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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2004

Look in the mirror

“But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

--Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie, 1966

Recently, in our neck of the woods--Sonoma County, California--there has been a bright spotlight directed onto the world of cycling, and not all of the attention has been positive. This region is a paradise for cycling. A lot of people who live here ride bikes, and a lot of other people who live elsewhere come here to ride their bikes. What that adds up to is a lot of interaction between bikes and cars, most of which is neutral and free of trauma or drama. But some of it is not, and that’s what I want to look at here.

What got the spotlight flipped on recently were two terrible incidents in which cyclists were killed by drunken drivers, just a week apart. In both cases, the cyclists who died were utterly blameless, and the drunks who mowed them down were absolutely, egregiously 100% at fault. And yet that didn’t stop a few people from writing letters to the local paper to rant about how it’s all down to the cyclists and their bad behavior. It almost seems as if there is a knee-jerk response, whenever the issue of bikes on the road comes up: someone is going to start venting about bad boy bikers.

Chris Coursey's ColumnsChris Coursey, one of the local paper’s marquee columnists, wrote two columns on the subject of bikes and cars in the midst of all this turmoil. Chris is a popular fixture in the paper and a good read. He also happens to be a cyclist, and his editorials had a fairly pro-cyclist point of view. In particular, he wondered how we could go from two horrible fatalities at the hands of drunk drivers to a mindset of blaming the cyclists and kvetching about bad bike behavior. Good columns and right on, seemed to me, but not everyone agreed. Chris and I swap e-mails from time to time, and he sent me a note after his columns appeared. I asked him if I could share it with you here, and he agreed. Read on...

“I’m writing to pass along the gist of what I think has been a pretty interesting reaction to my two recent columns regarding cyclists killed by drunken drivers. I got the usual pat on the back from bikers, and the expected kudos from mothers against drunk driver types. But I also got an almost visceral reaction from people who are pissed off at bicyclists."

“I ride, too, so my response has been both angry and defensive. I’m angry that people use the deaths of two innocent riders to vent their frustration at all of the rest of us. And I’m defensive because I try to ride courteously, and I believe most of us do. But the more I hear, the more I’m convinced that this isn’t just a few idiots taking out their frustration on me. I’m starting to believe that cyclists in this community have a problem. We may not see it individually, but collectively it’s there."

“We have a crummy image."

“How can that be? We’re pursuing a healthy lifestyle. We don’t pollute. We’re upstanding members of the community. In short, we’re clean, green and lean. But that’s not how a lot of people see us. A lot of people (at least according to the reaction I’ve received) see us as arrogant. We flout the laws of the road, blowing through stop signs and riding in packs as traffic stacks up behind us. They see us as combative. We “dare” drivers to hit us, risking our lives and theirs just to prove our “ownership of the road.” They see us as stupid. We insist on riding on roads that practically guarantee accidents. They see us as rude. We don’t warn pedestrians as we approach from the rear and we scare the shit out of them when we pass. And, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, they see us as unfriendly. ‘I cross paths with bikers all the time when I jog, and I always say hello, but only one in 20 bikers says hello back to me,’ one woman wrote."

“It’s hard to avoid a drunken driver who hits you from behind. But as a group, there are things we can do to improve our image. I don’t think that this is a dialogue that should take the place of improving drivers’ knowledge about our rights on the road, but I hope it’s a dialogue that happens along with that effort.”

Thank you, Chris, for saying it so well. I had been contemplating a column on this exact subject for some time, well before the recent wave of publicity in the North Bay. A couple of other incidents had caught my attention. In one, a cyclist I know was giving a speech--on another subject--to an audience of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Somehow, the topic of cyclists on the county’s backroads came up, and according to Eric, it was like a dam bursting: every one of those upstanding, truck-driving farmers and ranchers had a horror story to tell about some awful bit of bad bike behavior. On another occasion, at a genteel dinner party, a very nice lady took the time to bend my ear, very politely, about how darn difficult it is to get her SUV and horse trailer around the clots of cyclists along the backroads, and how rude the riders so often are when she tries to get by.

