Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rights and Responsibilities

To operate a vehicle (i.e., a car, truck, motorcycle, farm equipment, horse-and-buggy and, yes, bicycle)  on the road, one has certain rights. It is these rights that are so often the point of contention for the debate (for lack of more appropriate descriptor) between motorists and cyclists, especially here in Atlanta (though probably especially in any dense, urban environment).

Neither "Side" is Completely Right (And It's a False Dichotomy, Anyway)

To be brief:

  1. Motorists who are not also cyclists often claim the right to the road by way of "paying their dues" in the form of gas taxes and licensing fees. There is also a common complaint that cyclists "have to play by the same rules" but don't, by running traffic signals, riding against traffic, and creating traffic jams by slowing down traffic in a given lane. There is a vehicular Darwinism, that if you are small and vulnerable, it's on you to protect yourself, and if there's an accident, let it be on your head. (It's been said by numerous such motorists that cyclists are "asking for it" when it comes to traumatic or deadly collisions with cars, regardless of true fault, to the point where "I didn't see them" is an acceptable defense in such cases). They point out that cyclists choose to ride bikes on busy roads and should accept the incumbent risks all for their very own.
  2. Cyclists often claim the right to the road as vehicles, but claim the inconvenience (and some may argue danger) of perfectly following all traffic signals is actually worse than following the letter of the law. Among people who ride bikes, there is inconsistency in what constitutes an appropriate stop at a stop sign, what is acceptable behavior behind long lines at lights or other controls, etc. Cyclists claim having the same rights as motorists, but some (many?) behave outside the bounds of those rights, to the consternation of other cyclists and motorists alike. Cyclists also rightly note that motorists also choose to drive, rather than exercise other options available for transportation.

Both sides need to recognize that with their rights come responsibilities, and both sides are doing the same thing: pounding the drum for their own rights while pointing out the failure of the others to uphold their responsibilities. It is uncommon for either side to acknowledge their own responsibilities or the rights of the other: though all four eventually get mentioned, it's finger pointing and self-aggrandizement.

The simplest way for this to work out is for everyone to behave predictably. Until the unlikely event where laws are changed, motorists and cyclists both need to behave the way people are expected to behave: stop at lights (yes, a ton of motorists run lights in this city, too); stop at stop signs (it's a non-starter to say that cyclists run stop signs, when the complete, 3-second stop is a rare beast for any vehicle); signal turns and lane changes; don't tailgate; don't hastily pass just to stop immediately; don't filter up past lines of traffic in the absence of a dedicated lane. Be predictable.

Yes, we have the right to the road, but with those rights come these responsibilities. These are rules of common sense, courtesy, respect, and, of course, the law.

Inconvenience != "Has it Coming"

There is no such thing as a right "not to be inconvenienced". Having grown up in relative farm country, I have spent a fair amount of time stuck on a road behind a tractor or other farm equipment. Inconvenient? Yes. Illegal? Nope. The driver of the tractor (for example), typically has his hazards on and drives as closely to the right shoulder as is safely practicable so that he may continue but also minimize the inconvenience. Does that mean I get to pass him if there's another car coming? Nope -- I don't have right of way.

In Atlanta there's a decided shortage of farm machinery, but still similar inconveniences: MARTA buses at bus stops, commercial trucks taking up an entire lane (and sometimes sidewalk) loading and unloading, and, yes, cyclists. Urban cycling, and law, being what it is, a cyclist need only ride as close to the right of the lane as is safely practicable. That does not always mean being in a bike lane, being in or on the shoulder, or even being to the right of a lane. It simply means that the cyclist is best suited to identify potential hazards for himself and should ride as safely as possible to avoid those hazards, which may not be visible or relevant to other road users. If that means impeding traffic, so be it. That does not absolve the cyclist from signaling lane changes or doing head checks for approaching (from behind) traffic. It's no different than any other slow-moving-vehicle. If a motorist (or even another cyclist) want to pass, they may not do so if there is not three-foot clearance around the cyclist, accounting for oncoming traffic.

Motorists do not get to make the decision about what is safest for all involved. If a cyclist is signaling a slow-down or a stop, that is the same as brake lights on a car. It is not an invitation to whip around, it is an indication that traffic is slowing and you should likewise slow down. It is your responsibility as a motorist in a 1+ ton vehicle to allow that cyclist the right of way and to slow. Cyclists typically have a clearer view of the road and hazards, and use hand signals the way cars use indicators to share that information.

