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‘Responsible’ riding means more riding

Elly Blue has written yet another great column for Grist, this time about the concept of biking “responsibly.” Why the quotes? Well, what exactly is the definition of responsible biking?

As the “Mutual Responsibility” bill debate pointed out, there are too many variables on our roadways to define what is and is not proper cyclist behavior at all times. Sometimes the bike lane is a good idea. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes (most the time) you need to take the whole general traffic lane to prevent dangerous passing. Sometimes the lane is wide enough you can ride to the right and allow vehicles to pass safely. Sometimes shoulders are great places to ride. Other times they are dangerous.

Certainly, there are bicyclists who break laws dangerously. But with so much discussion about “scofflaw bicyclists,” surely people riding bikes break the law more than people walking or driving, right? Right? From Grist:

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But you may be thinking right now — Hey, I see them break the law and ride unpredictably all the time!

Well, yes. But in greater rates than people driving cars? Or walking?

Maybe not. In the absence of numbers, consider the perspective of Randy Blazak, a sociologist who specializes in hate crimes and sees distressing parallels between his work and his daily bike commute.

We all practice “selective perception,” he said in an interview about reactions to a proposed new stop sign law in Oregon. Apparently we are hyperaware of anything that reinforces stereotypes we hold dear. Yet when there’s contradictory data, we don’t look as closely.

Biases also tend to color our perceptions of what is and isn’t dangerous. Seeing someone on a bicycle in traffic can seem alarming no matter how legally or safely that person is riding, especially if you can’t imagine yourself doing such a thing. But the devil you know is always more appealing — and the 100 or so car-related deaths and many, many more injuries that happen in our country every day have come to seem so inevitable and mundane that most of us don’t think twice about climbing into a car and setting off towards the freeway.

Let’s look at one illustrative example: Speed limits. Almost every person who drives a car speeds regularly. Those limits were (in my dreams) set based on road design, traffic flow and safety. With each little increase in speed, the chances of surviving a collision go down for anyone involved, whether they are walking, biking or in a motor vehicle. The danger created by this mass scofflawfulness (new word!) is greater than the danger created by all laws broken by all bicyclists combined, and the highway and pedestrian death statistics can back that up.

So should you blindly blow red lights or terrorize crowded sidewalks? No way. But are people who ride bikes more unlawful or dangerous than people who use other modes? I doubt it. So why so much focus on the way we ride? Well, because we’re different, and some people just don’t like that. After all, drivers often get angry with me when I am riding perfectly legally and courteously.

Where do we go from here? How do you break down a stereotype that just won’t quit? Well, there are a whole lot of groups of people out there that have been asking the same question for ages. Our best plan of action: Fight for representation and keep growing our numbers until we’re not so “different” anymore.

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2 responses to “‘Responsible’ riding means more riding”

  1. right, and ride, on…

  2. rich

    In additional to the “scofflaw bicyclists” stereotype, there’s also the one about “bicycles slow down traffic”. True in some cases, but who hasn’t been slowed down by cars while driving or biking? Cars waiting to make turns bring a whole lane of traffic to a halt. So do cars trying to maneuver into a parking place. So do cars and trucks double parked for pickups and deliveries. Then there are the folks who slow down to a crawl because they’re lost or trying to figure out directions. And then there are cars stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reason at all. When we do these things on our bikes, we can generally pull over far enough to avoid blocking traffic. Cars are big and have no choice but to block a lane. Yes, bicycles occassionally slow things down, but cars slow down traffic for everyone all the time.

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