I fixed a recent Seattle Times column about traffic fear

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 7.26.33 PM

Screenshot from the Seattle Times (click to read)

EDITOR’S NOTE: After reading Seth Norman’s guest column in the Seattle Times, I noticed that the piece needed a little editing work. Specifically, it seemed the author forgot to mention that we have a tried and true way to improve traffic safety: Investments in safer street design. I have heavily edited his piece, though not at the request of the Times or Norman. He said he wanted to start a discussion about fear on the streets, but I think the version below is a much better starting point for that conversation than was presented in the rough draft posted in the Times. Enjoy

Fear: Yours really should run rampant, I think, but here I refer to the trepidation of drivers steering massive machines that — mishandled in one moment — will leave you crippled, maimed or dead.

I experience this whenever I drive on a highway or busy street. I won’t see another car coming, and can’t hear most other cars at all even as they pass just feet away. Even then I can’t know if there’s a tailgater behind it, or some Grand Prix wannabe slaloming up fast or a jerk to my left texting an emoticon.

I can’t know if there’s a pothole ahead of me, busted asphalt I’ll need to dodge or someone crossing the street about to step out behind a parked car right into my car’s grill.

All that’s certain is that for several seconds, many people’s lives are in my hands.

And people are so fragile, slow antelopes pacing an elephant herd (though I suppose antelopes are actually must faster than elephants, but you get my point). You trust that I’m not oblivious, distracted, half-tanked or a full-blown sociopath eager for sport. Your faith bewilders me, frankly. While I don’t challenge your legal or moral rights to drive, bike or otherwise live city life, sometimes I wonder about your sanity. Well, our sanity, I suppose.

You’ve been safe from me, so far, but not always from others. 33,561 people in the US were killed in violent traffic deaths in 2012 alone. Inside cars, outside cars, on bikes, strolling on the sidewalk and even inside buildings, it sometimes seems that nowhere is safe from the destructive power of a motor vehicle. This is especially true in an urban environment.

I doubt many people reading this, if any at all, have lived in our society this long without a friend, family member or themselves being seriously injured or killed in a traffic collision. In fact, children and grandparents are injured and killed at a much higher rate than people in other age groups.

Here’s something I hope drivers consider: Fear frays my nerves. Yours too, I should think.

Breaking traffic laws is rampant in Washington. It seems like human nature to push the rules as far as you think they can go. Driving 9 mph over the limit because 10 would be excessive, rolling through stop signs on a bike, making a dash across the wide busy street even though there is no crosswalk. All technically unlawful and mildly risky moves. But, of course, only one of these unlawful moves is a contributing factor in the deaths of 10,000 people every year in the United States: Speeding in a car.

Why do we allow our roadways to be so dangerous? Why do we accept that our streets and highways should be built so people can comfortably drive 9 or 10 or 15 mph over the speed limit? When I, Seth Norman of Bellingham, drive to town, it’s on 6 miles of a two-lane road where there’s no bike lane, no paved shoulder and no passing allowed. I routinely cross the double yellow lines to give cyclists more room. While these are mildly risky moves — a little unsettling, technically unlawful — they’re such obvious precautions. I would never consider blowing on by a person on a bike.

But why did we ever build a road so unsafe that there’s not even space for our friends and neighbors to ride a bike without risking a close pass or worse? And why, now that we’ve identified the problem, don’t we take immediate action to make this road safer for everyone?

Some people are jerks on the road. Some of those jerks are on bikes, some of them are in cars, some are walking and, yes, some are on bus, too. But forgive me for grinding my molars when someone driving a car does something stupid and dangerous. When someone thinks they are in an armored elephant, safe behind air bags, likely hazarding only damage someone would pound out at a body shop. They risk, however, causing severe trauma to people on bikes, people on foot, people in other cars, themselves and even their daughter or father or best friend in the passenger seat next to them.

I also grind my molars when I see streets designed only with fast-moving cars in mind. These streets create dangerous and frustrating situations where two otherwise reasonable people can find themselves enraged at each other. A complete street has room for everyone to get around safely, and Washington has far too many incomplete streets like the one I take to town.

The threat of traffic violence fills me with something more wrenching than rage: fear.

Safe driving, please. But just as importantly, let’s invest in safe streets that make it harder for people to hurt each other while simply trying to get from one place to another.

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26 Responses to I fixed a recent Seattle Times column about traffic fear

  1. Glen says:

    Well re-written Tom!

  2. Matthew says:

    A couple things caught my attention about the Seattle Times editorial. First, the article starts with “I experience fear whenever I see a cyclist at the edge of MY lane,” (emphasis added). There are too many motorists that feel that they own the lane and that too many cyclists do not show proper gratitude to the motorist for allowing the cyclist to use their lane. I think it may go back to the idea that bicycles are really just toys, and that they should give way to legitimate users of the road. The second issue concerns the illusion of safety that some motorists feel in their metal boxes, the only danger “likely hazarding only damage someone would pound out at a body shop”. I have seen and heard of too many life changing (or ending) injuries from accidents that involve only cars. The metal shell that motorists find themselves in all too often falls far short of the protection they expect. The only meaningful improvement in safety comes from responsible driving and road design.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Yeah, the false sense of security that cars provide is itself very dangerous. It allows people to take big risks (to themselves and others) without feeling like it is a big risk.

