Cars don’t cause accidents, car drivers do

by Gautam Raja

When we moved into our new house, I joined the local community on Nextdoor.com. It’s a good way to find out what’s happening in the area, whether learning of local businesses, or being warned about car theft, coyotes, and door-to-door solicitors.

I don’t participate in online discussions, but recently when the neighbours began complaining loudly about the cyclists passing through on Saturday mornings who don’t stop at stop signs, I had to step in.

Let me tell you first about our community here in Azusa in the Greater Los Angeles Area. We are near the base of a major road into the San Gabriel mountains. Because it’s winding and beautiful, it’s a favourite of all kinds of road users, notably sportsbike and sportscar owners. Weekend mornings especially echo with the screams of inline fours, the blats of V-twins, and the roars of large car engines spitting hot poisonous gases down open exhaust pipes. Life near the Highway 39 must be like living at the race track.

Even on the inner roads, life is given over completely to cars. People drive in and out of these neighbourhoods as if in a state of permanent emergency. Residents have to put up signs saying, “Drive as if your children lived here” and pull flourescent speed limit warning signs onto the road that are shaped like children holding up red flags. Children don’t play, ride, skateboard or do anything but walk in safety on the pavements.

And so, it seemed ludicrous to me that residents were so bothered by a few Lycra-clad riders who fly through every Saturday morning, yes, not always obeying the stop signs. The inconvenience of a peloton passing through in near silence for 20 seconds seemed so insignificant compared with the constant warzone caused by motor vehicles.

Car drivers seem to feel anger utterly out of proportion with the actual inconvenience a cyclist causes, and this imbalance is in the very language we use about accidents. Victim blaming is commonplace, and popular bike blogger BikeSnobNYC often points out how cyclists crash into people, not cycles (i.e. the person is responsible), but cars have accidents all by themselves all the time. “Car plows into market crowds.” “Taxi jumps curb and hits pedestrians”.

As I write this, on my Twitter feed are reactions to the story of a child on a bicycle who in the headline “collided with a dump truck”. Apparently the dump truck ran over the child, so the child collided with the truck the way a gunshot victim collides with a bullet. And then the inevitable statement that the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet. Let me be clear about this one. If you are run over by a dump truck, a helmet is not going to save you. There are a few clear circumstances when helmets can save your life, but many, many, many permutations where it really doesn’t matter that you had a foam hat on your head. If the details of the crash aren’t clear, mentioning that the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet immediately suggests that he or she is somewhat to blame. The article did not contain a line about how, for example, the dump truck driver hadn’t had a sobriety test, because after all, he is innocent until proven guilty,

I know many people will read this story and think, “The child shouldn’t have been out on the streets” or “He should have been wearing a helmet”. If you are one of them, let me suggest a new line of thought. How about, “Our streets need to be safe so that our children can ride their bicycles without being killed by motor vehicles”?

First published in Gulf News, August 1, 2017