When Advocacy Becomes Antagonism

Driver's License Checkpoint


Advocacy is necessary in an open society. Whenever people live in large, highly structured societies, divergent groups compete for limited resources. Each group wants the majority to accept its views as a priority and enact an agenda corresponding to those views. Due to differences in opinion, and different priorities, only some views will be accepted. And, that’s where advocacy comes in.

In order for a group to persuade others, who may be ignorant of their views, it is necessary to educate them and to promote ideas which will lead to the implementation of  their agenda. As in all things, some groups are more powerful and influential than others. With that power comes preferential treatment and the ability to get a specific agenda on the table for consideration.

Smaller, less powerful groups must use other tactics to win support for their agenda. In lieu of power, they must use tact, sound reasoning, and persistence to prevail. Bicycle advocates fall into this group.

Bicyclists, as a vocal minority, are regarded by the majority as an advocacy group. The label of “advocate” engenders resistance to accommodating bicyclists’ demands for more bicycle infrastructure and recognition of bicycling as a legitimate form of transportation. This puts cyclists in a precarious position. They must share the road with the majority (drivers), in a size disadvantaged position (with respect to cars), while demanding facilities which the majority will not use. The result creates both a dangerous situation for cyclists and an antagonistic situation between drivers and cyclists — who are competing for space and resources. Bicycle advocates must take these things into consideration when challenging drivers’ rights to use the road.

A case in point: Recently, a Los Angeles bicycle advocate, Alex de Cordoba, was riding his bike when he was “nearly killed by a hit and run driver.” As a result of this serious accident, he was determined to “make the streets safer for cycling in Los Angeles.” An experience after his accident made him conclude that he had found the answer to making the streets safer for cycling.

He was driving to work when he saw an angry man using a sign to warn unlicensed drivers that the police had set up a checkpoint, where they were stopping cars, and asking to see a driver’s license. In four hours, the police cited 100 people for driving without a license.

He wrote an article on this subject, where he made the following observations:

“Driving is a privilege. More importantly, it’s a potentially deadly activity requiring skill and training. If you cannot prove you are trained to operate deadly machinery, you have no business putting people in danger. If you have been suspended from driving and continue to drive, you’re a menace to public safety and deserve to be stopped.

If you support safe streets and would like to end the menace of hit and runs that kill cyclists and pedestrians, take a moment to thank the Culver City Police Department for catching 100+ unlicensed drivers in that one morning. Better yet, ask the police in your neighborhood to implement similar checkpoints. I have yet to see a more effective way to reduce the danger posed by hit and run drivers.”

Alex is right to point out that unlicensed drivers are sometimes dangerous drivers who should not be on the roads. He quotes California accident statistics which show that half of all hit-and-run collisions are caused by unlicensed drivers, to back up his claim. Yet, his conclusion that setting up driver’s license checkpoints will make the streets safer for cycling is a stretch.

All drivers, not just those without a license, pose a risk to a cyclist’s safety. For instance, distracted driving causes a high percentage of injury and deaths.

According to  NHSTA statistics:

  • 16% of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.
  • 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.

Driving while intoxicated is also a major source of motor vehicle accidents. And, intoxicated drivers are more likely to flee an accident scene, either because they’re unaware of what happened, or because they don’t want to get caught driving intoxicated.

This is not to say that unlicensed driving isn’t a problem or that it shouldn’t be more strictly enforced. But, the statistics about unlicensed hit-and-run drivers involve all collisions, not just collisions with cyclists. And, most of the car vs. bicycle accidents reported by the media refer to  driver negligence — not the lack of a driver’s license — as contributing to the accident.

I have written about two cases where local cyclists were killed by drivers. In one case, a woman killed a doctor because she had a “sneezing fit,” which caused her to lose control of her car. And, in the other case, a driver killed a female cyclist, who was on a charity ride, because, according to an eyewitness, he appeared not to have been paying attention. Neither driver was unlicensed.

I applaud Alex for seeking out solutions to make the roads safer for cyclists. Focusing on one problem does give cyclists something specific to ask for, in terms of improving safety — but at what cost?

Drivers are always complaining about cyclists not being licensed to ride a bicycle. They point to a licensing system as a means of providing proof of training in the rules of the road and safe operation of a bicycle. So, drivers could make the same safety argument about the lack of a cyclist’s license, albeit, without the “operating deadly machinery” claim.

If cyclists heed Alex’s advice, and ask for driver’s license checkpoints in their neighborhoods, this might prove exceedingly antagonistic to drivers. While it’s true that driving a car is a privilege which requires a license, many people find the act of police stopping citizens without cause to be disturbing.

It’s not illegal for police to stop a car to check for a driver’s license. However, a better approach to the problem might be to advocate for a general crackdown on unlicensed driving, rather than just setting up checkpoints.

One of the commenters on the article wrote about direct experience with the issue of unlicensed drivers.

“Evan Wagner
01:19 PM on 11/29/2011

As a police officer in Los Angeles, I can tell you that people would be stunned to know how many unlicensed drivers there are. I’d guess it’s around 1/3 of all drivers, at least where I work. A lot of them are illegal immigrants who cannot get a license, and those are (for me) judgment calls. I don’t want to keep down a guy who’s trying to get to/from work, but on the other hand, they’re very seldom driving to/from work. But a ton of unlicensed drivers are born and raised US citizens who just never bothered to get a license or are not allowed to have one re a DUI. It isn’t a scandal–b­ut should be.”

Unlicensed driving needs to be addressed to protect the safety of all road users, not just cyclists. And, since it affects all road users, they should collectively advocate for a reduction in unlicensed driving, along with a safety campaign against distracted driving and drunk driving, for the benefit of all.

To avoid antagonizing drivers, perhaps it would be best for bicycle advocates to stick to issues specifically related to cycling. Or, alternatively, to team up with other road user advocacy groups to champion efforts to improve all aspects of road safety. Otherwise, they might incite drivers, causing them to retaliate against cyclists for targeting them — and make the roads more treacherous for cyclists, as an unintended consequence.

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