We’re so used to the idea of drivers crashing into things, people, and animals that many headlines of such tragedies personify the vehicle, and in doing so erase fault from its ubiquitous operator. Cars confine empathy, especially while moving at speed. Cyclists and pedestrians become mere obstacles to avoid, or to not avoid once a motor vehicle and its driver are in motion.
And the thing is, cars weren’t originally meant to be everywhere at all. In fact, once you have everyone addicted to driving, the technological advantage of cars ceases to exist.
From ‘The Social Ideology of the Motorcar‘ by André Gorz:
“The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.”
Today, the masses are so affixed to the automobile that there are traffic jams lasting 11 days long. It would seem like a liberation from this prison would be in order.
Breaking away many have. The number of people commuting by bike is exploding. Everywhere you look cities are increasingly catering to the cycling and walking hordes. Begrudgingly, even car companies are getting in on the game.
I am riding a hill slower than you would like me to. I am taking a second to gain momentum at the stop sign. I am doing all of this on purpose, to make you hit me, so you will be late again and it …
But there’s still one problem. Drivers – whether in a 2,000 lb. gas-guzzler or a 2,000 lb. hybrid-electric – still are dangerous to everyone around them. They cause 40,000 traffic fatalities in the US every year, over a million globally. It’s little wonder a majority of folks ‘interested but concerned‘ about riding say they fear this envelope of automobile danger.
I’ve wondered about this before, is it cars themselves that frighten would-be bicyclists, or is it homicidal prejudice splayed out online that does the most damage?
Where do these sociopathic attitudes come from in the first place? The answer boils down to the aura of entitlement that accompanies marketing the automobile.
Again from André Gorz: “Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation, altering city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary.”
Drivers are confronted with this contradiction of their perceived status any time they’re stuck at a long light, stuck in congestion, or (God forbid!) stuck behind a cycling commuter they can’t pass.
Is there a way to undo the psychological damage that driving does to motorists without banishing cars altogether? Is it possible to for drivers see cyclists and pedestrians as human beings and expect them to treat us as such?
The most important thing is to slow drivers down. Cars are deadlier the faster they move; reaction time decreases as momentum increases exponentially. The other factor here is eye contact. The slower the car is moving, the more likely the driver is able to see people outside the vehicle, make eye contact, and communicate with one another as human beings have evolved to.
Once a driver’s moving more than 25 mph, however, eye contact with oncoming people becomes almost impossible. The other obvious area is signage and infrastructure. You see signs with bikes on them, you think about people on bikes. When you see bike lanes, you’re more likely to notice the people riding in them. And the more bike infra out there, the more people ride, period.
Nothing makes us more visable than riding in large numbers.
Another so-obvious-it-hurts idea is to make killing or injuring bicyclists actually be illegal. A century ago, lethal collisions were called ‘Homicide by Automobile‘, and were punished accordingly. Only as it became so common did the auto lobby demand a rebranding of this form of violence to be a blameless ‘accident‘ – a term still misused today.
Now, whether incarceration is warranted, that’s a whole ‘nother article. Jailing people has a lousy record of reform in this or any country. But certainly imposing stiff fines for loss of life, at least as much as we would for running over and killing a road worker should suffice.
If we respect human life – and all modes of transit – then ensuring drivers can’t literally get away with murder seems the least we could do. Recognizing the value of cyclists’ lives is imperative. We’ll never reach that climate-concious urban-bicycling utopia if we allow a classist automobile supremacy over the roadways. See you in the streets. •••