I cannot be quiet about this
8 January 2014

When I was in high school I participated in a summer jazz camp program. Yes, I went to band camp. Laugh if you want to, but know that I’m writing this prelude to calm myself down. Because I almost died tonight.

The instructor was a great and funny guy (whose name escapes me right now). The band, which consisted of 20 or so high schoolers, was a pretty loud bunch and as jazz players usually are, were quite eager to steal the spotlight from each other. However I was not. I hated improvising. I require some amount of structure. Yes, the scales and the time signature provide some structure, but I needed more. OK, enter a couple of years of learning chord progressions, modes, inversions. I still didn’t like it. I could never get the hang of it. Perhaps I didn’t stick with it long enough, to know in my fingers what notes to play next. Or perhaps it was my rejection fo the idea that there was no pre-defined “next” and free will is everyone’s prison. Anyway, I stray from my story. The director would often pick several people to solo for each song we practiced and every time he picked me I would make up some excuse, or say plainly “I can’t.” His response? “Can’t means won’t”.

That motto has stuck with me through the years, and tonight I find myself coming back to it when I feel so utterly compelled to talk about a problem, yet know of no suitable forum in which to do so. Perhaps it’s an act of cowardice or passive-aggressiveness to speak out on a forum of my own making, to an audience of my choosing (at first anyway. discussions of virality will be held in recitation). But without further ado, here is the story of tonight’s events, from my own memory.

Timeline

I leave work just before 6pm, having completed what I count as a good day’s work. I feel alright! About 45 degrees out, light rain, completely dark, pavement is wet but not slick. I get on my bike, make sure both lights are on, and head for the streets.

Due to the light timings, I know that if I don’t dally I can make it to the front of the line at 7th and Madison before the green. There is a dedicated bike lane on 7th, and a dedicated bike box at that intersection, so moving to the front of the line is legal and accepted. As I approach the bike box I notice that someone’s car is stuck halfway into it. I take little note of it, as there is still room in front of the car to stop my bike while staying behind the stop line.

Aside: the reason I need the bike box at all is because at the very next intersection I need to make a left turn. There’s a turn lane I need to merge into, and I really don’t like waiting an hour for the rush hour traffic to pass me by so I can cross two lanes. So I usually like to book it to Madison and get in the bike box.
Also note that the bike box hasn’t yet been photographed by Google’s spy satellites, so it isn’t yet on Google Maps.

When the light turns green I move forward, again not dallying. There’s a red at Hawthorne but I don’t want to piss off the guy behind me. Too late, it turns out, as he enters the oncoming lane while still in the intersection, and cuts me off as I exit the intersection, almost clipping my front wheel. I consider braking suddenly, but that would flip me over the handlebar, and I have a whole line of cars and trucks behind me who are eager to get home.

So I swerve a little, brake a little. OK, I didn’t get hit. He was literally inches away from me as he cut back into the lane. If I hadn’t taken the action I did, I would be roadkill.

As we approach the light at Hawthorne (again: only 1 block from the bike box at Madison), I merge into the left turn lane and he stays in the straight lane. I notice he’s rolling his window down. He says “Are you going to learn how to ride a bike properly or just be an asshole?”. I think about responding in some way, but I don’t (I’ll get to why later). I put up my left turn signal. When the green hits I have to wait, as it’s an unprotected turn and there is oncoming traffic. As the man drives past me he says something else out the window but I don’t catch it. I make the turn safely and legally and continue on my way home.

Responses

I’ve written before on the merits of keeping your emotions out of the driving experience. The benefits are obvious: less road rage leads to fewer acts of vindictiveness leads to less injury and death. The rules and laws governing traffic are just those. Rules and Laws. Humans are bad at law.

We’re bad at following a strict program with no deviation ever, not even a litle bit. Maybe the rules and laws are incomplete, if so many people feel the need to be the exception, or act out edge cases. But on a high level, I believe that the decision-making that happens behind the wheel or the handlebar should be done without emotion.

