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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2016

Who put the “car” in “carnage”?

If you’re a cyclist and if you pay attention to the news, you probably took at least passing notice of the terrible story a few weeks ago about the reckless, hit-and-run driver who plowed into a group ride near Kalamazoo, Michigan, killing five cyclists and injuring four more. If you’re not aware of the incident and want to know more, there’s the link to a report on it. I confess the first time I learned of it, I gave it only a quick glance and moved on…averted my eyes, so to speak. It was not that I didn’t care. But it was so grim it would have been too painful to get any deeper into it. And, sadly, it was so predictable: we have been here and seen this all too many times before. 

Typically, it will be just one rider killed or maybe two, so the multiplication of the carnage in this case gives it a nationwide news buzz. But the essence of the story is all too common, as is our reaction to it. I have to say it’s not all that different from the horror and rage and grief we all feel when we learn of yet another mass shooting: here we go again, and what, if anything, can we do to make this one the last one?

At least in this case, the local authorities are taking the matter as seriously as it ought to be taken. The driver—subsequently apprehended—is being charged with five counts of second-degree murder, plus assorted other charges. They’re not brushing it off as some, “Oops, sorry about that!” “accident.” Other motorists had been reporting his dangerous, erratic driving for at least half an hour before he mowed down the cyclists and then tried to escape on foot. The police were already looking for him but didn’t find him until it was too late.

I’ve written in the past about some horrific cases of cyclists dying at the hands of incompetent or impaired or lunatic drivers, and also about the plague of incompetent and distracted drivers in general. Been there…written about that. So I had no plans to devote one of these columns to this latest nightmare. But then I read a follow-up story on this incident and it raised a couple of points for me that made me want to dig into it.

The first thing that gave me pause was the Comments section after the on-line article. I have a very low tolerance for ANY Comments sections anywhere, from tweets to facebook to the trailers at the ends of news items. I know many people think this is the wave of the future in terms of how we communicate with one another, how the whole zeitgeist of society is defined these days…but I am not one of those people. Although there are often intelligent and inciteful observations contributed to such forums, the prevailing tenor of the discussions sinks to just about the lowest common denominator: trolling and flaming and insults and half-baked opinions rooted in ignorance and prejudice. I rarely read them, and in this case I did not intend to. But I got sucked in…suckered in…and read just a few. (The page says there are 199 comments so far.)

Most expressed all the appropriate responses to a case where nine entirely innocent and decent people were slaughtered by a rogue monster: horror, sympathy, outrage, etc. But eventually and inevitably, there were the rants that, in one way or another, suggested the cyclists were at fault; that they had it coming. This too we have seen before, with a sickening, predictable regularity, and always, always, they cite those two mortal sins that forever taint all cyclists: riding two-abreast and running stop signs.

I’m not going to wade into the thorny debate on these archetypal cycling sins today. That dead dog has been beaten flat so many times over so many years that there is not much new to add. However, if somehow you just walked out of a cave and have missed all this, you can revisit a column I wrote 12 years ago that covers the matter in depth. All I wanted to say about it now is quite simple: do…not…blame…the…victim.

I don’t care how many riders have run how many stop signs; I don’t care which of them has ridden two or three-abreast on this or that road. We do what we can to educate riders and to improve their behavior, but many of us could still do better. We get that. However, none of those misdemeanors is a crime deserving the death penalty. When innocent people die horrible deaths because some whacko uses his truck as an extension of his stinking cesspool of a brain, you do not lay it off on the cyclists. No. Period. End of discussion. You want to have that conversation? Fine, but have it somewhere else…not while the bodies are still on the road and the families are still coming to grips with their loss.

Thanks for allowing me to let off steam on that one! I have to assume I’m preaching to the choir on that subject, so am not scolding the right people…not scolding you. But take my indignation and run with it: if you have a higher tolerance for reading those Comments sections—and maybe even taking part in them—the next time you see any of that blame-the-cyclist crap, let ‘em have it with both barrels.

That was item number one that gave me pause. The other one has to do with the general point being made in the follow-up analysis: that we need wider shoulders, more bike lanes and paths, and in general, more infrastructure to make cyclists safer. Now, in some respects, I totally agree with that. I love the bike paths that fan out from my home town…use them all the time. And there are many busier highways I wouldn’t consider riding if it were not for the wide shoulders they have, where I can get a little elbow room, away from the motorized horde. And, in contrast, there are a few highways I won’t ride because they don’t have safe shoulders. 

So yes, if county and state budgets—or even federal grant money—can be dipped into to create safer places for cyclists to ride, then I’m all for it. However, what I object to is the mindset that throwing more infrastructure at it will entirely solve the car-bike problem. In particular, I am concerned about the notion—expressed in this article—that we need to rebuild our most remote country roads with wide shoulders. The article cites assorted examples of how wider shoulders and dedicated bikeways have improved safety for cyclists, not only in this country but in even better bike-nations in Europe. But almost all the examples they trot out are around urban or suburban centers, often targeted at cycle-commuters and other more urban uses. That’s all fine, but then they extrapolate from those urban solutions and imagine the same infrastructure improvements working on some remote, lonely back roads up in the hills.

A few things trouble me about this. First of all, where would that money come from? Can you even begin to imagine how deep our county’s pockets would need to be to reconfigure roads like King Ridge and Coleman Valley and the Geysers with six-foot wide shoulders? We have enough trouble funding a little chip seal for those roads—in fact many of them have been virtually abandoned as cost-saving measures. So, from a fiscal point of view, it’s a non-starter. (How road maintenance and improvement funding is allocated is a big topic and one I’ve covered in other columns. We can debate that one endlessly, but for the moment, I’m just dealing with the current reality, and that reality is that the money doesn’t exist.)

