This summer has seen the tragic deaths of three young cyclists in the Boston area. I have had the displeasure of writing articles about them all. Covering these incidents (for lack of a better word) I have noticed a general trend in the way people talk about these events.
All one has to do is browse the comment section of any of the news stories about these crashes (including on this site), and you will see that the reactions to these deaths seem to fall into a couple general categories.
In no particular order they are:
Blame the/all motorist(s)
Blame the infrastructure/laws
Blame the/all cyclist(s)
Defend the/all Motorist(s)
Defend the/all cyclist(s)
Express sympathy (for the motorist, or the cyclist, or both)
I am stuck that people talk a lot but don’t actually say anything. What I mean by that is that people get so focused on one aspect of their argument that they miss the chance to actually learn much from these deaths. And learn we must, it is simply unacceptable that these young people are dying on their bicycles. When anyone dies on a bicycle, we all are diminished, no matter what way we choose to travel around town.
It is no wonder that these conversations seem to so quickly spiral down into general bickering. Whenever someone has died, saying anything that even remotely sounds like criticism of the recently departed sounds heartless. Similarly anything that even remotely sounds like it trivializes the death also sounds crass and cruel. These young people have paid the ultimate price for some form of carelessness (be it on their part, or someone else’s), piling on “you should have worn a helmet” seems pretty low.
But where does that leave us? Is it really Us vs Them? As cyclists are we forced by our shared camaraderie and decency to always blame motorists? Can we really not have a conversation about these issues because the specter of death looms so large that we are unable to discuss the topics in a fact based way? I don’t know, but I hope not.
Ever since Eric Hunt died and I met his father I have been thinking about these issues. Over and over in my head I have been thinking about safety, infrastructure, helmets, how we convince people to follow rules, if following the rules is the answer…in short I have been highly confused and seeking a cogent way to change the behavior of people I see as acting dangerously, both cyclist and motorist. Now that two other young people have died tragically early in life, my confusion has only grown.
This is not going to be a blog post where I wrap this all up in a neat package. I don’t have an answer to my own questions, and am not sure I have had enough time to allow my emotions to calm down so I can think rationally about these things.
Here is what I think I know. We have an infrastructure and a culture that is not conducive to safe bicycling. We have road users of all classes (pedestrian, motorist, cyclist) that are breaking the law in large numbers. We have several safety options available to us as cyclists (helmets, following the rules). It is unclear how effective these options are, but there does some to be some evidence that shows that it is better to avail yourself of them rather than avoid them. And finally we have road users of all kinds engaging in behaviors that are unsafe for themselves and others.
So when a cyclist dies in a fatal car on bike accident, and is not wearing a helmet, what do we do? How do we discuss this incident in a respectful manner? How do we learn from an incident like this without belittling the loss of a human life? What can we learn? How can we avoid such an incident in the future? Is this even the thing we should be talking about? Again, I don’t know.
Deep inside me something says that there must be a middle ground of respectful inspection and introspection that leads to some greater understanding of safety. There must be a way we can change the world and ourselves to make us all safer. It would be a monumental tragedy if we learn nothing from these deaths.
I am reluctant to leave the comment section for this post open, as I fear that this conversation will also degrade into the lowbrow bickering that has sprung up so many other places, but I feel confident that you will all discuss how we can change the conversation from “Us vs Them.”
So I ask you all, how can we learn from these fatal crashes, how can we make ourselves safer, how can we convince fellow road users of all stripes to be safer when they operate their chosen form of vehicle, what can we do so that no more young people will end up dead? How can we do it in such a way that is respectful to the memory of our fellow cyclists who have died? I don’t know the answer, but I am going to keep thinking about it.
Tags: big questions, confusion, cyclists, death, learning, respect
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