Five Cyclists In My City Are Dead And I Feel Like I Could Be Next

I used to point out all the stupid shit that I saw other cyclists do. After about the third death this year, I stopped. I didn’t want to give any more ammo to those who rush to blame the victim.
Publish date:
January 4, 2013
bikes, safety, cyclists, traffic

One recent morning during rush hour, someone I know passed -- right after it happened -- a fatal traffic accident between a cyclist and an 18-wheeler truck. No surprise: the cyclist was the one who died. My friend was on her own bike at the time.

If I followed the Google bike maps suggestion for how to commute from my apartment to almost anywhere in the city, I would go through that same intersection. In fact, I would've biked past it (or the emergency detour around it) on the day of the accident when, after I heard the news, I ditched my previous plans and attended a city hall public hearing, one that had been scheduled far in advance, on bike safety.

At first, I thought I must have been in the wrong room. People were polite and smiley during their testimony, which might be good etiquette under other circumstances, but not after someone had just been killed, the second bike fatality in the course of a month. I wanted to knock over the tables where the bureaucrats giving testimony were seated. I wanted to slash the cushions of the benches where the public sat. I wondered why I didn't see the same rage all around me.

The hearing had been called by three councilors, all people of color who live in the most diverse sections of town. Two of the councilors outed themselves as cyclists.

Usually when I see an “expert” giving advice on biking in the city, he’s a white guy in spandex talking to other white people about putting bike infrastructure in extremely white neighborhoods.

The public that attended the hearing were mostly white, but, in another nice change, a lot of them were women -- which made the bureaucrats’ constant references to getting “women” to use bikes in the city sort of puzzling, as if we were a rare and elusive species of butterfly instead of nearly half the room -- including some panelists and one of the councilors who called the hearing.

Enough women bike to make up 40% of the cyclist deaths this year -- in my city anyway. Enough men of color bike that they make up another 40%. Together, they are a surprising 80% of the deaths.

Motor vehicles killed five cyclists in my city in 2012. The average per year is usually one. Five isn’t a large number, especially considering that over three-quarters of a million people live in or commute to the area every day. But if there were a five-fold increase in anything else -- unemployment, bankruptcy, spontaneous orgasm -- the entire city, along with its elected officials, would be demanding answers instead of holding this midday hearing with just a handful of city councilors.

According to the testimony of one of the panelists, studies show that the cause of accidents between bikes and motor vehicles is, in three out of four cases, the driver. That statistic is particularly striking because whenever a cyclist is killed, the conversation afterward always implicates her. I’m familiar with that tone from years of feminist and queer activism, where blaming the victim or survivor in cases of domestic violence, rape, queer bashing and HIV infection has, until very recently, been the norm. The questions about a cyclist’s death are nearly identical:

  • “What exactly was the she doing in that place? Didn’t she know it was ‘unsafe’?”
  • “Did she do something ‘reckless’ or ‘unpredictable’?”
  • “What did she have on?”

Apparently, for the cyclist traveling at night, wearing any item of clothing not on the day-glo spectrum absolves the driver of wrongdoing.

I bike in what I wear during the rest of my waking hours, 99.9% of which is a dark color, so if anyone ever hits me I guess I’m asking for it.

And God forbid a dead cyclist not have a helmet on. She’ll be automatically judged at fault then, even if she died from injuries far from her head, as if a helmet were a magic shield. By not wearing a helmet, the cyclist might as well have conjured thousands of pounds of metal from thin air and telekinetically sent it hurtling toward her body.

For the record, the dead cyclist from the morning commute was wearing a helmet. My friend saw it sticking out from under the sheet used to cover his body.

The second panel that gave testimony concentrated on proposing ideas that would cut down on injuries and save lives: redesigning bike lanes so that they are to the right of (and separated from traffic by) parked cars and making sure the recreational bike paths in town connect to each other and don’t just end at a superhighway, as if they were part of some surreal Saturday morning cartoon. By that time, all the city councilors except the ones who had called the hearing -- along with much of the public -- had left.

