Why We Focus on Unsafe Cycling and Not Unsafe Driving

2093459393_e9cd266ddc.jpgThings would be different if bicycle safety training were elementary. (Photo: Bike Portland via Flickr)

This morning on Sustainable Savannah, a post about double standards.

John Bennett writes that at two recent meetings in Savannah about improved bicycle facilities, the discussion turned to unsafe cycling practices, such as wrong-way riding, riding without lights, and riding on sidewalks. While Bennett is concerned about those things as well, he wonders why discussions of investment in bike infrastructure almost inevitably turn to the question of unsafe cycling:

Are similar suggestions about combating unsafe driving ever prompted by discussions of new roadways? I can’t remember a single instance. All sorts of elected officials had all sorts of things to say at the groundbreaking for the fifth phase of the Truman Parkway last month, but did any mention the need to educate motorists about speeding or aggressive driving? Car crashes, too often resulting in fatalities, are a regular occurrences on the existing portions of the limited access freeway. Wouldn’t a groundbreaking ceremony present an excellent opportunity to warn about the dangers of distracted or impaired driving and call for new programs to better educate motorists who use the Truman Parkway?

Again, I appreciate any concern expressed for the most vulnerable road users, but I’m curious about the requisite safety discussions that accompany our conversations about bicycling. Is there a subtle expectation that as cyclists we must earn, through good behavior, any new infrastructure made available to us, no matter how small? Is this expectation self-imposed? I must admit, I’ve caught myself thinking (and sometimes saying) things along these lines. Meanwhile, as motorists we enjoy colossal new facilities ($67.5 million in the case of Truman Parkway Phase Five), without being asked to consider how to ensure their safe and responsible use.

I think part of the concern about safe riding practices stems from the lack of consensus — among people who ride and people who don’t — about just exactly what safe cycling is. Safe driving practices are far more standardized and codified, because driving is a mode of transport that every American is expected to use at some point in his or her life. People on bicycles are forced, because of a mishmash of infrastructure and regulations, to make things up as they go along. Which is why there is so much disagreement about the practice known as "salmoning." (Speaking of which, what do you think of "zebras"?)

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. In a country with extensive bike tradition and infrastructure, such as the Netherlands, citizens are educated from an early age about how to ride. This means that everyone knows what "safe cycling" means — people on bikes, people on foot and people in cars. And there’s no need to fret about "cyclist safety" every time a new bike path is built.

As you head into the weekend, give some thought to slowing things down. Both Boston Biker and Let’s Go Ride a Bike have posts today about the pleasures of riding at a more leisurely pace.