My new cause is for bicyclists to stop at stop signs and red lights as if they were a motorist. In Massachusetts, and perhaps elsewhere, it’s now a law. If you go through a red light on your bicycle, you can be ticketed. I shouldn’t get self-righteous here because I’ve bicycled through many a red light in my time. But now, my feeling is that if bicyclists will stop at red lights, then car drivers might respond to them differently; rather than as pesky lane swervers, motorists might see bicycles as legitimate vehicles, almost like another car. And I think that would be helpful for all of us. I’ve got to believe that that state of affairs would help cut down on car-bike accidents. And I believe that bicyclists have to make the first move. Because they have the most to lose; car drivers are never hurt when their cars collide with a bicyclist. (Please let me know if I’m wrong on this one.) Bicyclists think car drivers should shift their attitude, but that’s not going to happen. Cars are in the majority, cars rule the road. Our society reveres cars and car transportation; bicycles and their riders are second-class citizens at best, rebels, outliers, socialists at worst.
This past weekend a group of bicyclists passed me as I was returning home from a ride. There were six of them; one of the guys was not wearing a helmet, which is just downright stupid. They moved ahead of me and then there was a red light ahead. I was trying to catch up with them, but they slowed for the light, checked that no cars were coming in the cross street, then sped through. I called out half heartedly for them to stop and then I waited for the light to change. And then, well, I just got pissed off. I don’t know what it is. Why couldn’t I just let them go on their way? I poured on the speed and caught up with them at the crest of the next hill and as I passed I looked over at the two leaders, Mr. No Helmet and his friend. “I really wish you guys would stop for red lights!” I yelled as I continued on, pedaling hard. I was sort of hoping that the next light would be red and I’d be stopped and they’d have to make their way around me in order to go through the light. But it was green.
I just kept going and then there was my left turn light ahead. It was red, though for the two travel lanes the light was green. I stopped, and I was standing there with my right foot on the pavement, when Mr. No Helmet whooshed by screaming at me, “The light is green!” as he flew down Beacon Street. His glee! He was so thrilled to be able to “get me back.” I was startled at first, then realized in that moment the folly of my ways. (Though of course I wish I had had the wherewithal to reply with some snarky remark like, “You may be stupid but at least you’re not colorblind!”)
I’m not going to get bicyclists to stop at red lights by yelling at them after they’ve gone through one. At least I could approach the discussion differently, perhaps a reserved, “Have you thought about stopping at red lights?” as I pedal along beside them. Maybe I’ll do that, or maybe I’ll just continue to stop at red lights and let the other bicyclists do what they will. Perhaps in time I’ll serve as a role model. Maybe some other bicyclist will think, “Hey, that’s a good idea.” As I slowly made my way home, it was then that I truly understood the oft-quoted line from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So for now I’ll stop screaming and just do.
But I do think of places like the Netherlands where drivers are trained to open their car doors with their right hands, reaching across their bodies, turning themselves to the left, forcing them to look back at the road, thus enabling them to see any bicyclists who might be coming their way. (I’ve been “doored” by a car driver. It is no fun. Knocked me out of commission for a couple of months and to this day I have a left shoulder problem associated with that accident.) Meaning that we could find ways to accelerate a melding of the minds between car drivers and bicyclists. Hopefully that day will come in my lifetime here in the U.S. of A.
Post script: was visiting some friends who were sitting out on their front porch last night. (It was a beautiful evening.) Got talking about bikes and red lights with this friend who has taken up biking later in life and who I often see Sunday mornings making his way home from the store where he’s just bought fresh bagels. He told me that because of my example he is now stopping at red lights and stop signs. Not always, and not consistently, but he’s doing it more and more. All I could say was, “My work here is done.”
Well, if not done, at least a beginning.