Saturday 12 July 2008

Cyclist vs pedestrian - who is right?

Bystander published a piece this week that generated a reasonable amount of comment. It concerned a cyclist that hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian hit the ground, hit her head and later died.

The article that Bystander quoted from made it sound like the cyclist was a bit of a loon, and was therefore at fault, and seemed to have gotten away with a ridiculously light penalty.

I weighed in and said he should have been charged with manslaughter.

The solicitor for the cyclist came on board a while later and said that the pedestrian was drunk, the cyclist was not riding on the footpath, and he was not a loon.

A lot of the case, and the comments, seemed to hinge on the cyclist yelling, "Move, because I'm not stopping" before he hit her.

Where to start with my comments?

The BBC covered this case, and there is a photo included that shows a cyclist riding on the wrong side of a double white line. It doesn't say whether this is the cyclist in question, but if it is, let me just start by saying he is a bloody idiot for being on the wrong side of a double white line, and a bigger idiot for not wearing a helmet. I don't care whether it is compulsory to wear one or not - coming off your bike can kill you, or leave you as a vegetable. I do not intend to end up as a nuff-nuff.

I have pesonally experienced a great deal of stupidity from my fellow cyclists - in terms of them doing stupid things that have come close to running me off the road in order to avoid a collision. It all comes down to them going too fast for the conditions. I am not referring to the weather - I mean the state of the pavement that you're riding on, the bends and curves and blind spots, the width of whatever bit of road or path that you are riding on, the presence of pedestrians, joggers, dogs, kids on skateboards etc etc etc.

I spend a lot of my time riding on designated bike tracks, which are completely separated from the road and many have a line down the middle to place pedestrians on one side of the path and bikes on the other. None of these paths have the usual warning signs that a motorist would normally see in the course of even the simplest journey - speed limit signs, dangerous curve warnings, merging traffic - all that sort of thing. One of the beauties of a bike path is the lack of intrusive signage, although sometimes they could do with a bit more directional signage (ie, Sydney is thataway). I've had a number of near-crashes where I have gone sailing over a crest or around a bend and found that the path suddenly ends in a brick wall, or a canal, or just dirt and bush. Bike paths are still the wild west of the transport system.

I think the lack of signage is driven by the mentality of road engineers, who could never concieve of a bike travelling at more than say 20km/h. At that speed, you don't need a plethora of warning signs for the unwary - you have plenty of time to spot a hazard and take evasive action. Or stop.

Take this foursome for instance. These are the Volvo drivers of the cycling world. They're all in their 40's - 50's, riding sensible bikes with helmets and hi-vis clothing. I saw them coming down the road behind me, and they rode sensibly on a major two lane arterial. Notice that they've pulled up at the lights behind a car, without snaking through the traffic to the front, and they've bunched up into a tight group.

I drove past them, and they also weren't going that fast. Like I said, Volvo drivers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is what I like to call the "monkey bikes". They can best be described as a 6 foot tall, 16 year old male on a bike built for a 5 year old. When they ride, their knees come up to their ears, they wobble madly from side to side and they never, ever have a helmet. Their bikes are also bereft of lights, bells, whistles and reflectors, and they tend to like wearing dark, hooded clothing at night, and listening to loud music on an iPod, thus ensuring that they never hear me coming up behind them and yelling "Get out of my way, you can of monkey sputum!"

I was too slow off the mark this morning when I saw one riding north on Kent St in the city. He had no helmet on, and he went through a series of 4 red lights as I watched from the safety of my car, shaking my head in bafflement at his stupidity. I will not weep if one of his ilk goes under a bus one day.

On the other hand, if someone like that flattened a pedestrian that was crossing with the green light, I'd throw the book at them. I'd throw the book at them for going through that many red lights in a row. There's just no excuse.

Then there are the lycra clad roadies - people like me (or people generally a lot thinner than me) who ride very expensive carbon fibre bikes at warp speed. I don't quite make it to warp 1, as the engines are a bit long in the tooth, but there is a long, flat and open bit of bike path around They Bay where I can wind it up to 50km/h and maintain that speed, pacing the cars on the road beside me that are stuck with a 50km/h speed limit. If there is a good tail wind, I can outrun them.

