Opinion: Don’t be part of the problem

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By Eric McKeegan

American cities are a wonderful place to live. Really. Regardless of perceptions, the number of violent crimes and automobile deaths have been dropping for decades. But things are suddenly getting worse, apparently. According to streetsblog.org, pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 2015 are up 10 and 13 percent, respectively. Many of us that ride the roads regularly started feeling this long before these stats were released.

We all know someone who has been hit by a car while riding. The odds are good you’ve been hit yourself if you’ve been at this long enough. Something is different now. Something different enough to scare some formerly-hardcore riders off the bike on public roads.

It is too early for anyone to determine what is causing it. Read the comment section on any news report related to bicycles and you’ll find a large part of the public thinks we bring this on ourselves. That is a hard argument to support with logic, but it certainly points out a serious problem. The public views cyclists as a crew of daredevils with little regard for our personal safety, traffic laws and automobilists’ (wow, that is a word?) incredibly important time.

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Perceptions don’t cause collisions, but they do create resentment and resistance to creating more and better transportation infrastructure. It’s hard enough convincing people that bikes belong on public thoroughfares in the first place. So maybe, in a not-so-direct way, perception can cause collisions?

It’s something to keep in mind the next time you blow a stop sign, or roll though that red. While it might be ridiculous, each of us represents all cyclists to the non-riding public, as evidenced recently in Pittsburgh. After a cyclist’s death, local riders are being scolded by law enforce- ment, told to obey the law and informed they are being watched. Imagine police doing that to you in a car? Yeah, never going to happen.

Everyone knows that cyclists don’t kill people. Even minor accidents caused by cyclists are exceedingly rare. But it still seems like we are getting away with murder on the streets as we seemingly breeze through traffic with little worry about the rule of law. In reality, the only get-out-of- jail-free card that works with amazing consistency, and only for drivers, is the phrase “I didn’t see him”.

Maybe this is all a nationwide “bikelash” similar to what happened in New York City in the past decade. During her time as commissioner of the city’s department of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan made sweeping changes to public spaces and the streets. During her tenure in the Bloomberg administration, the city installed almost 400 miles of bike lanes, launched the wildly successful Citi Bike program, and installed more than 60 pedestrian plazas throughout the city, including one that eliminated car traffic on Broadway at Times Square.

These types of success stories give me hope, but they won’t stop people from getting killed tomorrow. Why? I think we all know why. I bet you have one in your pocket or within arms reach as you read this. That little screen that promises to deliver one more social media hit, one more text message, one more dating app match. The siren song of notification. An email from work that needs attention. The latest political news on Twitter. The text from your ex wondering when you are going to pick up the kids. A message on Facebook from a high school classmate you haven’t seen since 2001.

These things aren’t unimportant, but trying to deal with them while piloting a 3,000 pound vehicle on roadways is a recipe for disaster. The allure of the app is strong. They are designed to get our attention and keep us occupied. And they are effective. Probably too effective.

Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

What do we do? I really don’t know. We can install more blinky lights, and put on reflective vests and try to control the lane and do all the right things. But if someone is looking in at a cell phone rather than the road, it won’t really matter.

We can put our cell phones down while we are driving. We can teach our kids not to text and drive. We can talk to our friends and family about putting the phone down. We can work to get laws passed that make distracted driving a very unattractive thing to do.

And maybe next time you roll up to that intersection on your bike, try harder to not be so blatant about just rolling though. Everyone is watching. At least those people not watching their cell phones.

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