That’s not to say that I’ve completely banished my own emotions from the roadway. As I left that encounter, adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I was hyperventilating and crying. I was so sad that people (and I include myself in this) don’t understand the complete system. I was sad that the complete system is as complicated (and prone to misunderstanding) as it is. I was sad that the other driver felt the need to exact revenge, taking back “his place in line”. But mostly I was sad that any response I could have made to him at the time would likely only have made the problem worse. If I turned around and said

“I had a bike box, I was completely within my right. You had wrongfully stopped inside that bike box, and what’s more, you drove in the oncoming lane, then cut me off (without signaling your lane change I might add)”

or maybe

“I know how to ride a bike properly. Do you know how to drive a car properly?”

or something like

“Learning how to ride a bike properly and being an asshole are not mutually exclusive, but perhaps you meant an inclusive ‘or’. I wouldn’t want to assume <sneer>.”

would not make the situation better. Best case: he would have shouted or cussed or made some obscene gesture, then go on his less-than-merry way. Worst case: he cuts into my turn lane, knocking me over and injuring me, not to mention my bike. I weighed my options. I decided that not engaging was more likely to result in the best case scenario. But is that really the best case?

Responsibility

As I currently understand what happened, that man was in the wrong. He acted erratically, unlawfully and worst of all dangerously. And I could do nothing to help him. Attempting to help him would have resulted in more erratic, unlawful, dangerous behavior. I would be in a hospital right now instead of in my kitchen. How can I reach out to him, and other drivers like him? Phrases like “raising awareness” bring to mind a stigma, that (in the extreme) mean I’m some granola-vegan-GF-hippie who moonlights slashing studded tires (but seriously, why do people even get studded tires here? You are destroying the roads and it never snows, not even during a friggin “polar vortex”). So I will abstain from using phrases like that.

But I feel helpless. I have a message, and everyone who drives a car—no, everyone who uses a street, avenue, road, place, drive or other paved conveyance to get anywhere—should hear it:

  • Learn the rules and laws of the road.
  • Know that the “right of way” is not something you can give away, nor should you try.
  • Likewise, the “right of way” is not something you should try to take by force (nor can you succeed in gaining it, I think).
  • Leave your emotions outside of your vehicle. Behaving like a human introduces unaccountable-for variables to the system.
  • But most of all: treat everyone with respect. Just so I get my meaning across I’d like to expound on this one.

Respect

I use “respect” in the context of driving somewhat differently than I might in general. In general, “respect” is something I give to people who have proved themselves worthy of it in my eyes. Somebody wrote an entirely open-source PBX library? Respect. Somebody is donating their life to saving humanity? Respect.

But on the road, respect needs to come from something else: a state-regulated procedure. That’s right, I’m talking about your driver’s license. You have a driver’s license? Respect. I respect your position on the pavement, because I assume you have a license, and that means that you know what to do with your position on the pavement. Oh wait, you just used the oncoming lane to vindictively cut off a cyclist because you thought he was being an asshole? Respect. That’s right. I force myself to respect people even when they behanve erratically or dangerously. Here it is important to note that my respect for someone and my support of him are two different things.

The other driver thought I was an asshole for “cutting” in front of him in the bike box (again: totally legal thing to do). I cannot make assumptions about his thoughts or reasoning behind his urge to cut me off, nor even his emotional response as indicated by the words and tone he communicated with me. Perhaps he didn’t see the bike box. If there was no bike box, I would definitely consider myself to have been an “asshole” in that situation. Perhaps he saw the box but didn’t know what it meant (although this is a pathetic excuse, because driving in a place requires familiarity with local laws and procedures, right? also because it’s a large green box with a large white bicycle painted on it).

I’m running out of steam here, and I’ve mostly stopped trembling, so I’ll wrap it up.

Can’t Means Won’t

The issue of driver education is important to me. Note that I use “driver” to pertain to all traffic on the pavement. Car, truck, bike, semi, motorcycle. I don’t know if skateboards, rollerblades or running shoes are permitted on the roadway, but “permission” doesn’t enter into my context definition here. Are you on the roadway? Are you in control of your own movement? You are a driver.
OK but that doesn’t include insane and/or drunk drivers, so amendment: Are you in a position to control your own movement (whether or not you’re taking advantage of that position)? Driver.

I want this issue to be important to you as well. I want you, the next time you enter a roadway (and also every other time), to take a deep breath and remind yourself: “whether or not they deserved it, all other drivers around me have earned the right to be here. And I have too.”

Safe driving, everyone.

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