A cyclist's plea to motorists

Cars are a deadly weapon and drivers need to take care.


Dear motorist: Yeah, you, the guy who passed that cyclist this morning, leaving about one foot to spare, just before making a sharp right into a driveway in front of said cyclist and pausing there in the shoulder to look stupidly at the cyclist as he careened toward you at 30 mph while screaming obscenities.

That cyclist? He was me. I know, I wear pink lycra. Hot pink. It brings out the color in my eyes and, also, it makes me more visible, in the naive belief that motorists like yourself will aim your steering wheel away, rather than toward, a fellow human being. Maybe you’re the guy who wrote that comment online recently: “I’ve never seen a friendly bicyclist in Durango … I must say, my desire to not smash them under my car is no longer balanced by my desire to not go to jail.” And maybe you were talking about me.

Jonathan Thompson

Anyway, I’m writing to apologize. For the profanity, for making derogatory references to your mother and your dog, for flipping you the bird, and for getting this close to marring your car’s paint with my blood. My behavior was rude. Emily Post would not approve. And yes, I know, my fellow cyclists sometimes do stupid things. They — okay, we — might roll through stop signs and ride two abreast on country roads and sometimes swerve into traffic to avoid gravel or glass or a pothole or turn without signaling or even cross the double yellow as we strive for a Strava course record. I drive a car, too, and that kind of thing drives me crazy, not least because it gives a bad name to other bikers.

But here’s the thing. While my words and actions might annoy you, cause a little ache in your heart and even inspire murderous rage in your soul, it’s nothing compared to the damage you, while piloting that car, can inflict with an ill-timed flick of the wheel, a moment of inattention, a rush to get home in time to watch the game. Hit me straight on? I’m dead. Playfully whack me with that giant side mirror? I’m in the ditch, seriously injured, maybe dead. That car of yours, two tons of internal combustion-powered steel and glass and plastic and wire, can maim, injure, kill.

The evidence is in the numbers. From 1994 to 2012, more than 13,000 cyclists and 90,000 pedestrians were killed on U.S. streets and roads (another 50,000 cyclists were injured). Both numbers pale in comparison to the number of motorists killed, but that’s only because there are far more people in cars. A 2003 study found that in the U.S., a cyclist is 12 times and a pedestrian 23 times more likely to be killed on the road than a motorist. And New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon all have higher cyclist fatality rates than the nation as a whole. A majority of the deaths occur on rural, high-trafficked roads of the kind we seem to specialize in here in much of the West.

Most mornings, I send my two daughters on a two-mile bike ride to school. Sometimes they groan about the heat, or the cold, but I know that they appreciate the freedom their bikes give them. And I’m happy not to have to climb into a carbon-spewing car and contribute to the stop-and-go traffic of commuters, students and parents — yes, we have traffic jams even in small-town Colorado. And yet, every day as they ride down the street, those statistics, and fear, run through my brain. I point them away from the fastest route because it involves a narrow stretch of heavily-traveled road with absolutely no shoulder — though it is a popular stretch for cyclists, our town and county government can’t even get it together to build a small space for bikes and pedestrians. Even so, most of their route is on streets, meaning they are relying on motorists to pay attention, be careful and slow down. Forgive me for my lack of confidence.

Progress is being made, though. Just last week, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a federal initiative to make the nation’s streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. The program will start out by assessing road safety in every state, and then will provide “multiple resources to help communities build streets that are safer for people walking, bicycling and taking public transportation.” They’ll guide communities on creating “road diets,” or redesigning streets to better accommodate bikers and walkers. “When used on rural highways that pass through small towns,” according to a U.S. Department of Transportation press release, “(road diets) can reduce crashes by almost half.”

While waiting for that to kick in, California, one of the deadliest states for bikers, implemented a law that requires motorists to give cyclists three feet of space or more when passing them. Twenty-three states already had similar laws, including Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Colorado. Most of its value is probably educational: The rule lets drivers know that it’s dangerous to pass too closely to bicyclists (even when the vehicle doesn’t touch the cyclist, its draft can exert force on the cyclist, causing him to swerve and possibly crash). But in my experience, around 7 out of 10 drivers regularly violate the rule here in Colorado, particularly on rural roads. And there’s very little enforcement, even when the violation results in an accident. In fact, it’s fairly rare for motorists to be prosecuted and convicted for hitting a cyclist at all.

Cyclists must take some responsibility here. We need to abide by the rules of the road, not ride like idiots and ride defensively, as if we were invisible. The one time I got hit by a car, it was probably my fault as much as the driver’s. More caution on my end could have prevented the accident. Still, 40 percent of fatal bike/car collisions entail the car hitting the bike from behind. Those bikers, now dead, never saw it coming. They were powerless to save themselves. So, motorists, a plea: Pay attention, slow down and remember that, as annoying and gaudy as those lycra-clad bikers might be, they are dads, moms, daughters and sons. And that car you drive, no matter how much you adore it, is a deadly weapon. Treat it that way.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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