Monday, August 10, 2009

"You play by the rules!"

On my regular commuting ride this morning, I turned right from the western end of Lexington Road onto Baxter Avenue which, after a block, merges into E. Jefferson Street. Approaching this intersection from the southeast, I merged into the left lane to turn south. As I signaled a left turn and coasted slowly waiting for a green light, a motorist in the lane to my right turned to me and said, "You play by the rules! You're using your turn signal - that's great!" We shared friendly greetings and went on our respective ways when the light turned green.

Many (most?) motorists notice bicyclists and our behavior. They appreciate when we do the right thing. Motorists give me more friendly waves and "thank you" comments than horn blasts and angry gestures. I might arrive at work a minute later some mornings because I came to a complete stop rather than rolling a stop sign, or because I yielded to another driver or two rather than squeezing into the smallest possible opening when making a left turn or a right turn on red. Experiencing appreciation instead of hostility from fellow road users more than repays that minimal delay. If enough of us ride this way, we'll start to turn around the scofflaw image that besets bicyclists. A better image with motorists will remove big barriers in our work toward making our region a great place for bicycling.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New thoughts about "Chips" Cronen's death

Experienced commuting cyclist George "Chips" Cronen died just over 2 years ago, struck from behind in broad daylight by a spaced-out motorist on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. Two recent events made me aware of something that might at least partly account for the deadly motorist's failure to see and yield to Chips on the bridge.

Riding back to Louisville from a meeting in Jeffersonville, I rode across the Clark Memorial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. I crossed the bridge on a Friday at about 6:15 PM, when the bridge carried very little traffic. As usual, I rode in the middle of the right lane in order to make myself obvious to overtaking drivers. With a passing lane in each direction, drivers can generally pass a bicyclist riding in the right lane without experiencing any delay.

Looking into my helmet mirror, I saw a driver closing on me at what seemed significantly above the 35 mph speed limit. ("Everybody speeds on that bridge," a non-cyclist friend recently observed.) Anyway, the car was approaching faster than most cars did. I watched the car get closer and closer, without changing lanes, until I feared for my life. I waved my left hand over my head to get the driver's attention, and yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. The driver moved into the passing lane perhaps 50 feet before passing and seemed to glare at me as though I had somehow caused her some imposition. I said a prayer of thanks for not having joined the ranks of innocent bicyclists struck from behind in greater Louisville.

A few days later I read Larry Preble's horrifying account of watching a motorcyclist, stopped at an intersection, get struck from behind by a motorist traveling at high speed. The crash took place in broad daylight on a straight rural Indiana road. The motorcyclist was clearly visible, and people on the scene made no mention of the guilty driver appearing intoxicated. The guilty driver reportedly said, repeatedly, "I didn't see him!" How on earth do drivers in unchallenging driving situations fail to notice human beings clearly visible directly in front of them?

Perhaps "unchallenging driving situations" make these crashes more likely. On the Clark Memorial Bridge, as on that rural Indiana road, drivers face such easy driving conditions that they have little incentive to pay attention. They have essentially no traffic potentially crossing their path, few or no intersections or signs to obey, and low likelihood of encountering a person, animal, or inanimate obstacle. I suspect that many drivers treat these situations as a license to space out. That attitude might work for a few hours at a stretch, but it can't remain safe over the millions of vehicle-hours of driving that occur on lightly traveled roads in the US every day.

This weekend, two weeks after my experience on the bridge, triathlete John Carr became the latest cyclist in greater Louisville killed by an overtaking motorist - the C-J account is here. The motorist, driving on a suspended license while intoxicated, fleeing the scene, and resisting arrest, has been charged with murder and other crimes enough to keep him in prison for decades. Yet, when a sober motorist makes the same deadly mistake and stays on the scene to talk with the police, that motorist generally faces no punishment more severe than higher auto insurance rates. We need to change our legal system to punish deadly inattentive driving and make abundantly clear that operating a motor vehicle has weighty responsibilities. The myth of carefree driving may help to sell cars and trucks, but I do not accept its cost: thousands of preventable traffic deaths per year.