I live in a state overloaded with guns, and I fear death.
But it is not the guns that scare me. It is motor vehicles.
Today it was a woman with a Toyota Prius who tried to kill me. She rolled through a stop sign at an intersection along a road I was descending on the bike at close to 30 mph. She was obviously too preoccupied with saving the environment to worry about paying attention to her driving.
Someone less paranoid about traffic might not have been prepared for the split-second braking, and even then it was close. I could have been just another statistic.
On average, motor vehicles kill two cyclists in this country every day. There is an El Paso every 11 days, a Dayton every five days.
And no one gives a shit.
If you spend much time on the roads of Alaska on a bike, you start to wonder why the death toll isn’t two an hour. Half of all drivers appear to be paying attention to something other than the road much of the time.
The smartphone is an obvious distraction. If it was truly smart, it would shock them every time they looked at it and announce: “Watch the road, asshole!”
This is not to downplay the country’s problems with gun violence. It is horrific, and I like most Americans feel for the friends and relatives of the 31 dead in the senseless shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and for the witnesses to those nightmares, and for the cities themselves.
Both places are, however, at almost the other end of the continent from Anchorage, and here are the statistical realities:
I’m a numbers guy. Given that I’m about three times as likely to be run down and killed by a car or truck – quite possibly with someone at the wheel texting as personal observations increasingly indicate – I’d prefer the mass-shooting odds.
More than that, I’d prefer someone in this country gave a shit about the people described as “vulnerable road users” – cyclists and pedestrians – killed with alarming regularity.
According to the FBI, 403 Americans were killed with rifles in 2017. Some subset of those people were killed by semi-automatic rifles, ie. “assault rifles.” Americans, most notably those on the left of the political spectrum, are in a tizzy about assault rifles.
There were 777 cyclists killed by motor vehicles in the same year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and hardly anyone – except cyclists – says anything. Almost 600 of these dead cyclists were men over 20. I’m in that cohort, and being such my personal odds of dying under the wheels of a car or truck are clearly even worse than those stated above.
The crazy part is that these deaths are a lot more preventable than mass shootings. Obsessed people bent on killing are hard to stop. Ted Bundy killed 30 women and never used a firearm. He didn’t want the noise.
Laws, sadly, do little to deter depraved sociopaths. But laws do work to modify the behavior of many normal people if the laws create consequences for bad behavior. There are almost no consequences for killing a cyclist or a pedestrian with a motor vehicle.
If you want to commit homicide and get away with it, forget guns, knives and blunt objects; just use a car or truck.
Cases in point
That isn’t a jail sentence. That is a joke.
Were this outcome unique, it would be a troubling anomaly. The problem is that the outcome is frighteningly common.
Caitlin Giddings wrote about it last week at Bicycling in a story titled simply “This Has Got to Stop.” Click the link and read about Dulcie Canton, who survived being hit in New York but suffered a broken shoulder, a fractured ankle, and bleeding brain.
The NYPD’s response was to do nothing despite access to video of the crash and witnesses.
“We did everything we could and the police basically ignored us because they said they didn’t have time,” an attorney for Canton told Giddings.
This is not unusual. Law enforcement officers often don’t want to deal with cycling accidents. The attitude seems to be that if you’re on two wheels and get hit, it’s your fault.
Years back, I was smacked by a red-light runner at an intersection along Anchorage’s Northern Lights Boulevard. I’d stopped at a red light, triggered the push to walk button, waited for the light to not only change to green but flash the “WALK” before leisurely wheeling into the crosswalk only to be banged off the left, front quarter panel of a car.
Luckily, the collision knocked me and the bike away from the vehicle instead of underneath it. The bike was a mess. I, fortunately, was bruised and scraped but otherwise OK. And yes, I’ll admit right here I was partly to blame for the accident.
I should have looked to my right before crossing the street to double-check drivers were obeying the traffic signals. It was a good learning experience in that regard. I no longer trust traffic lights. I now always look to my right and analyze the traffic before crossing.
