Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Categories and the Safety Canard

Having spent the last few days mulling, I can now say everything I would've said right away if I hadn't been too distracted by my annoyance with Slate.

First: I hate Slate!

Okay. That wasn't supposed to be first. Again:

First: this is why I hate Slate: "Bikes occupy a gray area of the law," saith the author, Christopher Beam. But this is manifestly untrue—essentially the same as saying that pot possession occupies a gray area of the law. Perhaps there are places where biking laws are vague, but from all I've read in this book, the laws are pretty clear. It's people on bikes and uneven enforcement of the laws that give them a grayish tint.

Another reason to hate Slate: the bifurcation of all things and the remorseless drive to unfurcate all things by sticking yourself in the middle of them. "Today's cycling activists," we are told, "generally split into two groups: 'vehicularists' and 'facilitators.'"

Never mind that these terms are new to me. What's important is that they hide a much messier reality.

There seem to be only two advocates in the world of "vehicular cycling" per se—both of whom seem to make part of their living from that advocacy. And while there seem to be more people willing to embrace the "laws are for cars, not me" approach that should make them "facilitators," my experience is that they're a minority, even among cycling advocates. Most people just want to cherry pick the laws they like, hence Beam's failure to quote a single person identifying with either category.

And of course, once you leave bicycle advocates behind, you find that most people have no idea at all about what laws apply to bikes. They're so ill-informed they believe that bikes occupy some kind of gray area.

Second: post hoc ergo propter hoc as proof, not logical fallacy. Beam goes on at some length about the so-called Idaho stop, which allows people to roll through stop signs.
Skeptics say that the rule would lead to more crashes. But a follow-up study of the Idaho statute found that accidents involving bikes actually decreased the year after the law was passed and haven't varied much since.
The implication is clear: the new law brought down the number of biking accidents. But of course there's no compelling reason to believe this, since the drop in accident rates could be temporary or (to me, more likely) the result of more people discussing the fact that there are laws governing biking at all. Suddenly, people know what to do, so they do that.

Third: can I just ask, as a now officially middle-aged biker who has never been accused of athleticism, what's so fucking hard about stopping your fucking bike and fucking waiting for a fucking second to fucking look both fucking ways before fucking pushing your fucking bike forward and riding down the fucking road until you have to fucking stop again? It's not as fun as keeping on keeping on, that's for sure. But hard it's not.

Fourth: I don't think stopping for red lights is a safety cure-all. Riding against traffic, blowing lights and stop signs (the way people actually blow them, not the way folks imagine they do) are no more likely to increase your chances of getting hurt or killed, for all I know. And that's what's actually crazy about biking. No matter what people who ride bikes do, they're prey.

I stop for red lights for a lot of reasons and my own sense of safety is one of them. But the main reason is that I think that everyone on the streets and on the sidewalks should obey the laws and respect each other's need for safety. It's the attitude that driving and cycling and walking are all part of the barely refereed sport called New York City Life that's the problem, not any one rule or any one set of people on the road.

Stopping for red lights is a social protest, not the logical result of belonging to some category. It bewilders and annoys. It's something no one can complain about in theory but which, from what I can tell, almost no one likes in practice.

But above all else: it's not endorsed by Slate!

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