Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mr. VW

So here’s my commentary for Tuesday, June 25. It is a reprisal of a previous commentary to some degree.

I rode my bike today, an 18 miler in the rain (I only had an hour, thus the short distance). But it does not matter the distance, today I was reminded that despite the general acceptance of bikes on the road, there is still good reason to be highly cautious when riding. I had a car deliberately try to run me into the curb, and almost caused me to wreck. This person did this all while honking, flipping me off and angrily waving their hand while yelling for me to “Get off the road!” I’ll just let that all settle a little bit while I give some back story and try to argue the case of the driver of that car.

I would have gone farther than 18 miles had two things not happened, first I only had an hour. And, second, I had forgotten my helmet and made it halfway from my house to Hill Rd—about a mile—before I realized it. Rather than risk it (which an earlier, less wise version of myself might have done) I decided to turn back and get my helmet. I got home, grabbed it from off the table whence it had been left and headed out again, a new route in mind. I rode to the greenbelt, by the time mostly deserted due to the rain that had begun falling in earnest and headed toward Warm Springs and Bown Crossing. My planned route was to take the greenbelt to the East Park Center Bridge and then head over it to Park Center Blvd. and on in to Main St. in Downtown, then back to the Greenbelt and on home. For the most part it was a routine and uneventful ride.
I got to PCB and was maintaining a pace between 22 and 25 MPH as I blasted down the smooth and fast pavement. I was conscious of avoiding the concrete because it would be slicker than the pavement, and I also was avoiding painted lines as they can lead to wrecks in the rain. I got past Apple St. Then Pennsylvania—where I caught up with traffic—then to Riverstone where I stopped at the red light and then proceeded when it was clear—a legal and typical cyclist maneuver. I had realized the light had triggered only to let an elderly couple through the crosswalk, there were no cars coming either direction on the cross street. Once up to speed I was humming at around 25 MPH as I approached Mallard Dr. The light changed to Green and traffic had yet to catch me from the previous light. I was hammering, on my aero bars and flying. For those not familiar with the area, PCB at that particular point is three lanes wide, and the right lane is particularly so, though there is not a designated bike lane.

I was cruising about a foot to 18” from the curb, holding a pretty steady line. As I was passing the Albertson’s parking lot, I heard a friendly toot-toot behind me, which often signals the approach of a large vehicle that can’t get over. I put myself as close to the curb as I could as a big Econoline passed me, giving me as much room as he could—there was a car in the lane next to him—easily three feet from me. He waved as he passed. As he passed I heard a not so friendly horn blast and an engine rev as a VW Passat wagon with driver angrily screeching at me and waving his arm as he yelled for me to get off the road. More disturbing was the fact that, unlike the large van in front of him, as Mr. VW passed, he swerved in to me, nearly driving me into the curb. Remember that I was going about 25 MPH? At that speed, there is no way for a wreck with a car and a bike to come off well for the biker. Best case: I manage to bail over the curb and onto the sidewalk, perhaps making it to the grass before I totally lose it and come out with a dislocated shoulder, or maybe just a few bad scrapes and bruises. Worst case, and more probably, the VW nudges my handle bar, forcing my tire out of control, into the curb, I endo into the roadway and the car behind the VW, if not the VW itself, runs over my legs and midsection as my head comes to rest abruptly on the edge of the curb. In an attempt to avoid this the vehicle behind the VW swerves into the other lane of traffic hitting the person next to them and driving that person into the lane next to them, the cars behind all skidding, as traffic piles up. You know the Allstate “Mayhem” ads? Well the driver of the VW better hope he has Allstate, because it will be paying for all of this messy mayhem.

No, I am not writing this from the ICU. In fact the VW continued down the road as I rode with all vigor to give him a piece of my mind (and maybe the tip of my key to his paint). I did in fact catch up with him again three lights later, where it appeared that all of that anger and hurry had only gotten him to the light a few seconds ahead of me. By the time I arrived, I had cooled down and decided to ride without the anger toward Mr. VW that I had previously been so zealous to display. I can honestly say that after the rest of my ride I wish him no ill will, though perhaps some words of caution. Coincidentally, I managed to almost cause another accident with a car a little farther down the road as I rounded a corner that, due to the wet roadways, had become quite slick. The Prius had begun to cross and I knew that I would be just ahead of him as I got to the right hand turn, but as I started into the corner it was obvious that I had to take it wide or risk sliding across on my side and ass (a thought I did not relish). I was in the Prius’ lane, just in front of him, and probably held him up a bit. So yeah, I can see why people get frustrated with cyclists. Also, thank you Mr. Prius driver for being unnecessarily kind and just waving to me, and even watching out for me as we proceeded down the road. I am sorry for the inconvenience I caused you.

