Friday, October 22, 2010

Making Things Safe for Cyclists

Just when I thought Utah motorists respected cyclists slightly more than my native state, two incidents in the last week reminded me just how dangerous it is for those of us in tight shorts.  Tuesday, a teenage driver, for no apparent reason, swerved into the opposite lane or a residential street in Magna and killed a 48 year old woman.  The 17 year old driver's windshield and front window were decorated as part of a birthday prank, possibly obstructing her view.  Then on Thursday, a driver in Sandy made a left turn and struck an oncoming cyclist who had the right of way.  In this case, the driver blamed construction in the area for distracting him.  In fact, the only reason he stopped and got out of his vehicle was because he mistook the sound of the rider nailing his hood for a pothole that he was concerned damaged his vehicle.  In the case of the fatality in Wisconsin, the driver blamed the morning sun.  All to often it seems, drivers have every excuse for their own inability to drive safely other than my fault.  [In all fairness to the driver in the Magna accident, no excuse has been made, but given the state of her windshield and the fact that she swerved across the center of the road towards two cyclists on the opposite side, it's hard to think there is a rational excuse.]

When I read articles like this, I try to gage the trending sentiment of the populous through the comments left by readers.  (A trend of on-line journalism that I really like.)  What I see is very little logical thought.  Mostly there is inimical rhetoric on both sides, yet it's the lack of understanding by drivers that should scare all of us.  In their haste to point out the nuisance and occasional law breaking of cyclists, they often fail to point out an overwhelming fact: they are driving a 2 ton hunk of metal that can kill people.  We have 25 pounds of aluminum and a helmet.  The argument can be made that some cyclists do cause problems on the road by disobeying laws and protocols, but that is NOT an excuse to be used for a motorists negligence.  Driver's ed taught me that the privilege of driving carries a responsibility to keep yourself and others on the road safe.  We have strict laws that make us slow down in work zones to protect construction workers.  We have flashing red signs on school buses and 20 mph speed limits in school zones to protect children.  Yet when it comes to cyclists, drivers seem to think, "Your on my turf now spandex boy.  Pedal at your own risk."

The incident in Magna disturbs me a lot, not just because it was fatal, but because a 17 year old girl now has to spend the rest of her life dealing with the emotional consequences of killing someone.  With more teenage drivers on the road, more distractions in vehicles (like cell phones, texting and iPods) and a young generation that spends more time in the artificial indoors of a gaming system as opposed to being outside (for lack of a better term) "playing in traffic", it seems that the maturity level of a 16 year old may not be appropriate for driving any more.  Raising the driving age to 18 would possibly create a wiser young driving segment, but I doubt that will ever happen.  Laws are constantly being drawn up that infringe on my pleasures because we "have to protect the children", yet merely suggest that a 16 year old is too young to drive safely and every soccer mom on the planet will shout you down with how her little Johnny is special.  "He's not like those other kids.  He has to stay after school for sousaphone practice.  I'm just too busy to pick him up."  Well, those are all valid reasons for him to drive, but I think so many kids are driving now and fewer and fewer of them understand the power they have.

I lived within a 100 yards of my high school, but the fact is, even if I lived 5 miles away, no way were my parents going to hand me the keys to a car 5 days a week.  There was a free bus that would do the same thing.  And I was very active in after school activities, but I'm still pretty sure that would not have resulted in daily use of the minivan.  You see, I had a bike, and from the time I was 9 or 10, when I had to get to my grade school or middle school I took a bus, walked or rode a bike.  Most of the time, without a helmet. (gasp!)  I don't think kids ride bikes any more, they seem to jump straight from mom and dad carting them around to mom and dad handing them the keys.  The roads aren't safe for kids anymore I guess, but I'd like them to be safe for me if possible.

When I'm on my bike, I now ride with a vigilant focus on my actions and obviously, a helmet.  A few years back, I mistakenly got distracted while commuting and hit a car backing out of a parking spot.  Stultified but fortunately unharmed, I realized how important safe riding is.  The same philosophy holds true for driving.  Now, behind the wheel or behind the handlebars, I take the same "head on a swivel" approach.  If a few distracted drivers went out for just a few spins alongside me, they might understand the importance of being attentive while driving.  And honestly, that's all I'm asking for: more understanding from drivers.  Yes, I would prefer if the law took a stiffer hand with motorists who injure or kill cyclists, but I'm not out for blood here, I just want to be safe.

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