Words matter. Nowhere is that more evident than in the trench warfare currently being waged over the term ‘accident’ in reference to motorists killing and maiming people walking and riding their bikes. Most law enforcement agencies have begun to appreciate why this term is unacceptable, how it perpetuates a lack of accountability and a culture of victim-blaming. Unfortunately, major media outlets like the New York Times still cling to this intellectually dishonest word, continuing to use us it in the face of transit advocate backlash. It is encouraging, though, that a far more correct term is coming into common speak: ‘traffic violence’.
It’s been said that cycling advocates should adopt the branding methods of the auto industry: Never talk about the dangers of your product. Never harm the positive imagery you’re painting to sell the bike experience. With so many potential riders afraid to put foot to pedal – it’s important not to perpetuate the myth of these harms. Truthfully, the harm is not in cycling, it is in driving, the harm drivers impose on human beings around them. We tend to overstate these risks in our discourse due the vast imbalance of danger between one mode over the other. While promoting cycling on the merits of fun and not scaring away the novices, it’s important to be honest in our dialog – motorists do kill thousands of people every year in lethal acts of violence.
The term ‘accident’ has become so common, it seems, because most people refuse to believe that someone would intentionally use a two ton steel machine traveling at speed to run down and crush the body of another human being. Yet drivers do this all the time. They did it in Portland in June 2007 & May 2012, Monrovia in July of 2013, Astoria in 2010, Oklahoma City in August 2013, Bristol in February 2012, Norwich in May 2013, Washington DC in September 2011, Los Angeles in April 2013, Oakland in july 2012, Seattle in July 2013, Spokane in August 2010, Montreal in August 2012, etc, etc. These were just the first two pages of over 300,000 search results.
Lest you think such violent acts are momentary instances of road rage, it seems many are premeditated, at least in spirit. Social media is rife with flippant threats illustrating what truly little regard many licensed drivers have for human life when perceived as posing even the slightest inconvenience on the road.
Then almost gotten a fight with two bicyclists. Get off the road bitch
— Caleb Valderrama (@RealCalebValde) January 12, 2014
I hate bikers who ride on the street. I’m just tempted to hit them and get my 10 pts
— Felipe Corrales (@fc3colombian) January 20, 2014
All bicyclists need to get ran over I hate they asses
— Cheree (@charbabyy_xoxo) January 15, 2014
@Alec_Tiscareno well bicyclists shouldn’t act like they own the road either because I can and will truck they asses over with my car
— Karreee (@collinge_karin) January 15, 2014
Anyone predicting the world of riding bikes is becoming too boring likely hasn’t contended with people like this lately. Most transit wonks and bike bloggers like to imagine that we’re all out there sharing the road with otherwise decent folk just slightly hindered by the empathy-dampening confines of the car. I’d agree partly, but there’s something deeply more disturbing about somebody consciously making lethal threats on social media, even if only in jest. Even without actual malicious intent, words still matter. This kind of language creates space where real hatred is allowed to fester unchecked – potentially inciting real violence in the future.
All the high-vis gear and super-strobing lights won’t mean a damn if some maniac behind the wheel picks you to murder with their car. There’s virtually no way to predict when such an act of violence might take place, no matter how politely you ride. With no means of prediction, are there means to prepare? What’s to be done with these psychopaths?
— Bike Haters Suck (@bikehaterssuck) January 21, 2014
Liberal aversion to firearms aside, is any kind of self-defense weapon appropriate – or even effective – for use by the cycling community? A retractable baton obviously wouldn’t help much against a moving car, and would probably only come in handy if a motorist was foolish enough to get out of their vehicle – an act that would cede their power advantage.
Back in the days before the automobile, the biggest threat to cyclists were muggers, tramps, and ‘foot-pads’. Look that one up. In April 1901, one Marcus Tindal wrote at length in Pearson’s Magazine about the numerous methods of self-defense he felt cycle riders carried in their arsenal. Engaging assailants in evasive maneuvers, smashing thugs in the face with iron bike tire pumps, throwing your entire bike at an attacker, and apparently, yes, using a cane as a weapon were all advised means of besting a rogue marauder.
Not to be outdone, revolver manufacturers of the time saw a niche to exploit. In the waning years of the 19th century, pistols of compact design were thought well-suited for wheelmen and wheelwomen concerned with safety and concealability. Weight probably hadn’t dawned on them as a desirability factor just yet. Even eating shit while packing heat was something gun-makers knew riders were wary of – an unintended dismount shouldn’t cause an unintended discharge. For the afore-mentioned gun-shy liberals, nickel-plated squirt guns were also marketed to repel man and beast alike.
Still, these small arms were designed for piercing flesh, not steel. Nowhere were handguns designed for bringing down a speeding automobile with a round through the engine block. Today, such firepower exists, though the recoil would likely be ill-suited for balancing upon two wheels.
So, what to do about deliberate traffic violence? How does one stop a speeding motor vehicle when the driver intends to kill? Short of diving for the curb cut, not much. Any damage you could inflict on a moving car would be superficial at best, and likely wouldn’t contribute to your safety – to say nothing of easing hostilities.
Obviously the specifics differ based on individual scenario, but I’m at a loss to answer this question. Short of mandating computer controlled speed caps – or best of all, banning cars from cities entirely, there’s no easy answer. Maybe it’s time to open it up to comments.
What kind of personal experiences have you faced with hostile motorists who intentionally tried or succeeded in hitting you with their car? How did you defend yourself? Did fight or flight work better?
Thumbnail courtesy True Bikes of Liberty.