By Vernon Felton
2014 was a great year for riding your bike… and being tragically rundown and killed by a homicidal clown, an episcopal bishop and every shade of motorist in between. At least, that's what it seemed like every time I checked my Facebook feed. Every week a new story emerged of a cyclist being either gravely injured or killed by a motorist. And, no, I'm not making up either the clown or bishop incidents—those really happened. Which makes you wonder, "Just how safe is it to ride your bike on America's streets today?"
Well, there's good news and there's bad news. Let's start with the good news.
DON'T PANIC… JUST YET
The Governor's Highways Safety Association (GHSA) recently made big news when it reported that America is experiencing a rise in cycling/motorist fatalities. As a cyclist, it's easy to swallow that conclusion without asking a whole lot of questions. Riding roads is getting more dangerous? It sure as hell seems that way. Who amongst hasn't been hit by a motorist, harassed by some jackass in a pick-up or narrowly escaped being mowed down by some inattentive motorist more intent on texting than on steering straight? The dire headline also seemed to reflect what so many of us are seeing on Twitter and Facebook—a hell of a lot of cyclists are winding up on the losing end of run-ins with road-raging drivers.
But here's the thing—the numbers don't actually support the claim that cycling is more dangerous today than it was in the past. The GHSA report focused on a narrow time frame (2010 to 2012) and extrapolated the data to suggest a long-term trend. Yes, 2012 saw a 19 percent increase (121 more) cycling deaths nationwide than 2010, but cycling fatalities have declined substantially since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting data in 1975.
More than a thousand riders died in bicycle/automobile collisions during 1975. In the 1980s, annual deaths averaged 889. In the 1990s, the average dropped to 792. 2010's tally of 621 deaths was, in fact, representative of an all-time low. That decline is all the more impressive when you consider that more Americans are cycling than ever before. According to the National Household Travel Surveys, the number of bike trips made per year in America more than tripled between 1977 and 2009.
More of us are out there pedaling the road than ever before and yet fewer of us are dying. The risk you face while riding America's roads, the numbers suggest, is decreasing.
IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS
So, why does it seem like every day is opening day in a hunting season on cyclists? For starters, media channels like a punchy headline. It's the whole "Pit Bull Attacks Great White Shark—Story at 11!" phenomenon. We're a strangely morbid lot. Humans love a good car wreck, shark attack and any story involving blood, cleavage or bullets. If it bleeds, it leads—it's an old journalism maxim that still rings true. The net effect, however, is that we often walk this world terrified of things we don't necessarily need to fear.
And then there's the social media factor. You sign up for Facebook, befriend a lot of cyclists and guess what happens? A constant stream of cycling news floods your newsfeed. I know what's happening to cyclists in Boston and LA and Denver and Tampa because I'm now connected to thousands of them in a way that was impossible just a decade ago. If someone in my network gets doored or run off the road or pepper sprayed by some jackass in an SUV, I hear about it. That doesn't mean those things are happening at a higher rate than before, it just means I know about them now. I'm not saying that those stories are unimportant, but rather, that they've heightened our sense of the risks we face.
In short, things aren't quite as bad as they may seem. We can dial down The Hysteria Meter from code red to orange or yellow or fuchsia…. That's the good news.
Now for the bad news: we still have a problem on our hands.
Less than two percent of Americans cycle daily. Why? You can always suggest it's because we're a fat, lazy lot of bastards. Any trip to Costco or Wal-Mart will suggest that, yeah, there's some of that at play here. But, let's be honest, reassuring numbers aside—it's still scary as fuck to ride the road in many parts of this great country of ours.
Personally speaking, I've been run off the road (California), had full bottles of beer thrown at me (Florida) and had cars cut in front of me, block the road and the occupants spill out, looking for a fight (New York). In each case, I was riding on the far side of the road's shoulder. I hadn't flipped anyone off, obstructed traffic or "engaged" the driver in any way.
I wasn't spoiling for a fight. I was riding my bike. Sometimes—a lot of times—that's all it takes. If you've spent a decent amount of time riding road bikes, you know what I'm talking about. You've been there.
I'm not sure what it is about us that makes some drivers see red. I understand that bright yellow shoes and Lycra skin-suits don't endear us to our fellow Americans, but I somehow manage to live my life thinking that a lot of people look stupid as hell without feeling motivated to kill them.
