Monday, August 3, 2009

New thoughts about "Chips" Cronen's death

Experienced commuting cyclist George "Chips" Cronen died just over 2 years ago, struck from behind in broad daylight by a spaced-out motorist on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. Two recent events made me aware of something that might at least partly account for the deadly motorist's failure to see and yield to Chips on the bridge.

Riding back to Louisville from a meeting in Jeffersonville, I rode across the Clark Memorial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. I crossed the bridge on a Friday at about 6:15 PM, when the bridge carried very little traffic. As usual, I rode in the middle of the right lane in order to make myself obvious to overtaking drivers. With a passing lane in each direction, drivers can generally pass a bicyclist riding in the right lane without experiencing any delay.

Looking into my helmet mirror, I saw a driver closing on me at what seemed significantly above the 35 mph speed limit. ("Everybody speeds on that bridge," a non-cyclist friend recently observed.) Anyway, the car was approaching faster than most cars did. I watched the car get closer and closer, without changing lanes, until I feared for my life. I waved my left hand over my head to get the driver's attention, and yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. The driver moved into the passing lane perhaps 50 feet before passing and seemed to glare at me as though I had somehow caused her some imposition. I said a prayer of thanks for not having joined the ranks of innocent bicyclists struck from behind in greater Louisville.

A few days later I read Larry Preble's horrifying account of watching a motorcyclist, stopped at an intersection, get struck from behind by a motorist traveling at high speed. The crash took place in broad daylight on a straight rural Indiana road. The motorcyclist was clearly visible, and people on the scene made no mention of the guilty driver appearing intoxicated. The guilty driver reportedly said, repeatedly, "I didn't see him!" How on earth do drivers in unchallenging driving situations fail to notice human beings clearly visible directly in front of them?

Perhaps "unchallenging driving situations" make these crashes more likely. On the Clark Memorial Bridge, as on that rural Indiana road, drivers face such easy driving conditions that they have little incentive to pay attention. They have essentially no traffic potentially crossing their path, few or no intersections or signs to obey, and low likelihood of encountering a person, animal, or inanimate obstacle. I suspect that many drivers treat these situations as a license to space out. That attitude might work for a few hours at a stretch, but it can't remain safe over the millions of vehicle-hours of driving that occur on lightly traveled roads in the US every day.

This weekend, two weeks after my experience on the bridge, triathlete John Carr became the latest cyclist in greater Louisville killed by an overtaking motorist - the C-J account is here. The motorist, driving on a suspended license while intoxicated, fleeing the scene, and resisting arrest, has been charged with murder and other crimes enough to keep him in prison for decades. Yet, when a sober motorist makes the same deadly mistake and stays on the scene to talk with the police, that motorist generally faces no punishment more severe than higher auto insurance rates. We need to change our legal system to punish deadly inattentive driving and make abundantly clear that operating a motor vehicle has weighty responsibilities. The myth of carefree driving may help to sell cars and trucks, but I do not accept its cost: thousands of preventable traffic deaths per year.


D Morse said...

In addition to waving your hands, there are a couple of other techniques I've worked out:

* Burn your tail lights during the daylight. The high quality tail lights are quite bright at 6pm in August. I see them from a long city block away.

* A little lateral movement might be advisiable. If I see a motorist zoning out, I move from the center of the lane to the left wheel well, as if to say -
"hey buddy, deal with me." The author of Traffic cites studies that say that humans suck at percieving || velocity at long range. Give a little _|_ velocity to maybe get those mental juices going.

* If you're really concerned, and the driver's still several seconds out, pedal harder. That gives the driver more time to react.

_Traffic_ by Tom Vanderbilt has a good laymans introduction to the "less stimulus is bad" school of road design. There's a copy at my house, if you're interested. Lots of ammo for Traffic Justice in it.

bikeolounger said...

I, also, am a fan of lateral motion as a way to snap at least some motorists out of their fog.

Even if I am not burning taillights, I have some pretty large reflectors on my commuting rigs. I agree that bright flashers make me more visible in changing-light situations (going under overpasses, for example).