Now then...I can see you rolling your eyes and gnashing your teeth already. You’ve heard it all before, right? Anyone who has been a serious cyclist for more than a month has heard these complaints. Usually, we either dismiss them out of hand as the ravings of brain-dead, semi-psychotic, auto-holics, or we cancel them out with our own lurid anecdotes about bad motorist behavior, as if two wrongs make a right. Bottom line, most of us ignore them and go on doing what we were doing before. Maybe it’s time we listened to a few of them...

You won’t get any argument from me about the bad behavior of some motorists. Lord knows, I’ve seen enough of it first hand to accept as fact most of the anecdotes that others have run past me. On the other hand, I have seen a ton of bike behaviour that is scofflaw or stupid or both. We are doing what we can to educate motorists about our rights and about sharing the road. But are we all doing as much as we can to moderate our own behavior? We like to think we occupy the moral high ground in this struggle, but can we legitimately make that claim as long as we bend the Vehicle Code like a warm pretzel?

After fielding about a gazillion complaints and rants about cyclists, I’ve decided that 90% of the outrage boils down to two hot buttons: blowing through stop signs and riding two (or more) abreast.

A few years back, I wrote a cranky editorial about cyclists blowing through stop signs. A week later, I was pulled over by a cop for blowing through a stop sign. Although my transgression wasn’t a glaring shot straight across an intersection--just a slow California-roll around a right turn--I was still guilty as charged and rather embarrassed, in light of my hot-off-the-press editorial tirade.

So it would be hypocritical of me to lambast you about blowing through stop signs when I have been known to do so myself. You will never hear me say it’s okay to do so, and please don’t quote me as advocating any such behavior. I simply admit that sometimes, at a quiet, residential corner, or way out in the country, with not a car in sight, well....

It doesn’t make it okay, but in my way of reckoning, there is the absolute letter of the law and then there is the pragmatic reality of the moment, and that’s where the quote at the top of the column comes in: “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Although it would be the absolutely right thing to do to tell you to never run a stop sign, I can’t tell you that. What I can say is that if you do choose to do so--to live outside the law--you must be prepared to consider all the implications and ramifications of what you’re doing.

That means considering not only the obvious safety concerns and the legal penalties, but also all the impacts that might come under the heading of “public relations.” That is, what message are you sending to anyone who might see you running that stop sign? Clearly, you wouldn’t do it if a police officer were watching you. But what about anyone else? How do you know who those other observers might be?

What if the observer turns out to be the town mayor or the mayor’s husband or brother-in-law? And that person says, “I am getting so sick and tired of watching these damn cyclists...etc.” You know the rest. And the next time a matter concerning bikes comes before the City Council, and this party has the deciding vote, or the ear of the person with the deciding vote...and so forth. It might not be the City Council. It might be the County Board of Supes or the State Legislature (you know: the place where they write the Vehicle Code?). Next thing you know, someone with a grievance has written an ordinance or a piece of legislation that makes life miserable for cyclists.

Or it might just be one of those regular old citizens who, up to now, had been sort of neutral on the matter of bikes on the roads. Finally, one stop sign runner too many tips the balance for them and they settle down into the anti-bike camp. Maybe they write one of those ranting letters to the editor, read by another few thousand people who might have been neutral on the issue, but now feel more inclined to the anti-bike point of view. This is how consensus gets built. We don’t even need to mention the really whacko drivers who use the excuse of our perceived bad behavior to launch vendettas at us out on the roads.

Say some little kids saw you do it. Chances are, they’ll see you--an adult cyclist--as someone to be emulated, and if you can blow through stop signs, why can’t they? In your case, you may think you’ve used your wonderful powers of observation to make sure the intersection is clear (even though we all know how often this proves to be a flawed observation), but who knows how much acuteness the kids will bring to the same situation? Monkey see, monkey do.

See...it’s ripples in a pond. Each little action may create any number of reactions, and while you may have felt your little bending of the code was harmless, who knows if it really was?

Now, about riding two abreast...

While the law regarding stop signs is pretty plain, the law regarding riding two abreast is anything but. Many police officers will tell you it’s illegal to ride two abreast, but it isn’t quite that simple. The wording in the Vehicle Code is somewhat vague on the matter, and some law scholars think that’s intentional, to allow for some gray-area interpretation in real-world situations. Before proceeding with this discussion, I would like to recommend a website to you. Here’s the URL...http://www.cvcbike.org/club/bikelaw.htm

This is a comprehensive study of the California Vehicle Code sections pertaining to cycling. It was written originally for the Environmental Law and Policy Journal at UC Davis. Even if you think you understand the statutes that cover bicycles in the CVC, this document will help you understand them better. I feel very strongly that it ought to be required reading for all cyclists--what the hell, for all motorists too--but especially for anyone who is involved in formulating bike policies, from running a century ride to working in advocacy matters. Bookmark that page for future reference!

