A (Not Atypical) Moment In The Life Of A Cyclist

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When I started cycling a lot about seven years ago, the relationship between drivers and cyclists seemed in flux. It felt like with a little motorist understanding, and better cycling manners, motorists and cyclists could learn to live together and learn to share the road.

Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. In my experience, the relationship has steadily deteriorated and now motorists and cyclists exist in a state of perpetual cold war. Many motorists are hostile and abusive, and still don’t understand why someone on a bicycle is slowing their progress by, oh, 10 seconds. And many cyclists are slow to single up while riding, or don’t think twice about taking a driver’s right of way at an intersection, or yelling, or giving the finger to, or smacking the side of cars that pass in a way they don’t like.

The result is overt hostility from some drivers, and since it is motorists who have the benefit of a 4,000 pound vehicle and a powerful engine, it can get a little dangerous out there. So I thought I would share just a single incident that reflects what it can be like out there for a cyclist on the road in the DC area.

This occurred last Monday evening in southern Anne Arundel County during the regular Monday night ride from a local bike shop. A group of five of us was riding north on the shoulder of Route 2, and as the light at Harwood Rd. approached pulled out toward the centerline in preparation for making a left onto Harwood Rd at the light. As we did, a car coming south at about 50 mph steered onto the double yellow line/rumble strips to pass very close by.

One of our riders had a camera in the flashing light under his saddle and caught this video (click on the settings icon in the lower right of the video to slow it down to .25 speed and watch from about 25 seconds in).

I was in front of the rider with the camera and close to the center line, and estimate that the car passed less than a foot from me (and it felt like inches). Unfortunately, the resolution of the camera and the car’s speed (plus maybe a license plate cover) is making it hard to pull the plate number.

It is impossible to know whether this was a deliberate attempt to target and intimidate a group of cyclists. Maybe it was just distracted driving, and the driver was on a device. But the steering was very precise and smooth throughout. There was no sudden course correction, which you might expect if a driver suddenly looked up from a text and saw that he/she was about to take out a group of cyclists. It certainly felt calculated and deliberate (and it hurts me all the more that it was a Redskins fan!).

It goes without saying that whatever logic or thought process was at work, it is INSANE. A minor steering mistake by the driver or a cyclist could have resulted in a death. What also struck me was that this sort of driver BS is common enough that I didn’t even flinch, and I don’t think my heart rate increased one beat. It was like: “Oh well, another complete a**hole driver. Glad I wasn’t killed or maimed.”

So that’s just a single moment in the deteriorating motorists vs. cyclists cold war. It is an entirely asymmetrical war since it is easy for motorists to kill cyclists, and very hard for cyclists to injure a motorist. And I have lost hope that drivers who, for whatever reason, can’t stand that they have to share the road will somehow mange to keep things in perspective and remember that lives and families can be destroyed in an instant if they give in to their aggression.

I used to joke that I would love to have a helmet-mounted paintball gun to surreptitiously paste the back bumper anytime a jerk driver blasts by too close while leaning on his horn, or spits, or curses, or throws something at me. But until that technology arrives I think the best thing cyclists can do is to put cameras on their bikes (the one that caught this incident is integrated into the blinking light that mounts on the seat post; but it is apparently flawed by the fact that the resolution and frame speed wasn’t good enough to read the license plate).

And if enough cyclists do that, and if there are enough prosecutions that result from cyclists doing that, and enough motorists become aware of the fact that their actions might be captured on camera, maybe then drivers with cyclist rage will, you know, not try and take it out on vulnerable cyclists.

I have also been thinking cycling jerseys that simply, and in easily visible lettering, declare “Camera On Board,” or “Caution: You Are Being Filmed,”would be a good safety innovation (regardless of whether there actually is a camera on board). Because deterrence is the key, to draw on a central cold war strategy. I’d much rather prevent a motorist from putting me in the hospital than prosecute a motorist from a wheelchair.

Be careful out there…

Is Cycling Like Wearing A Hoodie?

I’ve been working on a story for Washingtonian magazine about drivers in the DC-region who are afflicted with what I call Cyclist Derangement Syndrome, and use their cars to target cyclists that annoy them.

A theme in bicycle-vehicle collisions around the country, whether premeditated or accidental, is that cyclists are often cited (sometimes incorrectly) for breaking some rule, and drivers who injure (and sometimes) kill them too often cruise away with no repercussions.

It’s one of the most puzzling and frurstrating elements of current traffic enforcement culture, and the cycling community has been trying to push back and get police officers and prosecutors to try and take a more even-handed, objective look at collisions involving cyclists. My article for Washingtonian is about an incident that illustrates this problem in the Washington region, but even I was surprised to see how much worse the situation is in NYC.

According to a report by WNYC:

Last year, 21 cyclists were struck and killed but only two drivers were arrested. And about 40 percent of the time a driver is involved in a fatality – a pedestrian, cyclist, other motorist or themselves – not even a ticket is issued.

“We as a society have chosen to drive these big cars,” said Joe McCormack, an assistant District Attorney for the Bronx whose job it is to prosecute traffic crimes. “And we also as a society have chosen not to criminalize every single small mistake that just has a dramatic consequence because you’re driving a car.”

Well, I would say that when someone dies or is seriously injured it’s not really a “small” mistake and it might be time to start criminalizing the action.

You can listen to the full report:

http://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F198151%2F;containerClass=wnyc

So NYC seems to have a lot of deaths and injuries, and a pretty low penalty rate. Part of the problem is that there is often little evidence, or no witnesses, or a driver-said/cyclist-said dynamic. Regardless, it’s hard not to feel that cyclist injuries and deaths are not investigated with the same energy and persistence that other homicides get.

I don’t know for sure, but I am tempted to say that some law enforcement officers are predisposed to assume a cyclist that becomes a victim probably did something wrong, and is therefore at fault or somehow deserves what he or she got. To me, it is similar to the way in which the Sanford Police Department leaned over in the direction of George Zimmerman (no, he’s not related!) instead of investigating Trayvon Martin’s death with open eyes, and an objective attitude.

So there you have it: cycling is the equivalent of wearing a hoodie.