is too late. “Even at 35 mph”. Well, I bit my tongue lest I start a shouting match at work, but I commuted on that same road for 20 years before the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opened the ramps for route 29. I can assure you that nobody drives 35. I used to. And got impatient, obscene gestures made at me the whole way. Frankly, it is a foolish road to even drive 35 on due to the hills, curves, and number of deer likely to be crossing the road at any time. Taking cyclists out of the picture for a moment I submit that if you can’t see what is ahead of you on the road, you should probably SLOW DOWN. But heaven forbid drivers ever slow down or *GASP* pull over if needed. If there were a rabid mountain lion in the back seat most drivers would press forward with a foot in the accelerator, one hand on the wheel, and continue to fight the cat off with the other hand. Whatever you do DON’T STOP!

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As mentioned, now days I am on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for about 20 miles each day. It is amazing what I see. I set my cruise control at 65 (weather permitting) and I ride the right lane. I don’t use the left unless it is imperative because I’ll never be able to get back to the right again. The moment you pull out to go around a truck going uphill, you immediately start getting passed on the right by folks who apparently need to get somewhere to head off global thermonuclear war because why else would they need to drive 80 mph, and pass on the right without signaling!? I’ve been passed by people cruising along at well over 70 with both hands on a device on top of wheel texting away, people reading books or newspapers while driving, and the ever popular cell phone discussion while applying make-up. But cyclists and pedestrians are to blame when they get struck and killed. texting-and-driving-471

There is this really cool device called an alarm clock that has been around for hundreds of years. It can be used to get up early enough that you don’t have to drive like an idiot to get to work on time. Instead of hitting snooze, get out of bed, and get out the door in a reasonable fashion rather than endangering all of our lives out on the road. I’m sure I’ll get 10 responses from people explaining why it is necessary for them to be on a tight schedule and have to drive fast and crazy. “I have to get my kids on the bus and be at work at the same time”. “My dog has to poop the same time every day and then I’m late”. The list will be endless and worthless. When you kill or maim someone in your haste you can explain to them or their family about your poorly planned personal schedule and why your needs for unimpeded road space, and your right to violate all the traffic laws is so important. alarm_clock

And while we are on the topic, let’s talk about traffic laws. Why is it so hard to get rid of distractions behind the wheel? This is pretty simple. Make the use of hand-held devices while driving a MAJOR violation. This includes texting, talking on a phone, dialing a number, programming a gps, or anything else that involves not having your hands on the wheel and paying attention to the road in front of you. Yes, enforcement is a challenge but not that difficult. It would take a few days of unmarked police cars pulling people over to get the idea across. Hang up, put your hands on the wheel and drive.

Then there is everyone’s personal favorite: Driving under the influence. Can anyone explain to me while DWI/DUI is considered a misdemeanor in most States? I have a theory. America LOVES it’s automobiles. We wouldn’t want to take away someones privileges in life just because they got behind the wheel a wee bit tipsy. Just because nearly 30 people a day die as a result of DWI doesn’t mean someone should be labelled a felon for the rest of their life does it? In a word, YES. Until there are consequences from violating this law it will continue to be ignored. If you operate a 4000 lb. death machine drunk, indeed you should be tossed in jail and listed as a felon.

But if you choose to continue to drive like an idiot and run down a pedestrian or one of those evil, law-breaking cyclists, fear not. All you simply have to do is tell the officer “I didn’t see them”. Most likely, it will be labelled a “tragic accident”. You can get your car fixed, and go on with your life.

Examples of “I didn’t see the cyclist”:

The list goes on through the year. In many cases no charges are filed.

I would submit that if you didn’t see someone or something on the road. you weren’t looking. We have all seen pedestrians and cyclists (or at least people on bikes) putting themselves in harm’s way. Just the other night coming home from dinner on Christmas eve we were traveling on a busy, winding road with no shoulder and a guard rail. I suddenly saw a guy dressed in dark clothing with no light walking correctly against traffic but in a very, very bad place. I saw him because I was driving slowly (under the speed limit) and paying attention. Were I speeding even a little I probably would not have been able to avoid hitting him. And had I been even glancing at a cell phone BAM. He’d be dead. Sure, it was foolish for him to be out walking in that place with no light, but it remained my responsibility as a driver to consider the fact that that could happen and to pay attention.

