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Blaming the Victim: Specious Complaints About Cyclist Behavior

11:41 AM EDT on October 4, 2011

If you are a cyclist, a cycling advocate or even if you sometimes order sandwiches for bike delivery, you are bound to hear it from time to time: Cyclists don’t obey laws!

A lot of people are concerned about this type of road user's obedience to traffic laws. But those who surround her present the real threat. Photo: Gothamist

Suddenly you are on the defensive. It doesn’t matter if you are the patron saint of stoplight obedience. One time someone saw a cyclist run a red light, and well, now you’re going to hear about it.

Even cycling advocates are likely to take part in the finger-pointing, chastising their lesser-behaved counterparts for making everyone look bad. Lyndsey Skofield at This Big City spreads the blame around:

Pedestrians in the Wrong. Every time I walk down Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, I spot at least 5 pedestrians carelessly cross into the separated & painted bike path without looking to see if a cyclist is approaching (it’s a well-used lane, so there often is). Sometimes it’s a child straying from the un-watchful eyes of their parents, sometimes it’s a person jumping out of their car and bee-lining it for the sidewalk. Whatever the case is, this is not just a phenomenon in Park Slope; it happens throughout New York’s five boroughs, and other cities, no doubt.

Cyclists in the Wrong. But I have also nearly been run over by cyclists riding the wrong way down streets and running red lights. Every time I leave my apartment, I can guarantee you that I will encounter at least several cyclists totally ignoring street rules, regardless of whether the road is busy or not.

Drivers in the Wrong. When I was a Campus Organizer across the river in Newark, NJ, I had to contend with drivers who seemed to be wearing special goggles that blocked out the sight of pedestrians. In front of the Student Center was a marked zebra crosswalk, complete with an in-street “Yield to Pedestrians” sign. Still, the cars would not stop. If you weren’t bold enough to continue inching out into the road in front of them, you could easily watch 10, 20, 30 cars continue on their way without so much as a foot on the brake.

The thing is, you rarely hear drivers calling on fellow motorists to clean up their act, and that’s a shame, since motorists are responsible for 35,000 deaths annually, with fully one-third of motor vehicle fatalities being alcohol related. Car crashes kill more Americans a year than do handguns, and thousands of car crash victims are not drivers.

When a cyclist or pedestrian breaks a traffic law, it’s usually an annoyance more than anything, and is likely the result of a transportation system that marginalizes anyone outside of a private auto. In fact, research shows that having more cyclists on roads and streets can decrease the likelihood of cyclist-pedestrian collisions. To the extent that pedestrians cause any injuries it is mostly to themselves. Blaming pedestrians for bad behavior is like blaming livestock for walking into a slaughterhouse.

Not to excuse carelessness, but the fact is people are flawed. They get distracted. They drink. They get sleepy. This world would be much safer for everyone if less of those people were driving cars and more were walking or biking.

Elsewhere on the Network: Greater Greater Washington offers a traffic congestion solution for Fairfax County, Virginia: Make it safe for more children to walk to school. And Free Public Transit reports that the city of Rochester, New York exports $1.5 million daily to pay for gas.

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