Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Challenging The Defeatist Mentality Of Letting The Bully Win

 SUV With Dealer Plates Blocks High Traffic Cross Walk
(SUV with tinted windows and dealer plates blocking entire crosswalk and wheel chair ramp at the Santa Monica Pier.)

Human conflict, violence, and war still exist, but for the most part, human society has long ago moved past, big man with big stick takes your meat. We have created police to protect the formalized rights granted our citizens, and given police the power to carry out the mission of protecting those rights. We do not tolerate a big bully with a club enforcing their will on others, that is anti-democratic. Yet in conversations about cycling, one of several echoing refrains that comes up time and time again, is cars are bigger, so they win, cyclists and pedestrians lose, so get out of the way. We don't tell kids that are smaller or weaker, don't go to school because you might get hurt by the bigger kids. Why do we tolerate this line of thinking on the road?

Here is a quote from the LA Times comment board, from the recent story circulating of the 81 year old driver that failed to yield while making a left turn and plowed into a group of cyclists, resulting in serious injuries and a helicopter emergency airlift for 3 of the 4 riders involved. I picked the comment below out because it typifies anti-cycling or mode bias sentiment. Like most of these sorts of comments, it follows a pattern, and could easily be interchanged with comments from a hundred different news stories on bicycling.
"Whose to blame? Sounds like the driver didn't give the cyclists the right of way or just flat out didn't see them. Hope they heal, but I hope this doesn't fuel the 'renegade' cyclists seeking equality on the road, but rather shows that they aren't safe and need to realize that the big dog is always gonna beat the little dog no matter how much barking the little one does."
This wasn't the only comment like this, and some were far more blunt in saying bikes shouldn't be allowed on public roads for their own safety. Do we want a civilization that gives free reign to motorists to be bullies? Some citizens have guns, many do not. Do we tell the citizens that don't, hey don't go outside, you aren't as well armed? Besides what should be apparent and serious ethical flaws with such line of thinking, it does not hold up when you apply it to attitudes toward other vehicles of various sizes.

No one questions the fact that a 16 wheel semi-truck will smash a car to bits in a collision, but we don't hear these same motorists call to remove cars from truck traffic. Cars drivers are allowed to drive on the same roads as buses and cross intersections with trains. Collisions between a car and the much bigger train, truck or bus are all instances where a car, in spite of all it's whizbang crumple zones and fluffy air bags, is simply no match. What about cars of different sizes, should we ban smart cars from sharing the road with SUV's. Like most comments by bike haters, they only want to apply their logic in a way convenient to their own interest. They think cyclists don't belong, so they only apply their line of thinking toward cycling.

If you really follow down this path of logic, only large trucks should be allowed to use the roads and highways. They are after all the biggest dogs on the road. I'm sure truck drivers would love that, maybe they could deliver on time without all the inefficient cars in their way. Since I think most people would object to only trucks being allowed on the street, we have to figure out a way to coexist, and make our streets work and serve all users, efficiently and safely.

As a society, America has viewed a ballpark rate of 40,000 annual traffic fatalities as reasonably acceptable collateral damage in getting from A to B. That has to change. It's much more than a cycling issue, most of those killed are not cyclists, they are drivers and their passengers. For all the safety features of the modern automobile, in America we still lose on our roads the equivalent of about 6 jumbo jets loaded with passengers crashing every month. Most of them people who were inside a car. Could you imagine the uproar if passenger planes started falling out of the sky at that rate?

Planes have a lot of safety specific features, like modern cars do, but there is no replacement for a good pilot. We need safer drivers on our roads. Drivers who are well educated, responsible, and are not intoxicated, intexticated, or falling asleep at the wheel. Drivers who still have the mental capacity to handle the demands of turning left (one study found each additional year of age after 65 increases the odds of getting into a crash involving turning left by 8 percent).

We need to put life before license.

So no, we will not back down and let the bully win. If fighting for the rights of cyclists makes me a renegade, so be it. This little dog will keep on barking.


Unseelie said...

Please tell us that you posted this in a comment to the article, and it doesn't only live in your blog! Please post this there where it can add to the discussion!

dreamlet said...

