of ink and blood: thoughts on bike wars.

cyclisti don’t tend to wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to prose. i tend not to go heavy with the rhetoric.

recent events, though, have got me feeling a bit defensive. a bit offended. put me a bit on the offensive.

some of that spilled out tonight. i’d love to hear your thoughts:

Of Ink and Blood: Thoughts on Bike Wars

There will be a lot of ink spilled in the coming days and weeks about the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard, the 33-year old cyclist killed in an altercation with former Attorney-General Michael Bryant, much in the way that ink was splashed around after the hit-and-run take-out of five Ottawa cyclists only a month and a half ago.

But unless some of that ink results in a reduction of spilled blood, it will all be for not.

If that sounds a tad dramatic to you, then you have probably never been a regular cyclist in a major urban centre. Heck, you’re probably not a regular cyclist in a mid-size or small urban centre.

But if you are a regular bike rider — one who regularly braves city traffic — then you are probably thinking that the drama is far less extreme than the life and death one that is faced daily by cyclists across much of Canada.

I am going to be blunt here:

Serious cyclists are being persecuted. As a demographic, we are oppressed. We are treated unfairly.

And there are not a whole lot of people in spheres of influence and power who are coming to our aid.

I say “we” because I am a serious cyclist. I am on my bike, without any sense of exaggeration, daily. There are exceptions, of course. There are exceptions to every rule. I don’t bike when fresh snow makes it dangerous. And I don’t bike when I’m in my canoe. Other than that, I face traffic each and every day.

I can tell you that, over the years, I have been doored by people exiting their cars. I have flown over the hood of an erratically driven car. I have been cut off countless times by cars. I have been cut off countless times by trucks. I have been cut off countless times by city transits. I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at. I have had cars swerve towards me. I have had cars swerve towards me on purpose. I have had objects thrown at me from moving vehicles. I have had near death experiences more times than I can count, all of which were prevented because I did something incredibly lucky in order to escape collision with a motorist that was driving either illegally or just plain dangerously.

And I make a habit of following the rules of the road. The legal rules of the road, that is. In reality, there is a whole different set.

I have complained to police. I have complained to politicians. I have complained to anyone who will listen. Nothing gets done.

The police have at least listened patiently before dismissing me. I have had politicians who have done even less.

As a cycling advocate, I have called for crackdowns on dangerous driving around cyclists. I have pleaded for crackdowns on dangerous driving around cyclists. I have howled, cajoled, begged, and cried out for them.

Because they are needed.

Once again, I am going to be blunt here:

In a collision between a bike and a car, the bike never wins. The cyclist never wins. In fact, there is an extremely good chance that the cyclist will not only lose, but will be injured or killed in this collision. The cyclist will not only lose, but he will lose his life as well.

Can I tell you about the time that a cop pulled me over for not being in a turning lane while going straight through an intersection? He then argued the rules of the Highway Traffic Act, in which I was very much in the right. I looked it up again once I got home.

Can I tell you about the time I was pulled over for getting on my bike on an empty sidewalk and gliding onto to an empty road? I may have traveled 5 feet before I was on the road and heading for home. It didn’t matter to the cop that I often taught bike safety to school kids and community members.

Can I tell you about the time the same thing happened to the woman I eventually came to marry?

I could, but I often get interrupted when I do try to tell these stories. I often have to hear a round of stories about how dangerous cyclists are on the road.

The strange part is that I agree, in part, with these statements. There are too many people doing too many stupid things on bicycles. And this needs to be addressed. I howl just as often about the need for bicycle education as I do about crackdowns on drivers. That, however, is a different matter altogether.

But when I am complaining about how dangerous it is to be a cyclist and how little protection we get from the powers that be and get interrupted by someone complaining about dangerous bicycles, I find it a tad difficult to keep my cool. I’ve almost been killed far too many times to accept the rebuttal. The argument, too often, comes from people who drive regularly, rather than bike. It comes from people who commute in cages of metal and glass.

Did I mention that we are persecuted? Did I mention oppression?

Can I tell you the many stories I’ve heard about cyclists being caught in crackdowns on dangerous cycling? On being busted for coming only to a rolling stop at an intersections? For being ticketed for biking on the sidewalks because they were afraid of cars and of drivers?

If I did, I can tell you that it would take a lot longer than it would to tell you the stories I’ve heard about crackdowns on dangerous driving around cyclists. A whole lot longer. For the honest-to-goodness, hand-on-a-bible, swear-on-my-mother’s grave (if she weren’t alive and well and living in Port Hope), stick-a-needle-in-my-eye, truth is that I have never heard such a story. Ever. In 40 years of living, and nearly 10 as a person who has professionally served as a public educator in the area sustainable transportation. Not one.

Cyclists run a gauntlet of danger daily, where drivers perform dangerous and often illegal acts around them constantly. Their complaints go unheeded. They are often portrayed as being a fringe minority, despite the ever-growing population of regular cycling commuters. Infrastructure for cycling use and cycling safety is usually an afterthought when new roads are developed or existing ones expanded.

In fact, the main street of my home city, Peterborough, has a cycling lane that is only a cycling lane for 2 hours of the day. The other 22 hours, it is parking marked as a cycling lane — causing for bike traffic that zigs and zags dangerously from between parked vehicles. It is a City-enforced cycling hazard.

This is standard operating procedure for dealing with cycling in Canada.

Is it any wonder that cyclists are thin skinned? That they are prone to trying to stick up for themselves on the road?

