Transportation

Confused Anti-Bike Rant Ignores Most Dangerous Road Users

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published July 04, 2013

The Toronto Star published a rather confused anti-cyclist and -pedestrian rant today that manages to accept that all road users break the law but then claims that the most dangerous road users are cyclists and pedestrians.

Author Judith Timson writes that she has "come to the end of silently tolerating cyclists who break the law - placing themselves and others in danger." She covers herself by briefly mentioning, "No one - pedestrians, motorists or cyclists - obeys all road laws. Everybody, middle finger at the ready, is mighty entitled."

Yet she then focuses on what she considers the most "dangerous" group of traffic law breakers: cyclists, with jaywalking pedestrians not far behind. It is beyond me how someone can recognize that all road users break the laws all the time, but then single out cyclists and pedestrians for special attack based on a perception of danger.

As a motorist, and even as a cyclist, I find it very irritating when cyclists break certain traffic rules, and it seems unfair that cyclists break some rules more than motorists (although motorists break other rules far more often than cyclists, such as speeding). But there is a difference between "unfair and irritating" and "dangerous" (especially if one means "dangerous to others"). And Timson just doesn't get this distinction.

Surely anyone who sees the injury statistics or knows the laws of physics understands that a speeding, drunk or inattentive motorist poses a far greater danger to other road users than a cyclist rolling through a stop sign or cycling the wrong way down a one-way street, or a pedestrian crossing against a red light when there is no traffic around - three examples that get the writer especially riled up.

I agree that cyclists should obey the law, but where exactly is the evidence that cyclists are "placing themselves and others in danger" by their lawbreaking? In fact, the evidence goes completely the other way: it is motorist law-breaking that places the motorists themselves and others in danger and leads directly to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of serious injuries in Canada every year.

A study of cyclist-motor vehicle collisions in Toronto found that motorist behaviour was the cause of 90 percent of the collisions. The study author, University of Toronto Professor Chris Cavalcuiti, concluded: "The available evidence suggests that collisions have far more to do with aggressive driving than aggressive cycling."

Let's put things in perspective and focus on rule breaking that really does have the most potential to cause harm, especially to others. Cyclists should obey the laws, but encouraging motorists to harangue cyclists for rolling stops or other infractions, as the author does, is not helpful.

Perhaps Timson would appreciate being told how intrinsically dangerous driving is, since she is on a personal mission to improve road safety by telling off rule breakers - if those rule breakers happen to be "middle-aged women" cyclists she can corner.

Does the author really never exceed 100 km/h on the highway or roll through a stop sign when driving? How would she react if cyclists started telling her off for speeding, talking on a cell phone, rolling through a stop sign or changing lanes without signalling? Would she contritely pledge to obey the rules in the future?

Related:

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2013 at 14:14:18

I commuted by bike year-round for around a decade until a couple of years ago, at which time my schedule changed and I started walking instead. This week I started commuting by bike again (mainly so I can get in a bike ride during my lunch hour), and on my first day out, I had an unpleasant altercation with a motorist.

Markland Street is one-way westbound, and as it approaches its terminus at Queen Street, it splits into two lanes: the left lane is for vehicles turning left (i.e. south) onto Queen, and the right lane is for vehicles turning right (i.e. north) onto Queen. Check out Google Street View if you're unfamiliar with it. (Note also a contraflow bike lane for eastbound cyclists.)

I was cycling west on Markland and got into the left lane before Queen, signalling my intent to turn left. I came to a stop at Queen and waited for traffic to clear so I could make my turn. An SUV came up from behind and pulled into the right lane, presumably to turn right.

Traffic opened up and I proceeded into the turn. Part-way through, I realized that the SUV was also turning - but it was turning left from the right-turn lane and was quickly cutting into me. I turned and tried to make eye contact with the driver, but its windows were so tinted that I couldn't see in. I waved my hands around, trying to signal that I was making a left turn and the driver was cutting me off.

