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Fear of Death

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Photo by wburjvar, Creative Commons Licensing.

I read this article with some fascination.

My first thought was that if your mantra while riding your bike is “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.” then you are doing something wrong — you’re too worried about the things that could happen and you’re not focused enough on the moment.

Then again, I’ve never been hit. Come close a few times. Sometimes due to my own incompetence.

A few days ago was one of those times. I have a small portion of my commute that puts me on city streets, and a small portion of that commute is in Anchorage’s busy downtown corridor.

Yesterday I was riding to the bus stop and normally, due to the proliferation of one ways downtown, I’ll scoot around the lined up cars on their right to get to the stop line to wait for my turn to cross the intersection. Generally this isn’t an issue. Or at least it hasn’t been to this point.

Yesterday was different, though, and I should have realized it. Here’s the set up. Heading south on H street. There’s a shuttle bus, a white Subaru Forester, and couple of other vehicles. The shuttle bus is moving slowly, as they are wont to do. The Forester is driving as close to the parked cars on the right of the road as possible, probably looking for a parking spot. I’m stuck behind the bus and the Forester with a big truck right on my ass. We come to the light on 4th and I can’t slide through so I am stuck in with the flow of traffic.

The Forester is slid all the way to the right, as if it is going to turn or park, but instead it goes through the light. At 5th the Forester again slides all the way to the right. No turn signal or anything. I see a gap in the parked cars and hop onto the sidewalk to get around the Forester and up to the line at the light so I can get out ahead of the bus. I am on the sidewalk for the length of one car before I get back on the road (mistake #2). In this time the traffic light has turned green and the line of traffic starts moving again. There are peds in the crosswalk, with the walk signal. I look back over my left shoulder and see the Forester still all the way to the right, no turn signal. And I can hear its engine.

Revving.

Clearly the driver intends to turn onto 5th and to do so in front of the peds in the crosswalk (which is illegal, but no one in this town seems to get that). Here is where I make my biggest mistake. I knew the Forester was going to turn at this point. Instead of stopping, I hit the cranks harder and shoot into the intersection. If I were a ped, I’d have the legal right of way. Whereas on the bike I didn’t have the right of way and was — I’m sure in the driver’s eyes — just being a dick.

And I was. Not consciously, I don’t think. Just focused on getting where I needed to be and riding the route the same way that I’ve done for hundreds of other trips. The Forester driver honked and then had to wait for both me and the peds to clear the intersection before heading on. I felt the car stop really close to me, but I headed off to get to where I needed to be and everything worked out okay.

The problem is, I made a poor choice out of complacency. Just like drivers get so lulled by their daily commute that they stop seeing the things around them, so too do bike commuters.

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann, Creative Commons Licensing.

So, getting back to Harvey’s article. I agree. Cars and bikes need to find a way to get along. And we all need to be more aware of our surroundings. And, most importantly, we all need to realize that the other person, the guy being a dick, could very well be us one day and he or she likely isn’t trying to ruin your day or anything. We all just have our own stuff to deal with.

I know that, given the amount of time I ride my bike, it is not a question of if I get into a collision with a car, but rather when. And when that happens will it be because of a mistake I made or a mistake the driver made? Will it really matter in the end? I’ll either be shaken a bit, but fine, or I’ll be seriously injured or dead. It’s healthy to have an awareness of the risks, but silly to focus on them overmuch or to pretend they don’t exist as so many drivers tend to do.

As Tim Christopherson states in his comment to the article: “I’d rather get paltry gas mileage than be dead. I wouldn’t trust my life in the hands of Anchorage drivers. You’re a brave soul!!”

We could pick apart the logical flaws here, but I think at the base this comment mirrors the feelings that most drivers have — that the car somehow makes them immune from risk of death or dismemberment. And this immunity makes it really easy to forget that there are other users out there who do not have the same protections.

I could go on and on about how multi-thousands of pounds of metal and plastic actually up the risk factor when coupled with in-city speed limits that are just asinine. I could refute Tim’s comment by stating that he is killing himself and the planet with his driving and paltry gas mileage. I could infer that he drives a big vehicle, one that if it were to crash into a small car (say a Kia) would be analogous to a midsize car running into a bike and that the ever escalating arms race for bigger and bigger cars just makes the roads more and more dangerous. I could.

But I won’t because I’ve already started to lose the thread of this article, which is… Hell, I don’t know.

No, wait, here it is: If we all accept the fact that, yes indeed people who ride bikes or people who drive cars are people and make mistakes, break the law, and do stupid stuff, maybe then we will keep in mind that there are real lives out there on the roadways, not just large metal boxes zooming around. Maybe then we can start working towards better sharing of the roads.

And, if anyone from the mayor’s office happens to read this little missive — fix the speed limits in this town. They are stupid and get people injured and killed. Seriously.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great post. The flaw I see, and I’m sorry to always be a downer about it but I am, is self-interest. Even if you get a bunch of people to slow down a little and pay a little more attention, reduce speed limits, etc., there will still be the vast majority of people driving vehicles WAY too fast, engaging in pure self-interest moves like gunning it to go around someone only to get back in front of them and then slow down and turn, and so on. We need driver education, and laws to back it up, to point out that when you are driving like that you are essentially out to kill someone, only it’s hunting and you don’t always score one. A Credit Union 1 testimonial from a few years ago rubbed me the wrong way when it echoed the comment you highlighted… CU1 helped me to get a safer vehicle, which I’m sure meant that they got something bigger and heavier. It is an arms race, and unfortunately this attitude is increasing the risk of death not of just pedestrians and bicyclists (by increasing the odds of more severe or fatal injury) but also increasing the risk of death of people in smaller vehicles. Of course it doesn’t help when you live in a town strongly influenced by oil companies that offer incentives for employees to buy these monster vehicles; I’m not sure if this is still the case, but I know one of the majors did this several years ago, and I saw a whole lot more single occupant large SUVs and trucks with Vote No on 1 stickers than I did small vehicles. I’m a downer, yes, but until APD chooses to enforce traffic laws (and we see a reduction of speeds — I’m with you on that one) — or the town dries up so that people with the money to afford monster vehicles and burning through lots of gas move elsewhere — I don’t see how any of this will change.