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Blaming The Victim

Michael Wang Memorial at Thomas and Dexter

Michael Wang Memorial at Thomas and Dexter

It’s been a rough summer for bicyclists.

We’ve had three high-profile deaths over the last few months, and a few which have received a lessor amount of coverage. In each of these cases, newspaper and TV comment sections have lit up with people blaming the bicyclists for their own deaths.

“We’re not getting the real story, I’m sure it was the bicyclist’s fault”, some people say.

“That’s what he gets, roads are for cars, not toys”, others will follow.

“Had he ridden more defensively, he would still be alive”, opine other.

The words vary, but the gist is always the same. It was the cyclist’s fault. The bicyclist didn’t have enough lights on his bike, the bicyclist was riding too fast, too slow, too this, or too that.

This weekend, Linda Thomas a/k/a “The News Chick” wrote an article on her blog about the Car vs. Bike war. You can read it here – http://mynorthwest.com/646/547161/Should-bicyclists-need-a-special-license

In her article, Linda writes about a man named “John” who came to her with “an interesting idea” to curb bicyclist deaths.

The idea?

To “license” bicyclists and make them more accountable. Accountable for what? We’re not sure.

John does say that bicycles should be forced to have license plates, and he thinks that cops should be dispatched to ticket riders for the supposed terrible things that they do. According to John, this will solve the problem of cars killing bicyclists.

In John’s world, this makes perfect sense, and Linda’s readers seem to resoundingly agree with John’s assessment. How would John’s suggestions have helped Mr. Wang, a man who was riding in a bicycle lane when an SUV simply ran him over?

Unfortunately, John doesn’t say.

Now, I thought about posing this question in the comment section of Linda’s blog myself, but I decided against it. I understand the meaning of the word futility.

The fact is that most Americans worship automobiles, and when you worship something, all rationale goes out the window. There is no empirical evidence proving the existence of God, but 93% of Americans believe in him/her/it anyway. Similarly, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, most Americans are convinced of the absolute divinity of the car. When a man dies of AIDS, he deserved it because he lived an alternative lifestyle, and when a bicyclist is killed by a car, he deserved it because he utilized alternative transit.

This is more or less where we are as a society. It saddens me, but I am powerless to stop it.

I can, however, try to explain to you why John is incorrect. So, without further ado:

Reasons Why Licensing Bicyclists is Not a Solution to Any Public Safety Issue Facing Seattle

1) It is Technically Infeasible

Every automobile manufacturer in the world designs their cars with license plates in mind while 0% of bicycle manufacturers do the same. Were Seattle to pass a law requiring license plates for bikes, few bicycle manufacturers (if any) would start a production line for a single city of 600,000 people.

It would similarly be impossible for the city or state to mass-produce plates that would be consistently mountable/viewable on all models of bicycles.

Assuming that the state mandated the use of an alternative plate, such as a sticker mounted on the downtube, the numbers would be so small as to be unreadable by most passersby.

2) Bicycles Are Human-Powered

Licensing human-powered transit would be difficult at best, and impossible at worst. Skateboards, bicycles, rollerblades, unicycles, tennis shoes — there are many ways to get from Point A to Point B in a major city.

In order to truly be consistent and transit-agnostic, we would have to license pedestrians. After all, here in Seattle, there are far more Pedestrian vs. Car fatalities than there are Bicycle vs. Car fatalities. Between 2000 and 2009, 398 pedestrians were killed in Seattle.

Perhaps we will see a day when everyone wears a shirt with their pedestrian ID on the back, but I doubt that will happen soon.

Who were those 398 pedestrians killed by?

Read below.

3) Automobiles Are Uniquely Dangerous to Public Safety

Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death among children worldwide and are the sixth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

How many people are hit and killed by bicyclists each year?

We don’t know. I’m sure it happens, but It’s such an uncommon occurrence that statistics are not even kept. Same goes for people hit by joggers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, etc.

A 4,000 lb vehicle with 250 horsepower is a far greater threat to civilian safety than a 25 lb vehicle producing 0.3 horsepower (max sustainable by a human).

Postulating an equivalency between bicycles and automobiles as they pertain to public safety can only be accomplished through a complete abandonment of abstract thinking.

Michael Wang Memorial at Thomas and Dexter

Michael Wang Memorial at Thomas and Dexter

4) Bicyclists Already Have Ample Incentive to Avoid Accidents

A large amount of complacency overtakes a person when they are wearing a 4,000 lb steel suit. They tend to feel comfortable; invincible even. They play with the stereo, put on makeup, eat, and talk on the phone.