A panelist cited studies that show very large motor vehicles are much more likely to cause bike fatalities. The 2012 deaths in my city prove that point: public transit buses caused two of them (including the death that happened less than a month before) and 18-wheelers caused one previous death and the death during that morning’s commute. The remaining death was caused by a drunk driver, the only driver of the five to be charged for killing another human being.

I used to point out all the stupid shit that I saw other cyclists do. After about the third death this year, I stopped. I didn’t want to give any more ammo to those who rush to blame the victim.

I wish other cyclists would make the same decision. The peculiar culture of bike machismo means the same type of bearded guy who gives me unsolicited advice about my bike when he passes me in the lane or when we are both locking up at a bike rack, second-guesses dead cyclists, too.

“If her brakes were in good condition there was no reason she couldn’t have stopped in time.” “Why didn’t she look around and see that semi?”

They remind me of the test pilots in the book "The Right Stuff" who, every time a colleague died, discussed at his wake his sloppiness, his lack of mastery, his wrong approach, anything that would distance their fate from his.

Some other cyclists (again, mostly men) take a different tack by participating in an unofficial competition of who can wear the most safety bling. I have a light on the front and back of my bike but to enter this safety trifecta I would need a flashing light on my helmet too, on the front like a miner’s hat or in the back as if I were my own heavy load. I’ve seen guys put one light or more on the middle of the frame as well. Posed on their bikes, their silhouettes resemble constellations.

But when four out of five of the vehicles that collided with and killed cyclists are buses or semis, the drivers of which were barely aware they had hit someone, and of those accidents two happened in broad daylight, the cyclist-victims could have been wearing dinner-plate sized flashing LEDs and they wouldn’t have helped.

Being on a bike stopped at a red light and having an 18-wheeler pull up is akin to having a 747 land next to your left thigh, the person at the wheel struggling to maneuver in the available space and about as cognizant of cyclists as a pilot on an airport runway would be.

Both semis that killed cyclists were taking a turn on a busy street lined with businesses, residences and pedestrians; the trailers were skittering across both lanes and, in at least one of the crashes, into the bike lane. In a Freudian slip, a bike-commuter giving testimony called a semi truck a “semi-automatic” before he corrected himself.

I stayed for almost the whole hearing, three hours. The three city councilors dwindled down to one. He asked the remaining folks in the room to give testimony.

I said if a bike and a motor vehicle collide the bike always loses, so the onus is on the driver. I said that, like every other cyclist, I see drivers flouting the most basic traffic laws, going through red lights or texting in traffic, every day and if the city is serious about bike safety, someone needs to enforce those laws. I said, even though I'm a very cautious cyclist who stops at red lights and always wears a helmet (I made sure to say so only because if I didn’t, most people would assume that I don’t bother), I have close calls all the time.

I left just before bearded, bike-machismo-guys started testifying. I wish I’d also told the one remaining city council member that on my way in I had to weave through an intersection (I had the green light) blocked by late-coming bumper-to-bumper traffic, even though there is a sign that tells drivers: blocking that intersection is against the law. I had to cross in front of a large truck (which I was very disturbed to have to do because that morning's accident involved a large truck) and when I looked at the driver I noticed he was wearing headphones, which is also against the law.

In the earlier part of the hearing, the question of revenue for the relatively modest measures for bike safety came up more than once. If government officials were looking to collect more money to fund biking infrastructure they could start by ticketing and fining folks at intersections like the one I had been in. They could make the money they needed in the course of one morning. We should have as many people citing moving violations of cars as we have for parking violations, since, as far as I know, no one has ever been killed by an improperly parked car.

Afterward I debated whether to do an errand that would involve going through a place the hearing had identified as a trouble spot (and which, even before the hearing, scared me). The evening rush hour would soon begin.

I decided that given the day's events, I wouldn't be a wimp if I just biked home.