Cyclists always have the right of way?

Craig Kelly
Craig Kelly

Lawyers are a highly educated bunch – right? I mean, when they make a statement of law they know what they are talking about (goes the common wisdom). So boy was I excited when I read the following, written by a Nebraska Attorney:

Bicyclists always have the right of way […in Bellevue, Nebraska]

Really? Someone from Nebraska – tell me it’s true!

In my time writing for JustAnotherCyclist and VeloReviews, I’ve become accustomed to half-truths, or even complete falsehoods, being included in media publications on cycling. I find them and mentally pick apart these articles. I mean, after all it allows me to go through the rest of my day feeling all superior about myself. This guy is a lawyer after all – defending against verbal assaults in his job. So let’s take a look at the article he posted on a media website. The article starts out well enough:

In today’s fitness-centered world, bicycling has become a popular mode of travel and keeping fit.   More and more Americans are relying on two-wheeled transportation to get them to and from work, as well as replacing gym memberships for many avid cyclists.

However, that is immediately followed by the oh-so-common statement:

Cycling brings with it risks of injury that may be different than those in standard automobiles, but certainly no less serious.

Cue eye roll. What is it about American society that is so hung up on safety in completely unbalanced ways? Why do we hype the dangers of some things (like cycling) while intentionally downplaying the dangers of other things (like driving a car on the freeway.) We cover some accidents (plane crashes) on every single channel, while other accidents (like the thousands killed in auto collisions every year) go without even a mention?

I’m poking a little fun at Mr Kelley here for sure. But his article actually captures almost exactly the common wisdom of our society regarding cycling. He talks about the health benefits of cycling quite a bit. In fact, most would probably classify his piece as a “pro-cycling” article. But then he counters that by scaring the hell out of everyone with how dangerous cycling is. Few would even question me if I hit 75 MPH in a 65 MPH zone on the freeway. But ride without a helmet on my bike and oh boy am I taking my life into my own hands there.

I’m guessing that the folks writing these types of pieces don’t even realize the impact they can have. Let’s take a look at his final paragraph:

When you are traveling on the main roads, it is a good idea to avoid wearing earphones and concentrate on the sounds of the road.  Being observant as a cyclist can reduce your risk of injury.  Be sure to use your hand signals when making turns or stopping and remember to wear reflective gear.  Pay attention to traffic control measures and travel at safe speeds for the conditions you are experiencing.  Know the bicycle routes that provide the most visibility and always make sure your bicycle has working equipment and can be easily seen at night.  It is also important to inform loved ones of which routes you are taking and what time you expect to be back so they know where to look if you don’t return on time.  Ultimately, bicycling has become a safe and effective mode of transportation in the metropolitan area, as well as being a great step towards physical fitness! [embedded links his]

I agree with the first sentence. And the last statement I of course agree with. But what may be non-obvious is everything in between. Of course we want people to be safe, but every sentence in that article has an implicit declaration of a hazard that you will encounter if you ride a bike. Instead of providing a list of things to do to keep you happy, the message conveyed is really a list of things that are going to get you maimed or killed if you ride a bike. I fear THAT is the message that many non-cyclists will take from postings like this.

We need to work to reduce the presumption of risk in cycling if we are to succeed in getting more people on bikes. As I have said before, please PLEASE stop the fear mongering. We do it to ourselves as a group. We continue to use the dangers of cycling to motivate lawmakers and city planners to give us infrastructure. Lots of things in life are dangerous. However, compared to most of the things we do in life cycling is actually quite safe. And as a good doctor I know said, not-cycling is quite possibly a whole lot more dangerous than cycling.