October 2, 2007

From the Archives: Talkin' 'bout a revolution

Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.

There must be something in the water -- I've had an unusual number of close calls lately while commuting between jobs/home in the OP area (Sprint Campus, Pflumm, 143rd, etc.)-- while I'm always trying my best to be a model bicycle commuter while in traffic, it's absolutely shocking how many drivers are simply not even aware of my existence, despite bright orange messenger bag with reflective accents, flashing taillight (even in daylight), etc. - and if they DO see me, my relative size on the roadway makes it very difficult to judge my speed, etc., relative to the cars around me.

It amazes me how many following motorists whizz past me, only to turn right, directly in front of me, at an intersection or shopping entrance that we managed to arrive upon at the same instant -- they couldn't have waited three extra seconds behind me to turn safely? Was my speed that hard to judge? Are they in THAT much of a hurry? Did they even SEE me? Was I far enough into the lane? It happens often enough on this particular stretch that I've lately been pouring over maps to find another way. Compounding all this is the recent closure of the Indian Creek Trail under Antioch, which adds a flavor of extra stress to my afternoons now. Can I survive the odds until late 2007 when it reopens?

Many of you have read, heard-about, seen on the news, the rash of recent cyclist/automobile accidents that have unfolded in recent weeks. It’s tragic, frustrating, and unfortunate. True, not in every case was the motorist at fault (but the majority were) – but was there something that COULD have been done differently to adjust the outcome? Could they have swerved away, stopped short, not have been speeding? Granted not everyone is a ‘master’ driver, but come ON: for every driver that enjoys cycling, watches the Tour, knows the rules and our rights there are dozens of drivers that frown on cycling, don’t understand our rights, and think what we are doing is WRONG – and that affects their judgment.
There are drivers that are able to stop on a dime and perform wonders of automotive acrobatics when a stray dog or basketball enters the road – but there are others that have no clue of what’s happening more than 12 feet in front of their hood. We’ve all been tailgated before: have you ever experimented, changed lanes, and watched them speed onward until they reach the back of the next car in line, and then watch them suddenly begin changing lanes, two at a time, to finally turn at the intersection they almost missed? It’s as if they have no gauge for their own speed unless they are following someone, to the point that they don’t know where they are! Tunnel vision! Do you think they’d see a cyclist over to the right during all this?

I’m sure we all know how the level of driver behavior has degraded in Johnson County in the last decade. Many of us are guilty of helping perpetuate it – me included – which is why I try NOT to drive anymore! Remember this: next time you get stuck behind ‘grandma moses’ on the way to “whatever” on “where-ever” Blvd. consider if the way s/he’s driving is REALLY that bad. Yeah, s/he’s 5-under the posted limit, but if a cyclist makes a mistake and darts in front of her/im, I’ll bet she’ll be able to stop fast enough, even if her/is reaction time is slowed by age! Is there anything really wrong about driving that way? Are you really in THAT much of a hurry? At the very least, we, as drivers, should all slow down. Consider these facts next time you are ‘late’ for something:

The stopping distance required to avoid collision increases exponentially as you increase your speed.
You burn more gas, create more stress to yourself and those around you, and you get tunnel vision.
However, the arrival-time difference between the driver driving the speed limit, and the driver traveling 10-MPH OVER the speed limit for a 20 mile trip is SECONDS. Mere SECONDS. You’re already late – driving faster won’t change any of it, and you put people at risk!

If something unexpected happens – you can imagine the outcome: The only thing you are focused on is the fact you are late and driving too fast – everything MUST go perfectly, green lights, holes in traffic, open lanes – you are not expecting any NON-car obstacles to emerge. You are stressed, have tunnel vision, and are likely driving too fast to stop quickly enough to avoid disaster. If you are also following too closely, assuming the driver in front of you sees an obstacle and reacts, you’re too close to not hit them and plow them into that obstacle. And that’s if you have the radio off and are not on the phone or listening to the kids in the backseat. BIG PROBLEM, and it’s not rocket science.

Remember, it’s not your precious car’s bumper that’s at stake, or your insurance rates – it’s the completely unprotected child, dog, ball, or CYCLIST, that is truly at stake. Even if you know the area, have never had a ticket, a wreck, or even a close call --- YOU NEVER KNOW what is waiting around the next corner, and part of the privilege of being allowed to drive in your respective state is the notion that you have control of your vehicle at all times and are prepared for any nature of obstacle or hazard, and drive appropriately.
A large majority of us do NOT. THAT has to change.

Unfortunately, I can scream about it all day long, and people might change for a couple days, until they revert back to the same-old-thing.