Anchorage is a city where massive numbers of people try to beat the yellow, and they’re rarely looking for cyclists or pedestrians in or around intersections. This is a motor city.
But smashing people or property with your car or truck does remain technically illegal. So I reported the collision to the Anchorage Police Department. A nice, young patrolman later stopped by the Anchorage Daily News where I worked at the time to take a statement.
Blame the victim
I explained what had happened. He listened but took no notes. And then he told me this:
“I could fill out a report and we could begin investigating this, but first I’d have to cite you.”
What for, I wanted to know. Riding a bicycle in a crosswalk, he said, which was at that time illegal in the Municipality of Anchorage. The law has since been amended to allow cyclists to use the crosswalk so long as they “obey the traffic-control device applicable to pedestrians and enter the intersection at a reasonable and prudent speed.”
Needless to say, the threat of a citation was enough to make me forego filing an official complaint. That collision and others before and after did, however, serve to teach me that a.) cyclists need to wear their head on a swivel at all times and treat motor vehicles like dangerous animals, and b.) law enforcement authorities really don’t care if a cyclist gets hit.
After I was sideswiped and knocked down by a driver while in a traffic lane hand-signaling a left turn, the APD officer who showed up at the crash scene clearly thought the accident my fault. When I explained what had happened – “I was in the left lane signaling a turn when a driver tried to go past on the right and knocked me down” – his response was to defend the driver, arguing no one knows what hand signals mean anymore.
This cavalier approach to cyclists involved in collisions is not uncommon. KTUU-TV in Anchorage in 2017 happened to capture footage of a woman being nailed by a car rolling through a red light near the University of Alaska. The response of APD was to keep the name of the driver of the vehicle out of the news and gently warn drivers of “a tendency to do two things: 1) only look to their left, as that is where the traffic is coming from, and 2) pull up all the way through a crosswalk and to the corner, before stopping. Drivers need to come to a complete stop, prior to the marked crosswalk, or where the crosswalk would be if marked.”
There was no mention of how anyone might get ticketed for this behavior.
Agency spokeswoman Renee Oistad added that cyclists need to make eye contact with “any driver who is attempting to turn right on red [and] to make sure they’ve been seen…There is no legal requirement for the pedestrian to do this, but it helps to keep them safe.”
It would help those cyclists make eye contact if authorities clamped down on cars with tinted windows that make it impossible to make eye contact with a significant number of drivers.
By law in Alaska, the windows to the right and left of the driver are supposed to allow “at least 70 percent light transmittance” for safety. This sort of glass is what most people know as “smoked glass” or light-grey glass.
The standard is regularly exceeded. The authorities don’t appear to care. If you don’t click-it in your car you’ll be subject to a ticket, but if you drive around with opaque windows that’s OK because clearly cyclists and other motorists have super powers that enable them to see through the glass to determine where you are looking and what you might do when approaching an intersection.
Just make sure you’ve got your seatbelt on inside your blacked-out vehicle because Anchorage Police are worried about the “precious souls traversing our roadways without the safe warm embrace of their seatbelts. Being injured or killed as a result of not wearing a safety belt is 100 percent preventable. BUCKLE UP. You’re worth it. And so are the loved ones you’d leave behind if something happened to you because you didn’t make yourself a priority.”
The “precious souls” not surrounded by a protective metal cage and their “loved ones?” Who cares.
“I keep seeing these headlines about a cyclist who gets by a car and the police or the media or the courts, they all blame the victim or they don’t care at all. So, for example, a cyclist was riding along, minding his own business, gets hit from behind, killed, and the police use it as a story about why you should wear a helmet rather than a story about why you should watch where you’re going while you’re driving a car.
“I even saw a headline once that said the cyclist fell under a bus, which does not happen.”
It was unfair of Gaimon to pick on the headline writer. Journalists today don’t report stories. They rewrite communiqués (ie. media releases) from the authorities, and they know they’re not supposed to challenge authority unless it’s named Trump.
