Tuesday, September 06, 2011

How close is too close?

During my first year as a working class bike commuter I also started bike racing.  You learn right away to relax with other riders almost touching you. In fact, you'd better learn to keep your wits about you when you actually bump another rider or a bunch of you may be hitting the pavement.

When I commuted back then, the space around me among the motor vehicles seemed generous by comparison to a crowded criterium field.  I appreciated a little elbow room, but generally did not freak out when vehicles greased past me in a tight squeeze. It was the way of the world. As long as I was still up I had few complaints. Plenty of drivers gave me ample cause for anger by doing aggressive things like honking, yelling or throwing things. I wasn't going to sweat the average daily squeeze play.

Over the years my perception changed as motorists took too many chances with my safety and I began to imagine the point of view of riders who had not raced in large groups.  A motorist has far less at risk than a cyclist. Sitting in the La-Z-Boy, piloting their rocket sled down the road with only their own schedule in mind, it's too easy for a driver to decide that a maneuver is acceptably safe when that driver definitely will not be paying the price for miscalculation.

Riders who don't have the strength, speed and experience to play racer games with the motoring public deserve their space. But how much is enough?

Many states have enacted safe passing laws that specify a distance motorists are legally required to maintain. These are virtually unenforceable even if law enforcement officials were interested in enforcing them. Some agencies or certain individuals might be more sympathetic than others, but you can't have a cop in every car and truck to make sure the driver stays sober, doesn't play with electronic devices and stays the proper distance from cyclists, passing only when it is clear enough to leave the mandated margin. The laws make two statements. Overtly they acknowledge that a cyclist is a legitimate and vulnerable user of the road. By implication they make it clear that the operator of any vehicle has the ultimate responsibility to operate safely on the honor system, without supervision. The safe passing law is a "best practice." Since you'll probably never ever see anyone ticketed for violating it, it is purely advisory.

With the number of substance abusing, tired, angry, depressed, distracted or fatigued people in the population, it's a wonder we don't have more collisions of all kinds out there. It's a testament mostly to luck.

This summer I decided to rely on luck a little more in some of the tight places.  I opened the gate on more sections of road where I had been taking a strict view of the bicyclist's right and duty to control passing vehicles. Obviously it was okay. I'm here, undamaged.

I still held the lane where it really mattered.  Except for a couple of aggressive idiots back in April or May, drivers seemed to understand why I was out there.  As soon as I could slide to the right without putting anyone at risk I would release anyone who had not already shoved past me.

You can't call what I did an experiment. It proves nothing except that the bad event never happened.  I would not let a big vehicle like a tractor-trailer squeeze past me, but few large vehicles came along in the spots where I would have had to make that decision. Meanwhile, a bunch of people in smaller vehicles were happier because they had an easier time getting around me. They might not have been perfectly content, because I was there at all, but they were able to move on quickly enough to prevent them from wanting to stick around and get ugly about it.

All this time I noticed I was still riding with a speed and efficiency uncommon among people who don't study the craft of cycling at least somewhat. I hesitate to call us serious riders, but you know who we are. We are into biking enough to consider it an important -- if not vital -- part of our complete lives. Maybe you might like to sit more upright, ride with flat pedals and have a basket on your bike, but you're not going to take crap from anybody and you're not going to quit riding just because some driver wishes you would. Right? Bikes --all bikes -- belong. A rider who is not set up like a racer can still ride efficiently. Why waste energy? It's your own personal energy, not some cheap, dirty fuel we pump out of one smelly tank into another and burn with seldom a second thought except to bitch about the rising price. So we ride mindfully.

The people I dodge when I'm walking on the sidewalk and they're riding down it probably see the street in a different way.  It is a hostile environment where they do not belong. Or perhaps some of them are just too lazy and think of the bike as a law unto itself, so they're taking a short cut. They're never in the mood to be interviewed.

As we move into autumn the mood becomes darker with the days.  The teeming summer population of visitors and seasonal residents dwindles, but the locals have bred in plenitude. Until those kids become young adults and leave the area to experience life in the wider world they drive for several years as teenagers. Some of them never leave, so they work through all their young adult issues right here on the road beside me. It's been interesting to observe over the years, especially as mountain biking ceased to be a rite of passage and the Fast and Furious movie series added more and more episodes. They are remarkably benign in spite of that. But I may benefit from my own legend, since I've been riding the same commute on a local highway for 21 years. Your results may vary.

I've also been using the rail trail to get out of town in the evening. It turns out to be pretty clear during supper hour, so I don't have to squeeze past too many other users in the long narrow stretches between the rails. I have about a 5 -minute video I shot on the trail. I just have to find time to put some music to it, Rantwick-style. Or I might just post it with all the rattles, bumps and heavy breathing as it is.

1 comment:

Steve A said...

About the "people I dodge when I'm walking ." I think the term is "road lice" if I remember what John Forester's dad called them.