First, a thesis: Americans driving cars kill Americans riding bikes for the same reason that Americans in pandemics refuse to wear masks, and Americans who love assault rifles get panicky at the mention of gun control, and Blue Lives Matter types freak at any suggestion that cops should try to kill fewer Black people.
Before I elaborate, a word about where I’m coming from: progressive politics, obviously, but also climbing. Cycling only entered my life ten years ago when I trained for the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco, where I live. Triathlon training involves a shocking amount of cardio—12 hours a week of swimming, running, and cycling—but I loved the endorphins and got hooked. For years after, I spent summer Saturdays on long rides through coastal redwoods and wine country. I took up other cycling disciplines, too: did most of a century ride as triathlon-training, flew to Oregon to race in Cyclocross Crusade at Alpenrose Dairy, mountain-biked clear around the Big Island of Hawaii by linking dirt roads from beaches to country inns.
Like every avid cyclist, I started noticing articles about riders maimed or killed by people driving cars and trucks: a father of two out for a toodle near Laguna Beach, California, when a driver ran him down from behind; a young woman commuting to work in a bike lane when a trucker made a hard right and ran her over. I heard stories from friends: a middle-aged dad cycling through vineyards when somebody swerved onto the shoulder for no apparent reason and killed the guy; a friend of a friend in D.C. who was commuting to work when an inattentive driver left his children fatherless. I noticed also that people who killed other people with cars or trucks rarely got so much as a moving violation unless they were drunk or high.
So I stopped recreational road biking and moved all of my triathlon bike training indoors. Eventually, new bike lanes started appearing all over town, some even well protected. I told myself I’d crawl out of the basement when they built enough of them to link together a long, safe ride. As the years passed, though, I traded triathlons for a midlife return to rock climbing in Yosemite.
Cycling friends laughed. You’ve got to be kidding me, they said. You climb in Yosemite and you think cycling is too dangerous?
Damn right. In climbing, the danger is high but also predictable, manageable. That’s the whole point. I’ve climbed for decades and trust myself to make good decisions. In road biking, the danger is more like the risk of getting struck by lightning while running around on a mesa during an electrical storm with a tin hat on your head. The only decision that matters is whether to run around at all. Every time you ride a bike on a road with cars, you depend absolutely on every human being driving every one of those cars not to make a careless, casual, no-big-deal momentary oops-level mistake that leaves you maimed or dead. Given the human propensity for such mistakes, that’s a nonstarter for me.
Also: the bad stories never stopped coming. My daughter went off to college last year and met a terrific young man whose father, a guy very much like myself, was cycling in Napa County on a lovely Saturday morning in August 2012, as a perfectly sober but sleep-deprived nurse drove her BMW in the opposite direction. At roughly 9:30 A.M., the nurse turned left, apparently without first checking to make sure there wasn’t a cyclist going the opposite way, and killed that young man’s father. Law-enforcement officers showed up, looked around, and determined that, yep, the cyclist had the right of way. The perfectly sober nurse was 100 percent at fault in this 100 percent avoidable killing of another human being. In fact, all she would’ve had to do to not kill that young man’s father was think, Oh boy, before I make this turn, I better look carefully to make sure I’m not going to kill anybody. And sure, she tried her best to save his life and was clearly traumatized by the incident. But she was only convicted of a misdemeanor, with a penalty of community service. Because, see, in our system of laws and civic responsibilities, and despite how remarkably easy it is to not kill cyclists, that nurse’s error just wasn’t considered a big deal. In fact, homicide by automobile might be our country’s least-penalized way of killing other human beings.
So, of course, let’s build heaps of cycling infrastructure in every American city. Cycling is unbeatably healthy, fun, social, and good for the planet, and good infrastructure makes it a lot safer. But let’s also find a way to fix our cultural infrastructure.
Existing laws, after all, seem well conceived to punish drivers who kill cyclists and thereby encourage safer driving. New York and many other states have “reckless endangerment” laws against behavior that puts others at risk when someone acts in a way that deviates grossly from that of a hypothetical reasonable person in the same situation. Non-cycling examples include leaving a loaded gun where a child might find it, and dropping a bathtub off a tall building. And California law specifically forbids reckless driving, defined as driving in any way that the driver knows could cause injury, and also the unintentional killing of people with cars. The latter, known as vehicular manslaughter, amounts to a misdemeanor if done while violating a traffic law—speeding, running a red light—and simultaneously failing to exercise the degree of care that any reasonable person would under the same circumstance. Vehicular manslaughter becomes a felony when a driver’s negligent behavior creates such a high risk of death or serious injury to others that it suggests disregard for human life.
