July 25th, 2008

Sick cyclist carousel

I had a near miss with a kamikaze cyclist recently, where his bike was the plane and my car was the naval vessel. I'd let the incident slip beneath the undulating waves of history, but I've realized it represents an epidemic of sorts that probably could use some more airtime. So here we go.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I am/was a cyclist myself. In my teen years, I did it for fun and exercise, and in my college years, I did it for transportation. Every day, uphill both ways, to and from class. You know the drill. And while I do have a bike now, I find it to be significantly less practical as a mode of transportation in a big place like the bay area than in a small city like Ithaca. Distances are greater, traffic is more homicidal, and if you lock up your bike to go inside somewhere, you have to use multiple locks made of NASA-grade materials, and detach and carry around just about every removable component of the bike, if you want to have a bike still when you emerge.

So I do have a bike now, but sadly, I almost never use it. But when I did bike regularly, I was pretty strict about following the standard rules of the road. Unless otherwise posted (on interstates and the like), a bike is to be treated (and operated) like any other vehicle on the road. This is elementary stuff, and everybody is being taught this from a young age these days. Yet so many people seem oblivious to this simple fact. To make matters worse, there is a certain long-entrenched mutual antagonism between cyclists and motorists to begin with, borne largely of the fact that neither respects the other out on the road. Both parties share the blame for this, but when you consider the implications of flesh & bone vs. two tons of metal, which party is going to pay the greater price for stupidity?

I currently live in what used to be Oakland's waterfront warehouse district, which it still is to some degree, so traffic is usually light. There is a four-way stop near my building, and I always see cyclists blowing past the stop signs like they're not even there. Now, granted, stopping and starting is a pain in the butt for cyclists, so I'm not going to fault them for making rolling stops if they can adequately gauge the safety of the situation before proceeding through the intersection. But I see cyclists blasting through the intersection all the time, without even slowing down, frequently flouting motorists' legitimate right-of-way. Cavalier and arrogant, they just assume people will (a) see them and (b) yield to them. I can think of a whole assortment of adjectives to attach to such behavior, but let me stick with one from each of two major categories: dumb and rude.

So it was only a matter of time before I came face-to-face with one of these presumptive Darwin Award nominees myself. In fact, it was a few weeks ago on the 4th of July, which apparently was Independence-From-Common-Sense Day, because in one trip, I had seen some of the worst driving imaginable. It was still too early in the day for drivers to be distracted by fireworks, so I'm not sure what was in the water that day, but I was definitely on high alert by the time I was almost back to my apartment.

As I arrived at the usual four-way stop, I saw a cyclist approaching from my right. Having watched the shenanigans at that intersection for so long, I knew, without a doubt, that he had no intention of stopping. But when it was my turn to go, I went anyway. Sure enough, a split second later, the cyclist barreled through the intersection on a collision course with my car. Now, having predicted his transgression, I had allowed for "wiggle room" in my trajectory. Exploiting my car's sharp reflexes, I swerved to the left but continued on my way as he panic-stopped in the middle of the intersection, leaving him plenty of room -- but probably scaring him half to death in the process which, frankly, I feel he needed.

Looking in my rear-view mirror, I caught the anticipated hypocritical follow-up, which consisted largely of angry gestures and yelling (something about "You almost killed me!" -- hyperbole, anybody?). I stopped at the entrance to my garage long enough to have a brief verbal exchange with the fool. I had to yell, but only because I was now almost a block away. Those who know me know that when I argue, I am a stickler for keeping things civil. I quickly summed things up with "Stop means stop" and parted ways with him, driving into the garage. I decided to move on and let the hypocrisy and irony sink in for him, rather than try to ram the notion down his throat.

Probably, there are those who would disagree with my approach of asserting my right-of-way even when I accurately predict that somebody is about to try to violate it. But I am not one to yield to inconsiderate people in some gesture of preemptive accommodation, because all that does is encourage and enable their behavior while allowing myself to be walked on. While I do believe in "choosing one's battles," I also believe in "asserting oneself," within reason.

While I don't necessarily agree with all laws, most of the laws governing how the road is to be shared by multiple vehicles exist for good reasons. I saw this cyclist and left padding in my maneuver, knowing that at worst, I might give him a much-needed scare; but if he keeps riding like this, someday somebody isn't going to see him in time, and he might really have something to complain about, assuming he survives to tell the tale.

As both a motorist and formerly avid (and possibly future) cyclist, I am embarrassed for cyclists like the one I ran into (no pun intended) who give us all a bad name among motorists. As it is, when I'm on a bike, I have this sense that motorists have been conditioned to expect the worst from me. On the plus side, I might have an opportunity to pleasantly surprise them, but it's never fun to start out on people's bad side before you even have a chance to prove yourself.

In any case, scofflaw cyclists are a serious problem. In this era of stratospheric fuel prices, off-the-charts carbon emissions, and an increasingly overweight, out-of-shape western world, it is imperative that bicycling be considered a viable alternative to driving when and where possible. But cyclists need to get their act together and respect the rules of the road if they want to be viewed as a compellingly mainstream bunch, and not as an inconsiderate, selfish, obliviously suicidal granola fringe not worthy of being taken seriously.