Sunday, March 28, 2010

Splitting Hairs and Cleaving Flesh

A couple of decades ago I was in an accident: the passenger in a car stopped in traffic popped a door open just as I arrived beside the vehicle on my way by. The edge of the door was driven into my leg deeply enough to require stitches in the muscle as well as the skin.

The police arrived within minutes. The officer was sympathetic and provided a complete report that gave me solid footing with the car owner's insurance company. The claim was opened immediately. I got sewed up and used up more than my share of Novocaine (I'm a Novocaine hog, all right?). The bike got inspected and repaired (I had not yet been sucked back into the quicksand of the bike business). Eventually I wanted to settle the claim. I hate leaving loose ends dangling.

I had consulted an attorney who suggested a dollar figure going in. The actual settlement doesn't matter. Suffice to say it wasn't a lottery win by any means. What interests me even after all these years was the way the claim adjuster approached it.

"We've determined that we were about 75 percent responsible here, but that you were about 25 percent responsible," he said. "You stated you were in a marked bike lane, but it had actually ended before the point where you were struck." He added a few more items that The Company considered contributing factors I could have controlled. We went back and forth a bit. Short of getting into court with them, all I could do was hit a few volleys with him and take what I squeezed out of his employers. It paid for the emergency room, the bike repairs and a little extra. I wasn't really comfortable with the whole damages thing, so I didn't really go on the attack. I also hadn't thought a huge amount about a bicyclist's place on the road. I just rode, tried to stay out of the meat grinder and fought my skirmishes on the street.

The claim adjuster's gambit illustrates what happens when real life gets pushed through the square screen of legalities. Once you have a law you have specific wording that can usually be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the bias of the reader. You have unintended consequences, gray areas and forgotten circumstances that require amendment to the law.

Another time, a March afternoon rapidly turning to evening, I was stopped by an Anne Arundel County police officer as I hammered along General's Highway, riding a fine spring tailwind toward home. I was racing dusk on this early-season outing. I did not have time to argue with a misinformed police officer. But there he was.

"Hey! You can't be out here!" he said.

"I'm allowed on any road with a speed limit of 50 miles per hour or less," I said.

"Yeah, but not on a route," he said. By that I guessed he meant a numbered state highway. He was wrong, but we were burnin' daylight.

"What am I supposed to do?" I asked.

"Get over on the shoulder," he said.

"I'm not required to ride over there if it is of lower quality than the travel lane," I said. I indicated the loose gravel, potholes, broken glass and dropped mufflers we could see within the next hundred yards.

"You just get over there," he said.

"Okay," I said, with a grin I hoped wasn't overdone. I edged over to the debris field and wobbled along until he was a dot in the distance. Then I merged with traffic and resumed drafting it at a pleasant wind-assisted 25 the rest of the way back to town. After that I never rode without my copy of Maryland Highway Law as it Relates to Biking, and I never got stopped again.

For the most part I try to ride in a way that drivers don't remember. They need to notice me as they go by, but then I want them to forget me. It's too much to hope they'll be favorably impressed by my speed or skill.

No doubt some of them are annoyed when I need to cover the lane to keep someone from passing unsafely. When I do that I try to make big moves that make my purpose obvious. As soon as I can let them pass, I will. I never have the luxury of a four-lane road up here. If I tried any left-tire-track antics I would end up grated through the grille of a log truck. I have shut the gate firmly in the face of some very large vehicles and have dealt with long seconds of aching fear when I have failed to control one of them, but I don't stay out in their face as a mere power play.

I've drawn the analogy to running with the bulls, lion taming and riding a criterium. But all the mechanics address the real-world, person to person physical and psychological interactions of the car-bike relationship. Legalities exist in the background. More and more drivers and cyclists are aware of laws that let cyclists take the lane or require drivers to leave a minimum passing clearance. These merely codify behaviors that traffic-herding cyclists have been trying to stimulate all along.

Infrastructure changes bring up more complex issues. Taxpayers who invest in lanes and side paths want cyclists to disappear into them. Legislators who fear the wrath of voters will at least consider sacrificing those pesky cyclists to keep the motorized majority checking off the right name on the ballot. Advocacy never ends.

Many people consider cyclists in the same category with whitewater paddlers, rock and ice climbers, skydivers and other fools who expose themselves to unnecessary risks for dubious gains. If we're too poor to have cars, it's because we're lazy sods who won't get better jobs. If we CAN afford cars, WHY AREN'T WE USING THEM?!?!

