Friday, October 12, 2012

One day "I didn't see you" will not be an acceptable legal defense.

My youngest (eight years) rides her bicycle to school every day.  This has the usual effect of making me very happy and very terrified at the same time. 

Happy:  so proud! look at my darling daughter!  she loves to bicycle! 
Terrified:  so afraid!  what happens if an SUV comes to close and hurts her!

Through a mixture of my love of bicycling (I really love riding my bicycle) and various strategic defensive practices I  summon enthusiasm for the endeavour and try and minimize danger.  The non-bicyclist responds here with "why do it at all?  don't you have a car?"  Well, we do "it" for a lot of reasons.   We bicycle because if you don't exercise your kids they develop odd nervous behaviours.  We do it because bicycling is a lot more fun than sitting in the backseat of a car and our kids enjoy riding.  We do it because we think it's more right to bicycle a short distance than drive a short distance.  We do it because we think that overall the route is pretty safe.  We do it because we want our kids to learn safe bicycling habits while they are still young enough to respect our opinions.  We do it because we think we can minimize the risk.

How do we (attempt to) minimize risk?

1.  We all wear helmets.  Lately I have been really hating on my helmet so this is a big deal.  I hate the way my helmet blocks some of the sky.  I hate the way it sometimes makes my head itchy.  I wear it anyways.  Some studies show that cars give more room to women with long hair who do not wear helmets but I can't take the risk that I get hit without a helmet and then have to deal with headlines saying "drunk driver hits bicyclist who did not wear a helmet so we know she had it coming, right?  RIGHT?"  I want the headline to read "drunk driver hits bicyclist who was wearing a helmet and no one understands why she was injured anyways."

2.  We ride with the Contraption Captain in front, Rapunzel in the middle, and me in the back.  I stay just to the left of Rapunzel and watch approaching cars carefully.  Fun Fact about being a parent.  You aren't just willing to throw your bike and your body in between your child and a dangerous car, you are GRATEFUL for the chance to be crushed so that your kid can live to adulthood and your only worry is that your death may cause her emotional trauma. 

3.  We are relatively slow.  Even when we have a green light we approach pretty slowly because of the risk that some asshat wanting to take a right at that light will say "hey, I let that big red bicycle go but two more bicyclists is way the hell too many to wait for.  The blonde kid on the 8-gear is going to have to be toast."  Note to that guy?  If you ever touch a hair on her head I will find you and tear your kneecaps out without benefit of anaesthesia.  No, really.  I will. 

4.  We are very law abiding.  This means that yes we stop at stop signs and slow down when we see a yellow light.  Just like those law abiding cars do.  Hahaha!  Just kidding.  The car has not been made that slows down for a yellow light when it is hurling itself towards an extreme mani-pedicure.

5.  ...and I ride somewhat unpredictably.

This last one is kindof new for me.  I've always ridden the "be predictable" horse really hard.  I apply it to crosswalks where I call out bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk and then bounce down into the crosswalk at speed as being a problem.  Google "bicycle predictable" and you get the following front page hits:

Seattle Bicycle Club - Responsible Cyclists Are Predictable

Be Predictable - Being predictable means doing what drivers expect you to do, and not surprising them.

Nice Ride MN - Safety Be predictable. Drivers and walkers need to be able to anticipate your movements.  

Haha and just for contrast you also get this one:

twin city sidewalks: Another Predictable Bicycle Tragedy

So yes.  Talk to bicyclists and they will tell you to be predictable, to do what drivers expect you to do and for crissakes don't surprise the cars or they may turn on you like an angry drunk and crush you into the curb. 

So here's the thing.  I'll be bicycling in the bike lane behind Rapunzel.  I'll notice a car approaching way too fast.  I notice that the car has a wheel in the bike lane and as I watch it swerves in a little closer.  I respond by feigning a small epileptic seizure, I make my bicycle shudder from the left to the right.  I do not leave the bicycle lane but I come up the the line, twitch spasmodically, and then stagger in the direction of the curb.  And while riding my bicycle as if I had centipedes in my helmet (ewww!) I watch the cars in my mirror and guess what:  They get the hell out of the way.  They veer back out of the bicycle lane and turn towards the center of the road.  How come?  Unpredictable bicyclists are weird and scary and it's best to give them extra room because who knows that kind of random bullshit they might get up to.  Unpredictable bicyclists are like the homeless drunk guy who is wandering around in the park unzipping his fly --- you give him some room unless you relish being peed on. 

So all I am saying is, sure, I guess, be predictable.  Don't throw yourself under the wheels of an approaching bus.  But don't be too predictable either.  Every time there is a fresh car to bicycle accident or car to motorcycle or car to pedestrian accident I hear the same old tired refrain.  "I didn't see them."  And then everyone nods understandingly.  "A tragedy.  The car did not see the bicyclist.  Very sad but understandable really."  They do not see because they do not look, so be open to the idea that there will be times when you do not want to be predictable, when you must make them look.  Try this experiment:  when you see a car that is too close in your mirror (you have a mirror, right?) lean towards them, twitch towards them.... and watch what happens, does the car move away?


  1. Grant Petersen suggests that cyclists should be unpredictable in "Just Ride". At first, being indoctrinated in the "RIDE PREDICTABLY" school, I resisted, but I now take the suggestion really to mean something like "wobble enough to get noticed, to make them think." And it seems to help a little bit. I think I should get a mirror so I don't wobble and get smooshed, though.

  2. The unpredictability added to your riding might also be similar to the "SIAM" (SMIDSY Identification and avoidance maneuver) maneuver. SMIDSY being short for "Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You).
    A British motorcycle show called "Crash Course" has a seven minute video on the "SIAM" maneuver on youtube: