Unsafe at any speed

Just one day after I got back in the saddle, I found myself sitting in an L.A. courthouse, a winner — or loser, depending on your perspective — in the annual jury duty lottery.

It quickly became clear I wouldn’t be serving on the case for which I was called.

It was a simple traffic case, resulting in injury. And I was just a little too knowledgeable about traffic issues, and too open in expressing my opinions, for the comfort of either attorney.

What struck me, though, was when the judge asked if anyone in the jury pool, or a close friend or relative, had ever been involved in a collision resulting in significant injury. Almost every hand shot up; the only one that didn’t belonged to the only person in the room who had never held a drivers license.

What followed was a litany of auto-involved mayhem. A grandfather killed while bicycling, a neighbor who died behind the wheel just last week. Others spoke of undergoing years of physical therapy, while some were still undergoing treatment.

I told about the time my car was rear-ended while waiting at a red light, resulting in recurring back problems that continue two decades later. Yet somehow, I forgot about the injuries from the road rage incident that happened while I was riding.

I purposely left out the childhood case in which my cousin fell, or tried to escape, a car driven by her intoxicated father, landing in directly in front of the rear wheel and resulting in a death no one in her family ever recovered from.

Or another incident my senior year of high school, when a lifelong friend was killed after a drunk driver crossed a 20’ wide highway median to hit his car head on.

As a cyclist, I’ve never been anti-car. The truth is, I love to drive; the only thing that approaches the joy I feel on a good ride is cruising down an open road in the middle of the night with the radio playing and the dark filled with endless possibilities.

Yet yesterday’s experience drove home, once and for all, just how extensive the harm caused by cars truly is, touching virtually everyone in our society.

We’ve spent half a century making safety improvements that increase the survivability of the auto occupants, yet have done virtually nothing to reduce the frequency of collisions or the risk to those outside the vehicle.

The focus always seems to be on making the car safer, even though the overwhelming majority of collisions are caused, as my dad liked to say, by the loose nut behind the wheel.

As a society, we’ve become far too comfortable in our cars, losing the sense that the vehicles we rely on every day are dangerous machines.

We text and talk on cell phones, believing we can still drive safely even while acknowledging that others can’t. And routinely ignore laws designed for everyone’s safety — including our own — to the point that a gas company decides it’s a good marketing position to insist they’re on the drivers’ side by creating an app to get out of tickets.

Yes, it’s a joke.

But the problem is that violating the law is so commonplace that we’re all in on the joke.

And did you notice the disclaimer — in white on a light colored background — that says the best way to avoid a ticket is not to speed? I didn’t until I watched it online several times, despite seeing this same spot on TV countless times each day.

The problem is, as traffic-meister Tom Vanderbilt noted the other day, that a drivers license is too easy to get and too hard to lose.

Yet stiffer penalties that would get bad drivers off the road — or cause most drivers to change their behavior behind the wheel — are unlikely to pass anytime soon because most people don’t see a problem, or any viable alternatives to driving.

And instead of focusing on the harm caused by dangerous drivers, auto organizations have a knee-jerk reaction to any loss of pavement that creates space for other road users.

But we have to do something.

Because we’ve reached the point where 40,000 +/- deaths each year is considered an acceptable cost just to get from here to there.


I’m really starting to like the idea of DIY group rides; after all, you need something to do while you wait for next month’s River Ride. Next up is Will Campbell’s Watts Happening Ride, while L.A. Cycle Chic plans the Moms Ride for May 16.