The driver responded by leaning on his horn, revving his engine and swerving behind me to pass on my left. He (I am assuming it was a man) honked again and I could faintly see him gesturing through the glass. I, ahem, did some gesturing of my own and then he accelerated hard, peeling up the street and slewing right onto Aberdeen (aided, I must mention in passing, by the highway-style on-ramp from Queen onto Aberdeen).

I estimate that he was going 70-80 km/h. By the time I reached Aberdeen a moment later he was already long past Locke Street and receding rapidly.

So here we have an anecdote of a cyclist entirely obeying the law, and a motorist committing several highly dangerous Highway Traffic Act violations:

  • Turning left from a right-turn lane;
  • Cutting off another vehicle;
  • Aggressive, reckless driving;
  • Exceeding the speed limit by 40-60%; and
  • Driving with windows so tinted as to be opaque.

To be entirely clear, this is just an anecdote. It's by no means representative of most drivers or even most SUV drivers - but it has left a deeper impression in my memory than the incident-free exchanges with other drivers and will be easy to call to memory the next time I casually wonder how many drivers are aggressive.

Presumably the author of the anti-cyclist rant has also had some encounters like this, where a cyclist or pedestrian broke the law in a way that left a deep impression on her memory.

One of the well-understood cognitive biases that shape human perception is the availability heuristic. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that lets you make a decision about a complex or data-heavy matter by using some other, simpler matter as a proxy. Under the availability heuristic, people tend to decide how common something is based on how easy it is to call examples of it to memory.

If I relied on the availability heuristic to decide how common aggressive driving is, I would conclude that it is very common because I can easily recall examples of drivers doing aggressive, dangerous things around me. As it happens, that is exactly what I used to think about drivers (even though I am also a driver).

After doing some reading about cognitive bias a few years ago, I decided to test my perception by actually keeping a log and counting my interactions with drivers. At the end, I had to concede that the overwhelming majority of motorists were not aggressive when I encountered them. In fact, among the less-than-10% of motorists who were problematic, they were more likely to cause problems in a misplaced attempt to be helpful, e.g. by yielding the right of way when they had it and confusing me.

It was a humbling experience to test my perceptions and learn that my lazy brain was misleading me - but that's why we have statistics. It's why we should form public policy based on what the data says, and not on what our guts or our hunches or our prejudices tell us.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-07-04 14:20:38

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 05, 2013 at 14:29:53 in reply to Comment 89931

In one way, the very rare encounters with dangerously aggressive drivers are important even if they are not at all representative of the normal cycling experience.

I encounter this sort of driver extremely rarely, less than once a year despite cycling almost daily. However, it only takes a couple of near-death experiences with drivers who clearly don't care whether they injure or kill you to put someone off cycling, perhaps forever.

Ever since my very unpleasant run-in with a driver on Aberdeen who was enraged by the fact that I wanted to turn left from the left lane on Aberdeen http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2597/watc... I have avoided that stretch of Aberdeen.

Incidentally, this driver had the same attitude as Timson, except he actually is on a crusade to force cyclists off the roads and onto the sidewalks by intimidating any cyclist who has the nerve to ride on the road. In other words, he wants to force law-abiding cyclists to break the law! (This is another example of how cyclists just can't win.)

I think what Timson doesn't get is that an aggressive and dangerous driver runs a good chance of killing or injuring their victim, and if that victim is a vulnerable road user such as a pedestrian or cyclist the chance of death or serious injury is very high even if the motorists is only trying to "intimidate" the other road user. Tail gating or passing extremely closely on a city street will at worst lead to a fender bender if a motorist does it to another motorist, but has a good chance of killing the victim if he does it to a pedestrian or cyclist. For example, I don't think many motorists realize that squeezing past a cyclist to avoid changing lanes poses an extreme risk to the cyclist: if they have to swerve quickly to avoid a car in the next lane, the cyclist is dead.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-07-05 14:37:38

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2013 at 14:40:02 in reply to Comment 89968

Another anecdote: Last March I rode with my younger son to Bayfront Park. We were going north on Bay Street in the right side of the through lane and came to a red light at Barton. (Street View if you're unfamiliar with it.)

