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Nora Loreto's blog

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Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the rabble.ca series Up! Canadian Labour Rising. Nora is on leave as an editor with the Canadian Association of Labour Media while she takes care of infant twins. Nora's music can be heard here and her blog can be read at www.noraloreto.ca.

Toronto's respect deficit for cyclists

| November 25, 2012

There’s something about the cyclist-driver debate that makes people go nuts.

From the cyclists’ side, I know what it is. When we see someone killed, we know it could have been us. We think of hundreds of “close calls” where, had we been riding a bit faster, a bit slower, a bit further right or in another lane, we would have died.

When we see someone killed, we think of all the times we haven’t heard from someone when we should have, and we’ve imagined our lovers or friends dead from their daily commute.

When we see the vile responses online, we see the (few) callous drivers who have intentionally tried to injure or kill us. Yes, that happens on Toronto’s roads. Yes, I’ve had drivers intentionally steer toward me.

Under these conditions, it’s sometimes hard to engage in a rational or productive debate.

From the drivers’ side though, I don’t know what it is. I have no idea why drivers get so defensive and angry in debates about sharing the road.

In a collision with another driver, your risk of death is pretty high. In a collision with a cyclist or a pedestrian, though, your risk of death (or even injury) is low. But rather than raging against each other, it’s more often the case that (some) drivers rage against cyclists.

When I’m driving and have a close call with another car, it’s usually corrected pretty quickly. I think, “good, denting this thing would have been annoying.”

But when I’m on my bike and I have a close call, my heart falls out of my chest. It scares the hell out of me. It’s also way more frequent to have a “close call” on my bike than in my car.

It’s clear to me that the biggest threat to drivers is other drivers. Not cyclists. Not pedestrians. When I’m driving, I take extra care when I can. I give cyclists a lot of space. I’m patient. I refuse to be gripped by anger.

Toronto needs better bike infrastructure. Encouraging more people to bike reduces traffic for cars and drivers with half a brain should be able to understand how this benefits them. But better bike infrastructure isn’t enough.

Torontonians have a serious respect deficit for cyclists.

Ignore the fact that we should be celebrated for choosing to risk our lives for the environment and that we represent one fewer car on the road, or that we’ll hopefully cost the health system less. No, celebration (while welcomed) is not what cyclists need. All we need is respect.

Anti-cyclist rhetoric is really dangerous. It devalues our lives. Add that to drivers who (due to a variety of factors like road conditions, congestion, long commutes, broken relationships, terrible jobs etc. etc) are really angry AND encased in a metal shield, the combination leads to cyclist deaths and hit-and-runs.

The last time I was hit by a car, it was along Davenport at George Brown College. I was hit by a social work instructor. He jumped out of his car and was extremely helpful and apologetic. He told me he was a cyclist too. This demonstrated an important level of respect, which went a long way for both of us.

Compare that to the woman who once aimed for me and floored her pedal as we sat at a red light, also along Davenport. I had to jump out of the way to avoid certain injury/possible death.

If you spend a lot of time cycling, it’s easy to go crazy. This means that it’s easy to look crazy to drivers when we respond to being us off, your erratic driving us or dangerous lane changes. But drivers need to know that most cyclists feel like they’re always a second away from death.

The same force that may dent your car could take my life.

That reality is at the heart of this debate.

I’m sure that nearly all drivers don’t want to hit cyclists and I know that no cyclist wants to be hit. So how do we make our streets more safe?

Here’s a list. While mostly obvious, obeying these points would go a long way to help keep roads safer.

  • Don’t drive like an asshole: Be aware of what’s around you and signal. Don’t change lanes dangerously. Don’t drive drunk.
  • Don’t drive and text. In Toronto I saw people do this daily. It’s so dangerous and stupid and there’s no situation where this is necessary.
  • Don’t drive up to a cyclist and yell something at them for fun. Or for sexism. Or for any reason.
  • Assume that a cyclist is relying on your good driving to make judgements about how to avoid being hit. Know that when you don’t signal, you make the road more dangerous for cyclists. Also know that while cyclists should always signal, sometimes it’s not safe to (like when you have to break and steer in an intersection while avoiding wet streetcar tracks…doing this with one hand is sometimes too dangerous).
  • Don’t honk at a cyclist who’s taking a lane or obeying a traffic signal. If you lay your horn on a cyclist hoping that this will convince them to change their minds, you are an asshole and you should look into anger management classes.
  • Don’t blame cyclists for being hit/injured/etc.
  • While there many terrible cyclists out there, nearly no mistake made by a cyclist equals the force of a mistake made by a car. There’s a reason why children can ride bikes and not drive cars. Acknowledge the power imbalance and act responsibly and accordingly.
  • Understand that while you may be the perfect driver, sometimes cyclists have just passed a scene where another driver has scared the hell out of them and they may project some of their sentiments upon you. Yes, most drivers aren’t total assholes, but the effect of the ones who are influences how we interact with cars.
  • If you feel that you are raging, pull over (safely) and chill out. There’s no simpler or softer way that I can say that. Road rage is really dangerous. Cyclists on the receiving end of road rage risk being killed. Cyclists get road rage too but their weapon, a bike, doesn’t produce the force possible when your car is your weapon.

Remember that there’s a world beyond your windshield and radio station. It’s filled with humans who are, in many ways, just like you. Imagine your interactions on the road as if you were together in that real world, without your cup holder, car seats or dashboard. Treat people on the road the way you treat people in real life. I’m sure that many of the dangers faced by cyclists would be avoided.

Unless, of course, you’re just an asshole. Then your license should be suspended until you can be deprogrammed.

**On Friday, Nov. 23, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher was killed in Toronto on Davenport at Lansdowne. No one should die as they commute to work. Miguel Oliveira, who hit him and fled the scene, has turned himself in.

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