Friday, March 29, 2013

Things That Make Cars Dangerous and Sometimes It's Us

Anyone who rides on roads shared by automobiles knows that, like petulant preschoolers, some drivers are not open to sharing. Sharing, of course, is something that should be willing not forced or required, in the playground and sandbox, at least. Roads by contrast do not belong to any single individual and that’s a distinction each of us learns (or should) as we mature and before we begin driving a potential deadly weapon.

The other side of the issue is what might seem to be wanton disregard for personal safety. Why, drivers ask, do people want to ride their bikes on roads and highways? Don’t those bikers know it’s dangerous? Of course we do, but it’s danger is not intrinsic anymore than the simple act of riding a bike is inherently dangerous. The danger arises from the human element, primarily. Sure, tires fail. Animals follow their own rules. Weather compounds errors. Something’s are beyond anyone’s control. Most are not.

The things I have observed and noted below are not part of an exhaustive list. Mostly they are pet peeves, things I have experienced personally. Ever rider (and driver) surely has his or her own list.

Texting while driving (including bike riders)

Few things are as dangerous as a person who believes he or she is competent enough to operate a car while sending or receiving text messages. I’d like to narrow the class of offenders to young people, given the number of college aged people around here, but it cannot be done. At 12 miles an hour it is MUCH easier to see the posture of drivers and recognize the intense downward gaze at the phone in a driver’s lap or the phone-held-upward-so-as-to-permit-visual-multitasking of the road and traffic ahead. Unfortunately, it is not limited to drivers either. Argh! The number is not as large, but bike riders are also guilty.

Talking on phone while driving (including bike riders)

This used to be the bigger issue, but texting has supplanted it. At least (and it is a minimal difference) their eyes are free to make cursory visual scans of the road ahead unless it is an important call. I won’t attempt to define “important.”

Failure to look both ways at intersections (including bike riders)

When I was a driver I developed the habit of looking left-right-left and that habit has continued. In a right-side-of-the-road culture, vehicles coming from the left are the first to be encountered so as you approach an intersection it makes sense to look left first. That’s not advanced science, just logical. Looking right then left again completes what I’d call a cursory traffic check. Looking more than once makes more sense.

On a bike I look both ways multiple times and I seldom, if ever fail to do so. Does that make me better? No, just hyper-cautious, maybe. Many, many, many drivers do not look both ways before entering intersections, especially when making a right turn. Seems silly to me. As with the things above about text messages and telephone usage, bike riders too often behave similarly and, as with a minority of drivers, some riders never look at all, especially if the cross direction is signal controlled, assuming that I-have-the-right-of-way makes one invulnerable.

Failure to respect pedestrian crossings and pedestrians (including bike riders)

Bike riders may be more disrespectful of pedestrians than drivers. Where drivers fail miserably is by stopping with their vehicle blocking crosswalks while edging forward to make a turn. Where riders fail is by not making their presence obvious before passing a pedestrian being approached from behind. There is a dilemma when the pedestrian is using headphones or earplugs and can’t hear a warning. A year or so ago the local bike club addressed riders’ alleged rude behavior because they passed walkers on the Hawthorne Trail without warnings. I bought a bell to use and use it with mixed success because of the high number of walkers and runners who are unable to hear a warning sound.

Failure to respect defined lanes of travel (including bike riders)

I like bike lanes and generally drivers avoid them except when there’s a slowdown and a right turn is approaching and drivers squeeze over to get in to the right turn lane effectively blocking the bike lane. Some drivers get awfully damn close to riders as they pass and many of those drivers are involved in the first two peeves above. Frequently on my ride home while using a bike lane someone driving a pickup would pass very close to me and after this happened several times (same time, same general section of road) I understood he was doing it intentionally. It wasn’t the closeness that was the problem. It was his dog which always surprised by snarling as the truck passed. I guess you can laugh at your own joke a lot of times.

Bike riders manage to violate the reasonable expectation of drivers by riding abreast in bike lanes or when there is no bike lane. “Share the Road” is a reasonable assertion, but riders have to recognize the circumstances and adjust their behavior in a reasonable fashion. In the thousand or so miles I road on rural southern roads I had very few moments when I held up traffic for more than a few minutes. If it was obvious that traffic was backing up I’d leave the roadway and allow cars to pass. Generally, though, by riding as close to the road’s edge as I could gave most drivers sufficient room to pass, even in South Carolina.

Failure to use signals (including bike riders)

How hard is it to signal a turn while driving? Why would you not provide a signal? It all comes down to lack of attention and a denial of the idea that cars are potential lethal weapons. As I detailed more than a year ago, the one accident involving a bike that I witnessed resulted from a failure by a driver to provide a timely signal. The rider failed to be cautious enough and must accept some blame. She failed to embrace the sense of vulnerability we need to have when we ride. It’s our responsibility to be aware all of the time. When we aren’t we can’t anticipate what might happen and be prepared before it does.

On the other hand are riders’ signals. There is no way to claim equipment failure when not offering signals for the sake of drivers. It is also important for riders to separate signals from gestures.

Too fast or too slow for conditions (including bike riders)

As with any moving vehicle it’s important to be aware of the conditions around you and adjust speed to match. Speeding by drivers can cause them to meet riders at the wrong moment. Riders engaging in too-fast-for-conditions speed may not have enough stopping power to avoid an accident. As with virtually every one of my peeves this one relates to a general disregard for natural and logical consequences. Death or severe injury as a result of disregard for potential consequences really sucks.

Windows too dark to allow eye contact with the driver

Here in Florida very dark windows on cars is common. As a driver I liked being able to make eye contact or to see in which direction another driver was looking. Being unable to see through tinted windows compounds all of the above. 

Danger lurks everywhere, but many of life’s dangers result from our inattention, the inattention of others or a combination of both. These elements are common and do not relate only to interaction between drivers and riders. Much of what passes for paying attention is given over to the idea that everything can be multitasked. Maybe it’s just one more way in which I am showing my age.

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