      Deaths and injuries to people inside cars happen all the time. Those are our friends, family members and neighbors, and their deaths and injuries are just as real and devastating as those to people walking or biking. My cousin back in St. Louis is, right now, dealing with the loss of her best friend to a car wreck. She’s devastated, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

      Traffic violence reaches us all. It’s frustrating to read pieces that ignore the fact that we can reduce collisions and injuries and deaths by designing our streets to be safer. A traffic injury is not some act of god like a tornado, it’s the result of a combination of user behavior and road conditions. We have limited control of user behavior (PSAs and traffic laws can help some), and limited control of road surface conditions (slippery when wet, icy, etc) but we have total control of road design.

  3. Shawn says:

    We can always count on the Seattle Times to keep the war on bikes alive. Whatever you do, don’t venture into the comments section. That way lies madness.

    • gene balk says:

      I don’t like this guest column for all the reasons Tom states, but I would still hardly call it waging a “war on bikes.” And while I know Seattle Times bashing is a reflex action for a lot of people, I would suggest you actually read what’s been in the Times regarding cycling for the past year or two. You might be surprised.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        The column has clearly started a conversation, which was the intention. And it’s not like guest columns are representative of the paper’s opinion.

        Then again, I don’t actually feel like this one was as fleshed out as it should have been. But I have no idea what it’s like to be an editorial/opinions page editor. Would challenging a guest columnist to reference/consider known solutions to the problems discussed be within the Times editor’s purview? Or would that be overstepping?

        It seems strange to identify a problem, then turn to the victim group as though the answer lies with them instead of at all addressing the cause (or causes) or the problem. It would be like showing how ocean acidification is destroying shellfish populations, then asking “Are these shellfish insane to be living off the coast of Washington?”

      • Al Dimond says:

        The problem with articles like this isn’t that they wage war on bikes, it’s that when outlets like the Times want to write about bikes the only perspective they allow is that of the motorist.

        I don’t like saying this, because it opens the door to a lot of contentious and useless arguments, but in some ways, mainstream treatment of biking in America parallels the treatment of other groups that have been marginalized in one way or another. There’s a big difference, which is that it’s easier to choose whether or not to bike than to choose your race, gender, or sexual orientation. Imagine I (as a man) wrote a piece in the Times titled, “Women strike fear in a man’s heart”, including comments like, “Forgive me for grinding my molars when women talk about their feelings. These women exploit my attention span.” That

      • Al Dimond says:

        *ahem* That is what this piece sounds like to someone that gets around on bike.

      • Al Dimond says:

        (Part of what makes this perspective thing so frustrating is that most people can ride a bike, so if they’re going to write a piece about “cyclists” they don’t have to write it only from a “driver” perspective. It’s lazy and insulting to do otherwise.)

      • Clark in Vancouver says:

        Al Dimond :
        >mainstream treatment of biking in America parallels the treatment of other groups that have been marginalized…

        The parallels between them are so similar. All you have to do is replace the word “cyclists” with “gays”, “The unemployed”, Teenagers”, “Punk rockers”, “AIDS victim”, etc and you’d have an article from twenty or more years ago.
        The media have been at this a long time and show no sign of changing. The only thing we can do is become more media savvy.

      • Urban Villager says:

        The condescending tone is what bothers me – as if the writer knows better than cyclists how to address the problem, along with excessive benevolence (“I don’t want to hurt you”) that masks the condescension. He’s putting the onus on cyclists to solve the problem, over drivers. The sad thing is that this seems to be the accepted tone for this type of discourse.

  4. Al Dimond says:

    I don’t think it’s actually illegal to cross a double-yellow to pass a cyclist on a two-lane road — IIRC there’s actually a state law about it. It’s sort of weird that this is the case — usually you’d expect a dashed yellow line in places where the visibility is good enough that it should be allowed.

    • Al Dimond says:

      … but there are lots of roads marked with double-yellows even where visibility is good enough to cross over to pass cyclists. An example is the two-lane portion of SR 524 in Snohomish County. Of course, that’s also a road that desperately needs a better bike route, as it’s the only reasonably-graded route between Lynnwood and Canyon Park but has heavy, fast traffic all the way.

      • Josh says:

        A double-yellow is used where sight lines are inadequate for a car moving at the speed limit to pass a car moving slightly below the speed limit.

        If you’re driving 45 mph in a 50 mph zone, and I want to pass, my relative speed is only 5mph — I need long enough sight lines to move left, pass you, and wait until I’m safely past before merging back into your lane.

        If you’re bicycling 15 mph in a 50 mph zone, and you’re safely centered in the lane, I don’t even have to make a full lane change to give you more than adequate passing clearance (assuming I’m driving a small car), our relative speed is high enough that I spend very little time overtaking you, and I’m back into your lane within a few car lengths, rather than several hundred feet.