Back to the VW, a letter of caution:

Dear Mr. VW driver,

I want to apologize for the frustration that cyclists have obviously caused you in the past. I understand that cyclists in the roadway mean just another hazard for you to worry about, another liability to your insurance payment. I get that cyclists sometimes ride two abreast when they shouldn’t, and others ride slowly causing you to miss that all-important lunch meeting with your tennis trainer. I know that sometimes we misjudge a corner and swerve into your lane of traffic just when you are going by and that is annoying. But for all the holdup, frustration, anger, and annoyance we have caused you, is it worth 1) Prison (because I know that number one is all you care about); 2) the reckless endangerment of the lives and health of the 10 drivers behind you; 3) the life of a cyclist (despite how much I know we must frustrate you) and, finally; the 40 or 50 years of guilt you will doubtless be wracked with for the remainder of your life? I ask this in anticipation of my second point, and I am not trying to sound uppity here, but you were absolutely in the wrong.

I know it may not have felt like it at the time, I know your brain was not processing all of the possible outcomes of your actions, I know how infuriating it can be to feel like everyone is going slow and I can’t get around them, I am a strongly assertive driver also. I too have taken my chances with others’ lives, behaving stupidly, outside the law, apart from the rules, ignorant of the etiquette. But I want to stress something very strongly here, when it comes to bikes and pedestrians I have come to realize that it is simply NEVER worth it to play fast and loose with their lives, whether they are protected by the law or not.

I would further like to stress that in our little escapade today, I was absolutely protected by the law, and you were in violation of at least two, one relating to me, the other relating to the van in front of you that you were tailgating. I also have an inkling that you all were going considerably faster than 35 MPH. The state of Idaho protects cyclists riding in the right lane of traffic if no bike lane is designated provided that they stay as close as they practically are able to the right side of the lane. Further, the law recognizes that there are times when it is impractical to ride too close to the curb or otherwise and grants the cyclist the discretion to determine when these times are. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the following vehicle to wait until either the cyclist clears, or a space opens up that allows the vehicle room to go around the cyclist. Boise city further defines the recommended passing allowance as three feet from the cyclist. The van in front of you respected this rule, and even allowed me the courtesy of announcing his presence. You on the other hand, you sounded your horn in a situation that did not call for it, you were driving distractedly and recklessly and deliberately swerved into me, allowing less room than I am comfortable with (and I am comfortable at a pretty tiny allowance).
I’m alive and well and finished my ride without further incident for the most part, so this one was a freebie. Next time, you might not be so lucky. You ought to take some time to seriously consider your actions and what the consequences might be, both for you and for the people toward whom you are angry. I sincerely doubt you will read this, but perhaps it can serve as a reminder to other drivers on the road, simply because you have size over cyclists does not give you the authority to exert power over them. You may also consider that bikes were here first, as were pedestrians. Long before you had any rights whatsoever, these ruled the road.  Cyclists are here to stay. They have been here longer and will be here for the foreseeable future. You can accept that reality and be a productive member of the traffic community, or you can continue your obvious vendetta against pedestrians of all sorts until you kill someone and end up old and bitter. The less destructive of these paths is obvious, but it’s your choice.

The cyclist you tried to intimidate

So there it is folks, my Tuesday Commentary. I hope that you have found something of value amongst the reeds of this written swamp. I hope that in your driving you take into account that cyclists are not on a raging campaign against motor vehicles. What we are asking for is not unreasonable, i.e. access to the sides of the roads and drivers that acknowledge our presence. We try to ride courteously and stay on our little slice of the road. I know that most who read this, if not all, practice sharing of the road and I appreciate that. In fact I would say that 299 out of 300 drivers are conscientious, if not kind to cyclists. When our lives are put in danger, however, is when we take notice. It is for that reason that many drivers feel as if cyclists don’t like them, because it is negative feedback they generally hear. If you can hear one last plea, it is this: don’t be that 300th driver. Please, please don’t be “That Guy.”