And why not? With all of the safety equipment in today’s automobiles — seat belts, air bags, reinforced frames, etc — most accidents are minor. If you hit someone while in your car, chances are you won’t miss so much as a day of work. You will retain your right to drive, and it may not cost you anything at all. Heck, some insurance companies even have something called “accident forgiveness”.

What would happen if you didn’t have the 4,000 lb suit, though?

Would you devote the same amount of cognition to driving?

You see, contrary to popular belief, bicyclists are licensed … by Charles Darwin.

In Washington State, motorcycles do not have to carry insurance, not even 1,000cc motorcycles capable of 150Mph. Bicycles do not have to carry insurance either, nor do they have to carry a license.

Why?

Because you can’t ticket a dead man.

You see, bicyclists have a very, very powerful motivation to avoid collisions, and that motivation is: their lives.

Driving an automobile has a high margin of error. You can hit a pebble, hit a pothole, hit a curb, hit a person, hit a bicyclist, hit another car … and chances are, you won’t suffer a scratch. You are literally isolated from your environment by a big steel cage.

Any of these same scenarios result in injury, and even death, for a bicyclist.

While car advocates can scream all day about the lack of accountability for bicyclists, the fact is that bicyclists are far more accountable than drivers ever will be. Bicyclists don’t pay for mistakes in dollars, they pay with their skin, and with their very existence.

An inattentive bicyclist with truly poor skills will not be a problem for very long. The worst will not last even a week. The laws of physics assure this. Their lack of skill will get them off a bicycle long before a traffic cop will.

An inattentive or/and unskilled driver, on the other hand, can and does remain on the streets for decades.

5) The Power to Kill Rests Solely with Automobile Drivers

By all accounts, Mr. Wang was obeying traffic laws to a “T” when he was killed.

Three days after his death, however, the Seattle Police Department stationed officers at the intersection of Dexter and Thomas.

To catch dangerous drivers?

No, to ticket bicyclists.

Why?

Politics and money.

When a cyclist gets run over in Seattle, drivers get nervous. They worry that there may be repercussions against their ability to drive recklessly in the city.

“Oh no!”, they think, “will the Mayor devote any of our road money to bike causes? Will the police begin scrutinizing us more closely? Will this affect me in any way? It shouldn’t, after all, the bicyclist deserved to die for not driving a car!”

In order to quell the anxieties of the driving public, the SPD quickly takes to the streets to show drivers whose side they’re on.

You see, cops like cars. Cars = tickets, tickets = revenue, and revenue = job security.

For similar reasons, governments like cars. Parking fees, parking tickets, traffic infractions, licensing … cars are a huge source of revenue. Wealthy developers like them too. Bicycles don’t need $4 Billion tunnels under Downtown.

Regardless of how many people are killed, there will never be any action restricting people’s ability to drive automobiles. The political will is not there, and there is no money to be made by anyone from doing so.

Therefore, when a death occurs, and the powers-that-be are encouraged to do something, anything to address it — the group with the least political clout will certainly be the target.

Only 2% of Seattelites bike to work.

6) Licensing and Insuring Bicycles Address a Problem That Doesn’t Exist

Were we to force bicyclists to purchase liability insurance, the premiums would be so low as to be laughable. How much do you charge 25 lb vehicles with .3 horsepower?

5 cents per year? Twenty five cents plus postage?

Who in the hell is going to underwrite these policies?

How much would the government bureaucracy created to enforce the program cost?

Face it, bicyclists aren’t out there killing people on the streets.

Cars are.

Only cars.

The licensing of bicyclists is a straw man and a desperate attempt to avoid stating the obvious which is:

There is one way, and only one way to reduce cyclist and pedestrian deaths in the City of Seattle, and that is to crackdown on dangerous drivers and a focus on policies that remove cars from city streets.

Update:

Rebutting The Rebuttal

Downtown Seattle Bike Lanes

Downtown Seattle Bike Lanes

Over the last day or so, I’ve received quite a few emails from automobile drivers who took great exception to this article. Some of the emails were amusingly illiterate, some were bizarre, some were all over the place, and some … a precious few … almost made sense. A common theme among the more cerebral emails was a derivative of the following:

“You approached the issue from a safety perspective but my interest in licensing is to hold bicyclists accountable for breaking traffic laws and to pay for what they use. I could not care less about their safety.”

Fair enough.

There are, however, plenty of non-safety reasons why regulating/licensing/taxing bicycles would address a problem that does not exist, and may even be counter-productive not just to cyclists, but also to drivers.

