Editor’s Note: A buddy and I were riding last weekend when he mentioned that, while on a recent trip to Singapore, he read about a cyclist (a bike courier) getting charged for murder after running down a pedestrian. My mind immediately went to the two well-publicized instances I could recall of cyclists killing pedestrians in the U.S. – and then, later, I thought of an article I wrote almost three years ago (which I’m re-running today).
Little has changed in those three years. Cases like the one my buddy mentioned are so rare that they almost always get played up in the media. I remember an example a journalism professor decades ago trotted out to explain the difference between an everyday occurrence and a rare newsworthy gem: The headline “Dog Bites Man” vs. the headline “Man Bites Dog.”
Sadly, in those three intervening years, I’ve heard and read about numerous cyclists being killed by drivers. It’s a testament to our societies’ values that such stories have become “Dog Bites Man” stories; they happen so frequently that they garner little notice.
I think it’s worth reminding ourselves now and again that we are all responsible for behaving properly as cyclists and users of the road. But also that we are responsible for not allowing the stories of our fellow cyclists who perish to be relegated to yet another Dog Bites Man headline – or to allow false equivalences to be perpetuated about the relative harm done to each group by the other.—J.M.
“A couple of years ago I was at a fairly busy intersection waiting for the green light on my bike when some guy blows through the light on his bike. Even though I was in street clothes with a backpack and he was in his team kit, I had to catch the guy. When I did and I told him what he did was dangerous and made all cyclists look bad, he basically told me to f___ off and that he knew what he was doing on a bike. …” – Coach Peter Wimberg
Coach Wimberg shared this story with me and several other RBR contributors and coaches when he forward a link to an article in the latest issue of Outside online. The article focuses on a lawyer in Colorado who, as a former pro cyclist with a practice dedicated to representing injured cyclists, “does what she can to maintain the peace and to help everybody stay as safe as possible. Part of her mission involves telling riders that, with the odds on the road stacked against them, they need to be smart and impeccably law-abiding when they’re out there.”
The lawyer, Megan Hottman, does not shy away from calling out cyclists who behave badly, and she says they are part of the problem in the article that Outside headlined: “Bikes vs. Cars: The Deadly War Nobody’s Winning.”
We’ve All Witnessed Bad Cycling Behavior
The first part of my reply to Coach Wimberg was that I, too (and I’m sure all of us, for that matter), have countless stories of witnessing egregious behavior by cyclists – sometimes en masse on group rides – and that “it’s all downright embarrassing and most definitely gives us all a bad name.”
But before sending that reply, I read the entire Outside article, and my blood pressure began to rise – as it often does when I read similar pieces. The article was aiming to bolster the point about cyclists behaving badly by citing two instances in which a reckless cyclist hit and killed a pedestrian. One of those cases happened last September in New York City. The other happened almost three years ago in San Francisco.
The rest of my reply to Coach Wimberg and the other RBR contributors went something like this:
I will never buy into the false equivalency that is my biggest issue with articles like this one. Drivers are a hugely bigger problem and danger to cyclists and pedestrians than cyclists are to drivers and pedestrians. Comparing them as if they’re the same is simply wrong.
And the laws are absolutely stacked against cyclists in the U.S. (beyond just being unfairly lenient toward drivers who hit and kill cyclists, it seems to me that the very rare cyclists who hit and kill pedestrians face harsher punishment than drivers – punishment they certainly deserve, but which should also be meted out equally harshly to drivers who kill cyclists.)
It chafes me when articles like this one run the obligatory paragraphs about cyclists hitting pedestrians – usually, the same 2 or 3 cases are cited (as it was with this article: I have heard about all these cases before they were rehashed here). The reason the same cases are cited repeatedly is because those are the ONLY ones that have garnered widespread media attention. Statistically, these cyclist-hitting-pedestrian cases are a fraction of the total cases of cars hitting cyclists.
I have a degree in journalism, and I know writers are taught to seek “balance” in their pieces by demonstrating “both sides” of a story. But all too often the attempt at “balance” results in a massively FALSE EQUIVALANCY, and that is the case here.
As I’ve said to friends who talk about bad-behaving cyclists: Just go sit at the stop sign at the end of my quiet street and count the number of cars that run it every single day. And anytime you drive, or ride, count the number of cars speeding, drivers who are distracted, etc., etc., etc. There’s simply no comparison.
