Friday, September 16, 2016

A Modest Proposal

As cyclists and pedestrians we learn about ways to make ourselves visible and safer while using streets and shared paths: high visibility clothing, reflectors, blinky lights, helmets, hand signals, eye contact, etc. As vulnerable -- yet legally equal -- road users, the onus has been put upon us to protect ourselves to ride, run, and walk safely.

When we hear about collisions or near misses, or when new projects for multimodal transportation are proposed, there is often an outcry of "why should WE (the motorists) have to pay for something we don't use" or "why should WE (the motorists) lose parking spaces or lanes to make way for pedestrians or cyclists who  belong on the sidewalk/not on MY road" etc.

Sometimes the language is couched in "roads are too dangerous for anyone not in a car".

Sometimes the language is "THEY (the cyclists/pedestrians) can have more road space when they pay for it", which is often a call for licenses or registration. But cyclists and pedestrians - when not wearing headphones - are aware of their surroundings.

Here is the thing, and it's a lesson that has stuck with my since driver's ed. (which is not a required course but should be). Our instructor, lousy teacher though he was, did manage to drive this point home:

Vehicles are 1000+ steel-frame bullets that are speeding along at 20+ mph.

In the last 100 years or so we have come a long way in increasing vehicular safety, but that is safety for those inside the vehicle. The impact studies are to protect those inside the vehicle (the force is taken by the frame and passed around the cabin, rather than older designs where the front end would crumple up on itself and into the driver and passenger). New regulations about infant seats, seat belts, airbags, etc. are all to protect those in the car.

Add to that the social psychological effect that occurs when one is literally in a bubble: people in an enclosed vehicle behave differently than those in a convertible (are less courteous, less pro-social in general, and are worse drivers) because the physical bubble removes them from the environment.

So we have people careening around in 1000+ steel bullets at 20+mph, with the full knowledge (at some subconscious level) that they are protected in their bubble, and psychologically removed from their world by being physically removed from their world.

If you include distractions like the radio, people in the car, texting (AUGH), or mobile calls, this insularity and removal from the very real responsibility of having to direct this 1000+lb steel bullet at 20+ mph becomes larger.

Which brings me to my point. We as a society license drivers because it is a big deal and big responsibility to drive a car. Every time we get behind a wheel, as routine and simple as it seems is a massive undertaking, and requires a social agreement and engagement with the greater world.

My proposal: stop making cars safer. Get rid of airbags. If we went back 60 years to unreliable cars that would break down if you look at them funny, to where people would realize that the act of getting into the car is the risk that is actually is, perhaps they would take driving seriously.

It is inconvenient. Lawmakers drive, so they want to protect themselves and be safe. But the unintended consequence is that people forget why they need a license in the first place; it is a dangerous and risky behavior, and if we only protect the people inside the car so that motorists forget about everything going on outside then that's when people get killed. The vulnerable users.

It can't be perfunctory. Driving is not a right.