If you use cycling as a form of transit, most assuredly, you’ve experienced an incident or two (probably more – especially if you are female per this University of Minnesota study) of driver rage. It happens frequently; the driver who rides your rear wheel so absurdly close any mistake guarantees an introduction to their undercarriage. There’s the one who lays on their horn for no less than 10 seconds to let you know they are really upset with you. And not to be forgotten, the fury-filled motorist who can’t understand why you are “in their way” and rather than pass you as they would a vehicle – in the left lane – they are sure to do so in yours, with inches to spare, engine roaring and a dirty stare. More than likely, they will take the next right, 100 feet ahead of both of you. How dare you slow them down a few seconds.
If you thought this wrath was reserved solely for the non-professionals, Lauren Dolan’s recent accident which left her with a broken collarbone and soft tissue injuries, proves otherwise. Dolan had just won the bronze medal in the World Championships mixed team time trial relay two days prior. You might be familiar with Dolan’s attacking driver’s moves – passing too closely (in most US states, law requires a minimum of 3 feet passing space) and then, as described in the article, “punishment braking.” In other words, I’m going to brake suddenly in front of you, after passing, to make sure you know I’m upset because you got in my way.
One can only presume that a person whose professional career is the sport of cycling is well-acquainted with road laws. It feels necessary to point out because so many aggressive drivers often claim commuters “don’t know the laws.” It is a moot point considering cyclists must navigate the world in a car-biased system. Our infrastructure was built for ease and flow of vehicles, not bikes. Sometimes bike infrastructure feels like the pocket embellishment on an outfit which is sewn closed. It’s there to make it look fancy but doesn’t serve a functional purpose.
Cyclists often break laws for their own safety. For example, a couple of days ago, during rush hour, I was in the buffered bike lane on the right. I was stopped at a red light and needed to take a left at the following intersection. When the intersection was clear, I hopped the red light to get to the left lane. There were lots of cars, and I didn’t want to have to sneak in when we were all moving. When a world is constructed to favor car transit, it can be difficult for a vehicle operator (who has only navigated streets that way,) to see its flaws or how it doesn’t play out fairly for all users. It’s also easy to assume cyclists are rule-breakers who refuse to follow the laws. Often, what looks like defiance is an attempt to navigate an inequitable road system.
Statistics show pedestrian and cyclist deaths are climbing. Last year, pedestrian fatalities rose 4 percent and cycling 10 percent. While articles, like this one, focus on new vehicle technology that can detect pedestrians and cyclists, I don’t think technology is the answer. I believe there needs to be higher standards to acquire a license as well as a culture-shift.
When it comes to the never-ending aggression between some motorists and cyclists, I often observe a complete lack of understanding or ability to put one’s self in the shoes of another. For many years I was a car commuter. During said time, I usually felt miserable but also experienced being “stuck in traffic” (I was traffic) and the accompanying impatience. For the last five years, I’ve been a cycling commuter and sometimes use a car-sharing service to go further distances. After five years of little driving and having both perspectives, I believe I’m an even better motorist than before. I am no longer in a rush, and I put my phone away. I continuously look for cyclists and pedestrians, and the 30 mph speed limit in my city of Minneapolis seems way too fast to avoid possible collisions or react to pedestrians or cycling mishaps. I understand what it is like to navigate both worlds. I recognize why a person cycling may opt to use the lane rather than poorly designed infrastructure. I see them as a human equal, not an object that needs to get the heck out of my way.
Imagine, (idealistically perhaps,) if the criteria of obtaining your license in the US required a two-week urban cycling experience. What if people can’t bike or are disabled, you ask? There are trikes, tandem, adaptive, and cargo bikes – even virtual bike systems. All can provide the experience of navigating the street as a cyclist. I don’t think drivers who have never biked city streets understand the genuine terror of a car approaching behind you at 35 mph – even more so if you have children in tow. You can put all the technological bells and whistles on a vehicle that you want, but ultimately, if a driver doesn’t view you as human, as this study demonstrates some drivers don’t, I can’t presume their actions will change. Aggression is not being inattentive and not seeing; it’s a purposeful act.
Furthermore, when was the last time you took a driver’s test? I last took the exam when I was 16; I didn’t even have a fully-developed brain. It’s crazy to think we allow humans without a matured reasoning center to operate heavy machinery. I am now 37. While I consider myself to be a more conscientious and law-abiding driver than many I see, I could use a reminder of the rules I learned ages ago and a measurement of my skills. It seems highly inadequate that one single examination, which affects not solely my ability to drive but impacts whether or not some people will live or die, is only monitored once in my lifetime: roads, their uses, and society changes. When I took my driver’s test in the 90s, not near as many people were cycling, electric scooters didn’t exist, and I didn’t live in an urban area. I know some laws have changed, but I don’t have to prove I’m aware. And I haven’t demonstrated I still have accurate physical ability to drive since I was a youth.
Pedestrian and cycling fatalities made up an astounding 18.2% of traffic fatalities in 2017. I know many people who live in the city and won’t bike because they tell me it’s too scary. It is easy to forget that driving isn’t an option for all; it’s a privilege. While some choose cycling, for many others, it is the only affordable choice. By not challenging our licensing systems and requiring regular proof that drivers are capable and knowledgeable enough to drive, we are making our environments unlivable. When the requirement to obtain and maintain a license is to get first-hand cycling experience as well as regularly retest, it forces the humanization of bicyclists and ensures maintained knowledge and skill. Optimistically, it also prevents ‘otherism.’
Since her accident, Dolan has made a call for change with regards to aggressive driving culture. I fear this, like so many other accidents and fatalities, will be another statistic added to a neatly packaged document filed away in a dark cabinet, forgotten about until the next casualty. Until our societies address the violence, vulnerable roads users will continue navigating streets next to sometimes-aggressive drivers, hoping not to experience the worst of outcomes, and wondering when cycling and pedestrian rights will be treated and protected as human rights.