We can be the change we want to see

With the most recent report that a distracted motorist killed another innocent person riding a bicycle, many in the cycling community are grappling with grief, anger and an underlying desire to do something, anything that might make a bit of a difference and help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel reports on his blog Off the Couch that well-known Nordic skier David Landgraf died Monday as a result of injuries he sustained when he was hit while riding his bicycle on Hwy. 27 south of Hayward. Landgraf was one of only three people to have skied in every American Birkebeiner since its founding in 1973.

Held reports: “According to the Sawyer County Sheriff’s report, a 24-year-old woman from Hayward turned to speak to her children while driving south on Hwy. 27 about 6:50 p.m. Friday. She turned back and saw Landgraf, but too late to swerve and avoid him.”

How sad that one seemingly harmless moment of distraction could cause such devastation: an innocent person dead; the lives of the victim’s friends and family in havoc; a loving mother now a killer.

Other than keeping them in our thoughts and prayers, is there anything else we can do for those who suffered collateral damage from these recent tragic deaths?  Is there any legislation we can pass, road we can reconstruct, or law we can enforce that will keep this from happening to another innocent person riding a bicycle? While there may not be any wand to wave that will magically protect the vulnerable users on our roads, I think there is something we can all do that has the potential to help enormously.

We can all be the change we want to see.

About 2.5 million people ride bicycles in Wisconsin every year.  What would be the result if every one of those people pledged to leave life’s distractions behind when they got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle?  What if half of Wisconsin made a promise to the innocents who have died recently that we will honor our responsibility as drivers and pledge to do the following:

  1. Never exceed the speed limit, and often drive slower when around people on foot and bicycle.
  2. Pay full attention to the road when driving; leave the phone and other distractions for outside the car.
  3. Stop to let pedestrians cross the street at crosswalks whether we are behind the wheel or in the saddle.
  4. Give three feet when passing people on bicycles.
  5. Stop for red lights and stop signs when riding bicycles.

If every cyclist who is outraged and saddened by the recent spate of senseless deaths took this pledge, our roads would become safer overnight.  We could redefine critical mass as a group of law abiding cyclists.  We could act as neighborhood pace cars limiting those behind us to the speed limit as we drive safely through our cities, villages and towns.  We could help school children cross the street simply by stopping and waving to let them do so.  We could lead by example and spread our message through our influence with friends and relatives.

Most people who ride bicycles also drive.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been a passenger in the car with cyclist friends behind the wheel who were speeding, texting, talking on the phone, even eating oatmeal.  As a passenger, I have bit my tongue countless times as friends blindly motored past people waiting in a crosswalk at uncontrolled intersections. When I am on a group bike ride, I always feel compelled to let others know that I stop and wait at red lights. I make this announcement to avoid confusion at traffic signals because so many cyclists ignore them.

Who among us has had enough? Who wants to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem? This isn’t about any particular road user earning the respect of others; this is about respecting the law.  We can’t bring back David Landgraf, Sam Ferrito, Jeff Littman or any of the  four people who died so tragically this year while riding bicycles, but we can make a difference, one waiting pedestrian at a time; one red light at a time; one missed call at a time and one speed limit sign at a time. Each one of us has the ability to make our roads a little safer every day if we only work to be the change we want to see.

I’ll take the pledge.  Anyone want to join me?

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

32 thoughts on “We can be the change we want to see

  1. It is a sad moment Dave but I think the education needs to be driven towards the people who have never ridden a bike in traffic or have a difficult time as a cyclist to obey the road laws. To many times the mentality when someone gets behind the wheel switches from normal to aggressive. I’ve been hit 3 times, all non-life threatening but nonetheless, and in each case, it was me who took evasive action rather than the driver. It is a simple formula to be aware of your surroundings while driving, but all too easy to get lost in distraction.

    I’m in.

    • Thanks Tony. The Bike Fed’s Share and Be Aware program does try to reach out to people who don’t drive cars too, but that is a much tougher nut to crack. It is easier to put our own house in order first. The culture of multitasking is part of our lives, from when we make dinner to texting during meetings. Driving on roads shared by vulnerable road users should be a firm exception.

  2. I am so totally in.

    I would take it one step further. When you get a phone call from somebody, and it sounds like there’s car noise in the background, ask if they’re driving. If they say they are, politely tell them you’ll call them later when they reach their destination. It doesn’t have to sound accusatory or rude. Just say “I’ll call you in X minutes” then hang up.

    I wholeheartedly believe that we’re only going to change our dysfunctional driving culture through social pressure. Look at drunk driving. A generation ago, driving home from the bar completely wasted was a funny story you told your friends around the water cooler Monday morning. Now someone telling such stories would be a social pariah in most settings.

    It’s hard to be the person who is the first to speak up and say that something everyone thinks is OK is actually not OK. But someone has to do it. A small group of people decided to speak up about drunk driving and they eventually changed the culture.

    • Dave, your suggestion in the first paragraph is very, VERY good. You made me realize that I used to do this years ago, back when cell phones were still new, and people hadn’t developed this casual behavior of driving and talking on the phone. You made me realize how I had slowly been lead to believe that it is safe. Thanks for this post,

      • You are most welcome. Various distractions have almost imperceptibly become part of our driving culture. Most of us are guilty to some degree, but it helps to review our habits once in a while and put the emphasis back on driving.

      • I know it’s hard, and it doesn’t make you Mr. Popularity. When someone calls on the phone while driving, and I tell them I will call them back later and hang up people get offended. They think you’re over-reacting, doubting their judgement, being a namby-pamby. A prude. But change has to start somewhere.