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Driving in Boise, Idaho

Yes indeed there are many traffic snafus here in Treasure Valley land. As a cyclist, pedestrian, motorcyclist and automobile driver, I have to say that I sympathize to some degree with all parties. When I am in a car, I am constantly watching out for pedestrians, while often being upset that they are in my way and slowing me down. When I am walking I get frustrated at people who pull up to crosswalks and never fully stop while I am trying to cross. While on my bicycle riding in traffic I get frustrated at the few a--holes who try to run me off the road or do other things they feel are intimidating, yet in my car I get frustrated at cyclists when I don't feel I know what they are going to do. On my motorcycle I am always trying to spot people doing stupid things, just so I can avoid deathtrap situations, but I am often annoyed by motorcyclists who act as if they own the road, or who speed past me to make sure I understand they are faster.

The trouble for me is to keep in mind what I feel as a pedestrian when I am driving, or trying to remember all the cycling laws while I am in a car. The fact is that each member of the traffic community, whether ped, cycle, motorcycle, or car, and we all have an equal responsibility to know the rights, privileges, responsibilities and rules for the other members. It may seem like a lot to keep in mind while on the road, but I think that if people would focus on making the rules of driving a priority when they were driving rather than the hoard of other things that take over (i.e. cellphones, texting, eating, kids fighting in the back seat, the scenery, your partner, smoking, the radio, et cetera), they would find that the rules and laws are not so difficult to understand or remember, nor are they difficult to adhere to. The fact is, most everyone--walkers, riders, drivers--has somewhere to be, and they are all trying to figure out what corners to cut to make it there a little faster. Usually it is at the intersection of cutting corners and being distracted where bad things happen.
Now that I have said all of that, there are some basic rules to keep in mind that govern most situations.

1) The bigger the rig, the fewer the rights
Contrary to what many drivers of large vehicles would have us believe, they neither own the road nor have the most rights on the road. In fact, the larger the vehicle, the fewer the rights and greater the responsibility to vehicles that are smaller and pedestrians. The greatest privileges accorded to any traffic participant are those possessed by the pedestrian. Larger vehicles can inflict more damage quicker, and are feared because of that. Many who drive large vehicles use that fear to their advantage, intimidating smaller cars and pedestrians. Yet as the vehicle grows in size, because of the damage it can inflict, the responsibility to drive slower and safer grows. For if the intimidation fails to move someone out of the way in time, the driver of the large vehicle can suddenly find himself serving hard time for manslaughter and reckless driving. Similarly, these larger vehicles are more likely to be accused of fault in an accident, and the liability in an at-fault accident is greater because they inflict greater damage. Large vehicles are granted only the basic rights of any traffic participant, and they must adhere to a greater number of laws (weight, height, width, covers over loads, slowing or stopping for railroads, etc).

2) Be assertive, not stupid
I am not condoning aggressive driving, but if we want people to be more careful around pedestrians, as pedestrians we need to assert ourselves and own our rights. A great part of this is embracing the rights we have and using them to our advantage rather than behaving illegally and irresponsibly. A good way to be assertive as a pedestrian would be to use the crosswalk. What I mean is that in order for vehicles to stop, the pedestrian must be in the crosswalk. This means taking a step off of that curb when the vehicle has adequate time to stop, making eye contact with the driver in such a way as to convey the message that you intend to step in front of him. Stare him down until he stop or slows enough to let you walk, then walk in front of him. Another way is to use unmarked crosswalks. every intersection has a crosswalk, whether it is marked or otherwise, and every pedestrian is accorded the rights to using that crosswalk. Only in cases where there is a sign indicating otherwise does a pedestrian have to go elsewhere. Every intersection has a crosswalk that runs perpendicular to the traffic lanes, or the shortest route across one road at a time. (for instance, those funky intersections where the cross street is offset by a few feet, or comes in diagonally). This means that once the pedestrian steps off the sidewalk onto the intersection, he is in a crosswalk and traffic must stop. I encourage pedestrians to reasonably assert their rights in this area, drivers are oblivious to the law that requires this, and until pedestrians start participating in their rights, it won't change. (disclaimer: I do not advocate running in front of traffic randomly, a person has to give cars time to stop, etc and if the cars are not stopping, then the pedestrian obviously should wait).

