The dog crap theory of road safety

Let’s talk responsibility.

Every morning, I walk outside with my dog, carrying a bag in my hand.

Then after a few minutes of watching her sniff every fire hydrant, bush, nook and cranny on our block — the Corgi equivalent of reading her Facebook page — she settles in for a good poop.

And inevitably, when I bend over to pick it up, I have to dodge piles of crap left behind by dog owners who aren’t as responsible.

It’s not just the unpleasant prospect of stepping in it that poses a problem. Or the simple fact that the law clearly requires owners to clean up after their animals.

What their dogs leave behind can spread disease, both to other dogs and the people who may inadvertently come in contact with it. And eventually, when the rains come, it will wash into the storm drains and out to the ocean, fouling the water that countless people swim and surf in.

Granted, one pile of crap isn’t going to cause any real harm. But multiply that by the multiple mounds on my block, and virtually every other block in this City of Angeles and the 88 other cities and towns, as well as unincorporated areas, in the county.

And you’ll start to understand why it’s not safe to eat many of the fish that come out of the bay. Or to spend much time in it yourself.

As I stand waiting for her to finish her morning rounds, I also have an opportunity to study the busy street that runs in front of our building.

I watch as a steady stream of cars flows past, observing countless drivers talking on their hand-held cell phones.

Others turn left or right or change lanes without ever using their turn signals, leaving other drivers to wonder — often with obvious impatience — why the car ahead is slowing down for no apparent reason. Or slamming on their brakes and swerving dangerously into the next lane to get around them.

Then there are the speeding drivers who weave in and out of the morning traffic, ignoring both speed limits and common sense, trusting their own driving skills to avoid the many near misses they create.

And too often, failing.

All this, despite their responsibility to obey the traffic laws they flaunt, and operate their vehicles in a safe and responsible manner.

Less frequently, I’ll see bikes rolling past as riders make their way up the street to UCLA, or down the street to jobs in Century City or beyond.

From time to time, I see one blow through the red light on the corner, forcing drivers who have waited patiently to cross the street to jam on their brakes to avoid a collision as the rider rushes into their path.

At night, as I take my dog out for the last walk of the day, I often see cyclists ride past without lights, briefly highlighted by the streetlights before rolling into semi-invisibility in the twilight between.

Other times, as I ride my bike, I often watch in amazement as I stop for a red light, only to see a cyclist ride up from behind and ride right through, ignoring my example as well as their own safety.

In fact, I was hit by one the other night, as I stopped and he kept going, brushing hard against my side as he blew through on my right, oblivious to the traffic starting to flow in either direction on the cross street.

Evidently, hitting me and risking getting hit himself were worth it to avoid stopping for less than a minute.

It breaks my heart when I reach an intersection and see oncoming or crossing drivers hesitate, despite having the right-of-way, because they expect me to ride through a stop sign or red light. Or anticipate that I’ll cut in front of them, ignoring both the right-of-way and my own safety.

Because that’s what we’ve trained them to do.

Too often, I find myself waving drivers through the intersection, granting my permission to do what the rules of the road say they have the right to do anyway. Or needlessly clicking out of my pedal and putting my foot down, so they’ll see that I am in fact stopping.

Because, like them, I have a responsibility to obey the law.

And more importantly, to share the road safely.

The difference is, when drivers act irresponsibly, they pose a danger to everyone else on the road. When we do, the risk is primarily to ourselves.

Although we, too, can harm others by our actions.

The problem isn’t irresponsible cyclists, despite what countless bike-hating internet trolls and shock-jock DJs will tell you. Or drivers who have forgotten the danger their vehicles pose, and their responsibility to operate them safely.

Or even dog owners who can’t be bothered to clean up after their pets.

It’s a society that has become irresponsible in the truest sense of the word, willing to let others clean up the messes we create. Except they often don’t do it either.

Whether on Wall Street, in Washington, Sacramento or City Hall, or on our own block.

When that lack of responsibility occurs on the streets, it forces other road users to assume responsibility for our own safety.

By blowing through that red light or stop sign, or driving while distracted — or any of the other countless, seemingly insignificant violations we commit every day — we’re placing responsibility for our own safety in the hands of others, who may or may not accept it.

