Monday, March 11, 2019

Legal rights versus legal standing

As a slick, heavy, late winter snowfall accumulated on the roadway, I watched three riders on fat bikes slithering unsteadily down Mill Street with a motorist trapped behind them. I contemplated once again the difference between official rights and the treatment someone gets for exerting those rights.

Rights only seem to be won at a blood price. Women were beaten by men, and some died, as they protested over many years to get the right to vote. Black people have endured centuries of oppression and discrimination, massacre and murder. They can tell you how their rights are respected in actuality even now, as opposed to what is written. That’s not even addressing the way some things need to be rewritten even further to secure liberty and justice for all. Native rights everywhere get crushed beneath the advancing front of militarized industrialism. Labor confronted management for a fairer division of the proceeds of that industrial system, but their gains are being erased even as the system continues to gouge the illusion of profit out of the dying planet.

Because the roads are a shared space, every user has to consider the genuine rights and needs of the other users. A cyclist almost always appears to be on a trivial errand. A motorist will ask, "does this person need to be riding here, making me wait and maneuver around them?" By law, the roads are the common herd paths we have all agreed to use to get from place to place by whatever means we have. Horses are still allowed on most of them. You're within your rights -- but out of your mind -- to walk along most of them. Both equestrians and pedestrians will always get more sympathy than a bicyclist, because we have a sentimental attachment to horses in our history, and pedestrians seem like fellow drivers who are just down on their luck. A bicyclist has made a conscious choice to get this wheeled thing with which to wobble half in and half out of the legitimate territory of big metal boxes that go effortlessly quickly at the push of one pedal.

Many of us have had the experience of reporting a motorist to the police when we had only a full description of the vehicle including license number. If you can't identify the driver, you have no case. And, as a bicyclist, your problem seldom merits any expenditure of resources by police to help you nail down that identification. The registered owner simply uses the standard excuse that someone else was using the vehicle that day and the whole thing goes away. Even in cases where a cyclist was killed and the driver was known, penalties are disproportionately light, because bicycling is viewed as a voluntary act known to increase the rider's vulnerability to what would be a minor collision between the armored vehicles customarily used for personal transportation in the modern world.

When a police officer pulls you over in your car, what do they ask for first? Your license and registration. That is the moment at which they nail down who is driving what at the time of infraction. They've got facial ID and the perp in the driver's seat. That is the standard, and it's a good one when you consider how unpleasant it would be to live in a country where you could be thrown in the slammer on nothing more than an accusation. While that is unfortunately common in racially biased enforcement, and hardly unknown even among the privileged, it is not the official standard. It gets complicated when persons of interest are brought in for questioning and actual suspects are detained, but that's beyond the street level experience of a rider simply trying to proceed unmolested in the perfectly legal act of using the public roadway.

I thought that the fat bikers were being foolish and selfish, but I did not get to see whether they were just taking a few yards to pull off safely in the slithery conditions. It wasn't as bad as the morning many years ago when I saw one of the athletic firebrands in Jackson, NH, riding his cyclocross bike down Route 16 in about six inches of new snow, with a gigantic state plow truck stuck behind him. Rights are one thing. Smarts are another. Because we may be asked to pay a blood price for our rights at any time, pick your battles. I hardly expected the plow truck to crush the macho man on the 'cross bike, but I'm pretty sure the penalties would have been slim to nonexistent if he had. Similarly, had one of the fat bikers fallen in front of the car behind them, I doubt if the driver would have been cited for following too closely when he was unable to stop before sliding over the fallen rider. Just bad luck. Sorry about that. You shouldn't have been out there on a bike when you didn't need to be. And who in this great land of ours ever really needs to be on a bike? You hardly even see the DWI crowd riding bikes anymore. At least I don't see too many of them around here.

In the mostly urban areas where a lot of people live without cars, and a lot of them use bikes for transportation, the culture of acceptance builds alongside a corresponding seething cauldron of hatred from committed motorists subjected to large numbers of bicycles in the traffic mix. The cyclists can make a better case that what they are doing is necessary, but they are still branded as slackers and wastrels who should get better jobs and buy a car like a normal person. Rather than respect the contributions of workers on the lower end of the pay scale, performing necessary functions that most of us would prefer to avoid, our wealth-obsessed society scorns them and treats them as disposable interchangeable parts. Lose one dirtbag, grab another one from the sidelines to fill the spot. A lot of bike commuters are involuntary, on really crappy bikes, with no awareness of cycling culture and tradition. They're not out for the health benefits and to save disposable income. They're stuck with it, and are trying to make the most of income that falls far short of any surplus. However, they are reaping some exercise benefits in spite of themselves, and the economic benefits are no less real. With a focus on promoting the lifestyle and improving everyone's experience of it, every bike commuter and transportation cyclist would benefit.

Hope as I might, that is highly unlikely to happen. In spite of the fact that my haphazard pursuit of creative dreams has left me working for less than the proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour, and facing a destitute old age, the fact that I am a white male from a middle class background automatically condemns my ideas as elitist, tone deaf, and contemptibly out of touch with reality. I have been excoriated before. Until I shut up and go away, I will be again. It's sort of like riding your bike. You know that someone is going to yell, honk, swerve, or throw something. Your only defense is surrender. And that's not really a defense.

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