In his December 7th piece, Aaron Gully (the bike-test director of Outside Magazine) asks whether road riding is worth the risk. Aaron wrote the piece after he was hit by a car on a short section of road between two off-road trails. Fortunately, his injuries were relatively minor, but the experience led him to question whether to ride on the road again.
To add insult to his injuries, he initially received a ticket from the police. Aaron had to put together his own evidence to prove to the police what should have been obvious to them; the driver had veered five feet into a designated bike lane to hit him.
In trying to make sense of this terrifying experience, he turns to statistics of increasing bike crashes, the threat of distracted driving, anecdotes of anti-bike animus, and his analysis of a “car culture that devalues bikes.” His conclusion is pretty dim. He asks a very important question, however, and I admire his passion for cycling and good faith attempt to make sense of a horrible situation.
But the article conflates different causes and may even confuse their effects.
At Bike Law, we deal with cyclists getting hit daily. The lawyers in our Network have represented thousands of cyclists across the country. We know all too well the indignities and tragedies of bike crashes like Aaron’s. I have represented cyclists for almost 20 years; there is often just a few degrees of separation, if any, between myself and the victim of the crash. There is a legitimate internal conflict in choosing to ride on the road, especially given the significant impact of the relationships I’ve developed with both clients and the families of crash fatality victims.
There is a myriad of variables that contribute to the safety statistics mentioned in Aaron’s article. While they certainly paint the picture of a bicycle crash epidemic, I believe it is an over-simplification to blame a polarizing culture war between cyclists and motorists propagated or encouraged by law enforcement, lawmakers, or by some general anti-bike hostility.
1. Protecting the Rights of Cyclists
Having represented so many injured cyclists, I understand the trauma, frustration, and fear that are cultivated not only by the crash itself but also by the response of the driver, law enforcement, and the insinuation that we should not be on the road. I, too, have had “Get On The Sidewalk” yelled at me many times. It is understandable why Aaron is unintentionally suggesting almost the same thing.
When the responding police officer mistreats us at the scene of the crash, how can we not feel that it’s us against them; that law enforcement doesn’t equate the value of our rights and lives to that of the driver or the time needed to write a proper and accurate crash report; that police don’t care because they would rather ticket us for not having a bike light after dusk instead of finding fault with a driver that recklessly veered into the bike lane, potentially taking our lives?
All of these are legitimate responses to being struck by a car while riding.
However, at Bike Law DC and Bike Law South Carolina, we know that the rights of cyclists are becoming better understood and better enforced across the country. We see that for every law enforcement official that mishandles the reporting and investigation of a crash, there are increasingly more that do not. We work very closely with police in many communities who not only recognize us and our concerns but show dedication to continuing education for their departments and support for us on the road. We can report that the legal protection (both in law and in enforcement) for cyclists is improving year after year.
So we believe in (and will continue through the efforts of the Bike Law Defense League) advancing the rights of cyclists after every crash. We will be in traffic court to fight unfair tickets given to cyclists and make sure that the correct charges against drivers stick. We will work with the police to help ensure that crash reports are accurate. We will insist that law enforcement interview the cyclist before finalizing a crash report. We do not always win these fights, but we win a bunch, and we win more and more.
And in Aaron’s story, the police listened to him and changed their initial finding. Aaron is silent on whether the driver was ultimately ticketed, but we would like to assume so. We believe that is a very important part of the story.
2. Cyclist Harassment
The article also recognizes the harassment and abuse of cyclists by drivers. It is just a matter of miles in the saddle before a cyclist suffers some version of this, from hurled insults, a thrown bottle, or a punishment pass. I have both dealt with it on the roads. But in my own personal and professional experience, there is increasing acknowledgment of the problem in legislatures and in law enforcement.
In South Carolina (a state not known for progressive transportation policy) it has been illegal since 2008 to yell at or taunt a cyclist. Drivers have been ticketed and charged for words. As for punishment passes, the advent of video cameras on bikes has lead to irrefutable proof of dangerous driving. We have worked with the police to help bring such prosecutions.
Like Aaron, many of us have family members or friends that make light of scaring or hurting cyclists. But we have more allies than ever. As more people ride, more change their opinions and attitudes. In fact, some of our greatest partners are police officers that are assigned bike patrol. All it takes is a few months on a bike.
3. Distracted Driving, Numbers, and Infrastructure
There is no question that we are moving quickly into uncharted territory; living in a time when productivity, staying connected and plugged in, and rushing to get from place to place appears to devalue the culture of riding, trivializing the importance of bicycles and the need for that joy in our lives. Distracted driving poses a huge threat to any and everyone on the road, cyclists especially.
But, for us at least, it does not prevent us from being on the road. The problem requires a comprehensive, big-idea solution (and it’s probably ultimately driven by litigation, legislation, and technological change). In the meantime, we pledge to keep addressing the issue in every fora. As a start, cyclists should pledge to drive without distraction, and encourage all others to do the same.
It has been proven in cities and countries around the world. Cycling safety increases in direct proportion to the number of people who ride. There is literally safety in numbers: 1) more drivers identify with being in the saddle (and thus drive with more empathy and care), 2) drivers are more accustomed to interacting with and expecting cyclists on every road (thus prompting more attention to us), and 3) there is greater demand for state-of-the-art infrastructure.
We cannot have first-class cities with second-class infrastructure. Saturation of our roadways with motor vehicles coupled with a lack of designated space for cyclists and pedestrians precludes us from safely homogenizing interaction between bikes and cars during a time when there are more people on bikes (and in cars) than ever. If we use Washington, D.C. as an example, we are finding that the surge in bicycle crash fatalities and statistics are a direct corollary to the city’s dramatic increase in bikes on the road; the majority of which are bike commuters; a number which will surpass that of Portland in 2018 as being the largest in the country.
More riders on the road mean better drivers and a greater demand for better infrastructure.
4. Recreational Riding is Only Part of the Story
The article’s primary focus is recreational riding. Aaron’s fear is being a Ghost Bike “on the side of a lonely New Mexico highway.” And the choice for him (and for some other recreational riders) is between the road (often remote) and the trail. The growth in gravel cycling is at least partially fueled by cyclists seeking low-traffic roads. As is the growth in the virtual car-less Utopia of Zwift.
Aaron recognizes that his reliance on statistics of worsening bike crashes may be attributable (as argued by People for Bikes) not to an increase in the risk of cycling but rather the growth of cycling. People for Bikes is right. More and more people are riding daily, and more of them are riding in cities and towns that are frantically trying to accommodate them. Our major cities have been catching up with the rest of the world in accommodating everyday cyclists.
For many (and in increasing numbers) it is not a choice to ride on the road or not ride on the road. It is the best, and sometimes only, way to move around. More people are riding than ever before, and for the first time in U.S. history, policy-makers and planners are beginning to get it.
Cycling Safety is Created in Numbers
I appreciate Aaron’s efforts to address his crash. But we believe that better biking is coming to America. I see signs of improvement most places most of the time. It would be a shame to abandon our roads and thus weaken up our rights because of the more of us out there, the better it will be for all.
Aaron’s question warrants a closer look and ultimately, our answer is a resounding yes to road riding. Yes, we’re forced to weigh the joy of riding on the road against the fear of being hit. This is a significant concern. But for us, the choice is clear, and it is non-negotiable.
I believe it is time to take to the roads and stay the course. It is time to get more involved, shift up, and grow our numbers.