The language most often cited when discussing riding two abreast is that of Section 21202 (a): “Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of roadway...”

The website I’ve recommended does a better, more exhaustive job of analyzing this sentence than I can ever hope to do, but I will just note that many experts consider the bit about “normal speed of traffic...at such time” to mean that if a group of cyclists were riding on the road alone--no other vehicles in sight--then their speed becomes the normal speed of traffic at that time on that road, and thus the riders are free to ride in whatever configuration is safe and prudent...two abreast, for instance. Others contend that “normal” implies the speed that cars would be going or the posted speed. But the statute does not say “posted speed” or the “speed of autos” or something else. See? It’s a bit fuzzy.

Personally, I like the spin that lets me and my pals ride two abreast when there’s no traffic around. But regardless of that gray area, everyone agrees that if there is faster traffic coming up from behind, then you must single up. That refers not only to overtaking cars but to faster cyclists as well, and this is a serious matter when it comes to large masses of riders on the road, as in a big century ride.

Recently, on a century--in which I was riding as a course marshal--I came up behind two people riding side by side, far from the curb, pretty well managing to block the entire lane. I said to them, “You know, you two are pretty much clogging up the entire lane. I would have had to go across the center line to pass you.” And they responded, “Well, you should have called out, ‘On your left!’” Wrong! If I have to call out on-your-left in that situation, there has already been a failure in their road etiquette.

This is another case of: if you’re going to live outside the law, you must stay accutely aware of the impacts of what you’re doing. If you must ride two abreast, you need to stay alert to what’s coming up behind you...not just cars you might hear, but silent bikes as well. If that means getting a rear view mirror, then fine, do it. Whatever it takes to stay on top of the situation.

There are even times when riding single file and as far to the right as is practicable may not be enough. I know: we have a right to the road! Harumph! Couldn’t agree more. But this is another case where the pragmatic reality of the moment sometimes trumps the absolute letter of the law. You know you have a right to the lane, and you also know--or should know--that you need to pull off if you’re holding up five or more vehicles. But say you’re on a narrow road; you’ve got an 18-wheeler on your tail and a big, wallowing RV coming from the other direction. It’s going to be a tight squeeze... Sure, you’d be within your Vehicle Code rights to take the lane. But sometimes, it might make better, more pragmatic sense to pull into a driveway, put a foot down, and let the whole log jam sort itself out. You’ll live to ride another day, and you might even make a friend or two for cycling, if the drivers of the big rigs even notice you.

There are a couple of other complaints about cyclists that I hear almost as often as the ones about stop signs and riding two abreast. One is the arrogant, scary, racer-boy behavior of some riders on bike paths, and the other is public urination. Both of these should be no-brainers, but judging from the amount of carping we hear about both of them, apparently a lot of us aren’t getting the message.

Rather than belabor the first one, I would suggest you read my earlier column, What about bike paths?. To that, I can only add that you should never, never, never hammer on a bike path. Slow down and enjoy the scenery, and when you pass other trail users, be cheerful and courteous, not impatient and rude...in spite of how clueless some of them might be.

As for the public pissing... Personally, I have a pretty relaxed attitude about it, but an awful lot of folks do not. It really fries some people’s bacon. And Murphy’s Law says that, no matter how quiet that backroad is, even if you haven’t seen a car in the last hour, the minute you whip that weasel out, three cars will roll around the corner. The solution is simple: be discrete. Get behind a bush or a tree. Make a little effort. Think--just for a second--about how you look to the rest of the world.

I’m sure you see yourself as a rugged individualist who doesn’t bow to the uptight, prudish standards of society, but when you’re on public view as a cyclist, you don’t just speak for yourself. You’re an amabassador for an entire subculture, and whatever you do--from running stop signs to watering someone’s rose bushes--may have huge impacts for many, many people, far into the future.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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