August 4, 2019

It's not a question of "if" . . .

A very safety-conscious boss of boss looked me dead in the eye and said, 

"on safety, it's not a matter of "if" you'll get hit by a car; it's a matter of "when."

Taking the onion back an extra layer, this message was not delivered out of malice, but from a place of concern for the well-being of others - his team.  His concerns, his placement of the value of his people above their station or job position, is admirable: and a key leadership attribute, really.  But, delivered on a Friday, late afternoon, while I was packing my panniers and preparing for my evening ride home from work, his words would sit on my head like an anvil - for at least the next 12 miles. 48 hours?

Even though it comes from the same place as essentially telling a smoker that "those things will kill you," his words hung around my neck like a noose on my ride home, and I began to notice the poor behaviors of the traffic around me.  Everything became amplified.  Nothing had really changed, but my Zen was gone, my Chi disrupted, my Mojo in the ditch.  That was a pretty crappy ride home, among rides home.

Of course, it's my own fault for letting someone get inside my head.  

"Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head."
Jack Crawford was right to warn her.  

No, my boss's-boss is not a cannibal; but, he still took a voracious bite out of my soul and enjoyed it with a nice Chianti and some fava beans.

Statistically, mile over mile, bicyclists may remain ahead of the accident and fatality curve, but I do not like to throw numbers at things to justify behaviors or dispel conjecture when discussing human life.  Statistics don't do much to ease the tragedy of loss when one finds themselves at the far end of the bell curve.  The question should take some form of "what are you doing to keep yourself out of danger?"

Evidence of a difference?

I found myself driving out to Lees Summit yesterday to pick up an order, and in doing so I took my usual sort of way ... avoiding the highways and poking around some of the old cycling routes I used to frequent.  Enter Longview Lake, on a Saturday, late morning... there will be cyclists.  I'm a cyclist, so, I am more apt to see cyclists when I am out and about.  Ah, the Baader-Meinhof principle!  Case in point: rounding over a hill on Scherer Road, a long, sweeping corner with a downhill slant and a mile of good visibility.  It was clear and sunny with low humidity.  There were cyclists.  

First there were two.  Then four.  Why the change? 

The first two were wearing some sort of bright, solid-color jersey.  Yep, neon yellow.
One was running a blinking daytime running light.  
The pair stood out immediately as they moved along the shoulder in front of a backdrop of dense trees.

The other two had been there the entire time, and were, in fact, closer to me than the brightly-colored, well-lit pair had been.  These two were not running daytime lights and were dressed in darker jerseys.  Despite being closer to me on the road, I simply did not see them right away.  There is a difference.

Considering the distracted driver (which we must now, sadly, assume to be the behavioral norm) who peers up at the road ahead for a few seconds before returning to glance at their phone screen, in which group of cyclists would you prefer to be included?

I am biased perhaps, and I am a card-carrying lifetime member of #TeamNeon.  (not a real thing)  Yes, I look ridiculous when I ride, and I don't particularly care.

My equipment and dress rationale is based on over two decades of situational experience comparisons, wherein I have come to find I endure fewer close calls and negative automotive-to-bicyclist interactions when displaying bright, solid colors, good lights and reflective material than when wearing darker colors with patterns that render like urban camouflage at distances beyond 25 yards.  Visible function far outscores fashion when the risk of the latter can - at the VERY least - create a situation that might limit my future bicycling enjoyment; therefore I exclusively opt for the former.  Similar to turning on a car's headlights when it is raining, one must consider the potential for positives even in the absence of statistical evidence, instead of defaulting to the notion that it "makes no difference" because it is "daytime."    

Your mileage may vary - but my associations of positive results from specific behaviors will not.
Causality versus correlation.  I agree on the number of variables in play here.  I am merely referencing my own experiences.  I know of at least two cases where the existence of neon yellow and reflective gear still resulted in the death of a cyclist.  There are others who will argue that drivers can't hit what they don't see (explain that one to the family of any police officer struck by a car while standing by their fully-lit cruiser on the side of a highway), or that running lights and reflective gear actually draws motorists closer to cyclists and increases the dangers.  I understand those theories, but have not personally found them to be accurate.  I contend that outcomes can be influenced (not guaranteed) through controlling one's variables.  As long as I exist in this equation, I'm controlling my variables, Jack.

Full chemical impairment aside, no driver wants to hit anything in or near the road... be it a trash can, a rabbit, or a jogger.  In our right minds, hitting ANYTHING complicates our lives.

As my example from Lees Summit yesterday demonstrates - if we can suppose that even a non-distracted driver with a cognitive bias for bicyclists will identify those wearing neon-colored jerseys and running daytime-visible lights before identifying those without, even if those without are physically closer to their approaching vehicle, then we can reasonably suppose that a driver with no cognitive bias for cyclists who may or may not be distracted will likely miss the bicyclists dressed in black altogether, or at least not recognize them with sufficient time to formulate how they will safely pass them, or to correct their position in the road to at least ensure they will be missed.  

Even those staunchly opposed to cyclist's rights only ever intend to frighten a cyclist in order to send a message about their opinion, as certainly they have the base intelligence to understand the consequences for taking a human life are not equal to however they feel about a bicycle sharing the road.  Cyclists aren't "the British", and this is not 1700's Boston. 

