I recently received a link to an online story in which a driver threatened to kill cyclists.
Or more precisely, he was afraid that he might.
My name is Nick Scholz, and I’m going to kill you.
Now, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with you guys. Heaven knows there are few groups more organized or zealous than outdoor bicyclists. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t wish to kill you. I’m not going to narrow my eyes and rev my engine menacingly at you. I don’t count the cyclists I crash into with notches on a special stencil on the side of my car.
Rest assured: if I kill you, it will be by accident.
His argument is that cyclists need to choose.
We can ride on the streets and be treated like other road users. Or we can ride on the sidewalks and be treated like pedestrians.
To the casual observer, it would appear that most of you are positively suicidal. It looks like you have chosen my car to be the Chariot of Fire that whisks you away to the Hereafter. Sadly, that moniker will probably become truer than you could know as your carbon-fiber bicycle gets stuck in my engine chassis at 50 miles per hour.
But, even sadder is the fact that this is not a suicide. Nor a murder. This is merely a tragedy that can be avoided if only the cyclists will decide whether they are pedestrians or riding a vehicle.
Problem is, he has a point.
Our roads, and the laws that govern them, operate on the principle of predictability of movement. In other words, road users need to know whether other road users are going stop or proceed through the intersection, turn or go straight, and who has the right of way.
That’s why we have stop signs and red lights, are expected to signal, and yield to other road users when they have the right of way and we don’t.
It’s not perfect system.
It doesn’t take into account that cyclists are neither motorists or pedestrians. Or that it doesn’t always make sense for us to stop at stop signs when there is no conflicting traffic or pedestrians.
But it’s the system we have right now. And drivers need to know what we’re going to do in order to avoid a collision, which they don’t want any more than we do.
Even if they don’t always obey the law themselves.
And the consequences can be devastating.
Just this week, two SoCal cyclists were killed after reportedly riding through red lights.
In one case, the rider may have been trying to beat the light, and could have fallen victim to a short yellow on a wide intersection, which didn’t give him a fighting chance to get all the way across the cross street before cross traffic started.
In the other, a young rider on a fixie, apparently with no brakes, rode into a busy intersection without stopping and was hit by two cars in rapid succession.
Let’s be honest.
It’s one thing to roll through a stop sign, just like virtually every driver does. Slow down, look in every direction, and if — and only if — the way is clear, you can usually proceed without posing any unnecessary risk to yourself or anyone else.
Bearing in mind, of course, that you’re still breaking the law.
But red lights are another matter.
I’ve been roundly criticized in the past for criticizing riders for running red lights. But the fact is, there is no rational excuse for failing to stop when required at a signalized intersection.
It’s the law. It makes all of us look bad when one us of doesn’t, as far too many drivers lump everyone on two wheels together and seem to lack sufficient discernment to make the mental calculation that just because one cyclist — or a hundred cyclists — break the law, that doesn’t mean we all do.
Let alone that most of them routinely break the law themselves, even as they swear at us for doing it.
And don’t give me the excuse that it’s safer than waiting at the intersection. I’ve been stopping for red lights for over three decades, and I’m still here.
It’s just a matter of knowing how to do it.
And as this week’s deaths make painfully clear, failing to stop is dangerous as hell.
Not to mention that if you do get hit after going through a stop sign or red light, you lose all liability protection — regardless of what the driver who hit you may or may not have been doing.
Go through a stop, you’re at fault.
It may not be fair. The driver could have been drunk or distracted, speeding or breaking the law in some other way. But none of that will matter to a jury.
As far as they’re concerned, you broke the law, it’s your fault. Period.
Some would even go so far as to consider a cyclist who ran a red in traffic suicidal.
And it certainly seems that way at first blush. Even riders who routinely go through reds usually know enough to stop, or at least slow down, when cars are coming.
But what if they don’t?
What if an inexperienced rider gets in over his or her head, trying to make it across a busy intersection he should have stopped at. Or finding himself riding too fast to stop, on a bike with no brakes, when the light changes with too little warning.
Even experienced riders make mistakes. It’s easy to get in over your head, make the wrong decisions in rapidly changing traffic conditions or overestimate your own skills.
It’s even easier for in experienced riders.
It took me years, if not decades, to master the Tao of riding on busy roads. And even then, I still make mistakes; fortunately, I’ve had the skills to get myself out of it.
So far, at least.
Beginning riders don’t.
Unlike when I grew up, there’s no training in bike laws and riding skills in our schools. There’s no official training programs for beginning cyclists, or any other established method of reaching out to young riders to say do this, not that.
Like don’t push the limits and get yourself into a situation you can’t get out of. And maybe it’s not smart to ride with no brakes, even if that is the trendy thing to do these days.
Instead, they learn by emulating their friends, who may have been riding longer, but have no more knowledge of even the most basic traffic laws than they do.
We assume that everyone is familiar with traffic laws because they’ve taken their test and gotten a driver’s license.
But many young riders — and even some older ones — don’t have a license, whether by choice or some other reason. And so they may have no working knowledge of the laws that govern our streets.
I’ve spoken with some who didn’t have a clue that their right to the road is governed by the same laws that restrict motor vehicles.
They actually don’t know that bikes are required to stop for stop signs and red lights, just like cars. That they have to signal their turns, even though many other cyclists and most drivers don’t. Or even that they’re required to use lights at night or to ride with traffic, instead of making their way up the wrong side like salmon on their way to spawn.
And we all know what happens to salmon once they spawn, right?
Because no one ever told them.
They haven’t been taught the laws that govern cycling because no one bothered to do it. And in that, we, as a society and a cycling community, have failed them.
Many motorists think the solution is to license and register cyclists, just like drivers are. I won’t waste your time explaining why that’s not the answer; others have made the same points before, anyway.
Maybe there should be some sort of state or school-sponsored bicycle certification training. Maybe riders should get a discount on car insurance or bike parts if they complete one or more of the League of American Bicyclist’s training classes.
Maybe it’s up to our local cycling groups to step into the breach and offer rider education; the LACBC recently voted to reestablish its Education Committee in an attempt to address this problem.
Or maybe its up to you and me to offer advice, even unsolicited, when we see a rider doing something dangerous. Even though experience says the response will be made with just one finger, or its vocal equivalent.
I don’t have the answer. I just know that we need to find it.
Because right now, too many beginning riders are forced to figure it out for themselves.