When they do — or can, for that matter — everyone rolls off safely, if perhaps a little more angry at the cyclists or drivers they blame for posing a hazard to everyone else. And oblivious to the way they do the same things every day.

I’ve often said that the highest responsibility of any cyclist is to ride safely, in a manner that doesn’t pose an unnecessary risk to ourselves or others around us.

And yes, drivers bear that same responsibility, too.

So I promise I won’t make you deal with my crap on the road. I’ll ride responsibly, obeying the law when it’s safe to do so, and rarely, breaking it when safety demands doing something else, and ensuring that safety is always my top priority.

And hope that you won’t make me deal with yours.

7 comments

  1. thebikedork says:

    Well said. It is crazy to me when I come to a stop sign and a car has the right of way and they don’t go; waiting for me to break the law. Once I have stopped and it’s their turn, I am waiting till they go. They may be waving away, signaling me to go, but sometimes you can’t see them due to reflections on the windshield. Plus who knows why they are flailing about behind the wheel? As a daily commuter I admit to rolling a few stop signs with care. So it is a hard thing to know where to draw the line. Once you break the rules you are outside the law. I role a stop sign and then get mad a few yards up the road when a driver fails to signal a right turn. It seems that with a little respect for each other this whole thing could work quite well.
    Here is some more:
    http://thebikedork.blogspot.com/2011/06/breaking-law.html

  2. cycler says:

    Well said.

    This is an issue I think about a lot. Personal responsibility is great, but how to encourage others to step up to their part of the social traffic contract?

  3. If a motorist wants to wave the through an intersection– regardless of who has right of way– I’ll take it. While it’s unfortunate they expect us to ‘break the law’ I think it is leading them to behave as they should– yielding to vulnerable road users. There are way to many jerks on the road, if I encounter someone who wants to let me go first I want to encourage that behavior in motorists. Just like letting pedestrians cross, I feel motorists should let cyclists cross too at difficult intersections that only operate with stop signs on the side streets.

  4. Frank Peters says:

    I’ve been spending too much time thinking thoughts spurred by this post. Today walking the pooch back from the Farmers Market (where we ignore the ‘No Dogs’ sign), there it was – a leave-behind from a discourteous dog owner. I thought about your point, feces can spread disease. Then I thought of a trip north about a year ago and what I observed and filed away as “Portland’s dirty little secret”. My brother-in-law was about to open a new bike store and the site was within easy walking distance. It was an attractive corner location, where a previous merchant once sold combustion engine machines called cars. As we crossed the street and then the sidewalk into the parking lot, I was quite aware of how careful one must look for footing – the grassy median between the sidewalk and the parking lot was littered with soggy doggy leave-behinds. This shattered my reverent esteem for this bike riding capital of the West. How could all these bike riders be so cavalier about their dog walking responsibilities? My brother-in-law, always quick with a comment, “They feel with all the rain, it accelerates the biodegradability.”

  5. Well said. Even on streets with as few dogs/cyclists as I see where I ride, there’s still crap/lawbreaking all over the place. I have taken to dramatically stopping and putting down one foot at every stop in order to make the point. I position myself so I am seen, and I have started asking cyclists who go around me through the light what they think they’re doing. Many of the “wave the cyclist thru” situations end up not feeling safe to me, particularly the roundabouts I transit where drivers stop in mid-transit and wave me thru in front of them because they think as a cyclist I’m going to ride in front of them anyway. If the “wave the cyclist thru” situation looks safe, though, I do accept the courtesy and express my gratitude with a thanks and a wave. Otherwise I insist on taking my turn, obeying the law, and shaking my head as other cyclists poop all over the place like undisciplined curs.

  6. […] Biking In L.A.: Because Most People Treat Traffic Safety Like They Treat Dog Crap […]

  7. Deborah says:

    Post of the week — and quite well -written.

    No matter the kind of bikes I ride, or the kind of riding I do, I am an advocate and a representative of cyclists and cycling. As such I obey the rules of the road. I wish more cyclists would do so.

    I also clean up after my dogs.

    It’s what responsible people do.

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