Two-wheeled vehicles and their riders have been in the news a lot in Ottawa this week, and the news is frustratingly sad. One cyclist died in a collision with a truck; one is fighting for his life; another sustained serious injuries. All in the space of a few days. And all in one medium-sized and bike-friendly city. There was also this interaction between car and bicycle in Toronto recently. Oh, and let’s not forget the folks on motorcycles like this one, which has been all over the news this week, again in Ottawa.
This has me thinking of three things that are relevant to safety on our roads, and probably in general: gauging, coding and owning.
What’s the risk here and how might my actions increase or decrease it?
As long as I can remember, I have been uncomfortable with situations that involve even the mere possibility of physical violence. From playful sparring to avoiding raising an issue with someone because… “what if they react violently?”, I’m wired to develop an unhealthy heart rate from mere exposure. Label me a wuss if you must. I’ll gladly wear that badge over the one that reads “here lies Luc, who wasn’t good at letting things go…”.
I want to focus on the last two incidents listed above, because I think they are symptomatic of needless risk-taking. Road rage is dangerous enough when it involves only vehicles with at least four wheels. When one of the participants is on two wheels, who do you think is going to win the battle? It doesn’t matter who’s “in the right”, if I’m dead 30 seconds later.
Because what if, like the motorcyclist, I pursue the offender, possibly breaking the law in the process as he did? What if, like the Toronto cyclist, I continue banging on the cab’s window. I’m simply increasing the odds that it’s not going to end well and, like it or not, I will have contributed to the outcome!
I think we collectively need to ramp up our dialogue around road safety for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycle riders and vehicle (soon to be driverless) passengers. I think trying to “deal with it” on the road, as it is happening, carries more risk than reward and, in reality, probably contributes to increasing the divide between these groups of moving humans.
Being frustrated with some of the behaviours out on our roads is understandable. The question is what, if anything, to do about it as it is happening. Whether we’re driving or riding, the more frustrated we are, the more distracted we become. We sometimes become single-minded about “educating” the “offender” and it’s hard to be a safe and attentive driver while accomplishing that… whatever type of vehicle we’re in/on. I know that’s the case for me and I sometimes need some friendly reminders to “take a deep breath and move on”.
Since short tempers on our roads are nothing new, I propose here some of the reasons why we sometimes get so worked up when we’re out there.
- We could die! That’s probably enough of a reason, isn’t it? Whether or not we are consciously thinking about it, when someone cuts us off, there’s always that “what if…?”. This risk of imminent death triggers fight or flight and, thankfully, 30 minutes later we have a viral YouTube video of this magical scene of people going apeshit on the road. We must be kept entertained!
- We have unrealistic expectations about what should happen out on the road (i.e. there should be no traffic, no construction, no idiots, etc.)
- Speaking of idiots… most of us believe they are plentiful out on the road but, of course, “I’m not one of them!!!!!”
Put these together and it can easily lead to impatience and intolerance, especially since we plan our journeys on the basis that every other human will behave exactly as we need them to, so that we can get where we want to be, when we want to be there, without any hassles… because that’s the way it should be 😉
I have two more reasons to offer, and I think they merit their own sections.
There are two gaping holes in our unofficial road code for communicating safely, effectively and accurately with other drivers.
Flashing our high beams can signal a number of different things: turn off your high beams, go ahead, slow down there’s a cop ahead (whaaat?),there are moose on the road (at least in Newfoundland!), and more.
A short honk might gently alert someone that the traffic light is now green. A long honk can signal displeasure with something, as can the one finger salute. In many places, a bunch of short honks are expected to let others know that you’re there, much like the bell on a bicycle.
But what about communicating a sincere “Oh crap! My bad.” when moving at high speed? In a mall parking lot, where you are basically stopped and in close proximity, there’s the opportunity for mouthing “I’m sorry” and conveying sincerity with our facial expressions. Moving at higher speeds, in traffic and with everything else happening around us, I think we need a simple and recognized way to let others know that we know we screwed up. Maybe Blake Shelton holds the answer?
If we do this in a way that’s visible to the other driver, it might just help keep everyone’s emotions in check, and help ensure we continue to drive attentively.
The other missing code is a bit more complex. For those of us who can’t let go completely when someone else has wronged us on the road, surely there must be a simple and non-aggressive way to say “Hey there! I would just like to know whether you realize that you just XYZ’d (insert as appropriate: drifted into my lane, cut that merge too close, didn’t signal, etc…). Just a quick acknowledgment such as “the Shelton” will do. And if you weren’t aware that you just XYZ’d, I feel that’s a bit worrisome, so I want to help you by letting you know now that you just XYZ’d. Ok?”
