Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “bicycle safety”

Back to School

It’s the week after Labor Day, and school is back in session.  In Southern California that means schools become gridlocked traffic zones twice a day, with literally millions of idling cars burning gas, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and creating school zones that are unsafe for pedestrians and bicycles.  The percentage of kids who walk or bike to school has plummeted in the last 30 years, and rates of childhood obesity have skyrocketed.  As the parent of two children, I worry about their safety, and only allow them to ride to school if I’m riding with them.  My oldest takes the bus to the local community college, and I’m proud of him for that, but my youngest usually gets driven to school, which is about 4 miles from our house, so I’m part of the problem.  I see parents drive their kids to school from houses that are as little as 1/4 mile from school, then, of course, drive them to some after school sports “activity” so they get exercise.  What lesson are we teaching our children when we drive them to school (indeed, most parents drive their kids pretty much everywhere)?  Seems to me we’re teaching them that cars are the norm, and anything else is, well, weird.

Earlier this week, not far from my house, a girl riding her bike to school in the morning was struck by a woman in a small SUV (there’s an oxymoron) who said she saw the girl, but said she mistakenly hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and pinned the girl and her bike under the front bumper of her SUV.  I don’t know the extent of the girl’s injuries, but thank goodness she was not killed.  The driver, according to press reports, was not cited.  To me, this is not just carelessness, but negligent operation of dangerous, heavy machinery on the public roadway.

I’m angry.  Angry that a girl who was doing the right thing by riding her bike to school was injured by a negligent or incompetent driver.  One more in the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed or injured by cars every year.  Angry that using a 2,500 lb motor vehicle negligently and injuring a human being does not even warrant a slap on the wrist.  No citation, no traffic school, nothing.  I’m angry that our society continues to privilege cars despite the damage they do to our health, our communities, and our environment. I’m angry that people who do the right thing by riding a bike for transportation must put themselves at unacceptable risk with too little protection from police or community leaders.

I want safe streets so that children can walk or ride bikes to school without fear of being hit by a car.  I want drivers to be held responsible when they injure someone with their steel projectiles.  I guess that makes me weird.

Rear View Mirror

About 2 months ago I decided to try a rear view mirror for my bicycle commuting.  I had been thinking about getting one for some time, but hesitated because (vanity, thy name is boyonabike) I thought they looked geeky.  Well, who am I kidding?  I look geeky anyway, so why not go full geek mode?  After 2 months of using the mirror, I am sorry I waited so long.

There are several kinds of rear view mirrors for bicycles.  Some fit on the end of a handlebar, others clip to a rider’s glasses, and this one sticks on the side of a helmet.  The mirror is adjustable so with a little bit of experimentation you can angle it just right, so that a quick glance will enable you to see what is behind you.  It also easily detatches from the base (which remains on the side of your helmet), so you can take it off if you don’t want to use it or want to pack your helmet.  I initially thought I probably would take it off for most rides, but after two months I find it so useful I keep it on my helmet at all times.

The mirror is extremely helpful in a number of common bicycling situations.  For example, you’re riding along a street where there’s no bike lane (which is the majority of streets where I ride).  Ahead, parked cars along the curb will force you to move further into the traffic lane (“taking the lane”).  Your mirror allows you to quickly assess whether there are cars coming up from behind, how close they are, and how fast they’re going.  Another important use of the bike mirror is when preparing to make a left turn, especially if you have to cross a lane of roadway to get into a left turn lane.  As with a car’s side view mirror, itr makes changing lanes easier and safer.  Finally, it just gives me a greater sense of safety and control to know where all cars are at all times when I’m riding.

The mirror does take some getting used to, and it has some minor drawbacks (besides looking bike-geeky).  First, the presence of the mirror, though small (approximately 1.75 in. high and 1.25 in. wide), does create a tiny blind spot behind it on your left side.  However, you quickly learn that a small turn of the head gives you a full range of vision to your left.  Next, in my opinion, keep your glances in the mirror short, so that you continue to be fully aware of things up ahead of you, such as road hazards or car doors when riding past parked cars.  Nevertheless, the mirror allows the glance to be much quicker than turning your head to look behind you, and makes it less likely that you’ll miss something ahead of you  Again, with a little practice, the quick glance becomes second nature.

Overall, I find the rear view mirror to be a very helpful device that increases my awareness of what’s behind me, and it increases my safety because I no longer have to turn my head to see behind me.  Having used it on my helmet for about 8 weeks, I really miss it on those short rides when I don’t wear my helmet.

Would I recommend the mirror?  Absolutely.  Will you look geeky?  Maybe, but I’ve decided that bike-geekdom is the new cool.

