Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bikes and Cars: We May Struggle to Share the Road...

But after talking with Shane Farthing of WABA and John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, I learn that both agree: Maryland's vehicular manslaughter laws are in need of an overhaul.

Natasha Pettigrew's death is still under investigation: as is the death of cyclist Stanton Miller of Montgomery County. But the cases have both Farthing and Townsend talking about the need to focus on the obligation that drivers have on the roadways. AAA Mid-Atlantic was right there with Prince George's County State's Attorney Glen Ivey in Annapolis back in March: fighting to change the laws that allow drivers to --in the words of Ivey--"walk, even drive away" from a fatal crash with nothing more than a traffic ticket.

You can hear the pieces on WTOP at 103.5 fm.

And I'm just thinking:

Who hasn't heard from police that 'Driving is not a right, it's a privilege."? Yet don't we all act as though it's our right? I mean after all, a car is the thing that can empower us to travel as far as we want whenever we want. I know as a young reporter working at suburban  and rural stations my reality was: no car--no job. It was a lifeline to my livelihood. A car allowed me to work crazy shifts and head to out of the way destinations at a moment's notice.   For many people, including former teaching colleagues in Montgomery County, the car was the only way home: to affordable housing in Frederick or Washington Counties. Or even to homes in Pennsylvania.

Every driver I know will cite the examples they see of cyclists who zip between cars, blow through stop lights, or stop signs, or generally treat traffic laws as things that apply only when convenient. I've been frustrated myself when a pedestrian darts out into traffic outside of a crosswalk, or a cyclist who decicdes to thread the needle in gridlocked traffic. But what of  the drivers who drink and drive, who text and drive, who speed, who travel in the shoulder or  make the decision that make their attitudes clear: the laws apply--but not to me, not at this moment?

So I ask: how willing are we to admit our own transportation transgressions? And how willing are we, as a friend of Natasha Pettigrew's family says "to treat life as though it really is precious"?  At what point do we look at that motorist next to us, that cyclist in the bike lane, that pedestrian approaching the crosswalk, as someone's child, wife, husband, parent? Can we give each other a break?

I'm a reporter. I don't have the answers.  I'm just asking.


  1. Kate, thanks for bringing some humanity back to what far too often turns into the same terrible finger-pointing discussion of who is more at fault, blah blah blah. This is the perspective we all need to keep in mind. Those are fellow people in the cars and on the bikes around us, and we need to be as concerned with their safety and welfare as we are with our own. Thanks for being a civilizing influence here. It's much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for this perspective, Kate. I am one of the bicyclists that stops at lights and stop signs and am constantly confronted by drivers talking to me about scofflaw cyclists -- as though I'm responsible for every person who chooses the same transportation that I do.

    Most drivers I know say that it's the other drivers that they're worried about. But I'm worried about all of them. Just a second of sending a text message or talking on the phone, applying make-up, reading the paper, eating a snack, looking at passengers can distract their control of their multi-ton vehicle and kill me.

    There seem to be no repercussions for killing a bicyclist with a vehicle. I am so sorry for Natasha Pettigrew's family and for the rest of us who have lost a smart, creative, and talented young woman.

    Best of luck on your bicycle quest. Thanks.

  3. Kate,

    Good article.

    wrt "Every driver I know will cite the examples they see of cyclists who zip between cars, blow through stop lights, or stop signs, or generally treat traffic laws as things that apply only when convenient."

    When I am driving a car and I see cyclists not obeying traffic laws, I cringe, but that does not give car drivers the right to treat cyclists (and pedestrians) cavalierly. I see drivers blow through marked crosswalks with people waiting to cross, daily. I see drivers turn left directly in front of oncoming cyclists (far closer than they would if it was an oncoming car), daily. And I see drivers not paying attention to driving and their surroundings (on phone, texting, reading the paper, turning around to check on kids in the back seat and much more), daily.

    I drive my car almost daily, and ride a bike almost daily. And I am not a perfect car driver either, but drivers licenses should be revoked for those who cannot pay attention while driving their cars.

  4. Wow...thanks to all of you for thoughtful replies. I also tire of the he-did-this-she-did-that school of communication, it just doesn't get us anywhere.

    We all have that shifting perspective: as a pedestrians we see cars one way, as cyclists, another, and as drivers, we see pedestrians and cyclists differently. Which also makes me think: with the change in seasons, I'll have to post on visibility soon. Let me know what works for you, what you do as a rider/pedestrian, what you appreciate as a driver, etc.

    No matter how you get where you're going, safe travels.