This is a really well thought out and well written piece. Great job. Your analogies are dead on and really take the wind out of the sails of a would-be bike hater. Bigger does not equal more rights on the road. A simple idea and a powerful one because it is truth.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gary. People are aware that this problem exists, but now how do we change the mentality that road users are equal? The recent bike summit with the Mayor and the '3 foot' poster and the call to make it a state law might help. I think it would be a difficult law to enforce though. If an accident occurred, maybe the motorist could be ticketed for being too close, but enforcement by an officer if they see a motorist drive too close to a cyclist would probably come down to 'did you measure how close/far I was from the cyclist?' I think more cycling awareness and rights to the road should be added to DMV information when people get a drivers license and take their exams.

Rach Stevo said...

I second what Unseelie said: post this EVERYWHERE!!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant logic and argument. Too bad the photo of the schmuck in the SUV was not done closer so as to offer a view of the jerk responsible for such behaviour.

Randall BusTard

Gary said...

I've been putting it off, but I really should get a good zoom lens so I can get more up close and personal shots from a distance. Could be a fun series, the face of bad driving.

I think changing the mentality is a doable, but a difficult and multifaceted task. We can change law, but that alone won't do it. It has to be enforced. But it's also a cultural thing, we have to get people to think about the issue and believe a just and civil environment on the road is a worthy cause. I think because people have become detached from how much havoc driving causes, it fades into the background for most folks.

People are afraid of terrorists, and drug and gang violence, and move their kids to the suburbs, only to increase their kids chance of being killed by car. The mainstream media helps fuel this upside down thinking of what our biggest dangers are. We have to educate, in all ways and mediums possible.

Lloyd Lemons said...

Excellent post! This is an enormous problem, with an incredibly complex solution.

How do you get people who don't care, to care? How do you ensure that motorists actually know the rules of the road? How do you get the media and public figures/politicians to speak out regularly about what's right regarding this issue? They'll campaign for seatbelts, why not for cyclists?

I don't know the answer, I just know that we have to keep trying.

I will share this post widely. Very well done. Thank you.


graciela. said...

I saw that comment on the la times too. There was even a person that flat out said we shouldn't bike in LA and that we should move to Oregon or Montana if we really want to ride. Guess that guy isn't familiar with the CVC.

Honestly, I do feel pessimistic about ever getting the public to embrace and respect cyclists. We're just a nuisance to them because we're slower. I don't see them lash out at motorcycle drivers or even the Vespa drivers in the same way. I really think it's because they lose a fraction of a second trying to avoid us and time is money and all that nonsense people take too seriously. I won't ever stop riding in the street for as long as it's my legal right to. I just don't know if hearts and minds can be won.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your analogy.

And the world is full of crappy, careless drivers. But you guys do acknowledge that there are some crappy, careless bicyclists, right? Or, if you're on a fixie, the laws you care so much about don't apply?

These are the guys that give bikes a bad name and help scuttle real dialogue and advances in safety. Spend more energy reining some of your peers in and more people will be sympathetic.

But when people complain about renegade cyclists, they are complaining about the guys that bomb through intersections and hop from the sidewalk to the middle of the street. I know they represent a small percentage of cyclists, but they are the most visible and often the most confrontational.

But with bike advocates, it's almost like their irresponsible riding is acceptable or it's never even acknowledged.

Getting involved locally to get more bike corrals and bike lanes installed seems like it would go a long way. Easier said than done, but if you actually think childish tactics like posting pictures of people you deem as bad drivers will help, good luck.

Gary said...

@Anonymous 2
Of course I'm aware there are some crappy bicyclists. We can never be allowed to forget it, because whether you follow the rules or not drivers constantly remind cyclists of some story where they saw a cyclist flaunt the rules. Usually used in the context to justify hating cyclists as a group and lumping them all into a stereotype of scofflaws. I've also written some rants about cyclists riding the wrong way and things before on this blog, but changing that stuff, just like changing driving behavior is complex.

I'm a big prominent that we need cycling education back in schools, make adult classes easily available, and require DMV testing to include more bike content. My wife, and a number of other local advocates, took the certification to become a road cycling safety instructor, and hopefully now that West Hollywood and Santa Monica has put some budget money toward bike education we can actually get some work done on that front.