Common sense, unfortunately, is a spectrum.  It must be recognized that there are some drivers who simply will not look up and aren't in their right minds, no matter what we are doing or wearing, right or wrong.

Cue the bitter, venting bloggist

Then there's traffic.  My recent preference for gravel over pavement has little to do with its popularity or the availability of special equipment; rather I think its popularity may stem from many cyclists reaching similar levels of frustration with traffic.  It is more closely related to choosing better roads.  If I am passed by more than a car per minute, I don't like where I am anymore.  I am constantly shifting my routes around to avoid traffic and various intersections that "don't feel right," and I think we each have a responsibility to do so.  If you find yourself riding down Nall between 119th and 135th streets just because Overland Park painted a stripe there last month, I would invite you to at least worry about your own sense of adventure, if not your own safety.  I'm also talking to you, riding west on 151st Street near Blackbob at 5:20PM on a weekday in thick rush-hour traffic "because you can."  Dude.... what you're doing, while legal, is perhaps a touch irresponsible.  I know I'm not perfect; but we all hold a stake in the bigger picture.

Bitter?  Perhaps.  I just don't like the way hospitals smell, and life is too short to put my loved ones in a courtroom hoping an appointed lawyer successfully compels a jury (who'd rather not be there) to decide who screwed up, on the hopes my wife might be able to afford putting me in the ground without losing the house.  Wearing the right things, doing the right things, and being on the right road WHEN something happens may well guarantee your loved ones a reasonable outcome, as opposed to a dismissive one resulting from the possibility of negligence on the part of the cyclist.  You decide for you.

I don't particularly like the idea that someone else is holding my time card ... but, none of us are immune to that which we cannot control.  We can control, however, what we wear, how we behave, and where we ride.  If the risk is being hit by a car ... remove as many cars as you can, and stack the deck in your favor while you can.

Just stay inside

"You need to get a Peloton, man ... it's just too dangerous out there."

In the coming glory days of Peloton, Zwift and Virtual Reality in general, it is going to become easier and easier to completely negate the risks of modern cycling by retreating to the basement and the trainer.  But, anyone reading this is getting something else from cycling far beyond the "sitting on a bike" and "exercising" part, and VR is not going to meet that need.  For everyone still on the roads, I see you.  I know why you ride.  We need you around, and so do the ones who care about you.  

For as long as we take the risk, we have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to ride by the rules, to set the example, and to make it easier for drivers to live with us.  Riding safely, being visible, controlling our variables, behaving predictably and reasonably, and being courteous are all important attributes toward keeping cycling relevant in the 21st Century.  We each have a responsibility for our own individual safety, the safety of our friends who are cyclists, and the community as a whole - on a global scale.  

While the masses may retreat to virtual reality, we can still do a lot to restore the often crappy brand we place on cycling in the eyes of non-cyclists.  The more cyclists that do "give up" and run back indoors, the rest of us represent fewer and fewer reminders to motorists that we are still out there, so our interactions begin to hold more and more value ... for better or worse.  We do have some control over that last piece.   

It's our responsibility

We have more to lose, so YES ... it's our responsibility.  

We absolutely cannot expect technology and collision avoidance in future cars to protect us or write the impossible guarantee.  We cannot expect drivers to intrinsically know what to do with us, or to see us at all; regardless of the responsibilities driving a car carries.  It simply isn't taught, and the law only punishes after the fact, after it is too late for us.  It might make the news, and someone might lose their license for a while, and we might get a white, spray-painted bike propped up at an intersection for a few years; but shortly after the scene is cleared and the road reopens, we're right back to a situation where . . . 

Nobody.  Cares.   

Unless WE DO.  Unless we take the responsibility, nothing will change.  The responsibility is ours to write a slightly better circumstance for ourselves in the absence of a guarantee, if only to delay the "when."  

All told, nothing changes simply because my boss's-boss demonstrated his concerns in a not-so-subtle way on a Friday afternoon.  But, it got me thinking, and it got me to post something with some actual content for the first time in three months.  It has turned into a decent head-check against my own potential complacency after dozens and dozens of uneventful rides to and from work and in the wilds of Kansas and Missouri on over a hundred randonneuring events and scattered gravel rides.  

I submit that succumbing to fear is far worse a fate than smartly mitigating the risks while responsibly enjoying the rewards.  Being visible and responsible is not succumbing to fear - it's part of our responsibility for our own safe outcomes.  We have to be safe, be predictable, be visible, and be courteous to other road users, and help write our own guarantee.

Cycling is a dangerous activity, yes; but, acknowledging the risks occasionally is not a terrible thing, for it helps defuse the sort of complacency which often becomes our undoing.

A matter of "when?"  Perhaps.  In the meantime, I will continue to do what is necessary to prevent my own injury, because I know what I am riding home for, and what I am riding to work to accomplish.  I know my responsibilities and can only hope that the drivers around me understand theirs.  Should some higher authority decide to intercede, I accept it.  I expect to have that conversation some day, but, we each have a responsibility not to do anything to expedite that inevitable meeting.  

The rest is up to the man upstairs.


The literal middle-of-nowhere, and I still have the stupid neon reflective triangle and lights.  While you and I both know there are absolutely NO guarantees, the people we love demand one.  Being safe and visible helps the bigger picture, and eases the minds of those who support our passion.  Be safe.  It weighs nothing.