Writing for CicLAvia, Joe Linton follows Janette Sadik-Khan’s comments by suggesting 12 cheap bike projects L.A. could do right now, and note also that Bikes Belong has written CicLAvia a nice big check — literally. Meanwhile, Joe also takes a spin up Orange County’s Aliso Creek. Enci Box suggests adequate bike parking would make L.A. a more bike friendly city. L.A.’s best guide to hometown tourism reminds us the Amgen Tour of California will be coming to town May 22nd. Courtesy of my friend at Altadenablog comes word that a mountain biker fell 50 feet from a Mt. Lowe trail over the weekend. The Glendale Narrows Riverwalk project is finally going to happen, including a multipurpose walk and bike trail. Bicycling tells you how to avoid five common cycling collisions; that’s just a normal ride in L.A. They take away a lane in Milwaukee, and the world doesn’t come to an end. Evidently, Germans don’t need cycle tracks, and neither do the women of Chester County, PA. A fund has been set up for a woman rider seriously injured during a Critical Mass in South Florida. Navigating New Orleans by bike. Cincinnati plans to double the number of cyclists by 2015, while L.A. has no idea how many cyclists we have now. London cyclists offer an 8-point plan to Beat the Thief.

Finally, it has nothing to do with bicycling — other than being my favorite epithet for rude drivers — but this article from the Yale Law Review, by way of LA Observed, is one of the funniest things I’ve read in years.


  1. Digital Dame says:

    Just had to vent about stupid people on cell phones. I was crossing a parking lot yesterday to enter a store, and a sheriff’s vehicle, one of those big SUV things, was stopped waiting for me and some other people to cross. But guess what the good sheriff’s deputy was doing while sitting in his big ol’ rig? Talking on a cell phone. Yep, had the sucker pressed to his ear. That’s illegal here in OR as of Jan 1. That’s pretty bad when the law ignores the law.

  2. The TricksterNZ says:

    Re: parking.

    Its funny, we never have the problems that you guys seem to with nazi security. Generally most places while the bike parking is pretty bad we just lock our bikes up to whatever is available (hand railings, poles etc) and nobody ever takes any notice or threatens to take/remove the bike.

  3. Digital Dame says:

    Trickster, that’s probably because nowhere on earth is more vehemently, overtly anti-bike than here in the U.S.

  4. […] Biking In L.A.'s Disturbing Story from Jury Duty […]

  5. la rider says:

    The amount of deaths caused by vehicles is incredible. Of which, I would say that most of those deaths are never accidents. We tend to categorize auto incidents as accidents but the driver is almost always at fault.

    I was on the MADD site the other day and there were so many people that posted hate message towards MADD because they believed that DUI/DWI is not a serious offense and they as Americans had a right to drive under the influence once in awhile.

    More people die in vehicular incidents per year than the whole war on terror, but somehow this is acceptable. I’m not sure what makes people tick, but it’s kind of scary that this many deaths is accepted by such a large amount of people. These are the same people that I share the road with.

  6. stacey2545 says:

    @ LA Rider

    The general public regards driving as a right, not a privilege. So yeah, they get all up in arms when you infringe on their right to do stupid, reckless $@*!. And the conflation of government issued photo IDs with a driver’s license doesn’t help things. Those haters who don’t think DUI is serious so long as it’s occassional forget that most drunk drivers aren’t caught the first time they drink and drive.

    It would have been nice when the MSM was giving all that coverage to runaway Toyotas if they could have spent some time comparing crash statistics so people could evaluate the real threats on the roads.

    • bikinginla says:

      The statistic that got me was that just under 3,000 people were killed on 9/11, while well over 10 times that many Americans are killed by cars every year. And which one did we respond to?

      It’s not that we shouldn’t have responded to terrorism. But why do we ignore the terror that takes place on our roads everyday?

  7. The TricksterNZ says:

    Ted. Tell you what would be interesting – getting the stats for people killed on the roads in 2001 and comparing that to terrorist deaths that year, then forming a ratio.

    Then perhaps comparing that ratio to spending on the ‘War on Terror’ and road safety.

    Hell, even comparing the cost of the ‘War on Drugs’/drug deaths and the cost of road safety/car crashes would be interesting.

    I bet it would come up with some interesting, and sober statistics.

  8. […] Cyclist, Driver Contemplates America's Willingness to Trade Life for Automobility (BikingInLA) […]

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