Driving “Affectionately”

As printed in 11 August 2016 Oregon (Wisconsin) Observer

We all bear responsibility for tragedies like this.

On a Friday morning in August, a bicyclist was struck and killed by a motorist on Lincoln Road, southwest of Oregon. A Village of Brooklyn man has been charged with homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run involving death.

This is the second time in as many months a motorist has killed a bicyclist in Dane County, and the 10th bicyclist fatality in Wisconsin this year. Last year, motorists killed 69 pedestrians and bicyclists in Wisconsin. The total for the United States for 2014 (most recent data): 5,610 pedestrians and bicyclists killed.

For some of us, our knee-jerk response to such tragedies might be to withdraw into the protective armor of our own automobile. Rather than taking the risks of bicycling on public roads – or letting our kids walk to school – we’ll just stay in our vehicles. If other people are foolish enough to travel about in our community without a car, that’s their problem. Meanwhile, we’ve done all we can to protect good old Numero Uno.

We could say this collision was the fault of this specific driver, and that he is simply one among a small number of bad apples.We could say bicyclists don’t belong on roads “built for cars.” And they don’t pay gas taxes to build them.

We could say the roads themselves are dangerous, and therefore “separate but equal” bike trails and walking paths should be extended everywhere.We could say this was an unfortunate accident – it could have happened to any one of us.

But none of these gets to the heart of the matter, least of all the money part.

Gas taxes don’t begin to pay for maintaining and policing Wisconsin’s streets, roads, and highways. In fact property taxes cover 75- to 88 percent of local road costs (of which Lincoln Road is one). The astronomical price tag to extend bike trails and walking paths everywhere makes that option a pipe dream.

Truth be told, the roads themselves aren’t dangerous. Cars themselves don’t injure and kill. And driving more won’t make driving safer. It is time to confront the lies we tell ourselves.

Getting behind the wheel of a big, rigid box weighing thousands of pounds is never an accident. Nor is it an accident when we accelerate our vehicle to speeds that can easily kill – and will almost certainly injure – unarmored people who fail to get out of our way in time. These are choices. Our choices have consequences.

A collision between a motor vehicle and a pedestrian or cyclist is never a fair contest. The deck is always heavily stacked in favor of the guy who is wearing the armor. Choosing to drive is choosing to impose risks on others while shielding ourselves from those risks. It is a kind of asymmetrical warfare, offense masquerading as defense.

Trying to weasel our way out of responsibility isn’t an accident, either. There are dots to connect between these fatalities and our love of automotive power, speed, convenience and self-protection. Dots to connect between these fatalities and the sprawling distances we have chosen to build into our communities and lives. Dots between these fatalities and the speeds we choose to drive at today.

Driving as fast as we do drives up the risks of not driving; and drives away people who can’t (or don’t want to) drive. You can’t see any of this through a windshield. You can’t avoid seeing it when you get out of your car and experience what it is like to walk, roll wheelchairs, push strollers, and ride bicycles in our community. Not just as forms of exercise, but in the course of doing errands in daily life.

Needless to say, the “externalities” of all our driving couldn’t be more obvious to people who can’t drive; people who can’t afford a car; people who don’t have family or friends at their beck and call to chauffeur them; and people who just plain don’t want use a car for every errand and trip.

We need to put our own skin in their game. And we need to challenge our elected leaders to get off their duffs, too. It is no coincidence that our driver-education courses are so inadequate, our transportation policies so automobile-centric, our traffic laws so lenient, our enforcement so lax.

We can make roads safer for everyone by focusing first on our own practices. Walk and bike so you know what it is like. Drive affectionately, as though it is your loved ones on the other side of the windshield. Join the “Share & Be Aware campaign at the wisconsinbikefed.org.

It is election season – every seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly is up for grabs, as are half in the Senate. Contact your candidates and demand laws with greater penalties for motorists who kill people by driving too fast, failing to pay attention, and not yielding to others. Demand reforms in driver-education and license renewal – people who think bicyclists don’t belong on the road don’t belong on the road either!

And tell your local police and district attorneys to enforce the laws – rather than people who walk and bike for simply using our public thoroughfares in the manner they prefer.

Feet first, anyone?

2 thoughts on “Driving “Affectionately”

  1. It also pays to remember that a large percentage of drivers are openly hostile and do not view killing someone else with a car as murder. They either view it as a positive or neutral. (This tends to go for whether the victim is a cyclist, another driver, or a pedestrian).

    I just came back from Waukesha, and while what I saw on a bumper sticker was sad, it was unfortunately not surprising. A pickup truck had a sticker depicting a pickup truck running people over. Some were under the wheels, some bouncing over the truck or off the bumper.

    Why would someone feel comfortableand at home driving around Waukesha with a bumper sticker like that?

    That person would not dare put a “KKK” sticker on his car, because even if Waukesha has more than its fair share of racists, blatant racism is frowned upon. That person would not have a sticker showing a man punching a woman in the face, because even in Waukesha, such open misogyny is frowned upon.

    Killing someone with a car, however, is not frowned upon. It’s a culture where you are judged as a person not by your behavior, but by the size and expense of what you drive, and by how much you drive. And in that culture, you can feel free to drive around, hidden in your truck, advertising that you think running people over and kiling them is cool. It’s a culture where you know you can hit and kill someone and not face any consequences – criminal or social.

    If you know most of your neighbors are in agreement, you paste it right on your bumper. The Bike Fed and its members have to remember, as unpleasant as it may be, that this is the culture that we are fighting. Driving in Waukesha is always depressing, but today was even worse than normal for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *