March 24, 2008

The Price of Incredulity


Surely all that read it were saddened and moved by the recent death of Kritsy Gough and Matt Petersen in Cupertino California. A simple, beautiful Sunday morning struck down needlessly at the hands of authority. Whether accident or malice will certainly be a question for the courts and the public forum. I can only see it as an accident of tragic proportions. I am so sorry for their families and teammates.

In his most recent article on cycling and the law, Bob Mionske paints a disturbing picture of a seemingly pervasive attitude amongst both law enforcement and the media responsible for it’s oversight, namely a perceptual and institutional bias against cyclists. Mionske lists several condemning examples of an attitude by police and media that seems to lay blame for accidents like the one in Cupertino at the feet of the cyclists, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It happens subtly and without vindication.

It was a great article.

As I rode with the procession along foothill expressway last Saturday remembering the lives and tragic loss of Kristy and Matt I was impressed and humbled by the show of solidarity in the local cycling community. Between 1200 – 2000 people were on that ride, each reinforcing the importance of cycling in their lives and the subtle family to which we all belong. As I considered the tragedy and the varied reactions to it (ranging from heartfelt sorrow for most, to getting flipped the bird by a motorist passing the nearly mile long processional going the other way), I was struck by a simple, undeniable truth. We are responsible for the police, public and media bias against cyclists. All of us have a part to play.

Please, hear me out and reserve condemnation.

I ride quite a bit, maybe 10-12 hours a week. Not as much as some, more than others. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. On any given ride I dare say that I, and probably most reading this, take license with the rules and laws of the road at some point. I soft pedal through the three-way light on Foothill most times it’s red. I’ve passed slow moving cars on a twisty and thrilling descent like Highway 84 because staying behind them takes a little longer and isn’t as much fun as testing my skills in full flight. I’ve certainly rolled a red left turn signal before. I figure I probably bend or break at least a rule or two on each ride, and I consider myself a safe and responsible rider. I’m a coach for goodness sake! With a 3-year old! Now if I’m a middle of the road transgressor and there were 1000 riders at the memorial ride representing each end of the bell curve then it’s safe to say that on any given day there are somewhere between 1000 and 3000 minor and major infractions of the law committed in the name of cycling, or worse yet entitlement. 1000-5000 ‘events’ that are often viewed by at least one vehicle. And that’s just for the ones who were at the ride. Northern California has somewhere around 5000 licensed racers, and who knows how many other riders of recreational to competitive inclinations. On a conservative (very conservative!) estimate that makes over 5000 traffic infractions per day in the greater bay area alone, viewed by at least 5000 people who aren’t cyclists. That’s 1.825M chances for John Q Public to get the wrong idea about cyclists. John Q Public is a police officer, a reporter, a cycling hater, and a cyclist. Is it any wonder that public, media, and police perception seems so ‘extreme’ to those of us who ride? It’s simply a matter of exposure. Do you think a driver who runs a red light is irresponsible, nee crazy, every time you see it? You may only see it a few times a year, but still your perception is set for that event. Now what if each time you saw it the person was driving the same type of car? Is it a stretch to say that you’d feel anyone who drives said vehicle was a scofflaw? That’s what we’re doing to ourselves and each other everyday. Every time you blow a stoplight you’re “just another cyclist” breaking the law. “They all do it”. Just as all “insert generic cultural/racial/social reference here” are bad drivers, or smart, or cheap.

Another thing struck me during the memorial ride. As ubiquitous as our solidarity can be at times, so too is our ambivalence. I knew lots of the people at the ride, saw lots of tangible grief and regret and applaud those who have undertaken to raise awareness and change their relationship with the general community. I applaud the Third Pillar and Roaring Mouse teams for so ably paying tribute to their fallen comrades now and in the future. I’m sure the private remembrances and efforts to raise awareness continue, as they must. My question is when do we, as individuals, take the reigns of public perception and throttle them back? When do we disallow groupthink to pervade on rides as we roll through the stop sign so we don’t lose momentum or miss the break? What will each of us do to try and change the public perception. Who will write their local paper to express outrage at the irresponsible regurgitation of a police report, or wanton idiocy of stereotyping cyclists as bringing it on themselves for their actions? It will stop when we, as the community of cyclists, act together to change public perception by our actions, to demand equal accounting, and to over come the all to convenient “us against them” mentality we have. I’m not naive, I know it’s a battle out there every day to stay safe and avoid accidents, bad drivers or the truly malicious and yet still tragedy comes on a brilliant Sunday morning for no good reason. I’m not on my soap box either – I passed the car on 84 three days AFTER the memorial ride. I’m just wondering what it will take to ignite us individually, to unite a community as diverse and politically un-interested in fostering change as the cycling community seems to be. I’m also wondering how to do it. I think I’ll just start with me.

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