I also think when drivers treat cyclists like they don't belong, even saying as such out of the window of their car, it reinforces this mutated sense of law some cyclists have, because they don't feel like they belong as part of the traffic system. Banned from sidewalks in most places, and scorned on the road, they weave around from side walk to road and back and forth because they don't feel like they belong anywhere.

About the tactic of posting examples of bad driving, part of the reason I feel it's needed is the bubble of the car makes people forget they are in public space, and have social responsibility. Mistakes made in a car are also a much bigger threat to life.

Studies have shown differences in driving behavior just between convertible drivers with top down or top up, with the same driver. I think the absence of public shame in driving allows people to feel they can drive like other people don't matter. It's like the TV ad on road rage where they have people in a grocery store behave like they were car traffic. It looks ridicules, because in a face to face setting, people negotiate and share space with much less conflict even in cramped environments.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday (Thursday), as I were walking south on Vermont, I filmed two events. One was of one of the newer crowd that has for the last decade been filling up the Los Feliz/Franklin Hills area (esp on Vermont, where the businesses have greatly over-extended themselves onto the sidewalk).

A motorist was in a hurry to get up Vermont Avenue from Hollywood Blvd, and insisted on blocking the crosswalk. A man in a wheelchair, whom I did not film owing to my slow camera hand, was yelling at him to no avail. So I filmed the driver as I stood in front of the car and eventually passed by to the other side, after having to walk into oncoming traffic on Vermont. I figured that if he insisted on sitting in the extended sidewalk to block the wheelchair ramp and a person who needed it, I would stand in his way. (And a 6'3" former New Yorker is not easy to ignore—car or no car.)

The other incident, which had happened but a few minutes earlier, involved an unknown vehicle. It may have been the L.A. metermaid-mobile pictured in the series I captured.)It involved a wheelchair as well, but with far more impact—literally. The result was a gruesome one. A wheelchair-bound man with half of one leg missing from an amputation, had his head torn open on east side of Vermont Avenue. I had arrived just before the paramedics. There was no doubt that a motor vehicle was involved, and that the reason the guy may have been in the streets could have been because of the extremely narrow passageway created by the many merchants along Vermont. In any case, the few LAPD crosswalk stings (at least one of which I have photographed) have done little to prompt respect from the speeding motorists. The result was the mauling of a man whose wrecked body (he was still alive while I was there, but I doubt he survived) lay broken on a very hot street.

The coincidence was startling, but sadly, not unusual. Nevertheless, with cameras in hand and some chutzpah always at the ready, perhaps the tide of motor morns can be persuaded to slow it down a bit. Along with Gary's argument, it is a well-rounded arsenal.

erin said...

I'm always interested when the conversation turns to the crappy bicyclist discussion. It's a fascinating bit of logic that seems to come up in every cars v. bikes discussion.

I am not trying to say that the observation is incorrect -- there certainly are crappy cyclists. But there are also crappy drivers.

What strikes me as odd is that, in terms of ratios, I'd bet the number of crappy cyclists is pretty much equal to number of crappy drivers. So I wonder why cyclists are always defined by the percentage of riders who break the rules, whereas cars are defined by the percentage of drivers who don't.

Gary said...


I believe it's a perceptual thing that comes from only driving and the fact that cyclists are a minority. When people only drive, they tend to identify with drivers, and are more forgiving of the little mistakes and fudges of the law drivers often do out of convenience, but often contribute to serious danger on the road. Things like California roll, not stopping for right turns, exceeding the speed limit, turning without signaling, making turns from the wrong lane, etc.

They probably don't pay as much attention to cyclists because they don't identify with them, but as soon as they see one that violates their right of way or do something wrong around them, that burns in their memory. Since there are fewer cyclists period, it's easier to rationalize that cyclists must all do that. They may already harbor the belief cyclists don't belong, and will look for justification for their existing point of view.

I think it's somewhat similar psychology that allows rationalization of minority racial groups as being criminals.

