A few of my friends have completely sworn off bike-riding on roads. One too many shoulder brushes with the side-view mirror of a recreational vehicle. One too many dives for the ditch. They can't take it anymore, and who could blame them? Some are threatening to give up walking as well, since being a pedestrian has become almost as harrowing.
I can't stand giving in that way, not to mention that by giving up bicycle-riding and walking, I'm just adding mass to the vehicular juggernaut. It may not be the healthiest response, but I've decided to take a different tack by devising a multi-disciplinary driver's education campaign. I don't think drivers are by nature malicious. It's just that they need a bit of awareness adjustment.
The first plank of my strategy is founded on the tenets of behavior modification. It entails an aggressive interaction with drivers, and it includes both reinforcement of good behavior and clear feedback for poor behavior. For example, when I see a driver in my bike mirror who slows up behind me and waits for an oncoming car to pass before pulling wide, I offer an encouraging friendly wave and a breathless smile. No doubt they feel virtuous and appreciated as they drive on. I do the same when a car stops for me as I walk into a crosswalk — just making people feel good about themselves.
I try to do my part, too. I ride on the shoulders of roads, or well over to the side. I get as annoyed as the next person by bikers who insist on taking up a lane just so they can converse as they ride. As a pedestrian, I'm understanding if a car is too close to reasonably stop at a crosswalk as I approach. No big deal; I'm fully capable of cutting people some slack.
Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that drivers are often unaware of the significance of crosswalks. So I've taken to walking boldly out into them as a way to remind drivers. A baby stroller is especially helpful in this aspect of the campaign. All but the most oblivious come to a screeching halt for a stroller. Walking next to obviously pregnant companions is also effective.
It's also clear that this lack of driver awareness becomes absolutely rampant when cell phones are added to the mix. Not only are drivers blithely out of touch with the world outside their conversations, but cell phones also seem to cause color blindness, at least on the yellow and red end of the light spectrum.
When, in spite of my more aggressive behavior, drivers still don't pay attention, I point to the ground to draw their attention to the white stripes of crosswalks. If their windows are open, I'll have brief conversations with them as they speed past. A healthy voice level seems to help. For the truly heinous offenders, I've found myself capable of other hand signals besides waving.
The second plank of the educational campaign is all about lifestyle change. It turns out that leaving cars behind is beneficial on many levels. By doing my errands on foot or by bicycle, I get lots of productive thinking done. I also get exercise, without the need of an expensive health club membership, and I reap the benefit of community interaction, chatting with friends, teachers and local politicians that I happen to meet on the sidewalks. Mind you, I haven't even gotten to the financial part of the argument, what with gas prices up over $2 a gallon.
Finally, when all else fails, there's my secret weapon for dunces who drive. I'm waiting for patent approval for what I call The Wake-Up Call Ball. It's basically a tennis ball attached to about six feet of bungie cord, with a ring on the end of the cord to keep it on my finger. Here’s how it works: The next time you're a third of the way into a crosswalk and some under-educated driver goes steaming past, you whip out the Wake-Up Call Ball and throw it at the side of the car. The impact isn't enough to cause damage, but the ball makes a thump quite sufficient to jolt any driver out of a trance.
One driver at a time. A little behavior modification, some lifestyle enlightenment, and as a last resort, that satisfying thump. Pretty soon the streets will be safe again.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and walks — carefully — in Bozeman, Montana.
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