Bad Attitudes

Two recent Washington Post stories and the reaction to them give me cause to question the possibility of constructive, civil discourse in general, and the ongoing skirmish among drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians in particular.  The first was the narrative of Post Wellness Editor Lenny Bernstein (no, not that Lenny Bernstein) of his experiences in trying to cycle to work in response to last month’s Bike To Work Day.  The second was the report yesterday of a fatal accident on the Four Mile Run bike trail in which a cyclist killed a eighty-year-old pedestrian.  In both cases much of the Post reader response was vituperative, nasty, antagonistic, and lacking in logic, compassion, and respect.

I suppose that tone is to be expected, since it’s been the norm for over ten years on the Internet, harking back to the era of AOL chat rooms.  Still, it seems surprising to hear it so clearly on a topic that really need not be controversial and should be taken seriously in the interest of public safety, namely bicycle use in urban areas.  What the two stories have in common is a focus on using bikes as transportation to and from work, not as recreational or exercise vehicles.

In his story Bernstein, who does not chan smoke and may not even like the symphonies of Mahler, admitted that he made some cycling gaffes, like riding through a tunnel when he could have gone up a ramp and avoided it.  He worried about his change of clothes from trail to office, he wondered about time, he considered options like driving part way, and in general tried to extrapolate from his own experience in going from a suburban home to a city office to assess the broader possibilities of biking to work in this large, complex, traffic-clogged metropolitan region.

He reported a few days later that most of his responses were supportive and collegial, including suggestions of alternate routes, ideas about how to carry the work clothes efficiently, and lists of dos and don’ts from experienced commuter cyclists.  He also, however, apparently got a large number of angry and /or vulgar comments about staying out of the way of drivers, breaking the law, and even just being a novice.

The pedestrian death story concerned a cyclist on Four Mile Run Trail in Arlington, VA who approached an 80-year-old woman pedestrian from behind about 7 a.m. last Monday.  By that hour the sun is well up these days, so visibility was not a problem.  He warned her both by bell and the familiar verbal “to your left” that he was passing her.  Her response was to move to her left, directly into his path, and turn around.  He hit her, she fell to the ground , hit her head, and died.  The cyclist stayed on the scene.

No charges were filed, but the incident was reported in the Crime section of the online Washington Post.  I can only surmise that the Post, having apparently abandoned copy editing some time back, is now moving into sensationalistic yellow journalism, trying to bias the story and create sensationalistic emotions from readers.  They got some in the reader reply section following the story.  The comments ranged from rage about lawless, reckless riders (this one seems to have done everything right, providing both a verbal and a bell warning, calling 911, and staying on the scene), to accusations of excess speed (no evidence of that—it takes very little force to knock down an off-balance 80-year-old), to absurd tangential arguments about what kind of nerd would ride the bike involved (a NEXT Power Climber dual suspension Mountain Bike with a shipping weight of 45 lbs. [that’ll knock you over!] currently on sale at WalMart for $88).  Burning anger, mindless ranting, with the essential facts of the situation forgotten.

I feel for both of these riders, having ridden a few times in swarming traffic, and having many times warned walkers of passing with “on the left” only to have them move in that direction.  Cyclists are accused of not following the rules of the road.  They are said to think the road belongs first and foremost to them.  They appear to think their own path and destination are the most important things.  Now I grant you there’s just a hint of a voice in the back of my head whispering “We don’t have to!  It does!  They are!”  But my Good Angel reminds me that just a bit of humility, caution, deference, and manners, even an occasional yielding of the right-of-way,  would solve most of these conflicts, and create a far more positive public opinion of cyclists.  In a city in which bicycle use is soaring—we don’t look like Amsterdam yet, but the Bikeshare folks can’t keep up with demand—everyone had better begin to think more kindly of others in cars, on bikes, and on foot.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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6 thoughts on “Bad Attitudes

  1. I was wondering how you would respond to those articles, I saw them both and was going to mention them to you in case you hadn’t seen them. Regarding the second article, I was thinking that could happen to any cyclist on the road. I remember a previous ride (in which I ended up crashing) when there was a pedestrian (16 year old kid) listening to his iPOD and walking on the wrong side of the path, except right when I was going to pass him (on the correct side) and he all of the sudden walks in front of me and I had to slam on the brakes and I flipped over the handlebars (luckily I was wearing a helmet). I avoided hitting him but no thanks to him.

    • I hope he was at least grateful. But I have learned never to trust these wrong-side walkers. They are disobeying the rules of the Trail because they feel safer (apparently) if they can see what’s coming. By making that choice they actually put themselves and others at greater risk. My attitude is that if they’re coming at me on my side, it’s entirely up to them to get out of the way. Probably too aggressive on my part.

  2. I must admit that I do hold some bikers in disdain, but I cannot find fault with the biker in the latter story. My gripe with bikers on the WO&D trail is that a lot of them do not properly warn people when they are passing (a clearly spelled out rule of trail use). This biker properly followed the rules of the trail and was only involved in the accident because the woman either was not paying attention or did not understand the correct procedure for the trail. There is nothing he could’ve done to react in that short a time period.
    This is very similar to Sarah’s experience. I was riding right behind her. She did every thing correctly, but could not anticipate the kid’s terrible judgment. She was just lucky to be able to stop and that she was not hurt due to the flip. This is another gripe I have with people on trails. I believe that if you wear headphones (which many runners are inclined to do), you take on full responsibility for any incident you are involved in. Shouts of “on your left” or ringing bells cannot be heard by people wearing headphones, which causes problems for even the most courteous and careful users of the trails.
    As with any transportation people have to understand that the best results come from thinking of the greater good for everybody instead of selfish interests. We all have responsibilities to ourselves and to all we share such transportation paths with.

    • Today the woman’s obit was in the paper. Apparently she walked daily on the trail for exercise. That makes her reaction more inexplicable; she must have encountered cyclists before and known what the warnings meant. Perhaps she never learned English very well (she was a Russian native) and got slightly confused. I totally agree that headphones are the bane of safety on the Trail, no matter who is using them. When walkers or joggers have them on, I shout my warnings.

  3. It is unfortunate…If only slow-movers would understand that warnings are issued by faster-moving trail-users to avoid surprise and encourage them to behave predictably — don’t DO anything.

    • Exactly right. I sometimes deliberately avoid a warning when pedestrian is, for example, a kid on a bike 50′ ahead of his parents. I always fear that they have not been coached about the meaning of the warning words.

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