A pickup truck came up behind us on the left, with a woman driving and a man in the passenger seat. His window was down and he yelled, "Get off the road!"

I turned and looked, incredulous. "What?"

"Get off the road!" he yelled. "You should be on the sidewalk."

I said, "Nope. It's illegal to ride on the sidewalk. We have the right to be here."

He said, "Then get in the right lane."

I said, "Nope. That's a right turning lane. We're going straight."

Then the light turned green. The driver pulled far to the left and passed us slowly while the passenger scowled at us. I was most grateful that she was driving, not him.

Incidentally, I rode down to the waterfront at lunchtime today and took MacNab. It was indescribably more pleasant to ride on MacNab than Bay, even without bike lanes or sharrows.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-07-05 14:45:24

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By driver, but usually respectful (anonymous) | Posted July 05, 2013 at 13:58:07 in reply to Comment 89931

"To be entirely clear, this is just an anecdote." This is a case study, Ryan, not an 'anecdote.' Your enemies will use the phrase 'anecdotal evidence' to disparage. Don't offer them ammunition! Proponents of workplace health & safety, and of good environmentalism, have fended off the 'just anecdotal evidence' thing for decades; honest.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2013 at 14:34:35 in reply to Comment 89965

I call the incident an anecdote in a "the-plural-of-anecdote-is-not-data" sense, not a "we-can't-learn-anything-from-this" sense, if that helps. :)

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By Jessica (anonymous) | Posted July 04, 2013 at 17:07:47 in reply to Comment 89931

Thank you, Ryan, for this comment! I'm glad to hear someone else make this observation about availability heuristic. (I was already aware of the idea of this, I just didn't know this is what it was called, so thank you for that as well) I am constantly bringing this idea up when people tell me they dislike/distrust some larger, over-generalized group and cite some very specific encounters they've had as proof. This type of arguing makes me crazy.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2013 at 19:46:17 in reply to Comment 89941

If you are so inclined, I highly, highly recommend the book Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It left a big dent in my worldview.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 04, 2013 at 14:20:29 in reply to Comment 89931

I, ahem, did some gesturing of my own

I can personally vouch for this.

Seriously tho, I'm glad you're fine and nothing worse happened. This is the problem with so few cyclists in a city like ours. All it takes is one nut-job driver and you're dead. If we had thousands of cyclists riding all over town, it would become a normal part of daily life for everyone. But our streets are designed for one purpose and one purpose only - high speed car traffic.

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By Gord Middleton (anonymous) | Posted July 04, 2013 at 14:50:42

Motorists need to "slow-down." How is it that the people operating motor vehicles (the fastest way from point A to point B) are the least patient?
To say cyclists are the most dangerous people on our streets is a complete absurdity. I get the feeling that the author may have been suffering from a bout of road-rage at the time she wrote the article - thus making her opinion 1. uninformed, 2. an absolute abuse of her journalistic authority and 3. a peek into a potential lack of journalistic integrity.
Judith, yer an idiot! But fear not; the even bigger idiot cyclists who dart in and out of cars have a vastly reduced life expectancy. Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest" works in the animal kingdom, but in the human kingdom it is "death to the dumbest."

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 05, 2013 at 14:16:47

Let's imagine two men in Union Station late one evening. One of them is a busker juggling razor-sharp scimitars. The other one is a little drunk and trying to get the train home. The drunk stumbles at an inopportune time and falls into the scimitar juggler, who in turn accidentally kills three people.

Who's fault is it? The man for walking around a bit drunk in a crowded area? Or the man juggling lethal weapons in a crowded area?

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By JOEJOE (anonymous) | Posted July 09, 2013 at 09:47:19

"How is it that the people operating motor vehicles (the fastest way from point A to point B) are the least patient?"

I've often worndered that. I'll be crossing at a light and a right turning driver will be inching towards me. Why can't he just wait?!

It seems to me that one of the inherent problems with our road sharing is that we have such drastic differences in speeds. You have a 4mph pedestrian versus a 40mph car. It's like a hare and a turtle. We need to either slow down the faster moving vehicles or provide a safer more physical separation of the different forms of traffic.

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