Friday, April 06, 2007

Bear with me a moment....

What follows is pretty much a grab-bag of ideas. If you get the impression that I'm conflicted regarding the San Francisco Critical Mass incident last Friday, you're absolutely right.

Phil's story...

This begins a few weeks ago, when another local bicycle commuter caught up with me on the way home. Phil is stronger and faster than me, so if I'm out ahead of him, I get to be the bunny. We work slightly different hours and it's always a matter of chance if we meet.

He had a story. It seems that some teenagers in an easily identified older pickup harassed him in town. As he described it, I realized I'd seen that truck around town too. They drove directly behind him for blocks, within a few feet of his back wheel. They stayed there as he turned and even doubled back. Phil was pissed off and stopped by the police department to make a complaint. He had the tag number and a good description of the kids. The dispatcher wrote it all down and referred the matter to an officer.

This had happened a day or two before I bumped into Phil. He wanted to stop at the PD for a follow-up, so I accompanied him. The dispatcher said she didn't have a record of the incident, and that the officer who'd handled it wouldn't be back on duty until the weekend. Phil said he'd call back.

I ran into Phil again last night and asked him how the matter was resolved. As it turned out, there wasn't any contact. The officer claimed the tag number Phil had given him was incorrect, so they were unable to find the teenagers. Nothing further was done.

Phil saw the truck again, and verified he'd had the right tag number the first time. It really appears our local officer simply wasn't interested in following up. No one was hurt or killed and there wasn't any property damage. Therefore, no crime. Probably more important matters called for his attention, like maybe a shoplifter at Wal-Mart, a lost dog, or one of those nefarious library users with a pile of overdue book charges.

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles, and that includes being treated as any motorist would be with a similar complaint.

And in a very circuitous way, that brings me around to last week's Critical Mass ride in San Francisco. I'm in no position to assign blame, but as I understand from various reports, a woman in a minivan tried to get through a CM group and knocked down one rider. She then drove off, only to be surrounded by a mob. Some accounts say that her van sustained between $3000 and $5000 in damages. As yet, I haven't read if the cyclist she knocked down was injured or if his machine was damaged.

Without numerous, detailed eye witness reports – and eye witness reports are notoriously unreliable – I can say just one thing in defense of the driver. It's difficult and dangerous to attempt to drive through any crowd, even if you're a careful, conscientious motorist. You have to have 360 degree awareness in that situation, and it's all too easy to focus your attention in the wrong place. In other words, it's very possible she was looking in one direction while a cyclist approached from another. I'm not saying this did happen. I'm saying it could happen even to a good driver. (I read an account this morning saying that the cyclist impacted the side or back of the van, not the front. Mini-vans cannot jump sideways.)

On the other hand...

It sounds as if the CM ride turned into a mob, if the accounts of the damage to her vehicle are true. There's no excuse for destroying someone's property. If she tried to drive away – as some hit-and-run motorists undoubtedly do – she should be held accountable, just as those vigilantes who smashed up her car and terrorized her children should be. But as I pointed out up above, she could have been unaware of impacting a cyclist, making the attack on her vehicle especially vicious. Attacking a car with children inside is inexcusable.

In Oklahoma, we have a solution to that problem. It's called the 45ACP semi-automatic pistol. If I believe you are threatening my wife or kids, I will shoot you. This has nothing to do with my politics or my mode of transportation. It has nothing to do with whether you're a cyclist or not. It's a bright line that civilized, moral people do not cross.

Robert Heinlein said that an armed society is a polite society. There's a lot of truth in that, but it's a story for another time.

And on the other hand...

Is it any wonder police don't take cyclist complaints seriously? If our image in SF is that of troublemakers, law breakers, and anarchists, why would the cops care if a cyclist were injured? Why bother even taking a report, let alone following up on it. It's the same thing in a microcosm when dealing with our local cops and Phil's story. I suspect the underlying message is that he wouldn't have these problems if he'd just drive a car. Conform, Phil. Be part of the herd.

This is, of course, the time-tested method of dealing with pesky cyclists. Blame the victim.

And on the other, other hand...

If a cyclist retaliates against a bully who uses a vehicle as a weapon, suddenly ALL cyclists are violent psychopaths bent on destruction. This particular logical fallacy is highly cherished by those who hate seeing cyclists on the road, and they're nauseatingly fond of saying that ALL cyclists blow through red lights, ignore stop sign, and generally abhor traffic law. It's the basic operating principle of the Big Lie. Tell a lie long enough, and some will decide it's believable. There's no point in arguing this one, because a closed mind will never hear it.

And finally...

I offered Phil the email address for our chief of police, based on the well-known corporate theory that shit rolls downhill. I've had mostly positive results in contacting the chief of police in some local municipalities. The county sheriff, however, is a notable failure. And I've had good results by emphasizing that we prefer proactive efforts rather than reactive ones. It's easier to deal with problem cyclists and problem motorists while their infractions are fairly minor.

As I've said before, it bothers me that we just accept 42,000 traffic deaths per year without much comment. It's the equivalent of another 9/11 attack every month. We should be outraged. The problems of one cyclist being harassed by a motorist, or a lone motorist being attacked by a mob of cyclists are minuscule when compared to that large number of deaths. Yet if we're going to make a commitment to reducing that number, we have to do it one life at a time. That means respecting the rights and responsibilities of EVERY road user, none of them superior to another, and making a determined effort to get the butt heads and bozos off our roads. Being pro-bicycling is not the same as being anti-motoring. It's a critical difference.

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Blogger Paul Tay said...

EVERYBODY wants a "solution." Maybe it all comes down to how we react. Certainly I respect your right to the Second Amendment. But, packing a 45ACP while biking WILL create a whole lotta unforeseen problems.

Perhaps a Super Soaker loaded with top o'morning PISS might come handy? Naaaaaaaaaah.

FYI, TPD UDN will deploy four bike officers to cover Downtown. Look for the media day sometime around 1 May. I hope C-dog will cover it too.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Smudgemo said...

A few years ago across the bay in Berkeley, I had some jackass attempt to scare me by driving into me while riding down a fast hill (after I tried to go around his childish act of hitting the brakes while right in front of me to apparently teach me some lesson.)

My wife got the plate and I called CHP on my cell. They transferred the call to Berkeley PD and I was lucky enough to get in touch with an officer who rode motorcycles and understood what had happened. He said I could press charges, but suggested it would be hard to get any real results. He did tell me that he scared the crap out of the guy when he called him at home and advised him that his actions were an assault with a deadly weapon. I let it go at that.

I'm not sure what I'd do if I got the big blow-off from the guys with "Protect and Serve" plastered on every car, but I'd certainly want to start running it up the chain. Probably just end up getting tickets for failing to put a foot down at a stop sign in retaliation.

12:26 AM  

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