Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two days later, I still don't know

So we go from "you never know" to "shows what I know" within hours.

Let's recap my previous blog entry, where I marveled that sharing the busy, urban roads around Detroit hadn't turned out to be the Turnpike of Terrors I had been led to believe it would be; that, in fact, I had found drivers around here to be pretty tolerant and courteous. I posted it Monday morning. Monday evening, at one of the intersections I had found so acceptable, a motorist commenced to run over a cyclist with his pickup truck to, I guess, get the last word in an argument the two were having. It was the front-page story in The Oakland Press this morning.

What does that portend? It should portend close to nothing, but it will look bigger than it is. People will perceive and manufacture controversy and rage and fear, the same way they worry about being murdered by a stranger when the vast majority of homicides are between people who know each other.

I don't get the impression Mr. Driver and Mr. Bicyclist knew each other, but they appeared to be made for each other. The newspaper story says the 61-year-old driver passed the 42-year-old cyclist closely enough that the cyclist felt compelled to inform him of that when he caught up at a traffic light. Words followed; somehow the rhetoric involved cyclist whacking rear-view mirror with a water bottle, cyclist dropping the water bottle, cyclist retrieving the water bottle where it was so convenient to drive a pickup truck (I know; that was not lost on me) into him that the driver backed up and did it twice. I really don't know how these contests are scored, how many points you get for a broken ankle and how many you get for a felonious-assault charge, but we're going to have to call it a draw between losers.

I don't know either guy, and frankly, I can't relate to either. I can try, but they both just took it too far.

Lord knows I sympathize with cyclists. Cars are big and insulated and easy to talk on the phone or text in and easy to make go fast and anonymous and profoundly effective killing machines. People don't drive them with nearly enough awareness of that last part.

But I feel for the drivers, too. Hey, when you're driving someplace, you're usually in a hurry, and the fact is sometimes you have to slow down for a bike. Or a stop sign or a construction barrel or a squirrel. And it's annoying to slow down. I don't know why slowing down for a bike seems to be so especially annoying to some drivers, but I can guess. Maybe we look like we're having that much more fun, but maybe too many of us can ride pretty aggressively ourselves, blowing through stop signs and lights, hogging the road (sometimes you have to assert your position; other times it's just rude) either alone or in big groups (groups are cool, too, but there are obvious time and place issues).

Some very well-meaning civil engineers actually make things worse for a narrow and snobbish-sounding category of cyclists - mine, as it happens - who ride too fast for the bike paths they gave us, so we stick to the road so drivers who don't think it through can wonder why we're not over there slaloming between the skaters and strollers.

Goody. We've established that the road is filled with flawed individuals, making it very much like the rest of the world. How have I survived the better part of four decades on those roads without getting run over by someone trying to prove a point?

First, I'm just lucky. That's also why I don't have Lou Gehrig's Disease, a third-world hometown, or any given celebrity for a parent. Second, I've learned it's not as personal as it looks. Like Napoleon said, there's no logic in blaming malice when there's so much incompetence to go around. Even what looks like malice can be interpreted as extreme social incompetence, really.

It's not that I've never been harassed or threatened or scared or that I've never done anything dumb myself. It's not that I've never wanted to set someone straight. But to me, drivers are another form of weather. Some good, some bad, some types more common in certain areas than in others. With bad weather, you have a choice: You either prepare for it and accept it, or you stay inside and avoid it. Trying to educate a bad driver on the spot is akin to trying to lecture a tornado away from your trailer park.

So there you go. Anyone who saw that road-rage story two days after my peace, love and harmony blog post, well, I'm sticking by my peace, love and harmony claim. And it's nice that those two guys found each other. Cupid-dot-com couldn't have made a better match.


veloben said...

"Trying to educate a bad driver on the spot is akin to trying to lecture a tornado away from your trailer park."

Well now I have a new favorite analogy for explaining others extreme social incompetence.

It's not just you, Jef. Over some 30 years of cycling -recreation(read trying to go fast) and commuting (going slow in rush hour traffic), in and around Chicago this year has been the best for driver and cyclist behavior.

May this not turn the evil eye my way, but I'm with you. It's not that bad out there, especially if you don't go poking cagers with a stick or water bottle at traffic lights.

Steve K. said...

You call yourself a cyclist and a journalist, but you buried the lede: the bike was unharmed.

Seriously, very interesting story.
Never pick a fight you're not intending to have. Righteousness is a very poor weapon, especially compared to, say, a pick-up truck.

Kovas Palubinskas said...

"Trying to educate a bad driver on the spot is akin to trying to lecture a tornado away from your trailer park." What a great quote. Not sure when, but someday I will use it in a post myself! said...

The "bike paths" in West Bloomfield -- where the incident took place -- do not follow best practices nor meet national design guidelines for bicycling facilities (One exception: their rail-trail.) Their civil engineers may be well meaning but the bottom line is they're not doing their job. They are not building Complete Streets. Of course that's still no excuse for felonious assault.

Robert E. said...

I can't believe you haven't been hit yet. I have had four bikes totaled by collisions with cars so far, and I don't know the number of near misses.
Maybe it's Chicago, but I have to believe it is getting better.

Brian in NC said...

I really appreciate the insight. I quit riding for a long time partially because so many local drivers became aggressive. Now I see groups out on the weekends and soloists during the week and I'm hoping to take it up again (if the knees will let me!) But mainly I appreciate that you pointed out that the cyclist shares some of the blame. Another reason I gave it up was the self-righteousness of most (it seemed) of the local cyclists about rights to the roads and such. They didn't appreciate having the obviousness of the superiority of 2 to 3 tons of metal versus a bicycle pointed out. It seemed that the fact that they are right is all that matters. I'd rather be safe than satisfy my need to feel superior.
As a side note, we have had more than one incident of hit and run involving cyclists here within the last 2 or 3 years. One driver was caught (because the cyclist was able to call 911 before he died), but most never are. I have always loved to ride, but sometimes the fear of somebody running late and getting pissed off because they come up behind me in a blind curve keeps my bike parked. It's a sad reality of what we do.