Sunday, July 16, 2017

"You Don't Belong Here"

"You don't belong here."

That's a paraphrase - edited for expletives - of something yelled at me recently on a ride by a guy driving a pickup truck. I was on a fairly lightly-traveled country road. Mid-day on a Sunday afternoon. I was riding with my wife. We were moving well - about 17mph - but not screaming fast. It was a pleasant weekend ride on a beautiful day.

The driver pulled up beside us, we were single file and had communicated with one another ("car back!") to move as far to the right as we could go to let him pass. This, despite the fact that we were in a zone marked with a double yellow line and with "Do Not Pass" signs on the side of the road. There were a few little rolling hills, so passing at that spot was hazardous because a driver can't see if a car may be in the oncoming lane over the rise.

The truck driver didn't pass us immediately. Instead, he stopped beside us in the opposite lane. Driving on the wrong side of the road, he lingered to yell at us that we had no business riding there at all. He had two passengers in the truck, we saw. One a child, another in the area behind the cab may have been an adult but we couldn't quite tell. The bed of the truck held a loosely tied down load of furniture.

I yelled back that we had the right to be in the road and that he was making an unsafe pass. I'm not sure he could hear me, as he was gunning his engine. He continued to shout at us a bit longer. And then sped off. For the rest of the ride, we rode with some worry that he might be up the road, waiting to accost us again or worse. He clearly believed we didn't belong on that road.

He also imagined that we were somehow in the wrong. This, despite his actions that endangered the lives of his passengers, himself, and of course us. He could have gotten a lot of people hurt. To be clear, we were acting within the law. He was not.

I wish this was an unusual event. But it isn't. Yesterday, on a very short ride of just 10 miles - once again, on a Saturday, on relatively lightly-traveled country roads - we were passed no fewer than six times illegally, the drivers crossing double yellow lines.

In many of these situations, we cyclists become the object of palpable anger. We are told, sometimes explicitly, we don't belong. The law, of course, says otherwise. But that doesn't seem to matter. These folks aren't rushing to work or trying to get someone to the emergency room - it's a weekend - and in any case, the time it actually takes to make a safe pass in a zone where the road conditions allow it is usually a matter of  *seconds* not minutes. I know this because I drive cars too. And I make safe passing decisions when I encounter cyclists on the road.

But from my perspective in the saddle, there is so much anger from those behind the wheel. When I tell stories like the one I relay here to others who do not ride, the response is usually sympathy...for the drivers! Immediately, we get told a counter story about a cyclist one time who didn't stop at a stop sign. The indignation about cyclists who break the law "all the time" is not a rational response, though. If it were, it would be matched by a concern for drivers of cars who do so far more often and with far more dire consequences.

Let me bottom line this issue. People are momentariliy inconvenienced by me and other cyclists when they encounter me, on a bike, on the road. For this inconvenience, they often threaten my life. When we tell stories about these encounters, others feel the inconvenience and seek to blame cyclists. It is chilling. These folks are telling me and others that we don't belong, that we may not deserve to live even, if it means we are an inconvenience to them.

For the record, I think it's very important for cyclists to abide by traffic laws. But the main reason they should isn't because they impose much of a risk to people who drive cars and trucks. They should do it for their own safety. It's also convenient to drivers when cyclists obey the rules. But as my example shows, it is no guarantee that they won't put our lives at risk anyway. I can do everything right and still be an inconvenience. And this is enough, quite often, for someone who doesn't know me to threaten my life.

Sometimes the inconvenience is a few seconds of slowing down and a momentary shift of their attention to pass. Sometimes the inconvenience is not even about a delay...sometimes it is resentment that they may need to exercise a bit more caution so that they don't cause an accident, an injury, or a death. Either way, there is anger. And it nearly always results in the driver breaking the law and/or endangering lives by making an unsafe pass, speeding, or worse.

I truly am at a loss for where the anger comes from. Is thirty seconds on a Sunday afternoon worth risking your life and the lives of your loved ones in the car with you? Is it worth my life? I hesitate to even ask the latter question.

The answer seems clear: "yes. My time is worth more than your life. Get the hell out of my way. YOU DON'T BELONG HERE."
Program note: this entry is a break in tone, I know, from others in this blog. It is grim. I usually keep things pretty positive here. I also try to pose solutions where I write about a problem or challenge. But here, I don't see a way to provide a solution. There may not be one. So I can only raise the question: what does driving a car do to a human being that makes the lives of others immaterial?