Writers on the Range: A Colorado cyclist’s plea to motorists
I write with a plea to all motorists out there, including the one who passed me way too close this morning while I was riding my bike, and then turned sharply and unexpectedly into a driveway. This nearly caused me to crash into your passenger side window at a high rate of speed. And that is why I am asking you: Be careful.
It’s true that my reaction, flipping you the bird while screaming derogatory things about your mother and your dog, was rude. And yes, I know, cyclists sometimes do stupid things. They — OK, we — might roll through stop signs and ride two abreast on country roads, and sometimes we swerve into traffic to avoid gravel or glass or potholes, or we turn without signaling first.
While my words and actions might annoy you or cause a little heartache, though, it’s nothing compared to the damage you, while piloting that car, can inflict on me with an ill-timed flick of the wheel or moment of inattention. Hit me straight on? I’m dead. Playfully whack me with that giant rearview mirror? I’m in the ditch, seriously injured. That car of yours, two tons of internal combustion-powered steel and glass and plastic, can maim or kill.
The evidence is in the numbers. From 1994 to 2012, more than 13,000 cyclists and 90,000 pedestrians were killed on U.S. streets and roads. Another 50,000 cyclists were injured. A 2003 study found that in the United States, a cyclist is 12 times, and a pedestrian 23 times, more likely to be killed on the road than a motorist. And New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon all have higher cyclist fatality rates than the nation as a whole. Most cycling deaths occur on the rural, high-trafficked roads ubiquitous in the West.
Most mornings, I send my two daughters on a 2-mile bike ride to school. Sometimes they groan about the heat, or the cold, but I know that they appreciate the freedom their bikes give them. And I’m happy not to have to climb into a carbon-spewing car and contribute to the morning stop-and-go traffic. Yet every day as they ride toward intersections without stop signs or crosswalks, and streets without adequate bike lanes, those statistics, and my own fear, run through my brain. Car-loving highway engineers and town and county officials have already failed them. Now they must rely on motorists for their safety — motorists who are in a hurry or are yapping on a cellphone or are just plain stupid. Forgive me for my lack of confidence.
Efforts are in the works to make things better for those of us who get around on foot or bike, though it may be years before they bear fruit. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently announced a federal initiative to make the nation’s streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
The program will assess road safety in every state and then provide “multiple resources to help communities build streets that are safer.” They’ll help communities create “road diets,” redesigning streets to better accommodate bikers and walkers. “When used on rural highways that pass through small towns,” says a U.S. Department of Transportation press release, “they (road diets) can reduce crashes by almost half.”
While waiting for that to kick in, California, one of the deadliest states for bikers, implemented a law that requires passing motorists to give cyclists 3 feet or more of space. Twenty-three states already had similar laws, including Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Colorado. Most of the law’s value is probably educational, letting drivers know that it’s dangerous to pass too closely to bicyclists.
But I’d say that many car owners aren’t even aware of the rule, and some 70 percent of drivers regularly violate it here in Colorado. And there’s very little enforcement, even when the violation results in an accident. In fact, it’s rare for motorists to be prosecuted and convicted for hitting a cyclist at all.
Cyclists must take some responsibility here. We need to abide by the rules of the road and ride defensively, as if we were invisible. The one time I got hit by a car, I was as much to blame as the driver.
Still, in 40 percent of fatal bike-car collisions, a car hit the bike from behind. Those bikers, now dead, never even saw it coming.
So, motorists, a plea: Pay attention, slow down and remember that, as annoying and gaudy as those lycra-clad bikers might be, they are dads, moms, daughters and sons. That car you drive is a deadly weapon. Treat it that way.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a senior editor for the magazine, based in Durango, Colorado.
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