The statistics suggest that things are getting better and, in a lot of ways they are, but the numbers also indicate that America is still home to more cycling/motorist fatalities than many other industrialized nations. And while Facebook and Twitter aren't reliable indicators of the scope of our problem, they do help convey the bitterness that so many motorists feel towards cyclists and the aggression that follows.
YOU'RE ON CAMERA, ASSHOLE!
The era of the cell phone and POV camera has shed light on what I'm talking about. We used to simply tell stories of what happened to us out there. Very few non-cyclists believed what we were saying. Now some of those incidents are being filmed by riders. Did you see the guy in Dana Point, California this past May who was almost run off the road and then had a full Gatorade bottle (among other things) thrown at him by the vehicle's passenger? You can check out the video here.
Crazy, eh? Know what's crazier? The Orange Country sheriff's department is considering charging the cyclist, Bryan Larsen, as well as the bottle-thrower. Larsen's crime? The cyclist cursed the people who attempted to run him over and is being cited for “words in public likely to illicit a violent reaction.".
Here's another one: this past spring, Kelley Howell was hit by a car that was driving on a pedestrian bridge in Norfolk, Virginia? Howell had, coincidentally, a video camera that captured the event. You can see it below. How did the authorities respond when she reported the incident? By questioning why she had a camera, suggesting she provoked the event, and ultimately refusing to investigate the matter because Howell had failed to call police at the time of the accident. In a sense, the cyclist was in the wrong here because she didn't have her cell phone on her…
These sorts of incidents (and they are just a few of many) prompt one logical question: What kind of crazy fucking world do we live in?
The answer: The kind where the victim of unprovoked violence is also, in many cases, considered the criminal.
HARNESS YOUR INNER GANDHI
The general legal advice for cyclists who have been hit or harassed is to:
(1) Stay calm;
(2) Record the license plate number;
(3) Take a photo of the plate and vehicle if possible;
(4) Call the police;
(5) Do not verbally or physically engage the driver
That's all well and good. Theoretically speaking, that kind of advice makes sense. We should be like Gandhi or Mother Theresa or Jesus or Insert-Your-Favorite-Saint-Here. Sure. We should. But in the real world, when someone has just threatened your life it's surprisingly difficult to bring your inner Mahatma Gandhi to the party. I'm a mellow guy. I don't fight. Yet every time someone has tried to run me off the road, I have been surprisingly eager to take their head off. I'm not proud of that fact, but I gather this is simply a survival instinct. Getting killed by some dickhead in a Chevy Blazer tends to put a damper on your life. Anyone with a pulse is going to respond to that sort of threat with, at a bare minimum, a curse word. Demanding that we cyclists respond to threats to our well being with a smile and a Mr. Rogers-esque calm is sheer lunacy. Yeah, staying calm and not engaging the driver sounds great on paper, but people rarely try to widow your wife and orphan your kids on paper. That shit happens when we ride bikes on the road.
AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
It sounds ludicrous to argue that cyclists (a group of largely white, college-educated and affluent people) constitute a discriminated-against minority class. But when you're riding your bike and get attacked by a motorist, the common response from many authorities is that you were, in essence, "asking for it" when you saddled up for that bike ride.
That's bullshit. That has to change.
Fortunately, in some places it is. Los Angeles created a law in 2011 that forbids motorists from harassing cyclists and provides cyclists with the ability to sue drivers within civil courts for three times the damage incurred by the cyclist or $1,000, whichever is greater. This is not big-dollar stuff—that's not the point—it is a message to motorists that cyclists should not be targets.
Other towns, such as Berkeley, California and Kansas City, Missouri, have also passed anti-harassment laws, which recognize that cyclists are not sufficiently protected within the typical legal framework and that both law enforcement and the general public need reminder that it's not okay to run us over. These are good signs and not the only indicators that things are improving.
More cities are investing in bike paths. We have good advocacy groups, such as Bikes Belong, which are fighting the good fight on our behalf as they seek to change the transportation infrastructure from one biased completely towards cars to one that actually encourages Americans to view and use bicycles as more than simply expensive recreational toys. In other words, there's progress afoot.
But we still have a long ways to go. Just one example: back in Los Angeles County, hit-and-run collisions involving bicyclists increased 42 percent between 2002 and 2012. Worse yet, the LA Police Department closed less than 10 percent of hit-and-run incidents that occurred between 2008 and 2012 with an arrest.
Mike Gatto, a state Assemblyman from the Los Angeles area, looked at those statistics and summed up the situation well when he told the Associated Press this November, "If you wanted to murder someone," said Gatto, "it would almost be better to just him them with your car."
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