Country dogs die young
In rulebooks and pamphlets, bicycle safety is simple. But when you are on the street, it becomes very complicated.
This is because traffic, like all social structures, is not the product of state rules like we might assume. Rather it is a product of interaction between multiple people. Social structures are supposed to facilitate social life. And they do, as long as people exist in clearly defined positions, such as vehicle drivers and pedestrians.
Bikers, however, exist in two positions. Bikers are on wheels, so they are drivers. Bikers also use pedals, so they are also pedestrians. The state sees bikes as vehicles and makes laws accordingly. But many people see bikers as pedestrians. The police may want bikers on the street and not the sidewalk, but on two occasions, car passengers have thrown cups of ice at me for being on the street and not the sidewalk. Other bikers report similar pressure from the two sides.
Think of how smoothly the social structure might function without this in-between position. We do not expect to see cars on the sidewalk. That would be stupid and dangerous. We also do not expect to see people walking with traffic. That would also be stupid and dangerous. Think of the constant awkward interaction that happens in a busy Walmart parking lot, a place with a lot of in-between. Walkers and drivers rub along with winks, nods and occasional yelling. McDonalds does not even appreciate the walker at the drive up, even if you make racecar sounds and hold a pretend steering wheel.
This goofy position of the biker is not always the biker’s fault. In fact, the rest of the road society often puts them in this in-between position. Automobile drivers do not reliably follow the rules in a biker’s presence. Many drivers do not change lanes when they pass from behind, but when a biker signals a left turn with arm extended, many oncoming drivers stop when it is the driver who clearly has the right of way. The biker cannot anticipate what the driver will do.
Sometimes when a driver does what they think is safe they are actually being quite unsafe. Some drivers slow down when they see a biker on a cross street about to merge. What the driver does not realize is that the biker could be eyeing the space between the driver who slowed and the car behind that driver. When the first car slows, it closes the space and suddenly leaves the space in front of the slowed car a better option. Whether or not to go is a decision a bicycler has to make in a split second and it can appear careless on their part. Really, the decision was also created by the cautious driver.
At intersections, drivers often give a bicycler the okey dokey to proceed by waving their four fingers while resting their hand on top of their steering wheel — something they rarely do with other car drivers. The driver can see clearly out their windshield, but the bicycler often only sees the trees above the car reflected from the windshield. When they do see the signal, it looks like a wobbly hand.
This is a worse problem when I cross two lanes of a one-way street with my children. Drivers in the right lane will stop in the street and wobble their hands without considering the traffic going the same direction in the left lane. They are essentially waving my children into traffic. They then act flustered when we refuse to go and step on the gas to make up time. This is not reassuring.
The infrastructure is also not made for bicyclers. Traffic lights are activated by sensing an automobile from a cable embedded in the pavement. Bicycles do not have the metal mass to activate most lights. Yes, it is legal for a bicycler to cross on a red light, but the boundary of the law is new, weird and complicated. I simply ignore the red light altogether as do many on bikes. Attending to actual traffic is much more important.
Solutions? One might say, “They have bike paths and rails to trails.” This was the state of Virginia’s argument when my wife was hit years ago. But her workplace was one direction and the bike trail went another. We have rails to trails near us up Pine Creek, but it literally goes into the woods. I don’t work in the woods.
One might also say, “The freeloaders should pay road taxes.” But the gas tax drivers pay does not cover the cost of the roads. Drivers rely on subsidies … often made up by bicyclers who pay other taxes. The freeloaders are the drivers. Bikers could get by with a 3-foot wide strip.
The best way to sort the issue is by putting more bicyclers on the road. This would increase the sense among drivers that bicyclers are normal. Drivers would be less inclined to treat them weirdly and, with political power, the infrastructure and laws would actually work for them. In Europe and large American cities, drivers expect bikers. I was a bicycle messenger in Chicago and I honestly felt safer in the busiest downtown traffic than I did in the slower portions north of downtown. This is not because drivers were more polite, but because there were more bikes on the road and drivers were more awake and machine-like. I could predict them … like a structure.
Today, I live in Lock Haven and the rolling countryside is very tempting for biking. But for the same reasons that country dogs die younger than city ones, I am also creeped out by the approach of half-alert drivers.
Greg Walker is a professor of sociology and lives in Lock Haven.