One of the most common criticisms levied against cyclists is that they should not ride on the same streets as cars because it is dangerous. To this end, cyclists are characterized as foolhardy, stupid, reckless, and worse.
Not a day passes when cyclists don’t hear about how they deserve the injuries they suffer on American roads since they have chosen to engage in a dangerous practice. Stories are relayed about one or more cyclists who fell victim to a negligent driver in an area considered, by non-cyclists, to be too dangerous to ride a bike.
Occasionally, other cyclists will chime in and utter disapproval of cyclists who choose to ride in areas where they would not ride themselves. Most of the time, such cyclists ride on bicycle paths or secluded roads with little traffic. So they project their own fear of traffic onto cyclists who have more experience in heavily trafficked areas.
Whether the criticisms come from drivers or cyclists, they share one thing in common: the cyclist is blamed for danger which he or she did not create.
The danger cyclists face when sharing roads with drivers is caused, not by their own behavior, but by the behavior of drivers. Cars make roads dangerous, not bicycles. If the numbers were reversed, and bicycles were the majority, American roads would be the scene of very few injuries, and even fewer deaths.
But, the roads are clogged with more cars than they can handle. And many of those cars are driven by people who are either unskilled or inattentive. That’s where the danger lies.
Still, we do not hear anyone telling drivers to stay off of the roads due to danger. Nor do we hear anyone blaming drivers for their own injuries when another driver’s negligence causes them to be involved in an accident.
This sort of treatment is reserved for cyclists. Part of the problem is that cyclists are more vulnerable. Their vulnerability works against them when others judge the amount of risk they’re taking by riding on the roads.
While it’s true that drivers are encased in a steel shell, the risk of injury is quite high if a crash occurs at high speed. And, in single car accidents, as when a car veers off of a road and hits something, driver and occupant injuries are often far worse than what the average cyclist would experience when crashing a bicycle.
Factor into this certain types of accidents which are specific to cars, such as landing in a body of water after losing control of the car. Depending upon the circumstances, the car’s occupants may find themselves trapped as the mechanics of a sinking car can make it difficult to open the doors or windows in order to escape.
In a similar situation, a cyclist, unless seriously injured or unconscious, would simply wade or swim to dry ground. The lack of a steel cage around the cyclist would make the accident safer. Yet, we don’t tell drivers to avoid driving along rivers, lakes or oceans because the risk of drowning is too great. On the contrary, we assume that they will not crash or veer into the water, so we do not criticize them for taking a risk by driving in a higher risk area.
With respect to risk-taking criticism of cyclists, they are actually being blamed for conditions which we, as a society, should correct by means other than censure. Rather than telling cyclists to stay off of the roads, we should be looking for ways to correct the underlying problems of dangerous roads.
Drivers are only part of the problem, albeit a large part. Roadway design is also a significant problem. The designs don’t take into account the needs of vehicles other than cars. And often, they don’t consider the safety of pedestrians either.
Cyclists shoulder the blame for their own lack of safety as a result of other people passing the buck. Motorists refuse to accept the additional attentiveness required to share the road with anyone or anything other than motor vehicles. In addition, they don’t want to be held accountable for careless driving.
Drivers don’t want to modify their driving habits or to allocate tax dollars to making our streets hospitable to all modes of transportation. Maintaining the status quo is cheaper, and it maintains the advantages cars have enjoyed for decades.
Drivers and cyclists have a precarious relationship. As with any relationship there is a balance of power. This balance is rarely equal, but in the best case scenario, the power ratio between the parties fluctuates so that both have an opportunity to experience the dominant position.
Moving forward, a fluctuating balance of power is what cyclists should aim for. It’s unrealistic to think that they could ever be entirely dominant on the roads, as cars have been. But, it’s not unrealistic to imagine a world where, at times, the view of the cyclist becomes dominant, or where the benefit of the cyclist is considered over that of the driver.
To achieve the dominant status, cyclists will have to work hard to deflect criticisms and accusations about their irresponsibility for riding on roads where the risk of injury is high. It should not be too difficult to deflect such criticism because what this accusation amounts to is little more than blaming the victim.
Cyclists are victims of roads designed without thought for their existence. They are also victims of drivers who believe that anyone who takes a risk they wouldn’t take deserves to suffer consequences of that risk.
Nonetheless, with the wisdom of an evolving society, we have come to the realization that victims do not cause their own victimization. The cause lies outside of them, with someone else. A perpetrator’s conduct always causes their victim’s injuries. And, cyclists are no exception; their victimization is just less obvious to those who don’t understand cyclists’ rights or requirements on the road.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel: with strong voices, stronger determination, and education, cyclists will eventually overcome these unfounded criticisms and will shake the blame for the actions of others.