Those reasons are:

1) Bicyclists who break traffic laws ARE ALREADY ticketed.

I’m not sure why the masses think that bicyclists can run red lights with impunity, because they certainly cannot. If a cop sees a cyclist doing something illegal, he’ll absolutely ticket them. As a matter of fact, I saw a cyclist being written up by a cop on Pike Street a few weeks ago because he crossed the stop line at 9th.

Two days after Michael Wang was killed, cops were stationed at the corner of Thomas and Dexter to ticket bicyclists. Not cars, but bicycles. Even though the fault rested 100% with an automobile driver.

Jaywalk stings are also prevalent in Downtown Seattle.

The whole “you can do anything you want if you don’t have a license” position is not based on reality.

2) Bicyclists pay their fair share already … perhaps more than their fair share.

Contrary to popular belief, bicyclists already pay for roads via taxes, and they get little in return. Seattle currently allocates only 3% of its transportation budget to bicycle projects. Currently, bicycles cannot trip traffic lights, nor can they utilize projects like the Alaskan Way Viaduct. They will not be able to use our $4 billion tunnel when it is built.

Will license fees rectify this?

Assuming we were to license cyclists, what would the yearly registration fees be?

A 4,000 lb vehicle producing 250Hp has a hefty impact on infrastructure; A bicycle is 25 lbs and produces .3Hp on average.

Divide the average car registration cost by the weight and power difference to figure out what an appropriate registration fee for a bicycle should be.

Would it even cover postage for the annual notice?

3) Bicyclists already tangibly benefit motorists and municipalities.

    Bicycles do not produce emissions. This results in better air-quality for everyone … including car drivers.

    Bicycles do not use gasoline. This lowers demand for gasoline, which thus results in lower gasoline prices for car drivers.

    Since gasoline prices are a major driver of inflation, reduced gasoline prices results in lower prices for consumer goods across the board. This includes products that automobile drivers use.

    Bicycles reduce dependence on foreign oil. This reduces war casualties.

    Bicycles reduce traffic. Bicycles cannot ride on the freeway, and in most cases, do not use a full travel lane. This results in lower commute times for automobile drivers.

    Bicycles make automobile parking more available.

4) People of all ages ride bicycles.

If you go to your local department store, you are sure to find a wide selection of bicycles for kids. Licensing these kids to ride up and down the street is marginally laughable.

So there you have it.

Every bicycle commuter in Seattle imparts both quality of life and financial gains to everyone else in the city. Instead of charging bicyclists higher fees, one could make the very legitimate argument that each and every bicyclist should actually be paid a dividend. Levying fees on people who expose themselves to risk for the benefit of the entire city is quite possibly the worst suggestion we’ve heard in some time.

Almost as bad as a $4 billion, 2 mile tunnel.

5 comments to Blaming The Victim

  • blueboar

    Simple observation, not a judgement. But in your picture on page 2, one cyclist is riding outside of the bike lane. The other one is riding at the extreme left edge of it. I assume so as to minimize the chance of being taken out by somebody opening a door in a parked car. But it also puts them closer to traffic should they fall or swerve. Personally, I would switch to the left lane if driving near them. But then that seems to defeat some of the purpose of a bike lane in the first place. Might as well just have 2 traffic lanes and I’ll switch to go around them anyway.

    • Seattle Rex Seattle Rex

      There is no legal requirement for bicyclists to use bike lanes. Some cyclists do not like bike lanes for the reason you specified … the chances of getting doored are much higher.

      Sometimes, bicyclists have to pick their poison. Ride in a big lane and risk getting run over, or ride in a bike lane and risk getting doored or cut-off. Basically, due to to dangerous/inattentive drivers, there is no safe way to commute via bicycle.

      I agree that bike lanes are of marginal usefulness, but they are probably better than nothing by allowing bikes to move over when an aggressive driver gets behind them and can’t get into the left lane due to heavier traffic. Traffic on Dexter was almost non-existent when I took that photo. It’s much worse in rush hour.

      Only strict and meaningful skills tests and an honest desire to get dangerous drivers off the road will make the roads safer for everyone.

      P.S. Bikes also use main lanes to pass other bikes in bike lanes. Passing on the left is much safer than passing on the right. That could be the situation you see in the photo, and again, it’s absolutely legal.

  • McMullet

    Isn’t that a Bike Officer outside the lines in the photo above?
    As you said, there is nothing illegal with riding outside the bike lane lines, but an interesting observation nonetheless.

  • James Black

    And that cyclist is a police officer…?

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