For every law-breaking cyclist, there are thousands of law-breaking motorists. And any one of those drivers is piloting a 4,000-pound bomb that can destroy a cyclist or pedestrian easily. Whereas, a cyclist running a stop sign, all 200 pounds of him, including bike, in most cases would only destroy himself if he hits a car, or is hit by a car because of his own negligence. The numbers – and the danger posed – are simply not at all comparable.
How About a Look at the Real Statistics?
To be truly fair and honest, articles like this one should cite actual statistical comparisons of types of accidents. The following information from the article is much more honest about the real story as backed up by the numbers:
“So riders take to the roads and take their chances. There, they can encounter distracted, impatient, or drunk drivers, lane-hogging SUVs, deteriorating pavement, and traffic-clogged grids. Multiple dangers exist from coast to coast. The Los Angeles Times reported that, between 2002 and 2012, hit-and-runs involving cyclists increased by 42 percent in Los Angeles County. The Houston Police Department sends plainclothes cops out on bikes to discourage motorists from buzzing riders, either through negligence or on purpose. A Manhattan pedestrian or cyclist dies, on average, almost every other day in a traffic accident.”
So, using New York City as an example, the statistics paint this picture: 150 or so cyclists or pedestrians die in accidents with cars annually, vs. 1 or 2 pedestrians severely injured or killed by cyclists. Are those stats anywhere near equivalent?
And on the legal side, some additional fair and honest information from the article:
“Hottman, who’s been a lawyer since 2004 and has focused exclusively on bike law for the past five years, says the cycling community’s grievances are often justified and that the legal system in the U.S., unlike those found in Holland and Denmark, can be overwhelmingly biased against bike riders. Most district attorneys, judges, jury members, and cops own cars and don’t ride. They tend to identify with motorists, who, after having accidents or conflicts with riders, argue that cyclists are simply too hard to see—annoying and underfoot, like little dogs. Last year the website for Next City, an urban-planning nonprofit, reported that traffic laws leave cyclists ridiculously vulnerable, noting, for example, that maiming or fatally injuring a cyclist is a felony offense in only three states. And when drivers are found to be at fault, the penalties can seem far too light. The reality of our system is that a driver whose behavior is deemed to be negligent or careless—but not intentional—may not face harsh charges for a brutal accident.
“An intentional charge is quite rare,” Hottman says. “It’s almost as if a passenger in the car needs to hear a statement of intent from the driver that they mean to do harm.”
I don’t believe our country will ever be anywhere near as safe as many Western European cycling countries, because the U.S. will never adopt the strict liability laws that protect cyclists in Europe. In many countries there, the driver is assumed to always be at fault in an accident with a cyclist unless the driver can prove otherwise.
Can you imagine how different it would be here (and in other similar countries like England and Australia) if drivers approached every interaction with a cyclist bearing in mind that they will be held accountable for any accident with a cyclist? And if drivers were taught to respect, pay attention to, andsteer clear of, cyclists from the moment they first started learning to drive?
I can more than imagine it; I’ve ridden several times on both road bikes and city cruisers in Europe – both in urban areas and in the bucolic countryside. And I have nearly always felt safe and respected. I seldom feel either on the roads in the U.S.
Our Responsibilities as Roadies
Let me state, unequivocally, YES, I totally agree that cyclists often do much to hurt our cause. And that we all have a responsibility to correct the F-You idiots like Coach Wimberg referenced who make us all look bad. And we all share the responsibility to ride sensibly and in a friendly manner ourselves, while still protecting our own rights to the road.
But I think we also have a responsibility to correct the ongoing false equivalencies proffered in this debate. The Outside article’s headline is “Bikes vs. Cars: The Deadly War Nobody’s Winning.” Well, again, a quick look at the statistics of cyclists killed by cars tells you cyclists are “losing” by an overwhelming margin. It’s yet another example of subtly perpetuating the false equivalencies in the debate. And I, for one, will continue to chafe at – and will continue to work to correct – these false equivalencies when I see them.
If we want to have an honest dialogue on this vitally important issue, let’s start there.
And if anyone ever needs any video proof of how dangerous it can be for cyclists co-existing with motorists on the road, have them check out this video:
John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of “less than podium” talent, he sees himself as RBR’s Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR’s great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That’s what we’re all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John’s full bio.