Cars and Bikers: How “Safe” is Safe Enough?

Cars and Bikers: How “Safe” is Safe Enough?

Ghost Bike copy

When a bicyclist was tragically killed by a drunk driver last week in Minneapolis, much of the media attention focused on how the victim had been a “good” biker, a “safe” biker. Blogger Melody Hoffmann noted that the biker’s safety precautions even made it into headlines like “Bicyclist killed on Franklin Ave. Wore Helmet, Lights, Just Moved to Mpls.” and “Bicyclist fatally run over was new to Minneapolis, careful about bike safety.”

To Hoffmann, this kind of coverage illustrates an unspoken but pervasive cultural trope: “the lawless cyclist and victimized driver.” Hoffmann cites the research of Zack Furness, who found that media reports about bicyclists persistently frame bicyclists as maverick daredevils who thoughtlessly force motorists to go out of their way to avoid hitting the bikers.

My immediate thought upon reading Hoffmann’s post was that, well, actually, bikers are often pretty unsafe. Here I include myself, a frequent biker who’s no stranger to running a stoplight when I think I can get away with it, and who’s not always the best about using lights when I’m riding at night. (I know, I know.) I don’t know how other bikers justify this kind of behavior, but I think we sometimes feel a little entitled: we put up with boorish motorists all the time—every regular biker, including me, has harrowing tales of dangerous driving and open verbal abuse—so if we dodge a rule of the road here or there, well, we’ve earned it. It certainly seems disingenuous to deny that bikers aren’t always little angels out there.

Then, though, I thought more about the behavior of drivers—not just with respect to bikers, but with respect to one another. Since taking a new job a few months ago, I’ve been commuting daily on I-94, and I’ve been amazed at how reckless drivers can be out there. Common-sense precautions like using signals, not tailgating, and actually looking before changing lanes are routinely flouted. (Not to mention the incredibly dangerous practice of drunk driving, which one in ten drivers freely admit to having done in any given month; the actual incidence is unquestionably higher.) This is rude, dangerous, and sometimes borderline suicidal—but it happens all the time, on every freeway, every day. Bikers can be reckless, yeah—but as a group, car drivers aren’t really in a position to cast the first stone.

In a public context like the open road, safety is a complex issue. It’s up to each individual to take responsibility for himself or herself, but safety isn’t just about you: it’s about people who might be endangered by your behavior, and it’s about the costs we all bear when accidents happen. An accident is most directly harmful to the people involved, but it also sets off a cascade of consequences that can range from traffic jams to bankruptcies to lifelong grief. Your safety—everywhere, but especially on the road—is everyone’s business.

Yet “safety” can be a very slippery thing to define. The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving in Minnesota is 0.08%…should it be lower? Could it be higher? Even a single drink begins to compromise your reaction time, but we’ve decided as a society that having one strong beer before getting in the car is “safe.” How “safe” is safe enough?

There are parallels in other debates about public safety. Should smoking be banned in public places—or even private ones? Should marijuana be legal? How many cops should be on the beat at any given time? Important safety issues are at stake in each case, but so are issues of personal freedom. Drunk walking is perfectly legal—in some places, you can even walk down the street drinking from an open container of alcohol—despite the fact that a third of pedestrian fatalities involve walkers who have been drinking. Drunk biking? In Minnesota, at least, that’s legal too.

It’s also legal to bike without a helmet, though Americans generally regard that as “unsafe” behavior, and many parents forbid their children to ride bareheaded. Shaun Murphy, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, got in hot water a couple of years ago for telling a local newspaper that he didn’t think a helmet was mandatory. He wanted biking “to be seen as something a normal person can do,” he said; he compared Minneapolis to European cities where helmet-wearing is rare, because biking is more common, safer, and slower. People in those cities don’t see helmets as a necessary safety measure, in large part because it’s less common for bikers there to ride on streets like Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, where bikers share a lane with cars flying past at 30-plus miles an hour.

What angers bikers like Hoffman about the “bike safety” discourse in America is that it puts so much of the responsibility for safety on the biker. The implication is that bikers have to look out for themselves if they’re going to choose such a hazardous pursuit. It’s a refrain I’ve heard a million times from people when they learn I’m a frequent biker: “That’s just so dangerous! I could never bike, especially at night.”

Of course it is incumbent on bikers to look for themselves, but putting all the responsibility for safety on bikers’ shoulders is a dodge. Individual motorists and pedestrians also have a responsibility to conduct themselves safely around bikes, and—here’s a controversial idea—all of us as a society have a responsibility for transportation safety, a responsibility to keep each other safe as we get from one place to another. That includes maintaining bridges and inspecting planes—why shouldn’t it include protected bike lanes? A helmet and lights couldn’t save a Minneapolis biker from an out-of-control drunk driver—but if the bike lane had been on the other side of the parked cars, chances are good that a senseless loss of life could have been prevented.

As with discussion of health care, discussion of public safety has to be honest about constraints. We don’t have infinite money to spend on health care, and we don’t have infinite resources to build and maintain bike trails. The health care comparison is apt in another way, though: it’s about individual responsibility, but it’s not only about individual responsibility. It’s about social responsibility. When discussions of transportation safety imagine our roads to be Mad-Max-like free-for-alls where every person is solely responsible for covering his or her own ass, we forsake our common humanity. We need to work together to keep ourselves safe, and that work begins with safe, responsible urban planning.

Jay Gabler

Photo by Dave King (Creative Commons)