The owner of the local ambulance company told me years ago he didn't know why he hadn't had me as a customer yet. He said it was only a matter of time. He felt I had put myself at voluntary risk that must inevitably lead to injury. Cars are big and hard. Cyclists are small and squishy. If you choose the wrong side of that equation, don't be surprised by what you get. We have trouble being viewed as normal because we don't act normal. Whether what we do should become normal is another question entirely. Right now, as the laws are being framed and enforced we are still a minority and a factionalized one at that.


Steve A said...

I have been contemplating a cyclist/cop "interaction" post for a while. You did many things right at that stop, but perhaps even more optimal interchanges are possible. One element is what to do after the stop is over, so that if you did encounter that same cop on the same road he would not stop you unless you truly HAD turned out to be wrong.

Anonymous said...

For a moment I thought this post might be a recipe for hassenpfeffer.

Hocam said...

Chipseal's making the most of a crappy situation; I applaud him.

Cafiend, I might be moving from western mass to manchester. Thoughts on the area? The city seems pretty walkable, and I don't mind not having bike lanes. Mostly wondering about the road riding and mountain biking in the area. Email me back if you like!

Doohickie said...

A well-written article.

I can see you are dealing with many of the same issues I am with respect to Chipseal. I'm no lawyer, but I tend to think Chipseal is in the right, legally, and eventually will be vindicated.

I tend to also look at police interactions in much the same way you do though. I may be right and the cop may be wrong, but in the end, it is easier on all concerned to just pay lipservice to the cop's authority: "You just get over there," he said.

"Okay," I said... I edged over to the debris field and wobbled along until he was a dot in the distance.

I can see where Chipseal is coming from though. He needs to be able to ride his bike on the roads in order to get around, and allowing an officer to unduly limit that right could lead to him being further resitricted and losing more rights. Of course, he's pretty much in that situation anyway.

I tend to be more pragmatic and "let the wookie win" in the face of a difficult situation.

I think Chipseal's situation can end in one of three ways in terms of impact on the larger community of cyclists:

1) It will be but a blip on the radar and quickly forgotten.

2) He will be successful in his appeals, thus enhancing the rights of cyclists everywhere (or at least in Texas).

3) The outcome that worries me: He will lose his appeals and cops in small towns all across Texas and beyond will know they can hassle cyclists on the road with little fear of reprisal.

I worry that in trying to protect his own rights, Chipseal may end up limiting the rights the rest of us currenlty enjoy.

cafiend said...

@Doohickie -- "Let the wookie win." I love that.

I sensed potential precedents in ChipSeal's situation as soon as I heard about it. Ed Sailland may take exception to the metaphors I chose, but I have been harping on cycling as a civil right for several years. I will pursue a thought to extreme but logically consistent ends just to see where it goes.

ChipSeal took his stand. To borrow from Ben Franklin, at that point we had to decide to hang together, or we would all surely hang separately. Even if we disowned and ignored ChipSeal, he would make his way through the legal process without us and could easily wind up being a crucial case.

The divisions in cycling philosophy are as strong and emotional for many as the divisions in religion. Just as the faithful in any given denomination try to propitiate a powerful being that only keeps them alive through its mercy, so too do cyclists attempt by various means to placate motorized monsters and their minions who could wipe us off the Earth if they chose.

Yea, though I ride on the sidepath of righteousness...

cafiend said...

@Hocam -- I would forward your contact info to a cyclist I know in the Manchester area who will have the most up to date info. Actually he's been commuting by bike in the Merrimack area lately, but grew up in Manchester.

The city looks very bikable to me. I'm sure some parts are more conducive than others. And there are supposed to be really fun trails around Lake Massabesic. I have not ridden them.

Steve A said...

In the final analysis, in the Chipseal case, each of our choices comes down to either hoping for the best or acting.

Ed S and I probably agree on this, though our actions may be in opposite directions. I have the advantage, however that if, in my opinion the result was wrong, I can choose another battle on ground of my own choosing, and at a time of my choosing. He lives on that battleground, and can only hope that if he is wrong and Reed wins, that Reed was right and he was mistaken. On the other hand, if Reed loses, he might become collateral damage even if right. Such a position would excite great passion if I were in it.

Both of us have advantage over the ideologues and both of us realize that traffic is a cooperative enterprise.