Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Memphis streets aren't safe for cyclists. -Oh, really?

Memphis streets aren't safe for cyclists. Oh, really?

Language is important—how we frame any debate determines how we will perceive and resolve the issues. I often hear something like “Memphis streets aren’t safe for cyclists”. This is absolutely the wrong language, the wrong frame to use.

Here’s why—it is not the streets that are the problem, it is the people who are driving the cars and the people who are riding the bicycles. The streets are fine, it is the people that are the problem. The streets don’t cause crashes- people cause crashes, especially car-bike crashes.

Some data – Almost half of all total bike crashes don’t involve any other vehicles, pedestrians, or animals—we cyclists make errors and we crash all by ourselves.

Further, almost half of car-bike crashes are caused by cyclists’ errors. The other half are caused by motorists’ errors.

Streets don’t cause crashes – people cause crashes.

Trust me- meet me at 5 am on a Sunday morning in the summer and we’ll ride together down Poplar Avenue from Germantown to the Mississippi River– it is great, I have done it myself many times– Poplar Avenue is a great street for bicycling –until the motor vehicle drivers show up, then it becomes a bit more unpleasant.

If the streets are the problem, we just need to ‘fix’ the streets with some engineering or with some paint- a bike lane stripe will fix the street, and all will be well. Unfortunately, the research in bike crashes tells us otherwise.

If people are the problem, then the solution is in the domain of driver and cyclist education and in law enforcement. Instead of engineers, we need to turn to cycling educators and the traffic police. Engineers fix streets but streets are not the real problem. We need education for both drivers and cyclists, and we need enforcement of the law for both drivers and cyclists.

The law in all 50 states already grants cyclists full rights to use the roads and requires that cyclists be responsible to all the laws as well. Thus, we should hold cyclists accountable to the law the same as we do motor vehicle drivers. It is illegal to run red lights and stop signs. It is illegal to ride against traffic on the wrong side of the road. It is illegal to operate a bicycle after dark without a headlight and rear reflector. It is illegal to ride more than two abreast. Cyclists who do these illegal things should be stopped and ticketed by police, or we should change the laws.

It is already illegal for any road user or vehicle operator ---motorist, cyclist, tractor, horse-and-buggy, pedestrian--- to operate unsafely on the public roadway. It is illegal for motorists to hit cyclists who have the right of way. They should be ticketed accordingly.

A local Memphis cyclist (yours truly) was hit by a motorist named Harold. I had the right of way and Harold was appropriately ticketed.

The streets were safe, but Harold was dangerous. Harold got the ticket, not the street. The street was great, especially at 6:30 am on Saturday, otherwise I would have chosen a different route.

Cyclists who violate a motorist’s right of way should also be ticketed, even if they get hit like my friend Darlene did in Germany. Darlene was riding her bike in regular traffic, legally, when she made a mistake. She violated another road user's right of way and they collided. (It was a streetcar, of all things-- its not like Darlene could not figure out where it was going-- those tracks are a dead giveaway, right?) Darlene got a concussion, an ambulance ride, and she also got a ticket from the German police. The streetcar had the right of way.

The streets were safe-- it was Darlene who was dangerous.

Another example-- I cannot remember his name- let's call him Chris. Chris was barreling down the road and the light he was approaching turned red. He saw no crossing cars, so Chris blew through the red light. Unfortunately, Chris didn't notice in time the pedestrian who stepped into the crosswalk right in front of him. Chris hit the pedestrian. Chris got an ambulance ride, a concussion, a hospital stay for 3 days, a trashed bike, and a very expensive traffic ticket from the German police.

The pedestrian was fine. The streets were safe; it was Chris that was dangerous.

Watch your language.

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