In last week’s entry I offered statistical evidence that the presence of bicyclists makes the roads safer for all users. Several readers took issue with this. But the facts don’t lie. They point to the conclusion that as drivers become more aware of bicycles on the road and the possibility of encountering them, they slow down and pay closer attention to their driving, which reduces accidents.
I’ll admit that there are irresponsible bicyclists as well as irresponsible drivers, though I’m also convinced that the latter outnumber the former. But a few bicyclists flouting the laws do not justify the anger that impatient drivers direct at the rest of us. I’ve had horrible things screamed at me from the windows of passing cars when I’m doing nothing but minding my own business, pedaling along as far to the right as I safely can. I don’t think many bicyclists ride around yelling at drivers to “get the hell off the road.”
Bicyclists make few demands on the traffic infrastructure. If we had to pay an excise tax based on the costs of road and traffic maintenance on our behalf in proportion to motorized vehicles, it would come to less than a dollar a year. I’d consent to paying a buck, and I would still be subsidizing cars.
Where does the anger come from? I don’t know, but I will venture a guess that some drivers (note that I said some, because many drivers are courteous and considerate) are conditioned by decades of car-centric policies to think of the roads as theirs alone. We’ve been sold a romantic image of rolled-down windows, blasting stereos, and wide-open highways that offer no impediments to the bliss of tromping on the gas pedal. In this picture, bicyclists and pedestrians (not to mention wildlife and slower drivers) are unwelcome distractions.
But that world is changing. As I noted last week, there is a growing awareness of how harmful our American lifestyle of suburbs and shopping malls and drive-thru businesses is – on a personal, community and planetary scale. A person riding a bicycle to work is helping to combat obesity, suburban sprawl, and environmental degradation. A driver is exacerbating all those problems.
Given this truth, it’s reasonable to think that municipalities, businesses, schools and other organizations should encourage walking, bicycling, and public transportation. And it’s reasonable to expect drivers to make modest changes in their behavior to accommodate this growing movement.
Allow me to draw an imperfect analogy. I was living in California when that state became the first to prohibit smoking in bars. At first there was an outcry, from bar owners who feared loss of business, and from smokers who claimed their freedom was being curtailed. Twenty years later, nearly every state has followed California’s lead. Bars are much more pleasant places for everyone. If anything, they’ve gained business, from people who used to stay away. Smokers discovered that it was only a minor inconvenience to step outside.
As a bicyclist, all I ask of drivers is that they respect my right to use the roads, and that they drive with the awareness that a bicycle could be anywhere, over the top of the next hill or around the next curve. If this results in people driving a little more cautiously, it’s a win for everyone on the road.
In both cases, some people (smokers, drivers) are asked to slightly modify their behavior for the good of all. Drivers can operate at the speed limit, instead of five to ten miles an hour above it. A commuter traveling twenty miles to work will add two minutes to the trip – a small price to pay for public safety.
We are living in the Late Automobile Age. The problems caused by our dependence on cars are beginning to outweigh the motor vehicle’s obvious advantages. The time will come when a majority of Americans will no longer consider car ownership a necessity. Cars will still be around, of course, but we will be smarter in the way we use them and incorporate them into our daily lives.
Change happens slowly, and seldom without resistance. But as more people seek alternatives to the automobile, angry drivers will have to dial back their ire toward bicyclists. Maybe this conflict will lead to increased infrastructure, such as dedicated bike lanes and bike trails, along with more investment in public transportation and pedestrian-friendly business districts – all of which would be welcome.
But the anger’s got to go now. An angry driver is a danger to everyone.