Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When Drivers Gamble With Human Lives To Save A Few Seconds Of Time, Or Quite Often, No Time At All

Bike Lane Begin On 17th And Michigan

I almost witnessed a head collision between two cars today. It was on my ride to work, going down Michigan Ave., a residential street meant for low traffic volumes, but increasingly used as a cut through alternative to Pico Blvd. during peak times. It's a scenario that I see far too often, and it's because some drivers continue to believe cyclists don't belong in the street, and also that their time is more valuable than human lives. What happened was the driver of the black truck behind me, didn't want to slow down from his maniac speed through a residential street, and actually revved up to go faster as he got closer. He decided to make a very risky move and pass me before waiting for a safe moment to pass. Another car coming the opposite way was approaching. The driver of the black truck, who I cannot imagine did not see the car right in front of us, decided to gun it and honk as he plowed through, coming inches from both slamming into the car ahead, and buzzing me in the process.

Fortunately no one was hit, but it was certainly a tense near miss moment. However as is all too common with these traffic weaving dare devil drivers, I caught up to him at the next light at 14th. All his engine revving and displays of horse power had bought him no time gained. I asked him what the deal was back there, having nearly caused a head on crash, and he replied to the effect that I should get off the road and not be in "his" way. He was one of those.

One of my big fears besides the possibility of being hit myself, is that some driver like this, the ones who get pissed off and like to make vroom vroom noises and drive even faster at the sight of a cyclist on the street, will pass unsafely and cause a head on collision with another car. I'd hate to witness that, and though I would not be at fault, it is the obligation and responsibility of the one passing to pass safely, however I could easily see blame being shifted at me, as though my presence on the road caused the crash.

This whole scenario would not be an issue if people simply waited 2 or 3 seconds to pass when it is clear to do so, but for some drivers, 2 or 3 seconds gained is worth risking their life or more tragically, potentially the lives of others. Or in this case, as is often the case, the traffic signal timing meant the driver made no more progress than I did pedaling along at probably 14-15 mph. Such extreme risk taking that could potentially end or ruin lives for so little benefit is essentially sociopathic madness. Yet it is frighteningly common place on our streets.

From my observation, from time spent driving, and in the past couple years far more time cycling, this risky pass behavior is far more common of drivers passing a cyclist. As a very slow driver compared to most, I know there are often people who wish to pass me, but as a driver, other drivers have more patience with me. However with cars passing bikes I feel there is this competitiveness, like a fear of having their automotive superioirty threatened by the pressence of a cyclist. A belief that a driver must be faster than a bicyclist, and that since the cyclist does not "belong", in their world view not grounded in the rule of law, they must pass. And they must pass aggressively and loudly. Like a gorrlla beating it's chest.

Part of the reason I came to the conclusion that cyclists are treated differently in this regard is that even if a cyclist is going at or above the speed limit, on a narrow single lane each direction road, many drivers will still make risky engine revving near miss passes with head on traffic approaching. I rarely observed this while driving at or under the speed limit on narrow descending roads, but as a cyclist, I encounter it all the time. It's not just a speed issue. There is something inherent to bicycling that enrages some drivers more than other modes. I believe it stems at least in part from an ignorance that we even have rights. With other slow moving vehicles with a right to the roadway, like tractors or construction vehicles, which are far more difficult to pass, much more patience is exercised.

If it was just a matter that cyclists moved slower than most traffic this raging dangerous pass behavior would disappear when a bicyclist was going at or even above the speed limit, or with the flow of other traffic. With some nerve, skill, and a solid road bike, on a steep decent a cyclist can easily be going 30-35 , even 40+ mph. I've topped out at my all time high on a long highway decent during AIDS Life Cycle at 52 mph. At very high speeds, I have to control the lane (ride the center lane position) for my own safety and ability to take turns properly, and since in such cases I am often traveling close to speed limits or the flow of other traffic, my presence on the road shouldn't be an issue, but it is. When you're a road cyclist long enough you can feel the animosity of some drivers, the body language expressed through the car, the tail gating, the sudden engine revs, the swift swerving that nearly cuts you off after a pass.

My wife and I both have observed numerous times while descending canyon roads, drivers who make a sudden and unsafe pass, even if we're traveling the speed limit, or even when I'll admit I've been a little over the limit on occasion. Then once the driver passes in a blazing glory of puffed smoke and engine revs, they often return to their comfortable speed on the decent, which may actually be about the same speed as I was cycling or often slower going into tight turns. A bicyclist can make very tight turns at higher speeds than a car, much like a motorcycle, it's one of the advantages of being on 2 wheels. Then I am stuck soft pedaling behind the driver who was so impatient to pass me that they were willing to make a risky pass, but are then going slower then I'd prefer to go through the turns.

So while traveling a more easy going pace on the streets while going to work, and some drivers make the unsafe pass or honk, it may seem they dislike that we're not going as fast they are, but really some drivers simply hate bicyclists being on the road period. No matter how fast we're going relative to other traffic, there is always a handful of drivers who treat us differently. It doesn't matter if you're a bike racer flying down the side of mountain at the limits of safe speed, someone always feels they have to go faster still, because they have an engine, and they can. Even if immediately making after making that pass they return to a speed no different than you were going. It's entirely irrational, and I'm not sure what drives the psychology behind it, but it's something I've noticed in my countless miles of travels.

I hope that I never have to witness this scenario result in a head on collision, even if I don't get tangled into it, but after commutes like this morning, I reminded how little life matters to some drivers racing the clock, and with a grudge against pedal power. So much more has to be done to improve respect for bicycling, respect for safety, and just basic civility and decency to our roads.

