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Encounters with vehicles

A friend of mine was hit by a car yesterday. Or, to be perfectly accurate, she was riding past an intersection when a car turned right. While she was able to brake before crashing, she was left scraped and bruised and shaken. What motivates a human being to willfully risk another person’s life that way?

Why is assault with a vehicle not considered a felony or at least a misdemeanor? The driver knew she was there, and the cyclist could have been killed. Knowing bodily harm or death is possible, but choosing to proceed makes it a criminal act, at the very least one of gross negligence, just as firing a weapon into the air is.

The driver at first denied hitting her. But a witness stopped, and then the driver 'fessed up. Without a witness the police will simply shrug their shoulders and say, in essence, “oh well—another accident”. Well, such things are not accidents; they are at best gross negligence.

Even with a witness, the police still won’t ticket drivers (my own personal experience). In this case, the police didn’t ticket the driver when the cyclist reported the incident, shakily walking 1/4 mile to the police station to do so. Why is a speeding ticket on a clear stretch of freeway more important than an actual accident which injures someone? Logic dictates that penalizing motorists who actually injure others is more worthwhile than penalizing motorists who speed on a wide-open freeway.

The reality is that the police do not take cycling incidents seriously. Much as drunken driving was not taken seriously for many years, cycling injuries and deaths remain a topic that the public at large cares little about.

One need only read my local paper, the Country Almanac [1, 2] to see the demented views of those who just don’t understand that cars are deadly weapons and that cyclists are vulnerable to being killed on a regular basis. All sorts of justifications are employed, the equivalent of the rapist blaming the victim. The near-yearly deaths [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ] (not a complete list) of cyclists in the Palo Alto/Portola Valley/Woodside area seem to be of little concern to the hysterical cyclist-haters, who also seem to concentrate in Woodside, CA—just read the Country Almanac on a regular basis. The Woodside bigots are the same folks who worked vociferously to retain the ban on cyclists in Huddart Park. Not on the road, not on the trails, not in my backyard seems to be the favored view, a view encouraged by at least some Woodside council members.

CPR for a cyclist

On July 28, 2004 , I gave CPR to a fellow cyclist whose heart and breathing had stopped (I did the breathing part, while another cyclist pumped the heart). The cyclist did not survive. Was it a traffic accident? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I observed no effort on the part of the officers on the scene to ascertain the details from those involved. In fact, they wanted people to leave the scene, including the 3 of us who had tried to save that guy’s life. That is how they “investigate” a cycling death apparently. Sloppy, unprofessional work.

My own encounter with a car

I initially switched to mountain biking because I felt threatened on the road (that was in 1992). My rationale was that I was willing to injure myself, but not have someone else injure me (and that remains true!). The end decision is purely personal of course.

I took up road biking seriously again in 2002. I knew the risks, and I am even more aware of them now. In May, 2005, I was clipped by a driver of a “dualy” pickup. I was descending Skyline Blvd at 35mph. I was cornering around a steep, blind corner in the middle of the lane, double yellow line, when the pickup driver decided to pass me, clipping my left heel, bruising it and bending my wheel out of true. Another few inches and things would have been very, very different. So I considered that my lucky day.

My cell phone did not work there, so after a conversation with the witness and the drive (of questionable mental state), I rode home. Officer W. Clawson of the CHP later came to my house to take a report, but did not ticket that driver, in spite of both my account, and that of the witness (in fact, I don’t know if he even bothered to interview the witness). The first remark of the witness to the driver of the vehicle (who only reluctantly stopped) was “dude, you were going way too fast”. That same driver later had a road rage incident with another local motorist, who promptly went home and had a fatal heart attack. Thank you, California Highway Patrol, for letting that nut-case off without even a ticket.

CHP attitude

More recently, I had a pickup truck (again on Skyline Blvd) blow by me leaving little room (I was near the right edge of the lane). I stopped to talk to a CHP officer about it and asked him what he suggested. His suggestion was to ride to the right of the white lane line. I pointed at the white lane line in clear view, noting that it has only a few inches of pavement, and that such areas are often covered with debris, broken or cracked pavement, etc. He didn’t seem to understand or care that his suggestion was at best idiotic, given the conditions on much of Skyline Blvd. So much for “To Protect and To Serve”.

It is worth noting that the California “Certification For Purchase of Report By Mail” doesn’t include a designation of “cyclist” on its collision report form. While cyclists must obey the rules of the road, they are hardly on equal footing with drivers of cars, being in as vulnerable a position (perhaps more so) than pedestrians.

