Thursday, April 21, 2011

automobiles and autism

The ant knows the anteater.  The rabbit knows the wolf.  Bicyclists know cars.

When I am bicycling I pay a huge amount of attention to the behavior of the cars around me.  I can tell when they are consider a turn before they begin to signal.  I can tell when they aren't sure of where they are going, if they are looking at their GPS instead of the road and hey did I just miss my turn?  I can tell when something is Not Right meaning, they're driving drunk or driving without their prescription glasses or crying really hard because their girlfriend just threw them over for someone else.  I can accurately judge whether they have time to cross in front of me and whether they'll go for it anyways.  I watch their wheels when they are at a stop sign and I notice if they are rolling gently forward and if they come to a complete halt.  I study cars.

I have an advantage over the average car on the road.  That advantage is that I am also a licensed car driver and I drive a car about two times per week.  I understand them although they often do not understand (or even notice) me.

I bat both ends, in the parlance of my youth.

Temple Grandin, for those not in the know, is autistic and also very verbal, very articulate.  She also could be said to bat both ends, she's studied the behavior of neuro-typicals and experienced life as someone who is autistic.  She parlayed her twin set of skills into successful career in animal husbandry.  Specifically, she is famous for working a redesign of the slaughterhouse.  It was her discovery that all the corners and sharp turns of the slaughterhouse were upsetting for the animals.  She designed chutes with gentle curves that the cows felt comfortable traversing.

Which brings me back to my observations of automobiles and my experiences as a driver.

There is an intersection I encounter every day on the way to work, the intersection of Charleston and Middlefield.  I am in a bike lane on the far right but I need to signal left and then cross two lanes of traffic going straight before I land myself in the third lane on the far left where I wait for a green arrow and then take my left turn.

Every day.  Hundreds of commutes.  Every day I stick my arm out and point where I want to go and the first or sometimes the second car to my left yields and I move in front of that car and continue pointing and the next car in the next lane waits and I move in front of that car next and then I make the final transition to the left hand turn lane.  I think I can count on one hand the times that no one has yielded to me and that I've struggled to cross. I ask myself, why are the cars so well behaved at this intersection?

I think that as Temple Grandin found that curved chutes calmed nervous animals, certain roads calm cars and others make them angry and defensive.  I thought about driving and how it is when there is a green light and how a person's gaze can narrow on that green light and how frustrating it is to have something slow in between you and the green light.  In this case "something" is that poor bastard on the bicycle.  But at this intersection the cars are (mostly) calm.

About a mile up from the intersection where the cars do not seem to mind yielding there is a second smaller intersection where the cars refuse to yield under any circumstances.  The light will be red, they're going a mere 10mph but they'd still rather yank off their steering wheel and eat it then let a bicyclist cross over to the turn lane.

My theory is that there are concrete reasons why cars feel fine about me at some intersections and want to drive right over me at others.  I think that good intersection has a few things working in it's favor.

1.  It has big wide lanes.  The cars don't feel cramped.
2.  The bike lane means they have not been stuck behind me and so they're already in a better mood.
3.  The green light is long and the red light is short.  They're commuters.  They know this.
4.  Visibility is good, the road is straight.
5.  The drivers making a left hand turn who are stuck behind me know that the moment I cross the road I will be back in my bike lane.  They'll be able to charge ahead.

I then proceeded to run a few experiments on the traffic.  I picked various points to signal that I wanted to go left.  The closer I got to the intersection, the more excited the cars were about getting through it and the more unhappy they became about yielding to me.  This is bad because bicyclists have an instinct to wait until at least the point where a car would move over and preferably wait for a point after that.  Bicyclists feel unhappy in the middle of the road and would prefer to stay in the bike lane as long as possible.  Now I get over to the left (when I need to) well in advance of what seems needed.  The cars have responded by being very likely to yield.

Those of us who both bike and drive, we are the Temple Grandins, we can unlock car behavior (which I suspect is a mystery to the cars themselves) and be safer as a result.

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