Monday, July 05, 2010

Passing Strange

Acting as a border collie for holiday traffic yesterday I had a sudden realization. In certain terrain, trying to pass a cyclist is like trying to get by that driver on the highway whose speed fluctuates from 45 to 60 to 48 to 75 to 53 to 56 to 47 to 68...

Cyclists take what terrain gives them. We labor up the grades at 8 or 10 miles per hour, only to jet up to 30 or faster as soon as we pass the crest. Often we have to control overtaking traffic near the crest so that drivers with poor judgment don't pull out unwisely into the oncoming traffic they can't see on the other side of the hill or cram themselves dangerously close to us. If the road looks clear after the hill crest, we pull aside to let them by. At the same time, we're accelerating like the annoying jerk on the highway who only speeds up when being overtaken.

The speed range of a relatively fit cyclist can therefore be very confusing and inconvenient for a motorist. Perhaps one reason the sedate plodders get less harassment than the speedy, agile riders is that the slower riders act more like a cyclist "should."

No single riding style guarantees safety. The cyclist in the gutter is more likely to be crushed by turning trucks, for instance, whether riding slow or fast. The slow cyclist off to the side can get sideswiped by a large vehicle pushing past.

The vast majority of motorists believe they're doing a cyclist a favor just by not killing him or her. Ask most drivers and I bet you'll find they believe that they're indulging the strange compulsions of a bunch of eccentrics by letting cyclists use the roads. We're starting to hear increasingly elaborate lip service to the idea of bicycling as a legitimate part of the transportation and recreational travel mix, but it doesn't run very deep with many people yet. It does not have the penetration that personal watercraft, ATV, motorcycle, auto, truck, cigarette and alcohol advertising have. More people will choke down a Bloomin' Onion than would be caught dead trying to ride a bicycle in traffic. In fact, caught dead is how they assume it will end for all those crazy two-wheelers. It's only a matter of time.

If motorists suddenly started killing large numbers of cyclists in sideswipe crashes, do you think there would be A) an immediate call for massive driver education and safer road design or 2) an immediate call to ban cycling on most roadways? In my darkest imagination I think about how sufficiently ruthless drivers could work toward their vision of a better world by taking out cyclists in "tragic but unavoidable" crashes that would be viewed as criminally negligent behavior if one participant had not been pedaling a bike.

The cellist decided to make this past weekend a car-free one. She didn't drive a car from Thursday until Sunday evening. She remarked that at every stop, as she put on her helmet and gloves to ride to her next destination, people would tell her, "Now you be careful out there." It's a thing we say to each other, but bicyclists hear it a lot. But our own caution can only preserve us from so much. We depend on other people's caution as much as our own.

On Independence Day I was pondering this interdependence. Drivers depend on their machines and their fuel supply. Cyclists depend on motorists' compassion and judgment. I savored the paradoxical relationship between the principle of utterly unfettered individual liberty and the revolutionary admonition to "Join or Die." You're either with us or against us. If you want to live in the land of the free, conform to our standard of how a free person acts. These things are best contemplated from the seat of a bicycle, where thought-induced wobbles put only yourself at risk. You can accelerate with your racing mind or pause in astonishment or swoop exuberantly into a turn, observing local hazards, of course.


2whls3spds said...

There would be outrage on the part of the cyclists if we started being killed in large numbers by vehicles. I doubt the motorists would care much one way or the other, given the fact that over 40,000 people a year die in automobile accidents and it hasn't stopped yet. FWIW that would be similar to crashing a fully loaded 767 every day of the year...if that were to happen there would be massive outrage.

So we ride on as best we can...


Colin said...

In a European city where the numbers are different -- where there are many cyclists, and political power seems genuinely interested in the wants and needs of cyclists -- the daily battles on the road remain very much the same, it's just that the assholes are other cyclists. A lousy, incomplete pass from some cellphone yapping jerk on a racing bike in a lovely tricot with his saddle set far too low may be less likely to be deadly than a similar encounter with the same jerk in a BMW, but it remains no fun, regardless.