Apathy, incompetence, and inattention on our roads — Part 2

It’s clear we have a problem.  What’s the solution?  In a word, complicated.

Part of the problem, of course, is that over the last 50-60 years, we built a massively car-dependent country and culture, and that wasn’t an accident:

Through the effective lobbying of a special interest group, the Automobile Association, our public roads were hijacked to serve the needs of the few. As this special interest group lobbied on, public transportation was effectively swept out of main stream use. All public roads, including the very ones in front of our residences have been made to feel unsafe and to be unsafe for anyone who wished to use them without the use of an automobile.*

Except for people living in urban centers with transit, and the small mode share of cyclists and pedestrians, most people cannot conceive of getting anywhere without a car.  And many of those people are right — they are in a car-dependent situation (whether it’s driving a car themselves or being driven).  If you take the keys away from grandpa or your teenage daughter, you/they now have to find another way of getting from Point A to Point B:

The minute you hold people accountable for being competent drivers, the percent of the population that will be ineligible to drive a car will be too large to ignore.

We can ignore [those] who have fallen on hard times and can’t afford to drive. [They] are easy to marginalize. But when we eliminate the high risk populations (teen-to-mid-twenties who lack maturity for good judgment; the elderly who no longer have the cognitive ability or reflexes; and the recidivist, irresponsible [people] who seem to retain a valid license even after proving time and again they don’t deserve it), then we’re looking at a population too large to marginalize. We’re not willing to do it because we’d have to rethink our lifestyles.”

In a way, we’ve driven and engineered ourselves into a literal dead end here.


Are we willing to change?  Or do we just accept these lost lives — lives of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicle occupants — as [yet another] “cost” of our car culture?

Here’s one possible starting point:

If we had the political will to change one single thing that would cause a cascade of positive safety consequences (and probably policy consequences), it would be to increase the cost and rigor for obtaining a license and make it easier for the state to revoke a license from a recidivist offender.**

We can reform drivers’ education and licensing, both standardizing the process across all states (in Iowa, I completed a fairly decent drivers’ ed course to get my license in high school; across the border in Missouri, Matthew had no such requirements), and modeling it on rigorous programs in other countries — we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here.

At the same time, we need to continue the work that is being done to increase transportation options for those who would not have a drivers’ license in the new system (and those who have licenses but crave other options!) and [re]create communities and cities that are not car-dependent.  Fortunately, these changes have benefits that go far beyond making the roads safer: more vibrant communities and local economies, as well as the physical and mental health rewards of active transportation.

Let’s Make a Change!

  • Start at home.
    • Analyze your own driving habits.  Are distractions and/or bad habits endangering your life, those of your passengers, and everyone else you encounter on the road? It only takes a split second for a collision to occur. Reduced attention and reaction time costs lives. Pay attention!
    • Recognize bicyclists as fellow humans and equal road users.
    • Practice patience, whether it’s a slow motorist, a bus making frequent stops, a pedestrian crossing the street, or a woman biking to work. We all have places to go. If we’re aware and respectful, we will all get there.  Breathe.
    • Try an alternate way of getting from Point A to Point B (i.e., making a trip without your car), whether it’s walking, riding a bike, or using transit.
    • Are there people in your life who need to hang up the keys? Here are some good resources:
  • Support policies that call for stricter licensing requirements, better education, and stiffer penalties for offenders.
  • Support investments in public transportation and safe, well-engineered infrastructure improvements.

This is a complex problem.  Change will be neither fast nor easy, but it is possible.

*In addition to recent events, this post was inspired by a discussion in a Facebook group for female cyclists. All quotes here are from that discussion, used with permission.  Thanks, ladies!
** “But you have to have follow-through. A NHTSA page noted that 70% of California drivers with suspended licenses continued to drive. You either have to provide alternative transportation, or lock them up. We’re not willing to do either.”

Apathy and inattention on our roads — Part 1

Two things happened last week: 1) I was the victim of an inattentive motorist (while in a car), and 2) the L.A. County D.A. announced that a police officer who killed a bicyclist with his car will not face charges (depending on reports, Deputy Andrew Wood was “distracted by a mobile digital computer” and/or “texting from a personal cell phone” [while driving his patrol car] when he drifted into the bike lane, hitting and killing Milton Everett Olin, Jr.).

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention (and if you’re not paying attention, you shouldn’t be driving).  This affects all of us.

Mr. Olin joins thousands of others in the U.S. who are killed or seriously injured by distracted driving and poor drivers’ education and licensing standards every year.  Road traffic accidents are the number one cause of death for persons ages 15-24 and the number three cause of death for persons ages 25-34 (~35000 people in 2011 — note, this number includes ALL road users — most of these deaths are people in cars).

