Saturday, January 5, 2013

Legality, Safety, and Kindness

Today I shall regale you with the much-anticipated story of my unpleasant encounter last night.  First, the story and then I’ll discuss the issues of legality, safety, and kindness that I think this story embodies.

Last night, I was riding my bike home from work in the dark.  (For brevity’s sake, I’m going to stick to the facts for the moment, and then I’ll touch on the issues.)  I was cruising along at a very leisurely pace (I was tired) when I saw a car approaching my path at a right angle.  The car was leaving a private subdivision at a pretty fast speed, considering that they were approaching a busy road.  I could tell that the driver was not anticipating any sidewalk traffic that they would be blocking if they pulled into the pedestrian’s path, so I slowed down.  I slowed down some more, and then I stopped.  The car stopped too, several feet away from me.  Clearly the driver had stopped because she noticed me, and I think she started making motions for me to pass, but I was blinded by her headlights, so I couldn’t tell at first.  Then I saw her make more exaggerated, annoyed-looking motions that I inferred were directed at me and telling me to go in front of the car.  So I did, and she peeled out and flew down the street, way faster than anyone normally does—a sure sign that she was pissed.  Then I had that moment of dread when I realized the car and I would be side by side as we waited for the light to change.  It was dread because I have seen what angry drivers do in that situation: they yell at me.  And that’s exactly what happened.  We both approached the intersection, and through her open window, this driver yelled, “You need some lights, sister!”  And then she yelled some more, but I couldn’t hear what she said as she was turning right and speeding onto University Drive.

Those, dear reader, are the facts.  A summary: 1) as she approached the road from her subdivision, the driver was not inclined to stop until she saw me on my bike, stopped.  2) I did not have lights on my bike.  3) No one was hurt in the slightest, except perhaps one or two egos.

First, let’s talk about the legal issues.  Here, I accept the accusation that I do not ride my bike legally in the dark.  I have no lights, just the reflectors that came with the bike when I bought it.  This driver, however, has a legal responsibility to yield to pedestrians when the roadway and a crosswalk intersect.  In addition, drivers are required to stop when “emerging from an alley, driveway, or building in a business or residence district.”  (See Sec. 545.256.)  Now, I’m not sure what to call the road which this driver was leaving.  It’s a road that leads in and out of a private, gated community, so is it a road?  A driveway?  In addition, bike riders are considered to be motor vehicle operators under Texas law, so I can’t count myself as a pedestrian in this story, even though I personally believe bike riders are more like pedestrians than car-drivers.  The question boils down to this: was this driver legally required to stop before pulling into the crosswalk area?  I would say yes, and I think commonsense would agree.  Perhaps you will agree when I say that both the driver and I did something wrong: I had no lights on my bike, and this driver had no plans to stop until I appeared in her field of vision.

Now, let’s talk about safety.  Here you and I may disagree, and that’s okay.  The law is already on your side if we do.  I think that practicing safe bike is a lot like safe sex: the details matter.  Safety is really a question of risk, and risk is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Scientifically, we can determine the parameters that make a choice more or less risky, and relevant to my story here, I’d say that 1) riding your bike in the dark is risky and 2) having a light on your bike makes it less risky.  But I’d also say that the degree of risk involved in both of those points is also dependent on things like how well you know the streets and neighborhoods, how fast you ride, how well-lit the streets are, the physical condition of the streets, how busy the streets are with car traffic, etc.  I could go on and on.  My point is that whether or not my bike has a light on it is just one of many factors that make my nighttime rides more or less risky.  And here’s the thing: I like riding my bike at dark.  I just do.  It’s fun.  It feels peaceful, contemplative.  I like moving through the night air on two wheels.  So that’s a risk that I am willing to take because I enjoy it.  To be honest, I sometimes wonder if I lead too safe of a life, if I’m too chicken shit to take bigger risks.  So riding my bike in the dark is a way of pushing back against that feeling, and maybe it’s a stupid way to do it, but it’s my choice to take that risk.  That, my friends, is the essence of freedom: you get to decide what kind of risk you are willing to take.

To get back to the story at hand, I believe that I was in no danger.  I was alert to my surroundings, paying attention to the sight and sound of cars.  I had stopped well in advance of this car’s approach into my crosswalk space.  Everything was fine.  But the driver was angered by my presence.  I think it’s because by being there, I demonstrated to her that she was not driving safely.  In this story, I’m not sure that it matters that I was on a bike with no lights.  I could have been a pedestrian out for a nighttime walk, and the same thing would have happened.  The driver was not going to stop, but she was angry that my presence forced her to stop and thus made her look bad.

And here’s where the driver chose to be mean-spirited: by lashing out at me about “safety,” she tried to pin all the responsibility on me.  Yes, legally, I was in the wrong.  But so was she.  I was not going to engage with her in a ten-second yelling match, even though that’s what she initiated.  It was unkind of her and, I would argue, mean.  Adults take responsibility for their actions; mature people don’t foist their mistakes on others in order to make themselves feel better.

My encounters with Texans on the roads are some of my least pleasant experiences of living here.  Texans are reckless when they get behind the wheel, and that scares me. Not enough to scare me off the roads, but enough that I expect them to do stupid stuff.  I have come to expect drivers to blame me when they do something wrong.  I wish these drivers would take a moment and consider things from the perspective of the other person, the one on two legs or two wheels.  But I don’t think they do—they’re too selfish or full of anger or self-righteousness to be empathetic.

This story has a happy ending.  Tired of being shamed for my nighttime riding habits, I bought two bike lights last night from Planet Bike, upon S.’s recommendation.  (Thanks, S.!)  I purchased the Beamer 3 headlight and the Blinky 7 tail light.  I’ll let you know what I think about the new lights after I have a chance to hit the roads with them on my bike.

Ride on, friends. 


  1. Honestly, I think sometimes drivers lash out at cyclists and pedestrians after such encounters because they feel very vulnerable. I know that one of my worst fears when I'm behind the wheel is hitting a cyclist because many cyclists (myself included) behave more like pedestrians than operators of motor vehicles and there is almost no body with more unpredictable motion than a pedestrian. The line between fear and anger can be a very blurry one.

    That said, I'm very sorry that you were yelled at but very glad that you bought some lights for your bike.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Raquelita. I hadn't considered that position, perhaps because so many drivers here make dangerous choices every day--speeding through yellow lights, taking left turns when it's my turn to walk, etc. I think I am biased because in those cases, there is a clear protocol, designed for safety, and the drivers make selfish, dangerous choices.

      But your position is far more caring and compassionate, and I think you might be right in this situation. In light of your thoughts on pedestrians, it's probably a good thing that this encounter scared that driver because she does live in a neighborhood with a decent amount of pedestrian traffic. She wasn't driving safely, even if I hadn't been around to show her that she needs to stop before the crosswalk. I'll go ahead and say it's also probably for the best that I will now be a glowing beam of light traveling through the dark winter night :-)

      Thanks for offering another interpretation!

      PS No pun intended above. ("In light of..." Har har!)