Further, for whatever it’s worth, the more experienced cyclists who ride those most challenging and out-there roads like them just the way they are, with narrow lanes, no shoulders, lumpy pavement, bad sightlines, etc. They are “natural” roads: they impose themselves on the rural landscape around them as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. These tenuous little asphalt ribbons have relatively modest carbon footprints…and that’s a great deal of their charm. Widening them, with all the engineering that would entail, would destroy much of what is best about them.

But they’re so unsafe! Really? We occasionally see letters to the editor from non-cyclists who insist—in the fullness of their self-appointed expertise—that those remote, winding, hilly back roads are exactly the worst, most unsafe places for cyclists to ride. They know this to be true! Based on what, exactly? I suppose if I did enough research, I could dig up the statistics to support my alternate point of view on this. But my own memory is pretty good, and I have been observing the bike scene in the North Bay—and writing about it—for around 25 years, and my own, anecdotal archive of bike-car collisions does not support that contention: that the little back roads are death traps for riders.

Yes, there have been a few fatalities and probably more injuries on the remote, no-shoulder roads. Cece Crone was killed by a drunk driver on a no-shoulder corner on Nicasio Road, for one very sad example (although we can speculate that she would have been hit anyway, even if the road had shoulders). But overwhelmingly, the bike fatalities that I can recall—and I can recall a lot of them—happened on roads with big shoulders and good sightlines. I could list dozens of them…a Hall of Shame for drunken or distracted drivers. Wide shoulders didn’t save those riders. Meanwhile, millions of bike miles have been logged along roads like King Ridge and Cavedale, Sonoma Mountain and Fairfax-Bolinas, and I’m hard-pressed to recall any fatalities or serious injuries resulting from cars and bikes colliding in spots with no shoulders. It just does not happen. 

Several lines in the post-crash follow-up jump out at me as especially frustrating in this discussion. Here’s one sample…

“There’s no indication that a different street design would have prevented the Kalamazoo crash. But in general, Schultheiss said, infrastructure changes should be the primary method of reducing bike fatalities, rather than simply educating motorists or admonishing cyclists to be cautious.”

The person being quoted is Bill Schultheiss, “a principal engineer with the Toole Design Group who works on improving street design for cyclists.” It’s no surprise that someone who makes his living designing infrastructure improvements is going to have that point of view. And when the work his company does is in appropriate venues, then I’m right on board with them.

But note the opening line of that quote: no indication that a different street design would have prevented the Kalamazoo crash. Exactly (see Cece Crone, above). Here we have a case where the driver was a nutjob, out of control, torqued up by his inner demons. In such cases, there is almost nothing we can do to protect ourselves. But let’s set aside this rather extreme case for the moment—the case of a driver who is nuts—and instead imagine a driver who is texting or fiddling with the on-board nav system or trying to fish an apple out of a bag of groceries. These are the much more common scenarios that abound in our cycling lives. (Did you see the article the other day that cell phone use and texting—while driving—are up substantially in California but arrests for it are substantially down? Why? Because the drivers are become better at hiding it…but they’re still doing it, in fact doing it more than ever.)

Would wider shoulders save us from some of these distracted drivers? In spite of what the infrastructure-building engineer says, I highly doubt it. In fact. I’m willing to float the talking point that in some instances at least, the opposite is true. If you give drivers a wider road with wider shoulders, what are they going to do? They’re going to feel more comfortable and at ease, and they’re going to speed up. Not only that, they’re going to feel more confident about taking their eyes off the road momentarily to multi-task…and the next thing you know, they’ve drifted onto that comfortable, wide shoulder and taken out some hapless cyclist. In contrast, on a winding, one-and-a-half-lane wide back road, with poor pavement, tight corners, blind hilltops, etc, what are most drivers going to do? They are going to slow down and pay attention. They’re not going to be sorting through their CDs or looking in the mirror to see if their comb-over is still okay. They’re going to be watching for potholes and windfall branches, for free-range cattle…and for cyclists. They’re going to be going 30-45 instead of 50-65.

Those same infrastructure engineers are fond of a new assortment of road configurations they call “traffic calming.” These are things that make driving less comfortable, slower, and force the drivers to be more aware and less zoned out. In their complicated, rustic way, dinky country roads are the embodiment of traffic calming. The drivers may not like it, but they’re forced by the circumstances to live in that world. In effect, they become better drivers because they have to. It’s that or end up wrapped around a tree or 30 feet down into a gully.

The bottom line is, if there are places where it makes sense to change the roads, okay…do it. But don’t let that infrastructure imperative run away with your planning. Know when to leave the roads alone and let the road users sort it out. And above all…do not imagine that changing the roads is more important than changing the road users. Admittedly, some cyclists could stand to behave better. Duly noted. But the vast majority of the improvement in road users needs to start with the folks behind the wheels of the cars and trucks. They are way, way behind the curve on their driving skill sets. Studies have shown that almost all drivers think their skills are above average. NOT! If you spend any time driving and cycling in Europe, you will be astonished and somewhat chastened to discover that in comparison, drivers in this country are a bunch of incompetent boobs, and this is nowhere more evident than in their absolutely clueless interactions with cyclists. Even if they’re not anti-bike, they still don’t know what to do around cyclists.

Okay, okay…I may be overstating the matter to make the point. Most of our interactions with motorists are fine. But there are enough bad moments to justify my contention…tons more bad, clueless, distracted, hostile moments than you would ever experience in Holland or Italy or France. With the terrible scourge of mass shootings in mind, allow me to paraphrase and old NRA bromide: cars don’t kill cyclists; drivers kill cyclists. So build all the bike lanes you want, but until you get the drivers—all the drivers—up to some minimum standard of competence and bike-smarts, it won’t matter.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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