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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Vehicular crime and perceptions

Image of red light running cars impeding bicyclist with the right of way"These noble motorists are entering the intersection well after the signal has turned. Note how they are blocking the path of the bicyclist, who has the green light." San Francisco bicyclist Jeffrey Baker spent some time photographing vehicular misdemeanors in the city. Earlier this week, he wrote to the SFBike listserve:

(Motorists) console themselves with the thought that...bicyclists are outlaws, and can't be permitted into civilized society. I set out to document the ridiculous nature of this claim on May 4th, during the height of the Critical Mass hatemongering by the Chronicle. On a single 30-minute walk home I photographed so many traffic violations by motorists that I ran out of storage on my camera.
How many of us have encountered sentiments like these from a forum at the Seattle Times: "I never see bicyclists come to a complete stop at stop signs....they just drive right through. On average, bicyclists violate more traffic laws than drivers ...mostly running stop signs."

This pervasive perception that bicyclists are rampant rule breakers--a misperception encouraged, or certainly not discouraged, by a media culture addicted to oil and automobile advertising dollars--has consequences. Especially if an injury collision involving a bicyclist leads to litigation with a jury comprised of motorists.

For decades government policy has privileged driving and encouraged anti-social behavior by motorists. Drivers routinely roll through stop signs, drive at excessive speed, run red lights, fail to yield to pedestrians, block fire hydrants, double park in bike lanes, drive under the influence, and use horns excessively. Only a fraction of this vehicular crime is punished. Each and every year motorists kill more than 42,000 people, hospitalize hundreds of thousands more, and cause billions of dollars of property damage. Motorist endangerment is so ubiquitous that even the Vatican has issued 10 commandments for drivers. And yet the perception in the U.S. is that bicyclists are the greater miscreants?

Of course this is nonsense. As I wrote in an earlier blog post: "Bicyclist behavior is entirely consistent with traffic behavior in general. Excessively 'abnormal' behavior is most punitive to the bicyclist; the rider most endangers him- or herself by reckless or unsafe cycling. It's the bicyclist who assumes the primary risk; unlike the motorist who creates a danger for others. Treating stop signs as yields allows bicyclists to maintain momentum, and done with caution is much less dangerous than rolling stops by impatient SUV-driving motorists."

My best advice to any bicyclist encountering such bias is to vigorously push back. Bicyclist behavior is entirely consistent with traffic behavior in general. Which transportation mode poses the greatest danger? Which mode offers the greatest social benefit?

Image: Jeffrey Baker
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


phil varner said...

"Bicyclist behavior is entirely consistent with traffic behavior in general." -- exactly. The proportion of cyclists who are blatant violators is probably the same proportion of drivers, but most drivers see the cyclists as "other" rather than "same". An idiot driver represents just himself, whereas an idiot cyclist represents all cyclists.

Even so, in the photo above, where is this cyclist supposed to be going? He looks to be facing the opposite direction of traffic on a one-way street.

You should check out this thread on BikePortland:

Paul Dorn said...

The bicyclist wants to proceed west on Market Street, in the same direction as the pedestrian about the enter the crosswalk, and is likewise impeded by red light running traffic. Note the cross walk. That's the direction the bicyclist wants to move in, but he is doing a stand or stall waiting for traffic to clear.

Yokota Fritz said...

This ridiculous perception of cyclists as 'scofflaws' is one of my hot button issues too. Great essay.