This kid’s method requires both hands, which is unwise while driving or riding, so let us continue the search for a simpler code. I anxiously await your suggestions. Once we have both the “sorry” and “hey there” codes nailed down, let’s petition to have them included as part of all driver training manuals and programs.
Of course, this implies a general willingness to say mea culpa and to take responsibility for our actions. A tall order. Enter the final reason standing in the way of safer roads.
Many of us seem to be allergic to taking accountability for our actions.
As one of my passion points and pet peeves, personal accountability is bound to come up in future posts. I’ll save the deep dive for those. For today’s purposes, let me go back to cycling in Ottawa and share a true story that exemplifies a saddening and glaring lack of accountability. I’ll then re-write the story as it might have unfolded in an alternate universe where taking responsibility isn’t so fraught with risk. Here we go…
It’s a typical afternoon in Ottawa. The downtown core is bustling – so it must be before 6pm – and my son Patrick is heading back to his apartment after an enjoyable day at work. As he does year-round, he’s commuting on his bicycle in this bike-friendly town. Using the segregated bike lane heading eastbound on Laurier Avenue (the very same where a cyclist was killed this week), he is eventually “nudged” off his bike by a car also heading eastbound (meaning, to be clear, that this car just passed Patrick) and making a right turn into a parking lot… there is contact between the car and rider, but he’s fine… thankfully.
Mindful of gauging personal risk (of course!), he approaches the driver to let him know that he’s just cut off a cyclist riding in the bike lane and almost caused serious injury. “I had to take a call and you should watch where you’re riding” was the response. Not “sorry”. Not “really, I didn’t see you!”. No acknowledgment and certainly no accountability. After some prompting, and Patrick pointing out that they didn’t use their turn signal, a few more “I had to take a call” followed and, eventually, a very hollow “sorry, I had to take a call”. Blaming the cyclist who was in the bike lane, who they drove by before turning in front of them without using the blinker. It’s like accountability is actually spelled F-U.
Oh! Did I mention that this was an officer from the Ottawa Police Service in his cruiser? That’s right!
Taking personal responsibility for our actions (intentional and not) must carry some massive risk because we sure are good at blaming, deflecting, playing the victim and making excuses. Inevitably, this lack of accountability makes things worse. It erodes trust, creates conflict, and costs us in dollars and stress. It’s also a vicious circle that our society seems to be feeding. Yet, the alternative is actually so much simpler and more satisfying. Imagine this other possible ending.
Patrick: “excuse me, do you realize you just cut me off, knocked me off my bike and didn’t signal your turn?”
Officer: “Shit! I’m so sorry. Are you ok?” (said with sincere concern)
Patrick: “Yeah, I’m fine, no worries.”
Officer: “Are you sure?” (he means it)
Officer: “Is there anything I can do?” (genuinely)
Patrick: “No, it’s alright, I appreciate it though!”
Officer: “Okay, well… my bad man, sorry again!” (with empathy and ownership)
Now was that so hard? Think about it. What’s more likely to be damaging in this day of instant, rapid spreading of stories? A quick and sincere apology and then everyone moves on; or denial and blame that makes it very tempting to share the story on social media and beyond?
We may not screw up intentionally, but we still screw up. Just because we didn’t mean to, doesn’t take away our responsibility. This simple alternate ending is available to each of us, every day. It makes us all better humans. But wait, what if we could improve on this some more?! While I’d be happy to see people own up more frequently, as in the short but sadly fictitious alternate dialogue above, we can do even better.
Imagine if after this better ending, the story wasn’t over. Imagine that after this incident, Officer Clark got home and took to social media. Imagine that he posts the following on the Ottawa Police Association Facebook page:
“Well friends… let me tell you what happened today in our bike friendly town. A cyclist was riding safely in the bike lane heading eastbound on Laurier Avenue downtown. He was safe until a car, also going eastbound, made a quick right turn into a parking lot, cutting off the cyclist and knocking him off his bike. Keep in mind that this vehicle just drove past the cyclist. That’s how easy it is to miss something obvious or misjudge speed and distance. On top of that, the driver didn’t signal his turn. I should mention that the cyclist, Patrick, was thankfully not injured, though I’m sure he was a bit shaken up.
Oh, and did I forget to say that the driver was me! Yep, I’m responsible for your safety and charged with enforcing the law and, in my haste, I had a brain fart. I’m frustrated with myself for this lapse, I’m grateful that no one was injured, and I’m reminding you all to be extra vigilant around cyclists and pedestrians because it’s too easy to make a costly mistake. And Patrick, I’m sorry.”
Does this seem farfetched? I dunno! I know I don’t live up to that standard as diligently as I could, but I work at it, it’s not that hard, it feels great and it pays dividends. Just imagine what daily life would be like if we all did more of this.
“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”
― Dave Barry