        If I had you over at my house and you took out a cigarette, and I told you that we don’t smoke in my house, and asked you to take it outside, it would not be a big deal. Few people in 2011 would bat an eyelash at being asked to take their smoking somewhere else. Well, in 1980 that same request would have been met with eye-rolling, even derision.

        Someone has to be willing to risk being the first to say something.

  3. I’m with ya! Every time I see a cyclist run a stop sign or red light I let them know how I feel. If we don’t correct them, who will? People need to take responsibility for their actions and respect others.

    • Cool, now we have to start correcting people driving cars. Tell your friends and family members to stop speeding and stop for pedestrians. I do, but it is not easy and I don’t get many ride offers any more ;)

  4. I just came up with an email signature that features a logo I got from US DOT that says “Put it Down” and the text “Please don’t call me while driving.”

    I’m sure some email recipients will roll their eyes and think I’m “extreme,” or preachy. I don’t care, I’m getting really tired of this shit.

  5. I’m out. Never exceed the speed limit? You got to be kidding me! If your not doing 5mph hour, you’re a slow arf driver that’s not driving with the flow. And you may not jump to the conclusion that I endorse doing 20mph over. . #5 I believe in the Idaho stop law, you old guys at the Bike Fed should start to realize that it would improve our cycling presence.

    • Sorry to hear that Chris, then you are part of the problem. Speeding has serious consequences when a pedestrian or bicyclist is involved in a crash. A pedestrian or bicyclists hit at 40 mph has an 85 percent chance of being killed; at 30 mph, the likelihood goes down to 45 percent, while at 25 mph the fatality rate is only 5 percent. That 5mph can make a big difference. As for the Idaho stop law, that is not on our current legislative agenda because it is probably not politically feasible to pass. Many stop signs are put in to stop people from speeding on residential streets. That is an improper use of stop signs. If people did not speed, we would not have so many unwarranted stop signs and cyclists would not need an Idaho style law.

      • I would guess that a major issue with a majority of pedestrian/bicycle crashes is speeding, with less reaction time for drivers and more serious crashes. That and distracted drivers. The combination is deadly. Unfortunately it’s the norm to go at least a few miles over the speed limit. Drivers have long since forgotten (if it was ever known) that it’s the speed limit, not the minimum, and that’s under ideal conditions. Anything less then ideal and the speed should be lower.

        Of course there is a complete lack of enforcement unless you’re going well over the limit. Without an enforcement campaign to never go over the limit little is going to change. We can’t even get a bill passed to make cell phone use while driving illegal even though it’s proven to be a hugh distraction.

        The best we can do is set an example, but be prepared to have a lot of angry drivers in your rear view mirror.

  6. The people that complain the most about cyclist not stopping for stop signs are for the most part hypocrites. Like the guy that yell at the group I was riding with for not stopping then goes up to the same sign he was yelling about and does not come to a legal stop and rolls through the sign.
    Half the times when I stop people wave me to go even though I stopped after them and they have the right away. I have also been honked at from behind for stopping and getting in the way of car behind me making them have to stop. As with when I come to a complete stop when driving my car and I all most get rear end because I do and person behind does not think I should be.

    People need to remember driving a car is a privilege not a right. Maybe it needs to be taken away from more so they know that and treat it like it should be.

  7. I’m in!!! We also need to encourage fellow riders to put some lights on their bikes. I know it doesnt look cool to have a blinkie light on your vintage fixie you spent all day putting coffee shop and alleycat stickers on…but its hard to look cool wearing skinny jeans when you eat thru a tube and wear an adult diaper.

  8. After reading reading this yesterday i finally installed the lights that i bought last week and tried to obey ALL the traffic lights. I do have to admit that I went thru one or two just because it just felt too unsafe to sit there….I know…..lame excuse

  9. When driving on sidestreets I often use my cruise control to ensure that I go exactly 25mph. These are residential neighborhoods, and just like I don’t want someone speeding at 35mph through mine, I use my car’s technology to ensure that I’m not speeding through theirs. It’s calming, and the line of (impatient) cars behind me reminds me that I’m doing the right thing in slowing them down as well. On multi-lane highways, all bets are off however. :)

    And yes, always stop at stop lights and stop signs while riding a bike. Stop signs might be closer to “rolling stops”, but I figure that it’s close enough…

    • Nice idea Travis. That concept has been called “neighborhood pace car” in traffic calming programs. As for the multi-lane highways, I have to admit that seems a lot like a hockey match where everyone in the ring knows the rules and there are no innocents. Just as fights are allowed in hockey until they cross some unspoken line, speeding seems to be allowed on freeways. Most people feel confident driving 5mph over past state patrol radar.

  10. Definitely in. Just read the blog. I’ve heard you say these things before some time ago. They still echo in my mind. I have become a speed limit guy and maybe a little less. And my new Prius rewards me by getting 56mpg+!! Gentle, gentle – works every time.

  11. I know this is a late comment Dave, but I just returned from an 8 day bicycle trip in Michigan :)

    You already know my thoughts about all this as we exchanged a few emails the day before this blog post. I do drive the speed limits and never answer the phone if it rings while I am driving. But you know my pet peeve is cyclists not stopping for red lights. I will continue to tell those who run them my feelings; maybe I’ll change my method to telling instead of yelling. I was finally able to tell a fellow cyclist (on our way home from the ferry from Muskegon) how much I appreciated his stopping at the red light where we waiting. And of course he is the only one I’ve seen stop since..

    So I beg your readers to join your pledge and please please stop at red lights.

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