No, Jerkball, We Can’t All Get Along

We have a fondness for storytelling, for the art of the narrative arc. Here’s a case in point, by way of VeloNews, on a recent spate of headline-grabbing car/bike rage incidents. The piece–a column called Legally Speaking by racer-turned-lawyer Bob Mionske–recounts tale after tale of drivers and cyclicts getting into brutal and often bloody tangles. The most sensational of the stories involves a Los Angeles emergency-room physician who is facing felony assault charges for an incident that left two cyclists badly injured. Read Mionske’s column (which, now that we’ve come to the end of it, we see was written and reported by another lawyer–what a sweet gig for Mionske!): it’s one of the best police-blotter pieces we’ve ever encountered.

It ends thus:

For the media, and for the new cyclists who, lured by the

combination of warm weather and high gas prices, are venturing out onto

the road for the first time, these stories of road violence, one after

the other, may indeed have seemed like “a new kind of road rage.” For

seasoned cyclists, the stories were more an indication that the daily

violence cyclists encounter had finally managed to capture the

attention of the public-at-large. But underlying the “bikes vs. cars”

eruptions of violence, the larger questions remained unasked, and

unanswered in the media: Why are cyclists the daily targets of road

violence, and what can cyclists do to change that reality?

Fortunately, for every cyclist who has ever asked those questions,

there are answers; next week, we’re going to delve deeper into this

issue for answers to those deeper questions.

Where we take issue with Mr. Mionske, Esq., and his brother at the bar who “provided research and drafting” of the column, is the assertion that the “larger questions remained unasked, and unanswered in the media: Why are cyclists the daily targets of road violence, and what can cyclists do to change that reality?”

In fact, whenever the subject of car vs. bike conflict comes up, those questions are implicitly part of the story and the conversation around them.  We’ll proffer just one exhibit to support that contention: David Darlington’s “Broken,” an exhaustively reported, beautifully written and ultimately tragic narrative on cyclist deaths in Sonoma County in the January/February 2008 edition of Bicycling magazine. The incidents he focuses on are different in nature from the ones that Mionske & co. discuss: the Sonoma deaths were the result, uniformly, of negligent, reckless, and/or drunken or drug-addled driving. But the issue at the heart of the matter is the same: why is it happening, and what can be done? (In answering the second question, Darlington’s story showcases the successful efforts of Sonoma County cyclists to pressure the local district attorney to vigorously prosecute drivers who had killed or maimed riders.)

Mionske’s column promises a discussion of these questions next week. While we wait for that piece to appear, we’d just observe that our own experience and recent reading (“Traffic,” by Tom Vanderbilt) suggest that one of the basic elements present in all the incidents Mionske describes is our readiness to contend for our space–to fight for what we think is ours or ought to be. Although it’s risky to say so, we note that this tendency appears to be as pronounced among humans who cycle as it is with humans who drive. There may be a peculiarly American element to the willingness to instantly resort to a fighting stance when our right is challenged–we honestly don’t have enough experience of riding elsewhere to say.

Mionske being a lawyer, we expect somehow that his curative prescription will involve the courts. I guess that’s fine, though we’re reminded of Lincoln’s advice that it’s better to yield a path to a dog rather than be bitten contending for the right. “Even killing the dog would not cure the bite,” he said. In terms of practical advice for the every day cyclist (and driver), we think that part of the solution is to be willing to back off rather than rising to and responding to every slight. It’s a hard path to follow. But we really do want to get along with all those people we share the road with, and we’re willing to believe that most of those people, deep down, feel the same way.

And if they don’t, well, the hell with them.

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