Some people just don't get it

 

I gave up driving years ago on a peaceful Sunday morning in downtown Ogden, Utah, when I was T-boned by a truck driven by a drunk driver who abandoned the scene. Our Volkswagen was totaled. My 9-year-old son was in the hospital for a week with a punctured spleen. My left femur was broken and is now re-enforced with a titanium rod.

When I learned to walk again, I learned to live without driving. This is called a "conversion experience." Like St. Paul knocked off his horse, I was knocked out of my dependence on automobiles. It's not just that cars are a necessary evil, I have come to realize, it's that most of they time they aren't even necessary.

Maybe you haven't had a conversion experience. Or maybe you just haven't had yours yet. You know that automobile accidents are the most common form of death in America, right? And yet you go on driving. That's called cognitive dissonance.

Here's another thought: The more you drive, the dumber you get. Driving makes people act like rats trapped in a maze. You lose touch with your senses, your imagination and your compassion for other travelers on the road of life. Air-bagged, air-conditioned, locked-in and de-sensitized, drivers assume they're safe. Of course.

A hundred years after the birth of the automobile, we live in Autopia. You are what you drive. People who don't drive have low status, and lowest of all are pedestrians. But a fundamental right has somehow been left behind: Streets belong to people, not motor vehicles.

Your perspective changes when it comes from the seat of a bike. If there's more than one of you, you might be a "critical mass." Intended to promote bicycle-awareness, critical-mass rides in cities around the country are notorious for inciting road rage and violence. I doubted that could ever happen in our little town -- until last month when my wife and I were on an art stroll and saw what looked like a riot breaking out.

A scrum of 30 or more bicyclists was being confronted by a gang of cops. Six police cars were blocking traffic, then a seventh arrived on the scene, siren wailing and lights flashing. The police were arrayed in a semi-circle, backs to their cruisers, determined to shoo the critical-mass participants away by saying, "Disperse! You must disperse!" One of the officers seemed especially belligerent, directing other officers, yelling at the bicyclists and threatening more arrests.

Step by reluctant step, the pack of riders backed away from the street, the parking strip, the sidewalk, and into a parking lot. The police insisted they keep moving, but the group resisted. They wanted to discuss what had just happened and what they should do next.

Passersby were attracted toward the ruckus, curious to know what the heck was going on. A young couple with a baby in a stroller came down the sidewalk in the middle of the melee, gawking like people watching a movie. When they got halfway down the block, though, they thought better of it and turned around.

"They won't disperse," said a police officer, who seemed honestly puzzled by the crowd's behavior. "I've never seen people before who wouldn't disperse when you told them to."

"Freedom of assembly" was the phrase that came to my mind. But the First Amendment right "to peaceably assemble" wasn't being honored -- at least not in Ogden that day.

Four riders were arrested on a variety of charges including disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, public intoxication and resisting arrest. Their cases are scheduled to go to trial this October. Ogden's mayor, Matthew Godfrey, responded to the fiasco by meeting with critical-mass leaders and agreeing to participate in the next ride.

One of those arrested was a friend I've known for all of his 26 years. So I stopped by Skyline Cycle to thank owner Matt Hassenyager for bailing my friend out of jail. Matt's mother was working alongside her son and I asked if she planned to go on the next ride. You bet, she said: "Let's try to keep the kids out of jail."

A week later, the mayor showed up as promised, and because of all the publicity it was the largest group ever for a critical-mass ride in Ogden. About 75 people participated. But you probably didn't hear about it, because this time there was no trouble. We all got along, and the day was nothing but fun for all concerned. I hope we can keep it that way.

Bob Sawatzki is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Ogden, Utah.