Are we experiencing an era of pronounced bias against bicyclists?
An editorial from this past Sunday's Boston Globe in response to a grand jury's failure to indict a truck driver who killed a cyclist gets right to the heart of the matter:
"Sharing the road with increasing numbers of cyclists can be frustrating for drivers. But disregard for the safety of cyclists has reached pathological levels among some drivers. And this contempt, whether conscious or subconscious, may well have played a role in the minds of grand jurors. There are widespread misconceptions that cyclists should ride on sidewalks — which is dangerous for pedestrians — or that it’s up to cyclists to stay out of motor vehicles’ way." Boston Globe editorial, February 24, 2013
Considering that every jury pool is made up of citizens who are either motorists or pedestrians (or both), what does this tell us about the average person's knowledge of motor vehicle laws? You would think that every person that gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle must certainly understand that they have a responsibility to operate their vehicles safely in the presence of other road users. Why would anyone believe that he or she has no obligation to exercise caution around a bicyclist?
Ignorance of the law is no excuse - so the saying goes. While state DMVs can do a better job of informing and testing drivers on the finer points of sharing the road, the ultimate responsibility for safe driving still falls on each individual driver.
Perhaps there is another explanation for why some motorists exhibit contempt against cyclists; their own sense of entitlement.
A recent post by popular Atlanta blogger, Melissa Carter, was highlighted on the Facebook pages of Ride of Silence and Bicyclists Belong in the Traffic Lane last week. It was the typical scree we've come to expect from motorists who are adamantly against bicycles sharing "their" roads.
The arguments usually start out the same. "I'm genuinely concerned about that poor soul who is disadvantaged when compared to the rest of us." That concern quickly devolves into "it really tries my patience to tolerate their existence" and "it wouldn't be so bad if they could just learn to follow the rules." It predictably ends with "I'll consider sharing once they start paying their fair share."
If you didn't know I was writing about sharing the road with bicyclists, you'd probably think that this post was about civil rights, immigration, or any other topic relating to individuals in the minority.
Therein lies the inherent problem with sharing anything; one person feels entitled to it and another person must continually jump through hoops to be granted the privilege of sharing. It doesn't matter what the law states. Only the perceived hierarchy of privilege matters.
This attitude is flawed for so many reasons...
I recently read Bike Snob NYC's book The Enlightened Cyclist. In it, he muses that the only bigotry still socially acceptable to the average American is transportation mode prejudice. Drivers can rip on cyclists. Cyclists can bitch about drivers. Pedestrians can complain about any vehicle that fails to acknowledge their existence and every road user can feel free to curse and stereotype pedestrians. Depending on where you sit (or stand), intolerance of others is not only justified, it is expected.
Tolerance implies putting up with something you personally don't agree with, accepting a convention you don't believe in, or granting privilege to someone you feel is undeserving. Exercising tolerance in one's personal relationships is one thing. When it comes to obeying the law, an individual doesn't have the right to choose who or what he or she will or won't tolerate.
Roads were designed to move people. Roads existed before cars, bicycles, and beasts of burden. Rules of the road evolved as different conveyances became prevalent, but the original users never relinquished their rights of usage (except where expressly prohibited by law). No single individual has greater rights to the use of the road than any other user. Therefore, no single user can grant privilege - tolerance of another's use - because no single user holds any implied or actual authority to do so.
Each user does, however, have a responsibility to every other user.
Each road user is responsible for respecting the space of the user directly in front of him or her. It doesn't matter if it's a city bus pulling away from the curb, a truck preparing to make a turn, a stopped car waiting to parallel park, a cyclist riding in the center of the traffic lane, or a pedestrian walking near a parked vehicle. It is every user's responsibility not to collide with whatever lies in front of them. Don't speed around a bus to make a right turn. Don't pass a truck on any side when it's blocking your forward view. Slow down and wait until you can give a bike three feet of clearance when passing. Yield to pedestrians entering the roadway.
A few seconds of your inconvenience can mean the life and death of another person.
It's time to stop worrying about the actions of other road users and start focusing on your own. This applies to everyone who is out there sharing the road. None of us are without our infractions, whether it's exceeding the speed limit, following too closely, running a red light, yielding instead of stopping, failing to signal a turn - the list goes on and on. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. Think about their safety. Err on the side of caution. Forget your inconvenience. Resist indignation and retribution.
"No matter one’s opinion of cyclists or their riding habits, they are practically defenseless against the smallest sedan, never mind an SUV or a truck. Drivers simply have to take the high road — not only around cyclists who abide by the rules of the road, but even around selfish cyclists who don’t. Shaving a few minutes along the way can’t possibly outweigh the risk of maiming or killing a fellow human being." Boston Globe editorial, February 24, 2013
We're all in this together. It's time we all take the high road and learn to share the road.
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Keep riding and be safe!