Monday, October 15, 2012

What you see

Driving out my rural road this morning to go to Portland to pick up a piece of furniture, I slowed suddenly.

Draping down from the trees was a thin black wire hanging in a low loop across the road. It was probably a telephone line or television cable, not a power line, but even so I did not want to snag it. I maneuvered around it.

The cellist used my phone to call the local police department. I keep the numbers for every police department in the area on speed dial in case I need to phone someone in for harassing me on a bike ride.

Further along on our journey, in one of the small towns like Kezar Falls or Cornish, I saw a car in the lane in front of us, waiting to turn left. A gap in traffic should have permitted the driver to go, but the car did not move. The driver had noticed a blind man walking up the sidewalk, swinging his cane, about to step into the driveway.

Both these items were much harder to spot than a bicyclist riding in a sensible lane position in traffic. True, the blind guy was wearing a please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest, but he was on a sidewalk well separated from the street. An eager driver might have launched into the gap without seeing the small, crushable human toddling into range. And the black wire presented a real challenge. In spite of that, before I could no longer see it in the rear view mirror I saw another motorist notice it and avoid it.

That being said, I have caught myself overlooking obvious large objects when I was driving or riding my bike simply because the timing of my glances and their arrival meant that I looked away just as they were coming onto the scope. That meant I did not pick them up until my sequence of glances reached their quadrant again. It's a good argument for taking one last look, and for waiting to launch until after that look is completed.

Riders shouldn't worry the most about being seen by someone in their lane, going their direction. Blinky butt beacons provide a little security for a minor danger compared to the threat of drivers crossing a cyclist's path.

The biggest dangers on the road are the result of peer pressure. People who want  to go fast press other people to go fast. Going fast reduces reaction time and narrows a driver's field of view. People hurrying through their maneuvers are more likely to overlook objects that don't fit their filter size. But it seems to me that "I just didn't see him" should never be an excuse. It may describe circumstances, but not extenuating circumstances. The next question should be "why not?"

Cyclists behaving unpredictably or operating in a consistently unhelpful manner: cutting quickly, riding against traffic, blowing through intersections -- need to be held accountable for their part in causing accidents and ill will. The problem is that the cyclist is more likely to be in no condition to present their side of the story in a serious accident. Given the chance, human nature will make a driver try to find a way to avoid responsibility for a crash. The myth of cyclist invisibility and the image of cyclists as careless or reckless gives them a lot to work with.

It's amazing what we can see when we want to.

In Germany, blinking lights are illegal on bicycles. I believe this is because in Germany bikes on the road are not a crisis to be announced with hazard markers, they are an expected part of the traffic mix. They need to be rationally lighted to see and be seen among road users who accept them as normal. They don't need emergency vehicle lighting because their presence is not an emergency.

We see when we look.


Steve A said...

CPSC tests showed that blinking lights were identified early by overtaking motorists, but they also had more trouble gaging distance. Those results are why my standard gear includes a reflector, a steady red light, and a blinking light.

As for "I just didn't see him" - isn't that an admission of guilt absent extenuating circumstances?

cafiend said...

I still get the feeling that there's a pervasive prejudice in this country against the weirdos who insist on pedaling unprotected in the throng of the armored majority. When a majority shares a common experience -- in this case the sudden appearance of some idiot on a bike, slowing them down or complicating their journey in even more dramatic ways -- it creates a norm. Motorists who do not ride a bike can all relate when one of them says they had an annoying encounter. It comes out in the hateful comments after on-line news articles about bicycles in traffic. Law enforcement is supposed to be impartial, but it is applied by humans who have their own sympathies to affect their interpretation.