I think it's also partly the fact that cyclists that fudge the rules and motorists who do, are often cheating in different ways. Drivers rarely cheat a red light from a dead stop, but cyclists who have a greater ability to see around corners, and who often cannot trigger signal changes, sometimes will roll reds. On the other hand, cyclists have a rather difficult time exceeding the speed limit, but drivers do it habitually. They only understand the rules they break regularly, but cyclists often also drive or used to, and see it both ways.

There are behavior issues that need to improve for driving and cycling, and cycling is in the unfortunate position of almost no effort being made by governments to provide good traffic safety and legal information. In the past American schools taught safe road bicycling, now many schools take out bike racks because they might encourage physical activity and that could be a liability.

What's frustrating to me is the drivers who like to sit up on a holier than though perch and proclaim cyclists are all scofflaws that need to follow the rules or get off the road, as though drivers set some kind of good example, but they don't. When drivers aren't killing more Americans every 2 years than were lost in all the years of Vietnam, maybe they can start talking like role models.

Anonymous said...

@erin and @gary

I don't only drive. I also ride.

I bring up the crappy cyclist point because you guys lump all drivers into the hateful and dangerous category. I'm making a distinction - not an excuse or justification to drive my car dangerously.

I have nearly been in two bike accidents in my life. Without question I was in the right and in both instances, the riders involved were the skinny jeaned fixie types, no helmets, blowing through red lights. Both saw fit to yell obscenities. Sorry if I'm not sympathetic to THEIR plight. Obviously they must have been doctors rushing to an important procedure and were thusly entitled to pedal through red lights.
Meanwhile, I have safely driven past or beside countless other cyclists without almost hitting them.

I have friends who are hardcore riders and I am always pit on the defensive because I can't/don't ride a bike exclusively - as if I have to answer for the bad drivers. So, Erin, thats why the bad riders point come sup. To put you on the defensive. To make you explain or make excuses for them.

I agree with Gary's point about education. And both sides need to recognize that a lot of the problems in LA are also infrastructure based. Many of our streets are crazily designed even for regular vehicular traffic, let alone bikes.

Gary said...

I don't lump all drivers as hateful or dangerous. On days when I see a number of bad drivers cause or nearly cause serious harm, I don't go write up, hey lets ban all driving, a response many drivers have toward cyclists.

It's a minority of drivers who cause the most harm, but due to the sheer volume of how many people drive, quite a lot of harm it is. I sold my car a while back and rarely drive anymore, but do occasionally. When I do drive, I make a point of being as safe as possible. After reading books like Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic, I could never look at the task of driving the same way again.

Are fixie kids blowing through lights with reckless abandon a problem, yes, but should the response be, let's get rid of bicycling, no. I think what irks many frequent or "hard core" cyclists, is how often we hear drivers say bicyclists don't belong instead of trying to work toward real solutions.

Because bicycling was so neglected and looked down upon for long in the U.S., bicycling became a counter cultural symbol for some people. I think if cycling gains more mainstream acceptance, things like the fixie kid fad will fade away. Riding a bike won't be so counter culture when your mom rides a bike too.

Step-Through said...

Very insightful, and so important. I have been paying a lot of attention to car-bicycle relations lately, and had similar thoughts to yours. However, I don't think motorists are "bike-haters" so much as they are people who are afraid of taking personal responsibility for their actions. For years, they have operated on the (erroneous) notion that they can drive quite carelessly, and their air bags and steel chassis will protect them and the other road users they might hit. That is clearly not the case with a cyclist, and their fear comes out as anger, much in the way that a parent yells at a child who did something dangerous.

In my opinion, the way forward is clear, but will take some work. First, is a strict liability policy such as they have in the Netherlands. This says that the bigger, heavier road user is *always* at fault in a collision, although the other party may be ticketed too. So drivers are careful around bikes and pedestrians, cyclists are careful around walkers, and trucks are very careful everywhere.

That needs to be supplemented with much more intensive mobility education - driving, bicycling, and walking - for everyone. Getting a drivers license should take at least a year of study and multiple tests, like in Germany.

Finally, bicycle riders can emphasize that cycling is a normal, everyday activity, by riding assertively and lawfully and in ordinary clothes. I've been riding around Atlanta (not the most bike-friendly city) for years, and virtually never encounter aggressive drivers. I attribute it to being a nicely dressed woman with courteous, but assertive, behavior on the road.