Benefield: Is it that difficult to be considerate to cyclists?
So, a funny thing happened as I was riding my bike Friday morning.
On my usual pre-dawn, it’s-dark-but-I’m-lit-up-like-a-Christmas-tree ride, I was thinking about this column.
And as I was riding west on Montecito Avenue in Santa Rosa thinking about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of a so-called “Idaho Stop” law for cyclists, the driver of a Honda overtook me ridiculously close to a stop sign.
The driver didn’t come close to me on my left shoulder, thank you, but passed me so close to where the stop signed halted us both that the driver didn’t have space to come back into the westbound lane.
The car came to a stop straddling the center line.
In this case, the driver didn’t put me in any real danger. It was darkish, but the road was empty.
It would have been an entirely different story, however, had there been a car coming in the opposite direction. Had that been the case, my guess is that the Honda driver, wanting to avoid a head-on collision, would have swerved to his right and into ... me.
But none of that happened. We both went on our ways, getting to our respective destinations in one piece — the way it should be.
And in my experience, that is how bike rides unfold much of the time around Sonoma County.
So, why the white-hot rage over the proposed “Idaho Stop” law in California?
Quick refresher: The law would have made legal a practice just about everyone, no matter which side you are on, agrees is already done by many cyclists — slowing, but rolling through, stop signs if the coast is clear.
Zero in on that last part — cyclists can only do it if they present no hazard.
A UC Berkeley study in 2009 examined Idaho’s law. It found severe bicycle crashes were reduced by more than 14% after the law went into effect.
A study of a similar law in Delaware saw a 20% decrease in crashes at intersections.
One would think this would be greeted as good news. But there is a vibe of a zero-sum game with roads. That if we design roads to better accommodate bikes, drivers of automobiles will lose out.
First of all, it’s not true. Example: A Portland State University study in 2020 looked into whether cyclists riding on low-speed, low-volume urban roads without dedicated bike lanes reduced car speeds.
In other words, did encountering bike riders in a shared space cause drivers to be late to their destination?
So, why do some feel aggrieved when encountering cyclists?
According to a 2019 Australian study, it comes down to not seeing cyclists as actual people — your mom, your neighbor, your doctor — who happen to be on a bike.
This particular study found that more than half of respondents, identified as car drivers, thought cyclists “are not completely human.”
Apparently self-loathing is a thing, too, because 30% of cyclists who took part in the study picked an image of something less than human on the scale that includes humans, cockroaches and mosquitoes.
And while the findings are, on the surface, kind of funny, they are deadly serious, too. Authors found that when one doesn’t think someone is fully human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggressive behavior.
Wearing a helmet and cycling-appropriate clothes, a rider becomes something different. They are a cyclist, not a person riding a bike.
Academics call this “othering.”
Add to those feelings the stress that is inherent in any kind of road travel, and tempers can fly, said Brianna Thomsen, psychology instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“For people in cars, other cars are way more dangerous to them, but we are more dangerous to cyclists,” she said. “We are afraid. We are afraid of hitting someone, we are afraid of being the cause of somebody getting hurt ... and a lot of times when we are afraid, we lash out.”
“Changing the way that you see the situation is healthier for everybody involved,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen said feelings of cyclists as “others” start early. Teens taught to drive learn that people on bikes are a threat, not a fellow road user.
“It’s, ‘You need to deal with this hazard,’ as opposed to, ‘You need to share the space with people who commute differently than you.’” she said.
One way to address that is for more folks to ride bikes.
First, it’s fun. Second, it makes you a better driver because suddenly you see users other than cars. In a sense, you see yourself everywhere.
Motorcyclists say the same thing.
When my kids were small and began to walk, scooter and ride bikes around the block, it changed forever the way I back out of the driveway.
It’s about more than awareness. It’s something akin to transportation empathy.
When you experience other ways of moving around our roads, you realize it’s not all about cars. Cars are just the biggest, and most ubiquitous, players.
And the vast, vast majority of people who ride bikes also drive cars. Cyclists don’t hate cars. We don’t hate drivers. We are drivers.
I think we’d all do well if more people gave cycling a go so that feeling of understanding went both ways. Plus, it’s a blast. Want a time machine to your 7-year-old self? Ride a bike.
The debate over the so-called Idaho Stop law in California is not over. It’s been kicking around for years.
In the end, it’s less about enacting a new law — this practice is established, and safely executed, among many bike riders.
It’s more about elevating conversation regarding ways of getting around that don’t involve cars. It’s also about making it a little bit easier for those who ride. If it’s easier, perhaps more people would do it.
Only good can come of more people on bikes.
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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