Perspectives on Chicago Bicyclist Fatalities: Bicyclist Rights

This is the first in a three-part series by guest author, John Brooking;

Hello, Chicago. I’m writing to you from Portland, Maine. (Yes, “the other Portland”, land of lobster and lighthouses.) I’ve been a year-round bike commuter here for over 10 years. Brent invited me to write this series of guest columns based on a discussion we had in the comments section of his 11/2 article Chicago Cycling Fatalities: Making Sense of the Senseless.

Given that, I first need to extend my sympathies for the friends and families of the victims of the two crashes Brent mentioned in his article. It’s always a tragedy when this happens.

I first learned of Brent’s article through his mention of the page “What Cyclists Need to Know About Trucks”, from the CommuteOrlando web site. CommuteOrlando’s author, Keri, is also a co-founder of the CyclingSavvy education program, of which I am a certified instructor. So I was intrigued by Brent’s critique of the tone of that page, and felt compelled to reply to him about his criticism. My understanding of his critique is that he felt that Keri’s page put too much of the onus on the bicyclist to avoid being hit, and not enough responsibility on the motorist.

I’m grateful that Brent and I were able to have a respectful Internet dialog, and that he seems interested enough in what I have to say to let me write this article.

The Concept of Bicyclists’ Rights

I was intrigued by the different ways that Brent and I approached the concept of bicyclists’ rights. Brent’s post emphasized the mindless mistakes motorists make, and the infringement of these mistakes upon bicyclists’ rights and expectations to operate safely on the road. While I agree that bicyclists should have this right and expectation, I think one difference in our perspective has to do with the relationship between infrastructure and safety. If you assume that infrastructure is provided for the purpose of increasing safety, because that is what all the advocates and engineers say, you naturally expect to be safe. When fatalities happen, there is a sense of betrayal, and a reach for explanations. Among them may be that the infrastructure was inadequate (thus the progression from normal bike lanes to cycle tracks and bike boxes), or that the penalties to the motorist are not high enough to keep them from making mistakes or misjudgments around bicyclists.

If however you view bicycle infrastructure with suspicion (more on this in the next installment), then the historical right of bicyclists to use other parts of the roadway instead of the special infrastructure becomes the more important right. I am one of those people who are suspicious of some bicycle infrastructure. Brent’s comments about the rights of cyclists to use bicycle infrastructure seem inverted to people who think as I do, as we tend to view being expected to restrict our road use to infrastructure which we mistrust as a diminishment of our rights to the full road. Bicycle infrastructure does not create or enhance our legal right to use the road,it merely enhances the comfort level of beginning cyclists.

Again, if you view bicycle infrastructure as a valuable roadway safety enhancement, then you might tend to view having to negotiate with other traffic for the general portions of the road (or “being forced into the travel lane”, as another correspondent recently put it) as an undesirable option, and to you it might even represent a diminishment of bicyclists’ rights to use the road safely at all. If your route takes you through areas of heavy traffic congestion, where a bike lane provides an official place for bicyclists to bypass slower cars, then that bike lane might well seem even more valuable, and encountering danger in it even more frustrating.

If bike infrastructure could be counted on to always keep cyclists safe, that would be great. Unfortunately, as these and other fatalities around the country show, that is not always the case. As Brent asks, what can we learn, and how can cyclists keep themselves safe from motorist mistakes?

In the next installment, we will discuss bike lanes in more detail, after a slight detour into a brief history of the rules of the road.

Join the discussion by leaving comments below.  Part two appears here.  Part three here.

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Keep riding and be safe!

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