Monday, January 28, 2019

Motorist Logic in Action

Conflicts with bicyclists and pedestrians are just symptoms of the selfishness and poor judgment motorists routinely exhibit toward each other. In addition to being a means of conveying people and their stuff from place to place, motor vehicles also serve a function like the pads worn by American football players, or ice hockey players. Motoring is a contact sport.

In the past two days I have gotten to witness two classic examples of motorist logic on my morning drive to work.

On Thursday, the weather was warm and wet. The landscape was shrouded in fog as the snow pack sublimated into vapor. Along with perhaps eight or ten other drivers, I came up behind a state highway truck winging back the plow drift along Route 28. The speed limit for most of that part of 28 is 55 miles per hour. In good weather, that means most of the locals are doing 60-65. Because the weather has not been good, the road surface was a mix of chunked-up wet ice, slush, and bits of exposed pavement, slathered with sand and brine. Average speed had been about 45 until we all caught up to the state truck. That vehicle was going about 18-25 mph. Its bulk filled the lane as its side blade bounced along the shoulder, shoving the snow further back to make room for whatever else the winter might deliver.

We were on a long, steady climb. The center line is double yellow. The height of land is a narrow crest, so the approach is blind from both sides. In spite of fog, unsteady traction, and the blind hill crest, impatient drivers went one after another out around the plow truck. There was no skill involved. The drivers had no way to judge whether it was safe to pass. It was a complete gamble. But these suicidal lemmings weren't just gambling with their own lives. They were also betting the lives of anyone who might be coming the other way.

No one happened to be coming the other way just then, but 28 is a busy road, especially on a workday morning. Passing there and then was a selfish and stupid move. Unfortunately, those traits are common.

Today, on a different part of 28, we were all moving along much better on mostly dry roads, when I saw a big work truck pull partway off the travel lane and throw it in reverse. A plastic container had blown out of the truck bed. The driver's automatic reflex was not to pull safely off the road and walk back, it was to back up against traffic. Driver's ed was a lot of years ago, but I definitely remember being told quite emphatically that you do not put it in reverse and back up on a highway. But we are a motoring culture. We drive as close as possible to our destination, and walk as little as possible. Of course you stay in your truck and back up against oncoming traffic to try to rescue your unsecured property from the center line of the road. No other driver will fault you for behaving completely normally. What else is a driver supposed to do?

The driver's selfish and dangerous maneuver increased the chances that another driver would hit the item that he was hoping to rescue, as we all tried to work around truck and its lost cargo.

In both cases, drivers were doing things that they shouldn't have done, that lots of people do anyway, and that most people get away with. It only reinforces the custom, because drivers so seldom suffer any consequences.

A motorist in free flight will react negatively to any obstacle that breaks the flow. The same fixation on forward motion prompts a driver squeezing past a cyclist or blazing around a plow truck on a blind hill crest in the fog.

Interestingly, the driver backing up on the highway to suit his own convenience has a philosophical kinship to the cyclist who rides against traffic and ignores one-way streets. It's the same kind of personal relationship with the law and right of way in either case. "It's only me, it's only here, it's only now." If everyone else would lighten up -- and adapt to my personal wants -- everything would be fine. A chunky truck going backwards on a highway has a bit more leverage, but the self-centeredness is spot on.

The cyclist who rides on the sidewalk is analogous to the driver who pulls into a designated cycle lane to get ahead in traffic or to park. These equivalencies are not meant to excuse the behavior of either side, only to emphasize that the problems are not motorist or pedaler problems but human problems. Wrapping the human in a motor vehicle makes the offenses worse because of the damage that the hard outer coating can inflict on softer opponents, but it's pilot error in either case.

We all want to flow smoothly to our chosen destination. Cyclists like to maintain speed. We take advantage of our small size and maneuverability to bend traffic rules in ways that actually enhance our safety and make traffic flow better. But some of us abuse the power and commit gross infractions that don't end well. If the result isn't an outright crash with injuries or death, it is at least a bad public relations move, with far-reaching consequences in the bike-hating community. Everyone bears some responsibility for making a multi-mode transportation culture work. However, the bigger the vehicle, the greater the responsibility.

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