Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Ethicist: Bad to Kill Cyclists and Drive on Dedicated Bike Lanes

This week marked the nadir for bicycling advocacy, fair discourse, and enforcement of the traffic laws that protect cyclists.  Which means the only direction that this can go is up.  Whew.  

To start, Daniel Duane, a "Contributing Editor for Men's Journal," wrote an op-ed piece for the august New York Times wherein he decried the lack of charges against drivers who kill cyclists.  The piece noted that car drivers are usually to blame in the accidents that injure cyclists.  Duane also suggested the following solution to the problem of car on bike injuries:  "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."  My initial reaction was to point out that Duane wrote for Men's Journal, not the New York Times.  Taddumdum!
@brooklynspoke and @bikesnobnyc then engaged in a series of tweets and replies on the topic, generously responding without profanity to every anti-cycling nut who antagonized them out of boredom or a need to be relevant.  Their tweets are a pure delight and as I watched this madness unfold, I could not help laughing out loud.  May they tweet forever.
In Washington, greatergreaterwashington's founder, David Alpert, noted that Duane was just one of several writers who had complained about cyclists and cycling advocates who seek enforcement of the laws that protect cyclists.  Those other pieces also concluded that the consequences for a driver killing a cyclists are not significant enough.  In his typical sober prose, Alpert drove home the point that there is no meaningful enforcement of the laws that could change behavior and save lives.

At the same time Washington's WTOP radio - which has any ratings at all because it broadcasts traffic and weather conditions every 10 minutes from a "glass enclosed newsroom" - aired a story about the confusing nature of cycle tracks.  Confusing?  Barriers and green paint are confusing?  Ok.  It would be fair to say that no one listens to WTOP unless they are in a car in traffic.  Cyclists don't care if the Beltway is backed up.  That's why they ride a bike.  The piece was a bit lopsided to say the least.  A driver described a cyclist attacking a car by pulling on the car's windshield wiper blades.  The implication is that cyclists bring it on themselves.  The story did not mention the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when someone's life is threatened by a heavy projectile.  The tale of the enraged cyclists was of course not a logical comparison since the average man weighs less than 200 pounds, while the average car weighs over 2000.  Even accounting for the coefficient of drag on a boxy SUV, I think the odds are stacked against the bicyclist.  Physics be damed.  Perhaps I am wrong.  After all, I was told as a child that elephants fear mice.  On some level I still believe that.

A similar acrimonious exchange is taking place on the other side of the Atlantic where conservative MPs are suggesting that cyclists should pay the dreaded road tax and register their bikes.  No mention is made of the fact that many British conservatives are contrarians who like the aghast responses of those who are appalled by their public statements.  On that theme, the Times of London ran a piece explaining why even conservatives should welcome more cycling and support its infrastructure.

Amidst this growing debate, the town or Oro Valley, Arizona blissfully noted it silver rating as a bike friendly town from the League of American Cyclists.  Without irony.  I may want to live there.  Except I hate hot weather.

I propose the following solution.  Start educating drivers on the rules about cyclists in driver's ed class.  The idea that drivers know the rules is simply wrong.  In written and live driver's tests, add questions and exercises on the rights of cyclists on the road.  If a drivers hurts or kills a cyclist in a dedicated bike lane or cycle track, the punishment should be increased just like it would be for other crimes involving more culpable conduct like bringing a gun to a fist fight.  Strict enforcement of the laws that protect cyclists needs to occur as soon as the bike lanes are in.  Not after drivers have developed bad habits.  And we need to change the culture in many big city police departments where officers regularly park in the bike lanes - while they are getting a sandwich, not responding to a hostage taking.  Officer discipline would help a lot.  Municipalities should aggressively ticket drivers who enter bike lanes or cycle tracks.  As these enforcement efforts are underway, cities should have their public information representative call the press.  Heck, call WTOP, so the word gets out to drivers that there are consequences.  Which media outlet is better to call than one that caters to car drivers?  Where the facts support it, charge a car as a deadly weapon.  This is not new.  In domestic violence cases, where an estranged husband tries to run over his wife, a car will be added as a deadly weapon.  Simple.  As for cyclists, if they actually endanger someone in violation of the law, then write them up too.  I have seen such cyclists once or twice over the last decade.  But I would not squander police resources on ticketing cyclists who are running red lights where there is no opposing traffic, the rain is coming and the hand-warmers have just gone kaput.  They don't weigh enough to inflict the same harm.  Go after the heavy.  Literally.  

So if I see you in the bike lanes, on a bike, let's be smug.
Elisa P.

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