  5. this is one of the best posts I have seen on this subject. i will add that there are days when I feel more endangered by some of the other cyclists along my route than I do by drivers. your guideline, to act with concern for your fellow human beings, whatever their mode of transportation, is a great one. thanks!

  6. Hmm..jerry'sdaughter; First, thank you! Second, so what are these other cyclists up to? I've had my brushes with the Armstrong-wannabes and the downtown dare-devils, And I don't mean to be snarky there, because I fall in the plodder category. I"m out for fun and transport and put no land speed records at risk, but I'm interested in what bike behaviors other bikers would like to see addressed. (And I have to ask: is that a Camper Von Beethoven reference in your name?)

  7. Good post.

    This is something that I (as a frequent bike commuter) emphasize when talking to others about transportation choices: drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are not mutually exclusive categories. We're all people, and many of us are all of those things at one point or another.

    Another thing I emphasize is that if someone bikes recklessly - or walks across the street without looking - that same person probably drives irresponsibly as well. A change in mode of transportation doesn't usually change someone's respect for the law and for others. I see people do ridiculous things all the time. There's a 4-way stop I go through every time I leave my house. Almost every time, someone fails to stop completely - or in some cases even slow down! Most of the time it's someone in a car - sometimes it's someone on a bike. If there was a lot of pedestrian traffic, I'm sure some of them would be doing weird things too...

    Finally - I think we have to remember that the bigger the vehicle, the more of a weapon it is, and the greater care we have to exercise when driving around others - especially others who are not also inside a large vehicle. Heck, this is why truck drivers have to get CDLs! As you say, our society seems to view driving as a right - even to the point where we don't want to take the "right" to drive away from those who have taken away others' right to live.

  8. The saddest thing is that the driver didn't stop. For that, no matter how law-abiding or law-flouting the cyclist in an accident might be, there is no excuse. Period.

  9. This is a civility issue and involves respect for life. I appreciate your effort to highlight this issue and put pressure on the right people to change the law. I was hit by a driver, driving on a suspended license, that made an illegal u-turn and hit my bike. I flew over the car and suffered a broken clavicle, broken scapula and seven broken ribs. The driver was given a slap on the wrist and charged with a minor traffic violation.

  10. Thanks for your very positive effort to find common ground between cyclists and motorists. Unfortunately, the thoughtfulness displayed in your post and in the comments above cannot become the norm on the road unless something changes. Sadly, both cyclists and motorists can be relied upon respond to continue to do their best get where they are going as fast as they can, within bounds of their own perceived safety.

    With that in mind, is worth mentioning that roads can be designed so as to discourage speeding by, for example, narrowing traffic lanes and adding separated bicycle lanes. Study after study shows that speed kills and that people will not slow down unless the roadway design forces them to do so.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful posting.

  11. Thank you ALL.
    M1EK: Prosecutors tell me Maryland law requires that anyone involved in a crash must stop...whether it involves a person or property. Here's the question in this case: what happens when you hit a deer or other animal? The driver in this case reportedly told police that's what happened. Bringing charges could hinge on that along with many other factors still being investigated. It's way too early to judge anything about this case and how it will go. I know there's been rampant speculation. Keep up with WTOP for more on what the facts tell us.
    Ow! I am so sorry to hear this. You know, Natasha's friend told me that he hopes that everyone can please try to regard life as the treasure it is. That thought stays with me.
    Jonathan: Your observation on road design is a good one. I recall a fascinating discussion with a professor of-get this--traffic psychology in Berlin. He talked about the village in Germany where they experimented by taking all street signs out of a main square. It forced everyone to slow down and negotiate their way through the square: eye contact, hand signals, etc. It worked. Now of course, making that possible on area highways isn't workable, but it makes your point: design is a very useful tool and can drive human interaction in good ways.

    Thank you all, and no matter how you travel, travel safe.

  12. I agree that every road user should be aware of others, regardless of their mode of travel. In "Bicycling and the Law," Bob Mionske notes that we all have a "duty of care" toward other travelers.

    Road design can make a big difference in how easy it is for motorists to exercise that duty of care. Tom Vanderbilt (in "Traffic") notes that modern road engineering has increasingly focused on removing obstacles, reducing ambiguity, standardizing signage, and so forth, effectively creating a reduced-stimulus "traffic world" that differs significantly from the messy real world.

    "Traffic world" originated on limited access highways, but suburban arteries are increasingly being designed, or redesigned, according to its principles. The result is that drivers tend to go faster and pay less attention to things that don't "belong" in traffic world. The Complete Streets initiative ( is intended to challenge that assumption that the car is dominant.