“He shouldn’t have worn those tights”: Bike Tragedy and the Culture of Victim Blaming

Cycling carries inherent risks, but America’s car vs. bike culture makes pedaling far scarier than it has to be.

It’s preventing untold numbers of people from experiencing the health benefits, convenience, and pleasure that two wheels can afford.

Even Lance Armstrong knew the decent thing to do, and upon learning that five people had been killed and four seriously injured by a pickup truck while on a bike ride Tuesday evening near Kalamazoo, Michigan, he did it. In an Instagram post, he expressed his “incredible sadness” for the “unimaginable tragedy” that had befallen the members of Kalamazoo’s Chain Gang cycling club.

Other online voices, however, were not so humane.In the comments section under the first news item I saw reporting on the crash, there were numerous statements to this effect: “Why would any fool want to ride a bike in the road? Roads are for CARS. Stay on the sidewalk and stay alive!”

As a road cyclist myself, a bike commuter, and a triathlete, these remarks angered me, but they were hardly surprising. There’s a unique kind of victim blaming that accidents—and even homicides—involving cyclists elicits. Internet comments sections are the diseased colon of the online body politic, and even a cursory biopsy reveals a great deal about the various forms, some of them surprisingly well-intentioned, that victim blaming takes.

Now, it should go without saying that browsing self-selecting comment threads for a representative data sample is not a method Nate Silver would probably approve of. But I’ve nonetheless made it my unhappy, somewhat voyeuristic habit for the past eight years or so to see what people—most of them presumably drivers—have to say in response to local and national online news outlets of cyclist fatalities. There’s no shortage of opportunity for this. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes involving motor vehicles killed 726 cyclists in 2014, and cars were involved in nearly a third of the 48,000 cyclist injuries the same year. In light of such numbers, I’m interested in knowing everything I can about the assumptions, anxieties, misperceptions, and legitimate grievances the people whizzing past me in cars and trucks might be harboring. Like keeping my ears free of music, installing lights, making eye contact with drivers when possible at intersections or in turn lanes, and staying attuned for the ones who are distracted or giving any sign of having a bad day, every bit of sensory input increases my odds of pedaling home alive to my wife and daughter after a ride.

So, what have I found?

Naturally, there are those for whom all roads, even those freshly smeared with blood, lead to an opportunity for political grandstanding, and others who simply enjoy being rhetorically vicious nitwits. This charming subset can be relied on to supply provocative insights like, “One less cyclist to slow me down on my way to work.” Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I find these hard to take seriously. Demonstrably depraved drivers exist, but it’s hard to imagine anyone given to such breezily vile observations having the wherewithal to actually act on them behind the wheel, any more than those crying for the alleged perpetrator’s hasty hanging would tie the rope themselves if offered the chance.

What I actually find more worrisome is another type of comment, one far more common, and usually beginning with something along the lines of, “As much as this is an awful tragedy . . .” These folks are earnest, sometimes sympathetic in their acknowledgment of the tragedy—and always ready with a bevy of anxious explanations for why the victims were somehow complicit in their own death. When a college student was crushed to death by a semi-truck at a busy intersection near the University of Minnesota campus five years ago, many echoed the sentiments of the commenter who piped up,

Pedestrians and bikers are not always the innocent victims . . . sometimes it is their blatant disregard for traffic law that gets them in trouble. I can only hope that this accident, though its outcome is extremely sad, will act as a cautionary tale to those who choose to walk/bike to class. The fact that you are not in a car does not mean you can do whatever you want.

In fact, the truck driver was later found to be at fault, but many people, having witnessed bad cyclist behavior, and apparently unacquainted with the fallacy of hasty generalization, conclude that the victims must have run a stop sign, or veered into traffic, or, in one way or another, had it coming.

To be clear, there are some gallingly bad cycling citizens out there, but what comments such as the one above suggest to me is that many people do a poor job of differentiating between, say, the twenty-something plunging insouciantly through traffic and stop lights, and dedicated road riders, the latter often older, and usually observing and self-policing a well-established set of rules and norms. (The nine riders killed or injured in Tuesday’s crash ranged in age from 40 to 74.)

Another source of indignation at cyclists is owing to driver ignorance of the actual rules of the road, and the legal protections afforded to bikes. (These vary from state to state. For the record, these are Michigan’s, and you can find your state here.) Comments sections teem with outrage that, “I don’t get to drive on the wrong side of the road and not be ticketed by law enforcement!” (Cyclists don’t either, except in certain specified instances.) Others complain both that bikes are “too slow to share the road with cars,” or “should ride against traffic when there is no bike lane or shoulder” (an illegal and exquisitely bad idea). Some are genuinely bewildered: “Why don’t they stay on bike paths?”, revealing an apparent ignorance not only of infrastructure limitations but also, well, the very existence of road biking.

For riders accustomed to being cursed, honked at, or made the object of beer can target practice (not uncommon, all), it’s at least somewhat reassuring to be reminded of the fact that very few people actually want to hurt a cyclist. In fact, many comments indicate that people are very nervous they’ll hit someone on a bike. In fact, this is a fear I share. Like most cyclists, I drive more often than I pedal, and I too have had the heart-stopping experience of being distracted by my phone or the radio and not seeing a cyclist until it was almost (thank God) too late. Perhaps this anxiety helps to account for the tendency to look for ways in which accident victims might have been to blame. Given the possibility of sudden, unalterable calamity, it may be less frightening to persist in the assumption that no harm can come to cyclists unless they are in the wrong.

But whatever its source, well-intentioned or odious, this kind of thinking has consequences, some of which become apparent when sentences are handed down—or not handed down, as the case may be. A culture of impatience and irritation with cyclists cannot help but have an influence on the way in which violence against them is prosecuted. Although the scale of this most recent case is so egregious that the defendant, whose erratic driving had prompted several calls to police before he ploughed into the nine cyclists, has already been charged with five second-degree murder counts and four counts of reckless driving, these charges are anomalous in their severity. Charges and sentences for drivers have often been far less serious in cases where the carnage is only slightly less overwhelming.

There are other, less dramatic consequences. Thousands of people will be perfectly safe from road bike accidents, because they’ll never get on a road bike. Cycling carries inherent risks, but America’s car vs. bike culture makes pedaling far scarier than it has to be, preventing untold numbers of people from experiencing the health benefits, convenience, and pleasure that two wheels can afford.

The tendency to reflexively “explain” why a cyclist’s death followed naturally from his or her own behavior spares drivers, myself included, from considering our own responsibility to the extremely vulnerable lives with whom drivers are legally obligated to share the road.

We are all in a hurry. But we are also, as Dickens reminded us, “fellow passengers to the grave”—and there is no reason for cyclists to arrive there first.

 

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