I'd start with raising the educational bar for driving, by requiring mandatory classes (which of course would include bicyclists rights and how to safely interact), and tougher tests. In hindsight it boggles my mind that I got a drivers license in the first place learning from my girlfriend at the time in a mall parking lot with no formal classes. That's certainly not good enough, but it's passable in California, and we aren't even the most lackadaisical state when it comes to driving requirements.

That same girlfriend I learned how to drive from, got her license in Texas where she didn't even have to drive a real car, only a simulator, to pass. Technically if you live in California for a little while you have to get a CA license, but she went through all of college here with a Texas license, and when ever it came up with an officer (she got a lot of traffic tickets), they always let the license issue slide, but would say get it updated next time. They would always say next time, next time.

As a society we are utterly detached from the consequences and responsibility that come with driving, and it's been killing us quite literally. If we set the bar low for driving education, hand out licenses like lollipops, and then whither from taking them away because an offending driver would, gasp, have to take the bus to get to work, than of course we will have chaos in the streets. I think Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic said it best (yes I know I reference Vanderbilt a lot, but it's good stuff). Comparing the U.S. to other first world nations he remarked, “It’s too easy to get a license in this country, too hard to lose one.


Brent said...

I wonder how many cyclists, when driving, have the guts to proceed at 25 MPH down Santa Monica Boulevard. I haven't been able to do it yet, although I once tried 30 MPH. The social norm is strong!

Kevin Love said...

Why didn't you call the police? This is serious criminal behaviour.

If this person goes on to kill or injure someone else, then you do have a moral responsibility. You failed to call the police and do what you could to stop him.

Gary said...


I probably should have called the police. But it's not such a simple call to always go that far.

Police responded mostly with indifference when a year ago I reported being assaulted by a car passenger that grabbed my bag on the road and threw egg at me in West Hollywood while riding. Though at least it was on record as having happened.

When no actual contact or collision has occurred it's very difficult to get police to bother putting in a report, and with cyclists they are often even more reluctant to do so, but I always encourage people to insist police file a report if they are hit. I think bicycle collisions are currently vastly unreported. I learned in a roundtable discussion with city officials that the former Santa Monica Deputy Police chief was struck by a car door in a bike lane while riding, and he didn't even report his own incident.

In cases like this unsafe passing, it is such commonplace behavior, though it could potentially turn deadly, that I'd have to be filling police reports every other day. The whole system is messed up top to bottom, and I don't know if I want to be using my time to file a police report for every near collision. Sadly socipathic mania is just a normal and mostly accepted fixture of the driving culture, and I'd feel overwhelmed trying to report them all.

I pick and choose my battles, and sometimes I just want to get to work without a fight.

Anonymous said...

Do you think the proposed law about requiring drivers to give 3 feet when passing will help?

I've been wanting to install a little video camera on my bike to record incidents like what you described - which happen all too frequently. The best idea I could come up with is to use my ipod nano, which can record video for the 1.5 hours that is my commute to and from.

salty said...

I (used to) ride daily on a two-lane residential street with a 25 mph limit. I got passed at least once a week - despite the fact I was travelling 25-35mph myself (thanks to the grade) and riding in the middle of the lane to distance myself from the parked cars. The street has 2 mid-block crosswalks and a semi-blind "kink" (which, of course is where the passing usually took place). It boggles my mind.

You are absolutely correct that no-one would pass a car (or even a motorcycle) travelling at 25mph, much less 35 - but there's some terrible compulsion to pass a bicycle.

My concern is less that this would lead to a head-on collision, and more that the driver would turn into me in the process of avoiding one.

I don't ride as much on that street anymore but I still regularly see the same kind of behaviour elsewhere. I assume that calling the police would lead to mostly laughter.

jericho1ne said...

I was reminded of my own mortality as a pedestrian today, trying to cross Hollywood Bl. A truck cruised right in front of me within inches, even though I had already entered the sidewalk. I screamed at the guy, trying to get him to realize the gravity of his actions.

He honked at me and blew me a kiss as he drove past.

I could end up like that 17yr old kid in Pacoima in no time. Or like countless pedestrians or cyclists whose lives don't count for shit.

Southern California is a sad place for humans. We have to fight to make this city more livable by any means necessary.

Jonathan Krall said...

Of course they have to pass you--there's an open lane right there in front to you. It's right there! They can _see_ it! If only they could get to it...

Personally, I think that wielding deadly force on a daily basis while pretending it's no big deal pretty much makes people crazy.

Chris said...

@Anonymous: I live in Colorado where there is a 3 foot law in effect. After it passed I have noticed a difference in the way people treat cyclists, but there are still yayhoos that think it is there God-given right to harass anyone they feel shouldn't be on the road.

A portion of my commute is on a four lane divided road with a 30 mph speed limit. In the beginning I would ride on the right edge of the right lane. I got buzzed by cars doing well over the posted speed limit all the time.

Finally I got fed up with almost being hit every day and I started riding in the middle of the right lane. I figured even if I was questioned by a cop the CO bike safety bill has language that says a cyclists can ride as far left as the cyclist deems necessary. I could justify my behavior because to be safe I had to ride far enough left to force motorists to pass in the other lane.

Of course I still occasionally get buzzed, but less frequently than when I was riding far right.

I discovered that when a considerate motorist would move left to safely pass me a less considerate motorist would jump in the gap (the right lane only occupied by a cyclist), gunning their engine and passing within inches of me.

That can't happen if I'm in the middle of the lane. Of course this offends many drivers. How dare I take up the WHOLE LANE?

I actually had a motorist wait for me in a parking lot to yell at me one day. The funny thing was that he was too out of breath from climbing the hill from the lot to the road to project his "concerns" very well.