I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for motorists with slow reaction times, poor phone habits, poor turn-signal habits, and general pre-occupation behind the wheel; but there are SO many things stacked against us all already as cyclists. It's scary: the only two places I really feel safe on the bike anymore are WAY south-east/west of town (say anything south of 159th, lately) and DOWNTOWN KCMO! The suburban core of OP, Olathe, & Lenexa has evolved into something of a "red-zone", which creeps farther south and west each MONTH as new developers break ground and invite more young professionals onto once sacred cycling turf.
Downtown SAFER? You bet – the lower speed limits, existence of extra lanes, bike lanes recently, and increased driver awareness caused by traffic density, parking congestion, foot traffic, etc, makes downtown a perfect place to ride. It’s probably the ONLY place I’ve yet to have a scare or issue --- however, it doesn’t bode well for speed work or endurance training – I’ll grant you that. I still wish I worked and lived there.
Suburbia, with its 45-MPH mini-expressways, highway ramps, multi-turn-lanes, and apparent lack of planned alternative-transportation accommodations, has great, long, open roads – if you want to ride before 9am on the weekends. After that, forget it. Getting to work? That’s precisely why I leave the house by 5am – any later, and I take a huge risk.

This is not just for commuters, but weekend riders, too – as I'm both --- anyone that's tried to negotiate the once-sleepy intersection of 159th and Lackman/Blackbob on a Saturday morning in the last year knows what I mean. It’s gotten downright dangerous. One has to venture farther and farther south to feel safe, every year. As soon as a new housing development gains access to a once rural street, that street almost has to get checked off of a cyclist's "rideable" list. 143rd? 151st? 159th? Now, 167th? 175th is not far behind. SUVs and minivans flying to and fro, and driving as fast as they feel because “no-one is out on these country roads…” Madness.
I saw new houses breaking ground at 183rd last night!
Is it time to move to LaCygne for safe riding?!

It's ALMOST, ALMOST getting frustrating enough on these streets for me to abandon to the car again during the week.


I try every day, and I do make mistakes like all of us do, but the simple fact is, the odds can catch up --- it only takes a small collection of unfortunate variables to orphan my children & widow the wife: and I'm wondering if that is worth the price of gas? Does how careful and mindful of the rules of the road really matter at all when that sleeply teenager on his way to work at the mall Sunday morning flies up behind me at 15 MPH over the posted limit, on a hill, with oncoming traffic he doesn’t yet see?

Suburbia needs a wake up call.

Let's consider this analogy, however misplaced or vague:

Cycling is a small, struggling nation.
Motorists represent a large, colonizing power.
Among we cyclists are a select few soldiers that have been fighting our advocacy battles tirelessly for years.
The fight is long, hard, and never-ending -- yet we cycle along under the blanket of protection our soldiers have provided.
It's time for all of us to pick up a "weapon" and join the fight.
Whether we pen a bill proposal, or simply make a personal pledge to follow every rule of the road to the letter, even on exciting, fast-paced group rides -- it's OUR TURN to earn our rights, and take back these streets from our oppressors.
We can't continue to assume we are right, and we will always be allowed a place on these streets.
We can't stop them from marching south and building new fortresses, and there is little we can do about the poor city planning that has rendered so many areas devoid of human activity, walking OR cycling.

But we need to secure our right to co-exist.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I'd like the opinion of those that fight for advocacy, namely Dale C. and Brent H.:

It's worthless to shout upon deaf ears, because there are no wayward motorists here searching for the way to treat bicyclists better.

I’m instead wondering if there are any stats that point to the effectiveness of Public Service Announcements, or editorials on local news channels; if only to raise awareness in the suburban areas where we are most at risk. I'm certain it's an idea that's already been examined -- but wondering if there is anything else on the table for public awareness that we can do, cheaply and effectively? Radio, perhaps?

Good behavior and road manners on our part can only go so far to give us all a good image, and create an atmosphere of consistency in our behaviors, resulting in consistency in motorist treatment. I’m not saying ‘just ride scared, rules-be-damned’ – we should absolutely continue to follow the rules as cyclists, because it’s ALL WE HAVE.

Accidents and death tend to create ideas in the minds of legislators that we cyclists shouldn't be out there.
It's happened before, and the capable minds of our advocacy soldiers have kept our rights intact -- but still, it's easier to get rid of us, rather than try to change the behavior of tens-of-thousands of motorists. You saw how things favor with the speed limit issue a few years back, remember? When the ability to enforce the speed limit becomes such an arduous task, the only solution is to raise the limit to better fit the very behavior you’re unable to change. The consequences need to be stiffer, across the board. Mess with a cyclist, and you simply aren’t allowed to drive anymore. Become one of us, feel the pain! Everyone in the advocacy role should get our support 110%, to GET the stiffer penalties made law – it worked recently in Missouri – let’s keep going! They need our help!

I challenge everyone reading this -- we are all busy; kids, jobs, family, etc., -- it's hard to fill the town-hall with cyclists at every opportunity -- but we NEED to show our support for our 'soldiers' in advocacy by riding by the rules out there, as that notion is what helps these bills pass --- why would they consider a bill's passage if the assumption was none of us were going to ride by the rules anyways? I hope the point is not too muddy ---- but if we can't make it to the courthouse, we need to support it on the roads.

At the very least, we are eliminating one of many variables in our daily (or our weekend) dice-roll on these unforgiving streets of suburbia.


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