By Bob Mionske
“It is better to run over a bicyclest [sic] than to get in a head on accedent [sic] because they don’t share the road.” This was the message that somebody posted on a sign along a rural road in San Diego County in California. Within days, news of the sign had gone viral. Naturally, cyclists were outraged. Had it ever occurred to the sign maker that there was another option available to motorists—to make a legal pass when it is safe to do so? Apparently not. Never mind that the better option was also the only legal option, when there were seconds to save and cyclists to kill.
And it turned out that the sign’s creator wasn’t alone in his or her murderous fantasies. Several motorists driving along the road were quite willing to voice their agreement with the sign. Their rationale? “Cyclists do not obey the law and sometimes purposely disrupt traffic.”
“Cyclists do not obey the law.” OK, let’s agree that this is often true of many cyclists. It is also true of virtually every motorist and pedestrian. But nobody posted a sign advocating vigilante murder against random motorists because “drivers do not obey the law.” So is “scofflaw cycling” the real problem here? And if it is, why isn’t there a sign advocating for the murder of random motorists as punishment for “scofflaw driving”?
When the sign maker and local motorists take umbrage at cyclists who “don’t share the road” and who “sometimes purposely disrupt traffic,” what they’re really saying is that cyclists are not traffic (never mind that California law says that we are), and that cyclists should share the road by staying off of the road. In other words, “Get out of my way.” And if cyclists don’t get out of their way, well, that is apparently grounds for random murder. All in the name of “safety,” of course.
Within a few days of the sign making the news, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece asking “Is it OK to Kill Cyclists?” The author wasn’t referring explicitly to the kind of murder advocated in San Diego County. Instead, he cited examples of drivers who killed, yet faced no charges. And when a driver did face consequences, it was usually a citation for a minor traffic violation. Police officers, prosecutors, and juries are all reluctant to ruin somebody’s life over a traffic fatality. Never mind that the cyclist’s life has been ruined permanently. So nothing is done. At best, a driver might pay a small fine—$42 for an unsafe lane change. And the drivers who make up our law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor’s office, and the juror pool all breathe a sigh of relief as they let their fellow driver off the hook. Even if that driver took out a cyclist because he couldn’t wait a few seconds to make a safe and legal pass. So the question has to be asked: Is it OK to kill cyclists?
This is old news to most cyclists. But for the first time, the question wasn’t just being discussed among riders. It was being asked in the New York Times. However, this breakthrough into the mainstream was tempered by cyclists’ anger over the op-ed’s focus on scofflaw cycling as a source of driver anger towards cyclists.
First, let’s get something straight. Drivers who complain about cyclists aren’t angry just because cyclists break the law. No, drivers are angry because traffic is frustrating and cyclists are an easy target. Drivers are just as angry at the cars that are “in their way,” but they can’t bully other drivers as easily. They might actually face some consequences if they run another car off the road, or ram another vehicle hard enough to kill the driver. But when they do those things to a cyclist, no consequences.
Even drivers who aren’t the bullying type won’t get away with saying they didn’t see the SUV in front of them. But noticing a cyclist requires a driver to be careful and pay attention—and drivers just don’t want to bother with that. It’s much easier to just blame the cyclist when driver carelessness leads to a crash. It’s a psychological defense mechanism to help them cope with their feelings about their own careless behavior.
So when the op-ed made the obligatory mention of “scofflaw cyclists,” and advised cyclists to “obey the letter of the law … to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect,” it missed the mark. Yes, cyclists should obey the law. But what about drivers? They are operating lethal machinery, and nobody thinks to take drivers to task for the daily lawbreaking that virtually every driver engages in. Nobody ever suggests that drivers won’t be seen as “legitimate users of the road who deserve respect” until all drivers stop their lawless ways. Nobody would ever dare to post a sign calling for the murder of random motorists because they are “in the way,” and nobody would ever stop to tell a news crew that they agree with the sign because drivers “break the law.”
And let’s face facts here: The majority of bike-car collisions are caused by drivers. And yet, following every collision, the “scofflaw cyclists” meme is trotted out, even when the collision is caused by a law-breaking motorist running down a law-abiding cyclist. Time and time again, most of the national “bikes vs. cars” controversies have nothing to do with scofflaw cycling, and everything to do with scofflaw driving. In short, cyclist lawbreaking is not the root of the problem, and suggesting that cyclists ride lawfully is not the solution to the real problem.
In fairness, the op-ed’s author was searching for answers as to how we can change societal attitudes. How do we get drivers and law enforcement and prosecutors to take cyclists’ lives seriously? Why are some societies—for example, the Netherlands—more careful and conscientious about a driver’s responsibility behind the wheel? And why are some societies—for example, ours—so careless and lacking in conscience about driving safely? And how do we turn our societal attitudes around? This is our real challenge.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.