Easily the biggest problem in cycling is safe roadways to ride on. I am not talking about the problems of bike racing, but of cycling in general. And the biggest issue in roadway safety, is driver error. Likely 90% of cycling deaths are caused by dangerous cyclists or more likely, inattentive and dangerous drivers.
This past week two events forced me to think long and hard about this topic, the rant by Tony Kornheiser and the reaction to it by Lance, and the death of Adam Little. The topic is not new. Cyclists have fought for their share of the road for a century. Distracted drivers are dangerous enough, but the risk is compounded by the "get off the road" attitude of many toward cyclists. Every few months someone in the media publicly expresses the bitter animosity that many motorists feel for all cyclists. Frustrated behind the wheel, some motorists (perhaps more than we want to acknowledge) think of all cyclists as pests, even as vermin of the road. When delayed for even a few seconds, they rage. This is true even if their neighbors or family members are cyclists. The rage can easily turn into violent confrontation with serious, even deadly, consequences. Unfortunately this has been true several times in the past few years, whether the road rage ER Doc in L.A. or the firefighter in North Carolina who brandished a pistol at cyclist riding with his son in a childseat?!?.
While there is no justification for assualting another person in a fit of road rage, cyclists do themselves harm if we fail to understand why drivers hate bicycles. I believe it is because most people in this country see driving a car, bus, or tractor as a necessity, and bicycles as merely frivolous recreation. The great challenge we face is to turn this attitude to where everyone views the car and the bicycle as equal choices in transportation. While we may have the law on our side in the case of an accident, that matters little if the law is not enforced. Motorists and the authorities reinforce their negative view by stating that cycling is dangerous because of auto traffic, and therefore not appropriate on the road. I agree with my friend Richard Fries, that the best solution to creating a different attitude amongst drivers, is to be humane, and be on the road. The more frequently cyclists are part of traffic, the more motorists will come to accept our presence.
However, there are good ways to go about this, and not so good ways. The biggest sore spot in many communities is the out of control group ride. I love a good fast group ride, they can be some of the best training and terrific fun. But they are not races, and should be not conducted like a race. My little town has alot of group rides, usually 8-9 a week during the season. most of the time, these rides are very responsible; everyone stops at lights, people ride in 2's, and we single up for passing traffic. Occassionally, one of these rides gets out of control; some one from out of town starts riding across the lane, or ignoring traffic, or shooting the shaft at drivers. When this happens, we hear about it very quickly. The local PD knows to call the owners of the local bike shop, who know everyone that runs the various group rides. One advantage of living in a small town is that we are accountable to each other. But that doesn't stop problems entirely. I've had angry conversations about cyclists and group rides, even with my neighbors. In larger areas, where rides are more anonymous, and traffic more congested, I imagine the problems can be impossible. But as cyclists, I believe that we are responsible for riding without causing needless conflict with auto traffic. When group rides regularly show blatant disregard for motorists, we are all put in greater danger.
The second group of cyclists that I have mixed opinions about is Critical Mass. On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt to make cycling in urban areas more accepted/visible. I admire their activism. On the other hand, I am not sure that sometimes obnoxiously stopping traffic is the best way to accomplish the goal. Critical mass rides can quickly devolve into mob rule, complete with taunting cars and throwing things. The reality is that if we allow mob rule to govern the roadways, cyclists will loose. We are a vulnerable minority on the road. Cars and motorists outnumber us by every measure. If it came to vote, I believe some communities would restrict cycling to the bike path only. It is easy for people who have never ridden a bicycle faster than 12 mph, or haven't ridden in decades, to vote for such a measure. We need to remember we have both rights and responsibilities for safe cycling. Our ability to enjoy our sport may depend on it. We only improve our position if we ride in a way that motorists can respect us. We have to share the road too.
This is not to say that motorists are justified in their negative attitudes. Or, that cyclists are treated fairly on the road. Typically, we are not. But we can only control our own behavior, and seek to have a positive effect on the attitudes of the community at large through our positive actions. I believe that it is only through extending respect that we will slowly, but surely, win more people's respect for cyclists.