Reflections on the importance of sharing the road
On Wednesday May 19, hundreds of cyclists took to the streets of center city for the Ride of Silence to honor fellow cyclists who were killed or injured on Philadelphia-area roads in the past year. Unlike most cycling events, which are celebrations, this event is somber and surreal. Once we get away from traffic, the city is eerily quiet. Looking around I know that every cyclist there has been touched by road violence in a very personal way, knowing full well that most of these deaths and injuries are preventable. That mixture of sadness and anger is extremely powerful. The inaction of elected officials and transportation professionals only intensifies my anger and sadness.
Five years ago, nearly to the day, I became the victim of another preventable tragedy. I always thought that because I rode legally and respectfully, wore a helmet and bright colors, and was hyper-aware of danger around me, I could avoid problems. I was wrong. On May 20, 2016, I was riding perfectly legally in traffic when someone in a pickup truck just had to make a left turn and broadsided me. Over the next year, I endured five major surgeries and had to use a wheelchair and walker to get around. I spent over a month in a nursing home. My medical bills totaled about half a million dollars. I was extremely fortunate to have good insurance which took care of most of that.
Surely this negligent driver was punished in some way, right? Wrong. He paid his reckless driving fine and got right back behind the wheel. My story is not the exception – negligent drivers very rarely face charges or even suspension of driving privileges when they injure or kill someone. Two notable exceptions are when the driver is intoxicated or leave the scene. But drivers who remain at the scene and cooperate only need to say, “they came out of nowhere” or “I never saw them” to avoid justice.
The good news is that cycling injuries and deaths were down quite a bit in Philadelphia in 2020, presumably due to less people driving. The bad news is that traffic is already back to pre-pandemic levels
In the US, when we talk about “safety” for cyclists, the suggestions tend to center around cyclist clothing, behavior, and gear. Wear a helmet. Wear bright colors and ride with lights. Be predictable and visible. Share the road. Don’t make drivers angry.
Where we really fall down with respect to safety is … well … everywhere that would actually make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I think every cyclist should wear a helmet, try to be visible, and follow the rules of the road. But to put the responsibility for safety on the vulnerable is never a good way to prevent tragedy. Helmets are a safety device, but they’re also an indication that cycling is inherently dangerous. The paradox of that is that cycling is not inherently dangerous. The countries with the lowest rates of cycling injuries and deaths are also the countries with the lowest rates of helmet use.
So how do we make cycling safe? That’s the million-dollar question. Again, we can look to countries where cycling is actually safe. They have separated infrastructure. They have lower-speed roads anywhere cyclists and drivers are likely to mix. They have policies which de-emphasize driving and make other forms of transit safe and convenient. In short, they prioritize the lives of the vulnerable over the convenience of drivers.
We also, as a society, find subtle ways to shift blame away from motorists and onto pedestrians and cyclists. We frequently speak of crashes as “accidents”, which implies that the crash was unavoidable and something that “just happens”. In reality, nearly all crashes involve some level of negligence, either some level of distraction, excess speed, or simply failing to notice a hazard or person in the road. The AP has issued guidance that “accident” should not be used when negligence is a factor, but most news outlets continue to use this blame-shifting word.
News articles will also nearly always talk about what a cyclist was wearing when reporting on a crash – if they were wearing a helmet or bright colors. They talk about cyclists being hit by a car, not being hit by a driver with a car. That language gives agency to an inanimate object, further shifting any possible blame from the person operating the dangerous machinery. We don’t talk about someone being hit by a bullet; we talk about them being shot by another person. We need to talk about road violence in the same terms.
In recent years, cyclist and pedestrian deaths have been increasing, even while overall road deaths are decreasing. We’ve concentrated so much of our efforts on protecting people inside of cars, but done very little to protect people outside of cars. All those protections make drivers feel safe, which induces more speeding, texting, and other risk-taking behaviors. Cars have gotten larger, and research shows that trucks and SUVs are 2-3x more likely to kill than standard passenger vehicles. All of these add up to the public health crisis we’re facing – a crisis that needs to be aggressively addressed. We can do better.
Lou Savastani (he/him) is an advocate for cycling, walking, and other alternative transportation. He started the group, Lower Merion Safe Cycling after being hit by a reckless driver. He’s currently chair of Bike Montgomery County, a county affiliate group of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
Before cycling advocacy, Lou spent 20 years working as an engineer and IT professional in the aerospace, pharmaceutical, and financial industries. He has an MBA from Drexel University and a BS in computer engineering from Lehigh University.
Lou is a triathlete and has completed three Ironman triathlons, including one after his crash. He lives in Lower Merion Township with his wife, two children, two dogs, and two cats.