Monday, October 19, 2015

Editorial: Just because we choose not to drive a car does not make us any less human

I had planned on running an editorial on a different topic, but reading some of the commentary on several recent incidents involving cars and two-wheeled vehicles along with nearly getting run over by cars while crossing the street last week has me more than a little upset at the callous attitude so many drivers exhibit. The most recent incident, shown in the video below, records one of the most unnervingly unsympathetic and completely sociopathic people I have ever seen. Shortly after swerving to cause a motorcycle carrying a passenger to crash, this driver has the gall to stand there and declare, "I don't care" when he is questioned about what he just did. Such disregard for human life is not just a little scary, it is downright run-for-the-hills alarming. Then, to make matters worse, the comments from other people start to pile on and, protected by the anonymity of the Internet, we get to really see what people think of those of us who choose not to get around everywhere surrounded by the metal crash structure of a car.

My own experience this past week has not been significantly better. On one occasion, while crossing at a signal controlled intersection, within the boundaries of the clearly marked crosswalk with a clearly visible walk signal, my dog and I were nearly run down by a livery driver who thought it was entirely appropriate to enter the crosswalk as soon as I had cleared the space he wanted to occupy, barely missing us by inches. Naturally, such a close encounter is going to startle a pedestrian and I immediately spun around to confront the driver of the large black SUV, who threw his hands in the air in exasperation as if he were confounded by why I was upset. Setting aside the fact that he was in clear violation of the law, which requires that drivers refrain from entering a crosswalk until pedestrians have cleared it completely, his lack of any semblance of guilt for the maneuver, compounded by his clear lack of giving a shit for my safety, sent me into a rage, causing an expletive laden diatribe to pour forth from my mouth. The SUV screeched off and I was left upon the side of the road seething in an adrenaline fueled state of anger.

Stories like this are all too common among the cycling community as well. There are countless stories of drivers intentionally making efforts to intimidate riders who are following their legal right to use entire traffic lanes. Some drivers go so far as to knock the rider over, force them off the road, or otherwise cause them bodily harm. When such incidents are reported in the media, the commentary that follows usually devolves into a cesspool of shameless victim blaming with many people voicing the sentiment that the cyclists "got what they deserved" for taking up the whole lane.

I believe this mentality towards anyone not ensconced in the confines of a car seems stem from a few key areas: ignorance, unfairness, and lack of education.

The ignorance comes in many flavors. It could be ignorance of the laws. It could be ignorance of the experience of others. It could just be plain and simple ignorance because of lack of exposure. Whatever, the cause, ignorance can be a tremendously dangerous fuel for dangerous and destructive behaviors. One of the greatest areas of ignorance for many Americans is simply an ignorance of perspective through the eyes of another road user. Most Americans will never ride a motorcycle during their lifetime and most stopped riding bicycles when they became old enough to drive. Since our culture is so dominated by driving, most Americans hardly spend time as pedestrians anymore, aside from the walk from the car door across the parking lot to enter the fast food join where their dinner awaits. Not understanding how the world view is different through the eyes of a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorcyclist leads to a lack of understanding of what is perceived as dangerous. Driving in a car, passing a pedestrian or cyclist with less than a foot of space may seem totally safe to a driver, but is a shockingly close call to someone without any kind of physical protection.

One of the most common arguments against the idea of letting motorcyclists lane split is that it is "unfair" for drivers to have to sit in traffic while motorcyclists get to zoom ahead. A common myth levied against cyclists using traffic lanes is how "unfair" it is that cyclists are allowed on the roads but do not have to pay registration and taxes to help pay for those roads. Both of these try to appeal to a sense of "fairness" that taps into the absurdly selfish belief that road use is somehow a zero sum game. If someone else is getting some kind of advantage, then it must be taking away from you in some way. We have turned road use into a kind of sick reality TV competition where the winner gets a crap prize accompanied by their 15 minutes of Internet fame. This attitude is also what leads to some of the more epic road rage incidents as one entitled person takes out their frustration on another in some misguided belief that this will somehow result in them being happier, but only ends up with them in jail.

As for the lack of education, it is a topic that I often revisit. Our driver education system is so pathetic as to be laughable. Not only do we fail to instill in drivers the rules of how to safely operate two ton weapons on the road, we fail to do any semblance of follow-up to make sure that they remain safe in their operation. Just as we license doctors and require them to re-qualify for their license every few years, drivers should be required to update their qualifications from time to time to ensure that they understand how rules have changed or evolved. On top of that, our driver education testing is atrociously inconsistent and lacking in interactions with other road users that it should be no surprise that most drivers simply have no idea what the laws are that pertain to motorcyclists, cyclists, or pedestrians. Testing criteria should be standardized and much more comprehensive and the standards much more stringent to ensure that the pilot of a two-ton box of metal is fully able to comprehend how serious the task of driving really is. Triggers for automatic failure should include reaching for a phone, hitting anything of any kind, and any moving violation that would normally result in a traffic citation. Of course, these standards are going to be the most difficult to change as legislation to alter driving requirements is often met with opposition that rivals the wrath of Zeus himself. There are certainly many advanced driver education options throughout the country and bless the hearts of those who invest the time and money to take those for their own, and everyone's, sake.

At the end of the day, regardless of how utterly ridiculous the current situation might be, what really needs to happen is that everyone needs to learn a bit of respect for everyone else. Just because someone has made the decision to not drive a car does not make them any less of a person. Do not judge them for their choice and instead, focus on your own.

Choose to be respectful of the rights of all road users.
Choose to educate yourself about the rules of the road and follow them as best as you can.
Choose to leave a little earlier so that you are not in a rush and cause chaos along the way.
Choose to allow a greater margin for error anytime you are behind the wheel.

Most importantly, choose to be aware of your surroundings and realize that your actions have an impact on your environment and take responsibility when you make a mistake. There is no faster way to diffuse a situation than to be genuinely apologetic, own your mistake, and communicate that to the other party.

As for the driver above, who exhibits such an abhorrent disregard for human life, I hope that he is punished to the fullest extent of the law for his actions. At a very minimum, I hope such a driver has his driving privileges revoked for the remainder of his life.

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