On the face of it, these laws should apply pretty much every time a driver kills a cyclist in a situation where the driver is at fault. If you’re in control of a 2,000-pound hunk of steel moving 55 miles per hour or more on a road equally open to cyclists—which is to say, most roads in the United States—and you make a sudden left turn without first ensuring there isn’t a rider in the way, then you have clearly put others at extreme risk in precisely the same way as somebody who drops a bathtub off a tall building without first looking at the sidewalk below. Or, to paraphrase the language of the California laws, you have created such an extreme risk of injury or death to others that you have indeed displayed gross disregard for human life.
In practice, though, these laws almost never apply, because police officers and district attorneys have to decide whether to press charges. Those decisions require judgment calls about what terms like “reckless” and “negligent” and “reasonable person” actually mean. As it happens, cops and DAs frequently decide that speeding, running red lights, swerving onto road shoulders at 55 miles per hour, or making left turns without first checking for cyclists is merely the behavior of a perfectly reasonable person.
Which brings me back to my thesis about Americans finding it perfectly reasonable to refuse to wear a mask in a pandemic, lose their minds at the thought of restrictions on their assault rifles, and fight for the freedom of cops to kill Black people.
A culture that considers none of the above reckless, negligent, or a display of disregard for human life is a culture that places extraordinary value on every individual’s freedom to endanger others, especially in service of that individual’s personal safety: the feeling of safety I get from believing in Donald Trump’s worldview is far more important to me than any risk that I might pass a lethal virus on to somebody more vulnerable than myself; the feeling of personal safety I get from stockpiling assault rifles is vastly more important than the role widespread gun ownership plays in our astronomical rate of firearm deaths; and, to extend the thought, the feeling of safety I get knowing that I won’t suffer any consequences if I kill somebody with my car, is vastly more important to me than the risk posed to cyclists by my not having to worry about killing them.
This odd notion of freedom looks even more peculiar in light of the fact that American culture simultaneously denigrates the freedom to endanger oneself. Even as we are astonishingly permissive of behavior that endangers others, we enforce strict motorcycle helmet and car seat-belt laws. We demand that auto manufacturers include expensive airbags, roll cages, and other features aimed at protecting the occupants of cars, while requiring absolutely nothing aimed at protecting anybody that these same cars might hit.
And just in case this seems like the way of nature, consider BASE jumping, which is illegal almost everywhere in the United States, even as we allow the purchase of assault rifles alongside eggs and milk at Walmart. In Europe, the opposite holds true: BASE jumping is legal all over but gun ownership is highly regulated. That’s because Europeans venerate the freedom to risk one’s own life but not the freedom to endanger others. European police officers, furthermore, do not generally carry guns and kill vastly fewer of their own citizens.
Of course, our cultural infrastructure is distinctive in other ways, too. For one thing, it venerates the big over the small, the heavy over the light, the powerful over the weak, the fast over the slow, the easy over the hard. In matters of transportation, it also venerates the car over absolutely everything else. That’s why, despite laws in every state giving cyclists equal claim to the road, many of us drive as if cyclists are merely annoying interlopers for whom no driver should ever have to modify behavior.
Among the few slender rays of sunshine are so-called vulnerable road user laws (VRUs), promoted by cycling-safety advocates and currently on the books in ten states. VRUs provide stiffer penalties—six-month driver’s-license suspensions, large fines, and even 30-day prison terms, especially for drivers who injure or kill cyclists while breaking traffic laws. But widespread adoption of such laws may already be threatened by weakness in the knees among their very own advocates, some of whom apparently worry that VRUs will only give police new means of oppressing the oppressed.
That leaves most of the country still dependent on older laws. It also means that our biggest hope for real change lies with dramatic cultural transformation: cops and DAs willing to redefine the behavior of a “reasonable” driver as not including vehicular homicide, public shaming of drivers who kill cyclists, celebrity public-service campaigns about how remarkably easy it is not to kill cyclists, driver’s-ed courses that actually hammer home a cyclist’s equal right to the road. But these are all tall orders and, until they appear imminent, I’ll stick with rock climbing.