No one. Else. Is.

I will never go on record as saying a cyclist is making the wisest move in reacting passionately in response to a dangerous driver. I will never say that it is the most intelligent move to get in the face of a driver who nearly caused his death. Chances are pretty good that he will come out the worse for wear in such an encounter.

But I am also loath to say that the cyclist is wrong in doing so. With a police force and three levels of government that systematically endorse inequality between motorists and cyclists, the cyclist does not have the choice of having someone legally standing up on his behalf.

Even if it is merely a mistake on the driver’s part, action needs to be taken. Drivers need to be told that their actions are dangerous. Deadly. Far too often, a motorist has no idea that they’ve nearly killed a cyclist. They go on their way in the safety of their steel/glass bubble only to perform other oblivious acts of danger. And this may be even more dangerous that those who maliciously swerve at cyclists on the road. At least the swerver knows what he is doing when he’s scaring the spandex off his prey.

I’ve shoved a finger in the face of a person who nearly killed me accidentally. She was terrified. Almost as terrified as I was when she nearly ran me down. She won’t forget the encounter. Hopefully, as a result, she’ll be more aware. Hopefully this will prevent any encounters in the future.

I wasn’t proud. In fact, I felt horrible. But I’d do it again.

There is a reason why cyclists react the way they do after these collisions and near-collisions. Part of it is the anger that stems from persecution. Part of it is that they are tired of motorists treating them like second hand citizens and speed bumps.

But the main reason is that they have just seen their lives flash before their eyes. The main reason is that they have just had a near-death experience and their adrenaline levels are through the roof.

Rare is the individual who will politely express concern about driver etiquette and legislation when his heart is threatening to leave his body. God forbid the Dalai Lama become a regular bike-commuter, for pacifism might have to take a serious body-blow.

Cyclists, for the most part, rebel against dangerous drivers because they don’t have a choice, and because they are put through hell on a regular basis. They often do so in the moments after a terrifying experience.

And with no one else taking up the cause, they are forced to do so themselves. We are forced to do so ourselves.

Until there is serious attention being paid to the safety of cyclists — until law enforcement officers, public servants, elected officials, educators, and regular drivers start enacting some form of change on city streets — there will continue to be confrontations like the one that happened between Darcy Allan Sheppard and Michael Bryant.

Cyclists will continue to fight their own battles. And tragedies will continue to occur.

Blood will continue to spill, and ink will continue to be wasted.

It isn’t right. And it isn’t wanted. But it is a sad and very scary fact.

6 thoughts on “of ink and blood: thoughts on bike wars.

  1. Lisa Scott says:

    Very sad indeed. I wish all drivers and all cyclists could share the road safely and happily, perhaps in some utopia alter universe?!? Learning the rules of the road, for both is important, and required. Living in TO, you really see the lack of education of people from both sides, cycling and driving! One main beef I have is those cyclists who don’t wear helmets!!! Sure it looks kind of dorky, and the hair may mess up a bit, but in the end, it could be the one thing that saves your life! Keep the ink flowing Donald, education is key to this becoming less of a problem!!!

  2. Terri Elvald says:

    Donald, you’re not a nut job.

    Sheppard may not have been right to be angry, but he certainly had a reason.

  3. Sarah Follett says:

    As another regular bike commuter, I can fully identify with everything you’re saying. These recent events have become a contentious issue that really shouldn’t be- at its most fundamental you have a case of someone who massively, disproportionately, inexcusably overreacted, and did so using the greatly overrepresented amount of force available to him in a motor vehicle. It’s as though someone throws a punch at you and you come at them with a chainsaw.

    I agree that at its heart, the real issue is one of unequal rights. I really hesitate to make this an “us vs. them” question, because I think that defeats the purpose. We are all human beings just trying to get around in our daily lives, we’re just using different vehicles to do so. But I think it’s true that people on bikes are expected to just take their lumps, as it were, because they are somehow second class citizens the moment they get on a bicycle. It’s ridiculous, and we will certainly never be able to make any real inroads into proper cycling skills if any bicycle road behaviour is always contingent upon what any Joe in a truck beside you thinks should “really” be the traffic rules.

    If we ever want to move beyond automobiles as the dominant form of transportation, and I think we have to, we must recognize that a person is a person is a person, with equal rights to life and safety, whether they are in a car or on a bicycle.

    Keep up the good fight, Donald.

  4. John Etches says:

    As far as I’m concerned, everything you have said is 100% accurate. Drivers should be nailed to the wall for causing injury to cyclists (if the cyclist is not at fault…). However, cyclists should also be nailed for doing stupid things on the road. There are lots of cyclists riding erratically out there that give the rest of us a bad name. Cyclist education, DRIVER education concerning cyclists, plus fair, appropriate enforcement are the keys.

    Share your thoughts with everyone….good job!!

  5. Anthony Peterson says:

    Perhaps the best way to make drivers safer is to require them to ride a bike through a busy urban cycling course as a condition for renewing their driver’s license every three years or so. If they don’t make it through the course because they’ve been hit by a car, they should still get to pass, because they will then truly understand the consequences of metal on a human body.
    I’ve also thought that drivers should at least have a course in basic high school Newtonian physics as a precondition to getting a license.

    Good article Donald!

  6. clifford says:

    Re: Ottawa cycling deaths —


    Particularly telling is the way that Ottawa police responded to the deaths. Typical, and unbelievably wrong-headed.

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