 

Am I being too tough on the CHP? I don’t think so. The July 26, 2006 death of Thomas Colby Maddox is is particularly egregious. Consider this quote from a witness:

I was surprised about how little (the law enforcement officers) asked me," said Ms. Binns. "It was a deadly accident."

This mirrors my personal experience. The lack of professionalism is unacceptable—a human being enjoying a fine day was killed not by an accident, but by a willfully negligent act: passing on a blind turn in a no-passing zone (double-yellow).I consider this particular July 26 incident manslaughter, but it’s not even clear that the killer was even ticketed.

The CHP took 45 minutes to arrive, because they (irresponsibly) had too many of their officers at a funeral for one of their own, that being more important than public safety.

Road-cycling safety

Motorists are often careless or negligent. A slow car is annoying but must be put up with; a bicyclist is a license for passing on a blind curve or in a double-yellow no-passing zone (preferably both simultaneously). Of course, most motorists aren’t that careless, but quite a significant number are.

Case in point: I was passed on Woodside Road this year by my neighbor (a physician) on a blind curve in a 25mph zone (about 150 yards before a stop sign). I was going about 20mph and accelerating rapidly. My neighbor accelerated the Mercedes Benz SUV to perhaps 45 mph, then had to veer sharply right as a car appeared around the blind corner. With different timing, their paint job might have been my hospital (or coffin) visit. (It could have been him or her; they’re both physicians, and the SUV has an unmistakable personalized license plate).

Thoughts on choosing to cycle on the road

  • Driving a car is risky and many people are killed or seriously injured in them. We accept that risk for the utility of driving a car. The same assessment must be weighed for cycling.
  • Road biking is great fun. The risk of injury or death is real.
  • We (as cyclists) have a lot of control over the risks we take
  • The law is weak in protecting cyclists. A state proposition making it a felony to harass or intimidate a cyclist from a motor vehicle would be appropriate. An at-fault driver should lose their license for a minimum of a year.

Specific suggestions on minimizing risk

  • Maintain equipment--never ride worn out tires, check tire inflation, brakes, frame, etc.
  • Wear bright, reflective clothing especially on less-bright days; use a very bright rear flasher in any non-sunny conditions. Yesterday (by coincidence), I made a point of observing how many cyclists were wearing dark clothing at dusk. Most were, which is really, really stupid.
  • Use hand signals. I use an aggressively pointed left or right arm, fully extended, to indicate that I'm turning when cars are present (the standard downward-angled signal for a turn is just too innocuous IMO). Sometimes when on narrow roads, I aggressively point my left arm straight out with a flat palm, indicating very strongly that I want the car to move over. Most drivers oblige.
  • Minimize riding on well traveled routes. Choose routes with a minimal number of intersections, with wide shoulders, etc. Ride at times of day with the least traffic. When riding on risky routes, I glance over my left shoulder at approaching cars.
  • Night-time riding can be extremely risky...or quite safe (assuming a high-quality bright lighting system—mine is brighter than some car headlights). It can be extremely risky in situations with significant traffic; each vehicle increases the odds of being hit and cyclists can get lost in the numerous lights. However, on some roads, traffic virtually disappears at night, and the rare car that appears can be noted well in advance due to its headlights (as can the cyclist). This allows plenty of warning time and caution by both parties. Do beware of the rare idiot with lights off.
  • Lights: Personal safety is why I'm willing to spend big bucks on bike lights; I'm standardizing on three Lupine LED lights; two on the bar and one the helmet. They're each 16-watt units; if they made a 32 watt version, I'd probably run that on my helmet. The Supernova unit also looks very nice for a bar mount, but I wanted the flexibility of the Lupine system (helmet, headstrap, bar).
  • When riding past an intersection, ASSUME cars approaching from behind will cut you off (and KNOW if there is someone there or not). Assume cars approaching from in front might turn. Assume they're homicidal maniacs.
  • Riding position: First, be courteous. Move over when it’s safe to do so, keeping in mind that extra space can end suddenly, or be blocked by debris. But when crossing really busy and dangerous areas, it might be necessary to temporarily ride in the middle of the lane. Riding on the right side of the lane causes most drivers to speed right past, leaving dangerously little margin for error. In fact, the more you move over, the more motorists crowd you. That is why riding too far right is dangerous. Choose a position that allows motorists to pass, but not one that encourages them to maintain full speed at close range.
  • Always carry a charged cell phone.
  • Replace your helmet any time you think it had an impact, and at least every 2 years.
  • Put your name, blood type, contact info etc in your wallet or on your bike somewhere.

 

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