Drivers gone bad

I had initially started this post as a response to several incidents that I witnessed while biking a few months ago. In light of the latest internecine bike fight and Mayor Emanuel’s proposal for increased fines for bicyclists, I’ve resurrected my post, with a few additional thoughts.

First, the “incidents”. One evening, as I rode down a side street on my way to a meeting, I came upon a car driving rather slowly. Another car, impatient with the lead car’s pace, drove up alongside me, blasted his horn, and whipped around the front car, turning right at the next intersection (which was only 100ft away at the time). Of course, the impatient driver ran through the stop sign with hardly a pause, and then sped off. Their reckless behavior had saved them all of five seconds.

In a similar incident, this time on my way home from work, an impatient driver bypassed the lead car at a stop sign, swerving into the intersection and speeding off to his destination.

There’s a third incident (I could probably turn this post into a novel) that involved me, my wife, and our daughter, riding home from church on what is normally a quiet residential street. A driver, unhappy with our pace, honked as he waited for us to clear out of his way. As he sped through the stop sign (without stopping, of course) he yelled at us to “find a bike route”, whatever that means.

I hear a lot of complaints about nuisance bicyclists who refuse to yield the right of way at stop signs and traffic signals, salmon (ride the wrong way down one-way streets), and generally cause roadway havoc. I don’t make excuses for the bad behavior of my cycling compatriots. But I turn a deaf ear on the bellyaching every time if it’s not accompanied with a heavy dose of recognition that drivers are every bit as rude, disobedient, and chaos-inducing as bicyclists (or pedestrians for that matter – have you ever seen the intersection of Madison and Wacker at rush hour?) The point is that some people of all stripes, shapes, colors, and transportation modes suck.

I personally favor the mayor’s proposal for increased fines as long as enforcement does not increase in tandem. Why? I have no problem with bicyclists getting ticketed for doing idiotic things, but I can only support a crackdown if there is a corresponding crackdown on drivers doing similarly idiotic things. Increasing the fines is probably nothing more than a sop to the driving community so that Emanuel can say “look, we’re taking some road space from you, but we’re also increasing fines on the bikers.”

If the city wants to post a cop at a stop sign to make sure everyone stops, that’s fine by me. But they’d better pull over every single car that fails to come to a complete stop in addition to every bike. And there had better be stricter enforcement of speed limits (hello, speed cameras!) It seems the height of hypocrisy to me that drivers whine and moan about those pesky cyclists breaking the law, and in the same breath grumble about the prospect of automated enforcement of speed limits. News flash: it’s called a speed limit because you’re not supposed to be driving any faster.

And if we’re going to step up enforcement, I believe a discussion about costs and benefits is warranted. I don’t honestly know the last time a pedestrian was killed by a bicyclist in the city of Chicago (or the state, for that matter). In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only a handful of such cases in the entire country in the last decade. On the other hand, drivers have killed 7 pedestrians on our streets this year alone. I’m not very good with math, but I believe the numbers show a safety advantage for bikes – despite their “bad behavior”.

I don’t run red lights. I don’t run 4-way stop signs unless I have slowed down enough to ascertain that the intersection is completely clear of other vehicles. I’m not asking to ride with impunity, but I think it’s only right to ask that the burden of being a courteous user of the road not be placed solely on the backs of bicyclists.

A final note: perhaps Sarah Goodyear didn’t intend for her article to sound like such a car-centric hit piece. Given her previous work, I suspect that it didn’t. However, a little historical perspective may be in order. At the “dawn of the motor age,” it was the cars that were perceived as the outsiders, the scofflaws. They were the rude, unfeeling maniac causing havoc on our roads. Recognizing that demand for their product would soon hit a plateau without a change in the order of things, the car companies responded by shaming pedestrians into ceding road space to the cars. The tactic worked, and we are where we are today.

My contention is that that century old fight for road space never really died and is only now being re-kindled. Framing the issue as one of “scofflaw bicyclists” unwilling to adapt to the “rules of the road” plays right into the hands of the car boosters. They have legitimized their position as the kings of the road and see cycling as a serious threat to that dominance. Rather than blaming ourselves for the dismal state of the public right of way in the United States, aren’t we better off calling into question the status quo that guarantees effectively unfettered operation of motor vehicles on virtually every street in the country?

The history of the rise of the automobile could teach us a lot about how to proceed in the future. Sarah Goodyear ought to know a thing or two about this. She wrote the article.

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One response to “Drivers gone bad

  1. Pingback: Big Breakthrough for Active Transportation Within Reach for Missouri |

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