A few years ago, I had surgery — for the third time — on the same knee. During the rehabilitation period, I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike. To quench my thirst for movement and aerobic exercise, I walked as often as possible.
One day, I was walking in Brookline, Massachusetts on my way to a meeting. It was around 5:00 p.m. and the traffic was very heavy. I came to an intersection which I had crossed many times before. This intersection had only a stop sign where a busy side street intersected with an even busier four-lane road. The cars on the side street always had trouble entering the four-lane road during periods of heavy traffic.
The only good thing about this intersection was the cop who directed traffic there during rush hour. This made crossing an otherwise uncrossable road possible.
I’m not one to pay attention to cops. Since they’re all dressed in uniform, they all look alike to me. But due to this unusual situation — where a live person was directing traffic at a location other than where roadwork was being done — I had looked this particular cop in the eye as he instructed me to go ahead and cross the street. From these brief exchanges, I came to recognize him.
On this particular day, I arrived at the intersection expecting the cop to stop the traffic to let me cross. What I saw instead was a patrol car parked at the intersection with a cop sitting inside.
I assumed that he was watching the intersection, so when there was a break in the traffic, I started to cross the street.
Not thirty seconds after I stepped off the curb, a maniac in an SUV decided to try to beat an oncoming car to the intersection and began to make a high-speed left-hand turn. Before I knew it, the SUV was coming right at me.
I stopped dead in my tracks and began backpedaling to the sidewalk for safety. As I jumped back onto the sidewalk, to avoid getting crushed by this massive vehicle, the driver yelled out the window “get the hell out of the street,” at which point he floored the accelerator so violently that his wheels squealed in agony; in a flash he took off down the narrow residential road.
I looked to my left waiting for the cop to turn on his siren and lights to pull over this SUV. To my complete and utter dismay, he sat in his car and did nothing.
Having nearly been killed, I was very annoyed by the cop’s flagrant disregard for the safety of pedestrians. It was his duty to monitor the intersection, yet he took no action when a pedestrian was nearly harmed on his watch.
After staring at the idle patrol car for a few minutes, I crossed the main road to have a little chat with the cop. Despite chilly temperatures, his window was partially rolled down.
I stood next to the driver’s side door. When he looked up, I asked him whether he had seen what had just happened. He did not respond. “Weren’t you watching?” I asked. “I’m a pedestrian. I was trying to cross the street and that SUV cut off an oncoming car in order to make a left-hand turn. He didn’t have the right of way and he didn’t yield to a pedestrian. I was nearly hit. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I didn’t notice him,” he replied.
“Aren’t you supposed to be directing traffic at this intersection the way you do every day?” I inquired.
“I’m not allowed to get out of the car,” he said.
“What do you mean you’re not allowed to get out of the car?” I asked in disbelief.
He shook his head and told me that he had just been hit by a car for the second time since he’d started directing traffic at this intersection. His superiors had told him to stay in the car for his own safety. I thought about it for a minute: there had been a substitute cop at this intersection for a while. I had passed it off as either a reassignment or vacation. But, clearly, the cop had been recovering from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car.
“What happened?” I questioned him in a concerned tone, “Were you seriously hurt?”
He told me the story of what had transpired. A woman was driving down the main road and didn’t see him standing in the middle of the street. She plowed right into him. He flew up onto her hood and crashed through the windshield. Amazingly, he didn’t suffer any major cuts from the glass.
I asked him whether he had been wearing the bright yellow knee length coat which was strewn carelessly on the back seat of the cruiser. No one (other than the woman who hit him) could have possibly missed such a glaring color. He was wearing the yellow coat, he assured me.
I knew what it was like to be hit by a car, I told him. A similar thing had happened to me while riding my bike. The main difference was that, in my case, the car had run a stop sign.
He thought for a moment and then said, “it’s not really the same.” I asked him why not. His reply wasn’t a surprise. According to him, he was only doing his job by standing in the street, but cyclists were always doing crazy things to confuse drivers. He went on to explain how their crazy and unlawful behavior was why cyclists got hit by cars.
I didn’t agree. I always obeyed the traffic laws while riding my bike, I informed him. This didn’t stop cars from refusing to yield when I had the right of way or failing to stop at stop signs when I was passing right in front of them.
I asked him how many people he thought expected to see someone standing in the middle of the road. It wasn’t very common. And, at the time, Brookline was one of the few towns in the Boston area still using cops to direct traffic during rush hour.
This observation was true, he admitted. After a pause, he half-admitted that I had a point. There wasn’t much difference between drivers not looking out for bicycles and not looking out for cops directing traffic.
My analogy, I hoped, would change his perceptions about cyclists and what they experienced on the road.
I asked him whether he was going to sit at the intersection and watch the traffic from now on. It was only temporary, he said. Too many cops had been hit by cars while directing traffic. Therefore, his superiors had decided to install traffic lights to control the traffic at these intersections — and let the drivers (and pedestrians) fend for themselves.
Before leaving, I asked him to enforce the traffic laws while he was on duty at the intersection to prevent pedestrians from getting injured. He agreed to do this. But, I only half believed him.
Looking back on that conversation in the context of the bike lanes Brookline has installed since that time and the new push for cops to ticket cyclists for violating traffic laws, I wonder how many of those traffic cops — who used to get hit by cars while directing traffic — will sympathize with the dangers cyclists face when riding in traffic.
Their decision to crack down on cyclists was precipitated by complaints from drivers. I couldn’t help but question their decision not to crack down on drivers, in a similar fashion, when pedestrians (like me) complained about nearly being run over by cars.
I can’t imagine why, rather than cracking down on cyclists, Brookline doesn’t recognize how the number of drivers who don’t expect to see bicycles on the road (or who don’t want them there) influences cyclists’ behavior. Sometimes traffic laws must be broken by cyclists to save their own lives.
I’d like to see Brookline do the same thing for cyclists as they did for the injured traffic cops, install more bicycling infrastructure to better control traffic for the safety of cyclists and other road users.