Inconvenient? Perhaps, but even a casual bike rider can maintain his place in traffic without causing motorists behind him to miss the next light. That's the nature of poor traffic control, urban planning, and rush hour in Atlanta.

Cycling Advocacy's Inconsistencies Are a Major Problem

This is not to lay all blame at the feet of all motorists. Cyclists must cull their own herd for bad actors. I have said this for years, and it is still true.

As the marginalized population, some cyclists claim that "taking their rights" is the only way to ride safely. I respectfully disagree. With the current acrimony between cyclists and motorists in this city, continuing to ride in the illegal, unpredictable manner that is so often pointed to by motorists as dangerous and, to be sure, the reason cyclists are "asking for it", is only hurting whatever good will we may build as a community. If we, as a group, can't commit to behaving in a predictable and safe manner within the current law, we are costing ourselves and everyone else who rides a bike for any reason the benefit of the doubt should a collision occur.

Studies have shown that staking out an extreme (and in this case, unpopular with motorists and some cyclists) position is not an effective or efficient way to bring about change. In this instance, breaking the rules we're unhappy with, or that are inconvenient to us, is not going to get us a very sympathetic audience when the time comes. The rules are not unjust, these are not social justice rules. These are road rules.

You Knew 'Chology Was Going to Enter This Discussion Somehow

The spittle-flecked comments on any article about the death of a cyclist involved in a motor vehicle accident indicate that both sides are committing what, in psychology, is called the fundamental attribution error, except at the "group", and not individual, level. The fundamental attribution error, briefly, is that one attributes behavior exhibited by others to be a result of inherent, personal characteristics, whereas the behavior in oneself is attributed to external factors; that is, we as fallible human beings rationalize our bad behavior but demonize it in others.

For example, recently one of my rear blinkers on my car died. As I was driving at the time, I still had to get somewhere (home) where I could stop and having it checked/fixed. In the meantime, however, I was driving and still, by habit, indicating turns and lane changes, but those behind me couldn't see that. They would have thought I was any other schmuck changing lanes and making turns without signaling. It made me wonder how many times I've seen people change lanes without any apparent indication and assumed it was because they were irresponsible, ignorant assholes and not just unlucky at that moment. This is fundamental attribution error: I knew my signaling issue was external, but others likely attribute my lack of signal to my being a terrible driver and all-around person (because that's how angry we get when we drive and people aren't behaving predicably).

The same thing can be seen in any conversation between cyclists and motorists. Motorists often use the adjective "smug" to describe cyclists, and use words like "deliberate" and "intentional" to describe our slowing of traffic and apparent disregard for laws (see "asking for it", above). Moreover, all cyclists get painted with the same brush, though many clubs and groups take pains to educate their members as to what acceptable behavior is, and the relative number of bad actors is small to the overall population of casual and "serious" riders.

Cyclists, on the other hand, paint a picture of motorists as all being lazy, entitled, road-ragers (and often the retort "go get some exercise, you wasteful gas-guzzler", in some form, is thrown in for good measure), which is equally unfair. Many (I daresay  most) motorists are careful and cautious (perhaps over-cautious) around cyclists, and I am grateful to the many who give me space for lane changes when mine is blocked, when there is debris, a grate, or a hole in my way, or simply to make a turn from the left-most lane on a 5-lane, one-way street. I am grateful to the motorists who have the situational awareness to notice a well-lit, brightly-clad cyclists amid the chaos of rush-hour traffic, who don't ride my rear wheel, don't stop short in front of me, and give me my space when passing.

In Summary: We All Suck Could Do a Little Better

This has been a fairly meandering post. I meant to talk about rights and responsibilities. I'll try to bring it back to that here, in my summation.

Rights: we all have the "right" to use the road, under Georgia (indeed, all states') traffic law. ( We all have the right to the expectation of safe travel and respect of other legal road users.

Responsibilities: we all have the responsibility to behave predictably in our respective roles as road users. As motorists, it is our responsibility not to give cyclists a "scare" or to endanger other human beings exercising their rights (see above). As cyclists, we have the responsibility to ride predictably and represent our community in good faith, rather than flaunt the flexibility that traveling by bike affords: in short, if you wouldn't do it in a car, don't do it on a bike.