The “Forever Innocent Driver”: the double-standard of how many view the deaths of people walking and bicycling
In the wake of the sixth death of a person riding a bicycle in Chicago this year, I have grown a bit agitated. Not only has our city, among many others across the country/world, failed to do much to rein in the amount of preventable injuries and deaths on our streets, but there is a dark cloud of rhetoric that hangs around after these sort of deaths. There are many that are quick to dismiss the severity of the death by surmising the fallen soul who was biking or walking was in the wrong – as if the victim has the opportunity to defend his or her self. You’ll see or hear their indifference on newspaper comments sections, your social media feeds, and from the mouths of your coworkers, friends, or family.
“While I’m very sorry for this person, I’ve seen a lot of bikers biking with complete disregard to traffic laws (which they are subject to), and also without common sense.”
“If your [sic] going to ride a bike on any street you should be MORE aware of your surrounding vehicles rather then depending on the other guy to watch out for you.”
“The driving pace in the city is fast and sloppy and it is all drivers can do to keep from hitting each other… The cyclists are rudely aggressive and put themselves in tenable spots every time they ride almost daring drivers to hit them.”
These are all public comments on the Chicago Tribune article regarding the death of Anastasia Kondrasheva while she rode her bicycle in Roscoe Village on Monday morning.
You have heard similar comments from people in your life defending a person’s inability to operate a vehicle carefully enough to avoid killing someone. Rarely do you hear about all of the illegal things you know many people do on a daily basis while driving a motor vehicle. Things such as:
- Exceeding the speed limit
- Not stopping for a person crossing or trying to cross the street at any marked crosswalk or intersection of two or more streets
- Using a mobile phone (with hands)
- Parking in a bike lane (for any period of time)
- Parking in a crosswalk
- Turning in front of a bicyclist (right-hook) or across the path of a bus
- Not stopping completely at a stop sign
- Not stopping completely before making a right turn on red, if permitted
- Not stopping before exiting an alley
- Failing to signal a turn
- Using a horn for a reason other than danger
All of the above are explicitly illegal in Illinois or fall under the category of reckless/aggressive driving.
How often does anyone who makes a comment like the above, excusing a driver’s action, fail to mention that there are things that people driving vehicles do every single time they get in their car that threaten the lives of others?
Countless times I have experienced near-misses while walking or bicycling when someone driving a vehicle has been breaking the law. You see it every time you walk outside for more than ten minutes. There is a certain unchecked belief that people driving vehicles can break the law now and then because “they’re in a hurry”. The belief that anyone who isn’t driving on the street is not a serious person with places to go (or not go – aimlessly walking is one of the best ways to experience the city). The belief that driving a car entitles someone to the entire road, the safety of others be damned. Or the belief that only “taxpayers”, a group from which non-drivers are frequently assumed to be absent, have a right to the space between the buildings of our cities. As if purchasing the vehicle and the gasoline entitles you to the public space that we all share.
Leaving these beliefs unchallenged is one important way that our streets remain unsafe for many and are regarded as merely a conduit for fast-moving vehicle traffic. If we are ever to achieve the aggressive goal of eliminating traffic deaths on our streets, we have to start challenging the notion that those driving cars are lawful patrons of the street while everyone else is too busy breaking the laws, or simply “in the way”.
I used to be more confident when getting on my bike to run an errand or take a nice ride by the lake. But it’s hard to do so now without thinking: in the event of my death, how will I be blamed for this? I do my best to be as safe as possible when I am on my bike or walking on the street, but the fact of the matter is that in any vehicle crash with a bicyclist or pedestrian, the living are almost always the ones behind the wheel, and they get to tell their account of the story.