As a cyclist, I’d like to respond to the idea that “cyclists are careless and don’t obey traffic laws”. When making this statement, the two most commonly cited examples are cyclists going through red lights, and cyclists “running stop signs”. Regarding the red lights, for the most part this is simply not true. One study in Oregen, shows 94 percent of cyclists stop at red lights. I suspect this is a much higher percentage than automobiles. While I can’t find anything citing percentages, the Federal Highway Administration provides a figure of 2.3 million crashes with 7,770 fatalities in 2008 as a result of vehicles running red lights. 2.3 million! Remember that this is just crashes. In a less empirical study I spent a week counting how many times I saw vehicles go through red lights as I made my way to and from work and in day to day errands. From Sunday to Saturday, I counted 31 times. Remember that most of my commute these days is on a highway with no traffic lights. This doesn’t count questionable occurrences where the light was yellow and then red but rather times vehicles went through an actual red light. If statistics aren’t enough to bear this out or you find them boring perhaps this little tidbit will have you thinking twice about hitting the accelerator the next time that light turns yellow:

Now back to cyclists. For the most part a cyclist’s greatest fear is getting hit by a car. Nothing will change your life faster than that. As a result, we tend to wear high-visibility clothing, and often use flashing lights at all times of the day. The vast majority of us hate intersections and take great measures to go through them carefully.night_lights_winter_commute

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Clipless pedals

When riding a bike, you tend to be clipped to your pedals. To non-cyclists this may sound dangerous but it is far from it. Cycling shoes and pedals work just like ski bindings. A slight twist of the foot and you are out. The benefit is that the cyclist can apply much more power throughout the pedal stroke when clipped in than just a downward push for part of the stroke. Why is this important? Because the best and safest way for a cyclist to navigate a stop sign is to slow down to nearly stopped (we are talking 1-2 mph here), carefully look, and if clear or the cyclist has the right-of-way at a 4-way stop, to keep pedaling without unclipping or taking their feet off the pedals if using platform-style pedals. To stop and put a foot down then requires to the cyclist to remount the bike, re-engage the pedals and to regain momentum from a stop. All of this takes enough time that what was a safe opportunity to go through the intersection may now be gone. There is a good illustration of this here. At least one State (Idaho) and several local municipalities have changed their laws to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as a yield. I don’t provide this explanation as an excuse to break the law. Cyclists should be held accountable for violating the law at least to the same level of scrutiny as motor vehicles. But bikes are not cars and don’t have the instant acceleration through a stop sign provided by the gas pedal. Or course before you get on your high-horse about cyclists and stop signs, let’s all realize that cars are once again far more guilty of violations than cyclists.

If it sounds like I’m impugning all drivers, well, I guess I am. With our automobile-centric society we have all become far too cavalier behind the wheel. It makes me chuckle to hear people worry about things like Ebola or Avian flu and then the self-same folks hop in their car and venture out on the highway at crazy-fast speeds while texting, eating, and finding a fun driving song on the iPod.

For full disclosure, in the past I was guilty of probably everything I describe here. I think we all have been at some point. Some years ago, I caused an accident when I was driving too fast where I shouldn’t have been and not paying close enough attention around a bend. Someone in front of me stopped to turn left. They should have been able to safely turn left. My irresponsibility behind the wheel caused their normal, daily left turn to be a fairly major accident instead. I have never seen that person again but I know she sustained a fairly significant injury to her arm and a leg. I’m sure she still suffers from it. Where was I going? To help setup for a picnic. What a sobering moment. Why was I in a rush again? I could have just as easily caused the other person’s death over a picnic. I resolved from that day forward to slow down and obey the traffic laws and I have done so ever since.

Does that make me a saint? A hypocrite? Certainly not the former. A bit of the latter though I would hope people would learn from mine and countless other lessons out there and resolve for 2015 to slow down, pay attention, and drive safe.

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