Wednesday, August 15, 2012

May We Be Safe

This post is written as a joint effort. It's a bit of rant, and a bit of plea.

Let me say here that overall, riding here has been a pleasure compared to back home where I have indeed been side-swiped by a careless driver and we have had things thrown at us by cars going 100 kmh. Generally drivers here are very courteous, slowing down and giving us a full lane when they pass. Although, we have also joked that we can tell where a car is from by how much lane they give us on passing (Islanders give us 4 feet, Quebecers give us 4 inches).

Generally people like us and want us to be safe. But they say it like this, "Oh be careful!" before launching into the cautionary tale of the cyclist from Alberta who was killed at Hunter River...on a stretch of road that we were on just a couple of weeks after she was.

I try really hard to take what they are saying in the spirit that it is meant, which is that I think they are trying to say, "Oh my, cyclists are so vulnerable on the road! May you be safe." But sometimes it does rub me the wrong way, because to be frank, there is not much more that we can do to be safe... We wear helmets, reflective gear, safety triangles, lights, try to stick to quiet roads or paved shoulders, don't ride at night and don't ride if we have been drinking. The only additional measure we could take is to not ride at all. It's a little along the lines of trying to teach women how not to get raped. We do what we can to use common sense, but in the end, whether or not someone hurts us is dependent on someone else.

The poor woman who was killed on the road was also an extremely cautious cyclist. She was killed by an allegedly drunk driver. ( ) I say "allegedly" in the legal sense that he may not yet have been convicted this time, but according to local sources, this will be his fourth DUI conviction and he is facing 25 years in prison. Anecdotally, we have been warned many times that drinking and driving is a common problem on PEI, and the number of beer cans at the side of the highways seems to back the tales up. As a cyclist, what can we do to protect ourselves from that?

The answer, obviously, is nothing.

However, there are things you can do, if you really care about our safety and the safety of all cyclists- and I believe you do care!

First, and this is a no-brainer, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving. Don't do it yourself, and if you see someone making a bad call, intervene. This should not be controversial in the slightest, and it's the law in one form or another in most countries.

Second, and this should be a no brainer, have zero tolerance for distracted driving. Numerous studies have shown that talking on a cellphone (even hands free) or worse, texting, has at least as much of a negative impact on your situational awareness and reaction times as driving under the influence does. Similar to alcohol, most provinces either have or are introducing laws banning the use of cellphones and other devices while driving. Unfortunately, while most people seem to give lip-service to the idea, actually following through and putting the cellphone down is less common.

Every day- no exaggeration, every single day- that I've been on the roads I've seen at least one driver on a cellphone, usually more. My biggest scare so far happened in Charlottetown, when I was fully loaded and struggling up a steep hill with no shoulder. A semi truck, complete with a big load of its own, came trundling up behind me. The driver was talking on his cellphone. I ended up forced off the road because he either didn't see me or just didn't care, and I believe that I would be road pizza had I not taken the risk of a wipeout off the side of the pavement.

Unfortunately, we don't yet have the same culture shift around distracted driving that we have around drunk driving. A good friend of mine is often taking and making calls while driving, and sometimes even texting. Every time I am a passenger and he does it, I try to call him on it, but it's always hard. "I can handle it, I'm a good driver" or some variation is the typical response. What he doesn't seem to get is that he can handle it every time up until he can't, but then it's too late and someone is hurt or dead in a completely preventable accident.

So, please, have zero tolerance for driving under the influence of drink, drugs, or distractions. When you see someone you care about making one of these mistakes, stop them. When you see a stranger doing the same, intervene if you can. Standing up against drunk and distracted driving is both legally and morally the right thing to do. Anyone who gives you grief for taking such a stand does not deserve your respect.

That's the relatively obvious stuff. A little harder, but no less valuable to everyone on the road (motorist, cyclist, hiker, or whatever) is changing how you drive around cyclists. Indeed, this post has been bubbling in my head for about a week now, right after a chat with a couple at the lobster supper in New Glasgow. The line I just can't seem to get out of my head is the guy saying, "The thing I really hate is when cyclists take up a whole lane on the road. Like...I don't wanna have to slow down!"

On some level I knew this is often the attitude toward cyclists; that we are an inconvenience and little appreciation for the awesomeness that we are. But I couldn't help but be shocked into silence that someone said this out loud to us during a friendly conversation, without any realization that there could be something wrong with it. The best I could come up with at the time was, "Well, at least you have the ability to slow down...we are already going as fast as we can." He shrugged and said, "Well I guess that's true."

Since then I've come up with all kinds of things I wish I'd said instead, like, "Slow down, as opposed to what? Passing us unsafely into oncoming traffic, squeezing both us and oncoming vehicles onto our respective shoulders so that you're not 30 seconds later to your destination than you'd planned?"

Really, most of the time, that's the kind of impact it will have on a motorist to be cautious and safe around cyclists- 30 seconds of travel time and a tap on the brakes. If there is a slow moving tractor on the road, most people seem to understand that the tractor is going as fast as it can and will wait for a safe opportunity to pass. Cyclists are much the same- we're going as fast as we can, there will be a safe place to pass sooner or later, and slowing down might "cost" you a minute of travel time. Racing by us at full speed inches away may cost us our lives. Even if you don't hit us directly, we have to fight against the draft of your vehicle and you've scared us.

In summary, when you have the urge to tell a cyclist to be careful, instead turn that caution back on yourself. Walk up to the cyclist you want to caution and tell them "I know it's dangerous on the roads for you. I will be a careful driver." when you see a cyclist on the road, don't curse them as a nuisance, instead admire their determination and respect their choice to travel under their own power.

Do that, and we all win.


  1. This has a profoundness to it that perhaps requires broader publication? I feel sad and fierce at the same time when I read it. Is there any point in advising the constabulary and reporting the offenders? Take care dear people!

    1. I've considered mounting a camera to my bike and filming the entire ride from my perspective. That is about the only way I can think of to even begin reporting bad driving behaviour- backed up with video documentation. It happens too fast to take down license plates, and hearsay is not a very strong case anyway.

      Ultimately though, I'm riding for the joy it brings me, and I'm reluctant to turn into a citizen police officer. There are a few rare cases I really wish I could bring someone to justice- like the people who threw something at us out of the window of their car while doing 100 km/h down highway 59.

      Maybe I will do an art/documentary project with that recording idea and see where it takes me.

  2. Hmm, perhaps Canadian Tire, Shoppers Drug Mart, a camera company, Canada Tourism and Participaction could be sponsors...