The drive to survive

Tim Blumenthal

Image: Jim Sheaffer

I’ve never ridden a high-wheeler. I’ve never played bicycle soccer. I’ve never hucked seaside village rooftops like trials master Danny MacAskill. But I’ve enjoyed countless types of cycling experiences and revered them all. Many of my best rides have been on the road. But today — like so many people who bike — I am seriously concerned about the future of the road riding experience, particularly the challenges of navigating among angry and distracted drivers.

I think I understand the roots of angry driving. The U.S. population is growing by more than 2.5 million people per year. More places are getting crowded and, of course, that includes most roads. Crowding increases stress and frustration, and that fuels anger. U.S. car and truck sales hit an all-time high in 2015 — a year in which Americans drove more miles than ever before.

News of bike fatalities travels faster and every bulletin is unnerving. Even if bike deaths on the road aren’t significantly increasing (either as a raw number or percentage of trips), riding on the road today feels more dangerous. Forty-six states have passed anti-texting laws that prohibit typing while driving. Nevertheless, I frequently see people breaking this law. Whether I’m on a bike or in a car, at every red light I notice just about everyone behind the wheel looking down. When the light turns green, many don’t put their phones aside.

Image: Tom Woodward

Ironically, the phone distraction phenomenon seems to be spreading quickly to two wheels. Have you noticed? I’m not sure if these riders are reading texts or playing Pokémon Go (or both), but so many people I encounter on multi-use paths clearly aren’t focused on the pavement ahead.

I doubt distracted, texting and angry driving are going away soon. I have trouble imagining that law enforcement resources will be fundamentally reallocated to monitor and ticket these behaviors.

So what are the solutions? How do we make riding on the road safer? This is a crucial question with no one, easy answer.

Image: Planetgordon.com

PeopleForBikes will continue to focus on improving bike infrastructure and creating safe, seamless networks. In the places where these networks have already been built, more people bike and fewer people are injured or killed in crashes. We will continue to encourage people to bike responsibly and predictably.

Meanwhile, here are six other suggestions:

  1. The industry focus on improving rider visibility is an important development that will help a lot if people who bike embrace it.
  2. Speed limits in town need to be lowered. The difference between 20 miles per hour and 35 mph is huge for the safety of kids and adults, on foot, on bike and in cars. Lower speeds make places quieter and more appealing for everyone. We just need to accept that driving inside city limits on most (but not all) roads is going to take a little longer. The tradeoffs are more than worth it.
  3. Keep pushing car companies to produce technology that makes steering and texting at the same timeimpossible. This can be done.
  4. Keep developing autonomous vehicles. Computers that guide cars and trucks will never be impaired, distracted or angry. Automated cars should also dramatically reduce the need for private vehicle ownership and that could cut our need for on-street parking. Autonomous vehicles should create more space and enhance safety for everyone.
  5. Root for GoPro and all makers of on-board cameras. When aggressive, reckless driving (or any type of activity) is captured on video, people who are guilty will be found guilty and will go to jail. This can become an effective deterrent. Some people won’t like it: tough.
  6. Adapt best practices from the nations that do a better job of protecting bike riders and pedestrians. That’s the Netherlands, Denmark and a few other western European nations. Yes, they are smaller, more crowded countries than the U.S., but they have spent the last 40 years developing best practices for moving people and moving goods. We can learn a lot from them.

Americans make close to five billion bike trips per year. That’s an average of 14 million rides per day — many more than that on a warm-weather weekend. We need to eliminate the crashes that can be avoided…and that’s most of them.

We can’t do this alone, but we can do this. All road users are in this together.

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