Last week I was biking home from work when I stopped at a red light at the end of Silber Way. I waited behind a car for the light to turn green so I could cross Commonwealth Avenue legally and (I thought) safely.
That’s when the motorist ahead of me started backing up without looking or signaling. I’m still not sure why: there was a long line of cars behind us and no parking space nearby. Also, I thought I had made myself visible in her rear view mirror to avoid this very problem.
“Stop, stop,” I shouted as I scooted off the road and in between two parked cars. “Be careful: you almost hit me.” She beeped her horn, said something not printable in a family newspaper, and kept right on backing up.
I wish I could say that this was an anomaly. It wasn’t. This past month I was almost hit by two different school buses in Newton. One sped through a light long after it had turned red, the other raced by me, honked his horn, slammed on his brakes and then made a hard right hand turn as he cut me off.
This kind of aggressive and dangerous driving scares me. But if truth be told, I am just as frightened by the motorists who don’t pay attention while driving. They’re the ones I was thinking about when my sister asked me, “Do you have life insurance? I’m worried about you on your bike.”
I’m glad that drivers can no longer legally text in Massachusetts when they’re behind the wheel. Still, even using a hands-free cellphone to “just” talk affects your reaction time as much as if you’d had a drink or two. And motorists who eat, read the paper or surf the internet while driving are engaging in exactly the kind of inattentive behaviors that place every single one of us at risk.
I know cyclists break the rules, though less often than you may think. If you don’t believe me, check out the myth of the scofflaw cyclist. And I’m not saying bikers are without fault: sadly it’s true that cyclists have hit (and even killed) pedestrians. Still, you are more likely to be harmed by a car than a bike whether you’re walking, cycling or yes, even driving. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t excuse bad biker behavior (and I’m all for the police ticketing cyclists who run red lights or salmon), though it does put that bad behavior into context.
I know, I know: some of you will want me to talk about what bikers can do differently. Which I’ve done. Or you might think, “I’ll follow the rules once you follow the rules.” But that’s just an excuse that blames your bad behavior on other people’s bad behavior. Which doesn’t get us any closer to making the roads safer and less stressful for all.
Which brings me back to driver inattention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, while more than half a million were injured. That’s terrible and I fear it’s only going to get worse as more digital natives get behind the wheel with their devices and their screens.
There are ways to help drivers be less distracted. Traffic calming modifications like speed bumps, raised crosswalks and textured pavement improve motorist awareness and driver safety. Also, your 3rd grade teacher was wrong: chewing gum is good for you and may actually improve motorist concentration. Finally, each of us who drive (and most cyclists do drive) can make sure to never get behind the wheel if tired or under the influence and to refrain from fiddling with devices when out on the road.
So now that you’re paying attention when you’re behind the wheel, here are a few things you can do to decrease the chances of hitting a cyclist:
1. obey all the traffic rules
2. yield to bikes when they have the right of way
3. if you don’t know when cyclists have the right of way, then check out the Massachusetts Driver’s Manual
4. check before you open your door to make sure a bicyclist isn’t passing by
5. look for cyclists in bike lanes before making a right turn
6. look for cyclists coming towards you before making a left turn
7. don’t cross the median to pass a cyclist as you head into a blind curve
8. drive as if that biker up ahead is your loved one
9. slow down
10. calm down
Because really: bikers have a right to be on the road. And safe, too.
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.