        That’s why, to my mind at least, it would make sense to consider a bicycle an “obstruction” for purposes of RCW 46.61.100 (1)(b)

        That doesn’t relieve the passing motorist of any obligation to provide safe passing clearance, and doesn’t authorize the motorist to cross the double-yellow when it’s dangerous to do so, it just recognizes that passing a slow, single-track vehicle is very different from passing a full-width vehicle that’s moving at nearly the same speed as the overtaking motorist.

      • Breadbaker says:

        Of course, most people who are passing others on two-lane highways are not passing those going under the speed limit at the speed limit. They are passing cars at the speed limit by going 20 mph above it so they can resume traveling 10 mph above it.

    • Glen says:

      WABikes actually tried to push a bill this year to make that legal (safely pass a cyclist by crossing a double yellow line) but it did not make it through. So technically it is still illegal to do so in WA but nobody would ever get a ticket for doing so if they did it safely.

      • Josh says:

        It’s not entirely clear whether it’s legal or illegal to cross a double-yellow to pass a bicycle. There’s an existing exception allowing motorists to cross a double yellow,

        “When an obstruction exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the highway; provided, any person so doing shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the highway within such distance as to constitute an immediate hazard….” (RCW 46.61.100 (1)(b))

        The question then becomes what qualifies as an “obstruction,” but this term is not defined in the RCW. Motorists routinely straddle the double-yellow to pass slow-moving equipment that’s mostly on the shoulder, like a brush mower clearing ditches or a mail carrier .

        Is a slow-moving bicycle at the edge of the lane an “obstruction” for purposes of this law? Any lawyers reading this have relevant Washington case law handy?

  5. gene balk says:

    Yeah, I agree. It’s not good, and also it’s weirdly written. Tom, I don’t know how things work over there in regards to challenging the guest write, but I think it would be great if you approached them about writing a response!

  6. merlin says:

    I actually appreciate the original writer for acknowledging that he is doing something incredibly dangerous when driving a car, and admitting that he could hurt or kill someone as the result of a moment of inattention. I think Tom’s edits are in the spirit of the original piece, just better contextualized and of course better informed.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Thanks, Merlin. I didn’t intend to say Seth is totally wrong or didn’t have interesting things to say, just that it was not thought-through all the way (like a first draft).

  7. jeff says:

    I actually appreciated the original article as well. If all drivers carried around a sense that their actions can cause serious harm to others then bicycling around Seattle would be much nicer. The acknowledgement that infractions of the law aren’t especially numerous but they bothered him more than those by drivers was refreshingly honest.

    • Jayne says:

      Unfortunately the average driver who carries around the sense that their actions can cause serious harm to others uses that as a reason why others (namely a person using a bicycle) shouldn’t be on the roadway. This is the most common refrain when discussing mixed traffic conditions with a habitual automobile user.

  8. Joseph Singer says:

    One thing I very rarely see about speeding is that speeding rarely gets you to your destination very much quicker than proceeding in a moderate manner. The only time speeding will give you any great advantage is if you are going a long distance. Other than that you have very little advantage unless you are going 100 MPH rather than the limit of 30 MPH. And when I was driving a motor vehicle I always chuckled at the guy in the “me first” vehicle who was passing everything in sight yet I always caught up with that driver who was stopped at a traffic signal. Speeding almost never gives you any great advantage.

  9. Allan says:

    The problems are systemic in a system that won’t spend money to fix things that protect the citizens but will instead jump to the corporate tune. It would not cost so much to affix a bicycle lane to most roads, across the nation. I am guessing 3 inch deep black top would do it in most places or even just a divider to mark off shoulders. There would be a huge payback in gas savings alone, much less money going up in smoke, a reduced cost of living for many that would raise living standards for all. There would be a reduction in foreign expenditures on cars, fuel and parts. There would probably be a net reduction in medical expenditures too as a healthier lifestyle would be encouraged. However, it will never happen until someone can show how corporations can profit from it. Driving cars is subsidized for that reason. Example, the corn to fuel industry. It is mandated, I believe subsidized, and it is driving food prices higher world wide, a small price to pay for cheap gas in an SUV, and more people driving, spending endlessly to do so. If we used less oil, maybe we could avoid helping change governments only in oil rich countries and that would be another financial payback for the tax payers. Oh, well, am I the only one who thinks like this?

    • Clark in Vancouver says:

      Allan:
      >Oh, well, am I the only one who thinks like this?

      Not at all. It’s a commonly held view. However, I think most people don’t know what other options there are and are distracted by more immediate pressures to do much about it.

  10. Jules Jacobson says:

    The legal system needs to let it’s weight fall more heavily on those who can do the most harm–it needs to reduce the rights and increase the punishments for driving badly.
    Drivers have become a top-of-the-food-chain predator with no natural enemies. This causes them to have no fear. Police and the legal system need to give drivers something, which they definitely don’t have in our culture, to fear.

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