3) Cyclists are cars…sort of
Okay, cyclists, this one is for you. You have all of the responsibilities of a car, but without a guaranteed designated lane of traffic. On the other hand, you can roll through stop signs and lighted right hand turns. After stopping for a red light and determining that it is safe to proceed, you can go through the intersection. You can be a car, or a pedestrian with the rights and privileges of each in specific instances. But you are also responsible, as would be a car on the road, to yield to pedestrians when on the sidewalk. Cyclists, you have the right to the shoulder of any road, and when the shoulder is not navigable you have a right to the rightmost lane of traffic (or the left if a multi-lane one way). Cars are required to yield to you if they cannot safely pass you on the left with reasonable distance. And you can pass cars on the left if they are not moving fast enough and you need to get by. Yet it’s not all fun and games. Cyclists are required to have a headlight and taillight (or reflector) when riding on roadways after sunset and before sunrise, or when conditions are dark enough they could not be easily seen from 500 feet. Like cars, cyclists are required to stop for peds in crosswalks or sidewalks. Cyclists also are required, when on roadways, to behave like a motorized vehicle (with the exceptions of stop signs and lights, which allow some freedom). Cyclists are also required, by law, to exercise "due care" and not cause traffic problems. This means that negligence on the part of the cyclist can end up very, very badly.

4) Cars, cars, and more cars
So here’s the deal with passenger cars and pickups, the largest population on the road: they feel the most suppressed. As a car owner and driver, I feel like big vehicles are trying to crush me and the laws don’t allow me any real privileges to offset that feeling. I feel like I am supposed to be looking out for everyone on the road and no one is looking out for me. It’s brutal out there. Even the cops have it out for me. Because the standard set of motor vehicle laws are all written based on passenger cars, there are a whole lot of laws to obey and really no breaks. The passenger car (or pickup) must stop for pedestrians, yield to cyclists, watch out for big rigs, signal every lane change, watch the speed, but don’t take eyes off the road. The payoff for all of this work is that it is the group most likely to be at fault in an accident. Sadly, for the passenger car, there is very little reprieve. The passenger car’s only hope is that in an accident, the other guy did something stupid or illegal.
As far as tips go for the driver of passenger cars, just because you own popular power doesn't make you right. Don't abuse your responsibility to other members of the traffic community. You do have a responsibility to stop for pedestrians, whether in a marked or unmarked crosswalk. You can’t pass a cyclist who for whatever reason is riding in the lane of traffic, unless oncoming traffic is clear and you can go around him like you would another car. Don’t do dumb stuff like try and figure out Google Maps on your smartphone while driving. Don’t slow to a crawl because you don’t want to miss your turn, you will cause an accident. In that case, if you pass your turn, go around the block and come back to it. If you are mapping a route on your phone, or texting, or even talking, please, PLEASE, pull over.

5) Those darned bikers…
Motorcyclists have only one extra privilege that I am aware of beyond the rights of automobiles and that is that they are allowed, after waiting an entire light cycle without being signaled, due to a malfunction of the sensor because it didn’t detect the motorcycle, to proceed through the intersection when it is safe, even on a red light. Whoopee! But the reality for the motorcyclist is that he knows that his life is at risk every time he enters the road. The only real advantage that the motorcyclist has is that the removal of all of the distractions that would be normal in a car allow him to be more focused; and hee needs every ounce of that focus to stay alive. The motorcycle rider has to be expecting, at every moment, the most hazardous potential situation. For motorcycles it doesn’t stop with watching speed, direction, and a few other cars, he has to also watch for sand, water and other slippery hazards on the road surface, he has to have a plan for safely ditching off the road if someone doesn’t see him. He has to be conscious of the blind spots of other vehicles and not ride into them. He has to behave as if everyone doesn’t see him, while riding confidently and assertively so that people will see him. And he has to do all of this while being pelted by road crud from the car in front of him and keeping his bike upright. I don’t know how motorcyclists would stay alive at all if they figured out a way to text and motorcycle.
There is really only one reason that anyone would be insane enough to ride a motorcycle, and that is that they love to ride a motorcycle. It isn’t worth the risk or the trouble for any other reason.

So this is really, really long. I put it in story form, however, because it is more memorable than quoting title, chapter and section of state code. The facts, however, are all accurate to what state code says in Idaho. If you don’t believe me, you can read it yourself: Title 49 – Motor Vehicles