The Pathology of the Automobile

There is a peculiar pathology that overtakes a society dedicated to the car, one that values the car over the well being of people who are not in cars.  Once you’ve succumbed to what I’ll call the pathology of the automobile, it makes perfect sense to hop in 4,000 lbs of steel to pick up a quart of milk, and any pedestrian or bicyclist who gets in your precious way be damned.

As Europeans have sought to make their cities safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, some auto manufacturers have attempted to market some of their cars as less deadly to pedestrians.  The problem is there’s really no way to make a 4,000 lb car “safe” when it plows into a human body.

Take the $126,000 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550, which boasts a new, blunt front end, so that your gleaming Benz will cut a hapless walker off at the hips instead of the knees and a hood that “gives” a bit more when a person lands on it, presumably increasing the survival rate.  Thus the Mercedes allows its well-heeled owner to drive to the fitness club and pay for the privilege of walking on a treadmill, secure in the supposition that any poor sap who’d gotten in the way would wind up in a wheelchair instead of a coffin.  I guess that’s one way of looking at progress.

Lest you think I’m a bit too cynical, or that I overstate the blindness of our car-addicted society to the absurdity of this, consider automotive journalist David Undercoffler’s review of the Mercedes SL 550 in the L.A. Times.  The problem, as far as Undercoffler sees it, is not the obscene death toll wrought by the automobile, it is that the car’s redesign for pedestrian safety has “thrown a wrench into the aesthetic evolution” of the Mercedes, giving it “a bug-eyed face.”  Such “regrettably conspicuous” “collateral damage” to the previously sleek lines of the Mercedes could have been avoided, Undercoffler suggests, “if Europeans didn’t walk so darn much.”  Yeah, leave it to those darned Europeans, who had to go and ruin a perfectly good-looking car out of a silly concern for the losers who had the misfortune of not being in one.

It would be fairly easy to laugh this off as the pathetic musings of a car-addled brain if the pathology weren’t so common, and if the death toll wasn’t so serious.  Automobiles kill an average of 13 pedestrians every day in the United States.  That’s almost 5,000 a year.  That doesn’t include the many more seriously injured every day.  We’ve become so enthralled with our cars and so convinced of our entitlement as drivers that we can’t—or won’t—see the incredibly high social cost they impose.  Instead of driving less and refashioning our cities around less deadly alternatives (transit, bicycles, walking), a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile tinkers with its death machines and bemoans the maudlin concern for human life.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t try to make cars safer, but the focus on reshaping the car’s bumper seems a bit like trying to make cigarettes less deadly by putting filters on them.  Complaining about the loss of a car’s sleek front end is like complaining that cigarette filters destroyed the macho look of unfiltered cigarettes.  It sort of misses the point.  Since both products are inherently deadly, ultimately we’ll really make things safer only if we reduce our dependence on them.

If we were to look at cars the way we look at cigarettes–another deadly consumer product that produces an irrational addiction–then it might lead us to some “crazy” ideas.  We might start, as we’ve done with cigarettes, by taxing them more heavily to discourage their use and defray the myriad health and environmental costs they impose on society.  We could use the money to build safer, convenient transit systems that would wean us off our auto-dependence (not to mention our wars for oil).  We could ban automobile advertising or have PSAs that show the real carnage produced by the automobile to counteract the multi-billion dollar car-and-oil propaganda campaign we’re subjected to every time we turn on the TV.  Let’s create car-free spaces in our cities and on our streets, just as we have smoke-free spaces so that people can move about without fear of death or dismemberment from a 4,000 lb blunt-nosed projectile like the Mercedes SL 500.  Let’s assume that the right to walk across the street without being hit by a car is as important as the right to breathe smoke-free air.

In a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile everyone and everything–even human life–must be sacrificed to the presumed rights of the driver.  In a recent story on the ostensibly baneful increase of bicyclists on city streets, John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists’ Association (described by the Detroit Free Press as “a drivers’ rights advocacy organization”), exhibited this pathology when he told the paper,

In certain cities, where they’re very bike-friendly, you often see bikers [sic] asserting themselves maybe more than they should. . . . Bicyclists need to look out for cars because they’re most vulnerable.  In any type of conflict between a car and a bike, the car always wins.

So, let’s get this straight, if bicyclists “assert” their right to the road, they’re automatically at fault because in a “conflict” between a human and 4,000 lbs of steel, “the car always wins.”  There is a certain logic to this, and it is the logic of the sociopath: I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way and keep your mouth shut or I’ll kick your ass.  Thus forewarned, it’ll be your own fault when I beat the crap out of you.

A more balanced perspective that cared more about human lives than the continued dominance of the automobile would turn Bowman’s logic on its head.  Cars, Mr. Bowman, need to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists, precisely because they’re most vulnerable.  See that little brake pedal in your big car?  Just apply a little pressure on it and you could save a human life.

Human life more important than the car?  Sounds crazy, I know.

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