Hell on wheels

Science fiction fans say the greatest culture shock would be if Earthlings met extraterrestrials, and maybe that’s right.

But when it comes to groups not understanding each other, misunderstandings between bicyclists and non-bicyclists might well run a close second.

And misunderstanding among bicyclists themselves might run a close third.

As for bikers and non-bikers? It’s only natural they wouldn’t understand each other, because America is a car culture. In the U.S. everyone has a car – even teenagers. Cars seem less a mode of transportation than a constitutional or even God-given right.

There’re a few reasons for this. One is we identify with our cars as the American product and symbol. They’re our alter egos, our cultural icons, our status symbols. They’re also one of our biggest expenses and sources of annoyance and environmental destruction.

But that they’re a source of transportation often gets lost among their other roles. But they’re not only a source of transportation; they’re our only one, since our mass transit systems run the gamut from lousy to nonexistent.

So the bicycle has been relegated to the status of a children’s toy. And by association, bikers are nothing more than either big kids or childish adults. And thus the difficulties begin.

Bad news

Problem drivers and bikers can be divided into several distinct groups.

First are SIC’s (Spaceshots In Cars). These are people who have no idea that bicycles are legally defined as vehicles and have a right to be on the road. Bicycles aren’t there due to the kindness and whims of drivers. It’s an obvious point, but one that drivers don’t seem to get.

I think the biggest problem is lack of driver awareness: They just don’t pay attention to where bikers are or where they could be going. Thus they sideswipe bikers, or turn into them, or cut them off at intersections – not due to evil intent, but to obliviousness. Of course, it’s still no consolation if you get flattened by a driver with a heart of gold.

The second group is NOBs (Nitwits On Bikes). Most bike accidents happen solo, but with the ones involving cars, too often it’s the biker’s fault. And it seems the main reason is the biker violates the rules of the road. As vehicles, bikes have to obey traffic laws, but all too often we don’t. Bikers roll through red lights and stop signs, sprint through yield signs, go the wrong way on a one-way street, and so on.

This is partly due to lax enforcement of bicycle traffic laws. I mean, has anyone ever been busted for riding a bike on our sidewalks? Has anyone ever been even been warned? Another reason for bikers disobeying the laws is good ole-time temptation. If we can get away with this or that, we often will. But the results can be disastrous, regardless.

Another group is TEIs (Technically Enhanced Idiots). They have two sub-groups. One is bikers who ride around wearing ear buds, listening to music and thus not hearing what’s going on around them. They’re in a cocoon of sorts one that insulates them from the outside world, but doesn’t protect them from it.

The other sub-group is people who text while they drive. Talking on a cell phone while driving is one level of distracted driving texting is many levels worse. Yet it happens all the time in spite of it obvious illegality and potential lethality. Just watch traffic for a while and see how many drivers are cruising along, looking below the windshield. Then see how many of them drift toward the shoulder from time to time.

and the worst news of all

The final group is SOWs (Schmucks on Wheels). These are both drivers and bikers, and they’re the most visible, annoying and dangerous of the bunch.

The car SOWs are the ones who intentionally endanger bikers. Among them are the ones who buzz the bike lane; who blow their horn long, loud, and close to the biker; who yell out the window; who throw things, and so on. And if you think there aren’t a lot of these fools, it’s only because you’ve never ridden a bike on the road.

Want some examples? I can tell you the ones I’ve experienced personally. I’ve had near misses and horn blows by the dozens. Ditto for the yelling (which is not just an annoyance – it’s also a shock, something that can, and does, throw off your concentration and often balance. I’ve had several people throw things, and a few years ago someone nailed me in the back with a soda bottle.

Probably my ultimate SOW experience was a woman who made a right-hand turn without signaling, when I was in the bike lane. She ran into me and luckily I managed to stay on the bike. Figuring it was just an oversight on her behalf, I thought I’d tell her she turned into me. When I did, without missing a beat she said, “How do I know you didn’t run into me?” and walked on her merry way. I later realized she saw me the whole time she just turned and figured what happened to me was my problem.

The worst part is I know my experiences aren’t unique. Anyone who rides bikes a lot can tell you similar experiences if they lived to tell them.

But we bikers have our SOWs as well. Most of them are TFW’s (Tour de France Wannabes), who tricked out in professional riding gear and atop multi-thousand dollar bikes, truly believe they own the road. As a result, they zoom through stops, cut across lanes without signaling, and disregard traffic laws, since they apply only to lesser mortals.

Their specialty (and the most visible source of annoyance to drivers) is riding in the car lanes when they don’t have to. According to traffic law, if the bike lane is obstructed, bikes can legally ride on the regular road. This only makes sense, as opposed to trying to ride over glass or potholes or the like. However, the SOW bikers just love to ride three or more abreast, so at least one of them is in the traffic lane, blocking the traffic flow, and backing up cars for however far and long they want.

It’s especially noticeable and prevalent on the road by Cascade Lake, where there’s no way to get around the bikers. It’s a marvelous gesture of “Up yours” on the bikers’ behalf, and one that incites murderous rage in the gentlest of souls.

Worse, it’s the most dangerous thing a biker can do to car driver/biker relations. And worst of all, it’s totally avoidable. Or at least it’s avoidable if you’re not a schmuck.

So can anything be done to make bikers and drivers share the road safely, easily, and pleasantly? Sure it can, and it’d be easy. All that’s required is bikers and drivers know the traffic laws, obey them, and act civilly.

Will that ever happen? I don’t know, and I seriously doubt it.

But I do know that when I’m on my bike, I’m a lot more vulnerable than anyone who’s in a car, so I do all I can to ride safely. I obey all traffic laws, have a helmet and a mirror, and check the road and the traffic constantly.

And even though I can’t do it physically, psychically I always keep my fingers crossed.