Even when charges are filed, penalties amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, compared to the crime.  A fellow cyclist commented, “There’s an open secret in America: If you want to kill someone, do it with a car. As long as you’re sober, chances are you’ll never be charged with any crime, much less manslaughter.“*

I thought this was a bit of an exaggeration until I read some of the relevant laws.  Take Iowa law, for example:

The safest way for a motorist to pass a bicycle is to pass on the left side of the road or an adjacent travel lane if clear of oncoming traffic.  Drivers involved in an a collision as a result of failure to maintain a safe and reasonable distance (321.281) face a $250 fine.  Drivers who injure a bicyclist as a result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $500 fine and a 90-day license revocation.  Drivers involved in a fatal crash with a bicyclist as the result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $1000 fine and 180-day license revocation. (source)

Meanwhile, in Ohio, a motorist who killed a young woman on a bicycle faces, “up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine for the conviction, and her driver’s license could be suspended for up to two years.”

So, to summarize, in the state of Iowa you can KILL A PERSON with your car and the maximum penalty is $1000 and maybe having your drivers’ license revoked for 180 days?  But you might want to think twice in Ohio, because they also have jail time, and, oh, you can’t drive for two whole years (what do you want to bet she gets her license reinstated sooner?).  Are you kidding me???  Is that how little a person’s life is worth?


Driving is a privilege, not a right, but our system for licensing drivers is far too lax — a friend refers to the U.S. driver licensing system as a “vending machine,” which seems to have turned into, “Step right up and get your license to maim or kill.”

This “license to kill” is both too easy to obtain and too difficult to take away.


On Sunday, I was a passenger in a car that was stopped at a stop sign.  As we were about to proceed through the intersection, a same-direction driver slammed into the back of the vehicle I was in.  This was in broad daylight, with no adverse weather conditions.  The impact was such that I’m not sure the at-fault driver realized there was a stop sign.


We call this an accident, but collision would be a better term.  I can only assume that the driver “didn’t mean” to hit us, but did she NOT mean to hit us?

What I mean by that is, was the driver doing everything in her power to be attentive to the MOST IMPORTANT task you have while operating a motor vehicle?

The answer almost certainly has to be “NO.”  Otherwise, how could you not notice a vehicle stopped at a stop sign in the lane directly in front of you?

In this case, I can only speculate on the cause of distraction and inattention.  Given the driver’s age (and the age of her cell phone), I’m assuming she was not texting, though that certainly does not rule out other cell phone use, including dialing, answering a call, or simply talking on the phone.

Or maybe it is time for this older adult driver to hang up the keys.  There’s a loaded topic — but why?  If a person gets to a point where, due to impaired cognition and/or diminished reflexes, he/she is no longer able to safely operate a machine that is capable of KILLING people, why is this even a discussion?

To be continued (with action steps and ideas for change) . . .

*In addition to recent events, this post was inspired by a discussion in a Facebook group for female cyclists.  Thanks, ladies!


Toys that don’t reinforce the car culture

Sir loves his “things that go,” and he has no lack of toy cars, including construction equipment and tractors.  It’s fun to watch his play continue to be more creative, but something is missing from his collection — toy bicycles.

We do what we can, lifestyle-wise, to share our love of bicycle transportation with our son, but I feel like the car culture is so predominant that we need every advantage we can get, including incorporating bicycles in play time.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of toy bicycles.  I’m relatively certain (and have some evidence) that toy bicycles would be just as exciting as toy cars, but he can’t play with them if he doesn’t have them (or if they don’t exist).

My sister found this cute model BMX bike at a thrift store or garage sale last year.


We don’t know much about it’s origins, but a bit of use quickly showed that it was more for decoration than play (or at least not up to toddler play), as more and more parts fell off (first the pedals, then the rear wheel, then the handlebars).  I couldn’t figure out any fixes that really made it usable, nor could I purchase a replacement, so it was back to the drawing board . . . .

A little bit of digging uncovered this post, from a family with a similar mindset, seeking toy bicycles to add for their kids.  They shared links to some options from Playmobil including a child biking to school and a bicycle pulling a trailer.

I’ve been holding off on buying these for a couple of months now, but I just noticed that the bicycle with trailer has limited availability, so, order placed.  (Now we’ll see if I can wait and save these for Easter and/or birthday gifts.)

I also found some information on model bicycles, which may be a good option for when Sir is a bit older.  In this realm, there are some great options here, especially the set of four with a trailer and the family with mom, dad, baby, and trailer.  Also, a few things here.

So, while there are some options out there, I would love to see toy manufacturers do better in this area, especially those that claim to be “green.”  How green is it if you only make toys that reinforce the idea that we have to drive a motor vehicle everywhere?