Still, I have to sympathize with Gaimon’s feelings about nothing being done.
Given the American media attempt to create a moral panic about semi-automatic rifles, it would be nice if someone at least noticed the slaughter of vulnerable road users or, for that matter, recognized the biggest pool of firearm victims.
Firearm deaths are a national tragedy. Firearms are now among our leading causes of death, though they can’t begin to measure up to heart disease which in many cases is in large part self-inflicted.
Firearms deaths don’t make a Centers for Disease Control top-10 list led by diseases linked to the American sit-on-your-ass, drive-everywhere lifestyle, but suicides do. And firearms were involved in just over half of those suicides in 2017, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Firearm suicides account for about 60 percent of all U.S. gun deaths. As BJ Campbell, a data-driven engineer who writes intelligently about firearms and the culture war has observed, “the left is making the wrong case on gun deaths.”
“….Suicide is twice the problem homicide is,” he notes. “Men outnumber women in suicide rate by a factor of three to one, but they outnumber closer to 7 to 1 in gun suicides, which is our topic. That’s a large difference, owing partially to men’s proclivity to choose more violent methods of suicide, and partially to men making up 62% of gun owners.
“Mass shootings are miniscule in this number, and not noticeably on the rise, and mass school shootings are such a tiny fraction of our stated problem that they are literally not worth considering in this analysis.
“That sounds terrible. I get it. But consider this. On average, around 10 students are killed per year by gunfire at school. Fourteen times more kill themselves, on purpose, with guns at home.”
I fit the modern profile of those most likely to commit suicide, but I have no desire to shoot myself. I recognize others might, most especially other old, white males. Middle-aged, white males are the loss leaders in suicides these days, according to the suicide prevention foundation, and white males, in general, accounted for about 70 percent of all suicide deaths in 2017.
The white suicide rate is about three times that for African-Americans and Asian Americans and measurably above that for Native Americans. But that’s irrelevant to this discussion except for the fact being white and middle-aged (or actually a little past), I fit the profile.
Despite that I don’t worry about any of my firearms killing me. I don’t worry about getting shot in Anchorage, either, even though many are now in the midst of recession-driven panic about crime. And despite rural Alaska being portrayed by Politico and the Anchorage Daily News as a dangerous and lawless place, I’ve never worried about being shot while there.
What I worry about is becoming the victim in a vehicular homicide because drivers so regularly now pay so little attention to their driving, and more than that I worry that said vehicular homicide would likely to be called anything but unless the driver was drunk.
If someone happens to clip me in a “bike lane” along an Anchorage roadway – and some drivers have on occasion almost seemed to be trying to do that – it will be called an “accident” because the political system in this country simply does not want drivers to accept responsibility for their behavior.
If one of them is actually held accountable, it threatens all the others who think “hey, it could be me. Let him or her among us who always pays attention when driving cast the first stone.”
There is a legion of people who think like that They provide the perfect excuse for district attorneys to refuse to prosecute negligent drivers by arguing “we’d never get a conviction.”
As for the poor, dead victims? Just more road kill for a society that worships at the altar of the automobile.
Until self-driving cars get here, I fear it’s only going to get worse. People motoring around in vehicles now loaded with safety equipment and, of course, wearing their seat belts don’t really have to pay all that much attention because they don’t have much to worry about. Motor-vehicles death rates have been going down even as drivers have been paying increasingly less attention to the road.
The 1970, motor-vehicle death rate of 27.7 of 100,000 people has fallen to 12.4 deaths per 100,000, according to the National Safety Council. Today’s motor vehicles are so safe that you are significantly more likely to die by accidentally poisoning yourself (death rate = 19.9 per 100,000) and almost as likely to die from tripping and falling (death rate = 11.2 per 100,000), according to the CDC.
Motor vehicle drivers and passengers are protected. Why would they worry about those who aren’t? It’s not like they’re going to get hurt if they’re car or truck slams into a cyclist or pedestrian.