Thursday, November 08, 2007

False Assumptions

In the wake of several fatal or serious injury bicycle accidents in the Portland area during the past few weeks, bicycle safety has been a hot topic in the local media. Jonathan Maus’ BikePortland blog, in particular, not only features numerous articles regarding these unfortunate incidents, but regular readers of the blog continue to carry on lively debates about rights-of-way, who is at fault, better (and safer) bicycle infrastructure, and bicycle safety in general.

Following the two fatalities involving right-turning trucks, a preponderance of readers leaped aboard the law-is-always-right-so-let’s-blame-the-truck-driver bandwagon without giving the matter much critical thought. The notion that laws can protect us gives us warm, fuzzy feelings of safety and security, but in reality laws do nothing of the kind. It’s a dangerous mindset, and to embrace it is to guarantee future fatalities.

To demonstrate how seriously flawed this “law as protector” mindset is, let me point out that laws do nothing to prevent murderers, rapists, and armed robbers from perpetrating crimes against law-abiding citizens. Nor do they prevent motorists from making grievous errors of judgment. At best, laws provide added incentive for people who are not inclined to break the law to not break the law. They also provide employment opportunities for cops, lawyers, judges, and others who work within the legal system. In practice, laws are more effective at punishing offenders after the fact of the offense than they are in preventing the offense in the first place.

Conventional wisdom says that because bicyclists always have the right-of-way when riding in a designated bike lane, the law should be enough to protect them. Yeah, right! We’ve all seen how well that works. Conventional wisdom is seldom wise and, too often, it’s flat-out wrong. Just because the law says that motorists must yield to bikes when making a right turn across a bike lane doesn’t mean that cyclists should automatically assume that that’s going to happen all of the time—or even most of the time—particularly when trucks are involved.

Yeah, I know it’s fashionable for cyclists to condemn any truck driver involved in a collision with a bicycle, especially when said collision results from a right hook. Unfortunately, reality looks different from a truck driver’s perspective than it does from a cyclist’s perspective (neither of which squares with the law’s perspective). At best, the law offers a “one size fits all” solution that serves no one (except lawyers) particularly well.

This short rant is not intended to advocate for doing away with laws, or even doing away with lawyers, for that matter (although the latter wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing). Rather, it’s meant to advocate for improved bicycle safety, which begins—but in no way ends—with cyclists.

Cyclists who believe otherwise are living on borrowed time.