The Crittenden Automotive Library
May 3, 2012
As this Library includes roadways and the interactions between automobiles and other traffic, I'm going to write a little today about bicycles on the highways. This came up in light of an Acura Integra wandering into a bike lane in Berkeley, California and wiping out two bicyclists, as well as my own personal experiences recently and otherwise.
I used to be a bicyclist before I had a drivers' license. Almost every kid was, and still is. Lately, with the popularity of buying a Tour de France style shirt and pretending to be Lance Armstrong for excercise, there has also been a movement to acknowledge bicycle users as legitimate traffic. But if you're going to demand the benefits and rights associated with being a roadway user, you also need to share in the responsibilities the rest of the roadway users are burdened with.
I mentioned getting myself around on a bicycle when I was younger and how it seems very different than it is today. When I grew up, there was a simple understanding: if you can't keep up with traffic, don't hold it up. Anyone driving 15 in a 45 mile per hour no passing zone, accumulating a line of traffic behind it, and refusing to pull aside and let traffic pass is violating laws in most states and municipalities. It should not be acceptable when that road user is completely capable of periodically stopping and letting traffic by regardless of what vehicle they are in or on, and absolutely inexcusable when traffic is held up because a slow-moving two-wheeled vehicle refuses to use a hard paved shoulder.
How can we prevent the dangers associated with traffic moving at different speeds? By separating the traffic. I love the idea of bike lanes. They should be just about everywhere that the speed limit is over 30 mph and an extra six feet of roadway can fit. There should be hard penalties for people who drive their cars in them, but bike riders will appreciate the extra safety of having their own lane and car drivers will appreciate that in an emergency those flimsy little mini jacks that come with their cars actually work when there's a hard flat surface to put their vehicle and that jack on.
Another aspect of rights and responsibilities comes when cars and bicycles are forced into the same narrow pathways because there just isn't enough room for separation. Aside from the city-driver horror stories of bicycle messengers gone bad, I have my own personal experience. I was riding in a van in a parade when a teenager rode by in between the line of cars and the crowd, tried some stupid stunt for the crowd, and dragged his pedal across the side of the van we were riding in, going not only through the paint but damaging the metal. Because it was a minivan it didn't retain much of its resale value, and because it was the big side panel on a van it would have cost a lot to replace and repaint, so the insurance company wanted to total the van instead, leaving the driver with a paltry check and no transportation. The driver might have had to pay this out of pocket because the scared teenager took off into the crowd with his bicycle, impossible to follow in the van and on his bike too quickly to follow on foot. Thankfully, this was in a small town where he was recognized. How else would we have identified him? Caucasian teenager, brown hair, blue bicycle with fat tires? File that report away in the "never to be solved" drawer at the police station and drive a busted van around?
Cars used to have the same problem when the difficult-to-control machines caused problems with the established users of the roads when they were invented. Car owners soon were required in some municipalities to paint their initials on the back of the car. When the Ford Model T put the middle class on wheels, there were too many black cars and too many instances of people having the same initials, and license plates for cars were invented. It's been a fairly good system so far, providing anonymity from the common motorist but positive identification to law enforcement. If bicycles and cars are going to interact on a shared roadway, and they do, they need identification, just like every other regular roadway user is required to have. That way, when an irresponsible bicyclist breaks a headlight and speeds off between cars on a crowded street, they can be identified better something like "black bike, yellow shirt, and a red helmet" in a city full of bicycle users. The technology is simple enough, too, motorcycles carry miniature versions of the license plates that go on cars, and they can easily be attached to bicycles.
Licensing also provides another avenue to safety on the road between bicyclists and cars. Licensing car and truck drivers allows for a safety test before licensing and the threat of revoking a license if the laws are not obeyed. This doesn't need to be applied to kids on training wheels on suburban sidewalks, but for the adults riding on higher speed roads it's become a necessity. Take for instance the bike rider I saw on my way home from work yesterday (just one example among many I see in my commute): riding down the hill past a blind curve in the middle of the right lane, no hands on the handlebars because she was texting. Riding at a third the speed limit just past a blind curve is an easy way to cause an accident, compounded by the fact that she wasn't even near the side of the road and also not paying attention to traffic around her. Even if she doesn't get hit herself an accident could be caused by a driver slamming on their brakes or swerving to avoid her.
Anyone driving a car that dangerously would face some serious fines and the tickets would cause their mandatory insurance rates to go up, too. If you're going to enjoy the same rights as the rest of the road users, the same responsibilities need to be shared: safety, education, enforcement, and identification. Otherwise, stay on the sidewalk.