I can do that for about 1km, then my lungs tend to turn into sandpaper and I have to pull over and rest for an hour in the shade.

My point there is that bikes can go quite fast if necessary. I did a calculation once and found that at my weight and speed, if I hit a pedestrian at 40km/h, it would be the equivalent of the 119kg Jonah Lomu flattening Mike Catt at the 1995 Rugby world cup.


I think that would hurt. This is one reason why I get so annoyed at pedestrians who don't have the brains or courtesy to stay in the pedestrian lane when there is a bike path and pedestrian path side by side.

What I am trying to get at is that you have to ride to the conditions. When the road is wide open and free of pedestrians and obstructions and blind spots, open up the taps by all means and hit warp 10.

But there are other bike paths that I ride on where the path winds through the trees, where the path is too narrow for two fast moving bikes to pass safely, where there are many blind spots and sharp curves, and where the path goes past tennis courts and playgrounds and toilet blocks that block your view of oncoming traffic. I just know from experience that if you are going past a playground, there is a near certain chance that a kid will kick a ball across the path in front of you, and another young kid will chase it without looking. When I see kids, I slow down. I put on my sensible head, and pull the throttle way, way back. I'll slow down to the point where I am starting to wobble, and a jogger could pass me. I never, ever want to knock a kid down.

I even get right the way out of the way of little kids on bikes, because one was so dumbstruck at seeing me one day, he fell right off his bike, landed with a thud on the pavement and started howling. I had to stop and pick him up as his Mum was walking miles behind him.

Riding out of the city on Friday night also means taking it easy. The streets are full of pedestrians rushing for the bus or train, dashing across busy roads without so much as a glance at the traffic. Or idiot businessmen in suits with a Blackberry glued to one ear. Or drunken men in suits staggering out onto the road to flag down a taxi. You just have to take it easy. I'd love to be able to ride without holding the handlebars, so I could wield a foam light sabre double handed and whack all these silly bastards in the face as I went past, but I can't, so they will have to remain un-whacked, and I will have to continue to ride sedately until I am clear of the drunks, bus-rushers and blind Blackberry blatherers.

And yes, I have yelled the equivalent of "Move, because I'm not stopping", but only because I have had a mad bus driver or taxi or Subaru WRX up my arse, and I was not risking being cleaned up from behind because I had to make an emergency stop to avoid some idiot that crossed against the lights.

I think a lot of cyclists don't stop or slow down when they should because of the whole issue of momentum. Cycling can be all about momentum - at least once you start to get up to a certain level of speed. Getting up the next hill can be all about building as much momentum before you hit the slope. There is nothing worse than slogging up a hill at a steady pace and then having to brake for some reason - getting moving again can be agony. Most cyclists don't want to lose their momentum, so they keep going when they shouldn't, or they go faster than they should, given the conditions. I've certainly blasted down many a hill at 60km/h in order to have enough momentum to give me an easier climb up the next one. Or to give me so much momentum, I don't have to pedal at all for 500m once I hit the flat at the bottom of the hill.

However, I ride partly for fitness, and I long ago worked out that getting moving requires a lot of energy expenditure, so stopping at red lights and stop signs, and slowing down when things get risky, is a great way to burn more energy. I look upon the road rules as providing me with an excuse to do interval training. Once I made that psychological jump, obeying the rules became a snap. I am happy to dump all my momentum if it means obeying the law.

The thing is, most cyclists don't think that way. They want to get from A to B with the minimum level of effort, so they are manic about building and keeping momentum, which means doing stupid, stupid things all the time.

In the case of this cyclist killing the pedestrian, I would have ridden the route that the cyclist took and tried to determine his "momentum state". Fighter pilots would use the term "energy state" - trading height for speed etc. If he was cycling into a dip between two hills, and he hit the pedestrian on the downward slope or the flat bit, then he may well have decided to trade safety for energy. That is a concious choice that one makes, and that's why I'd charge him with manslaughter. As much as I like my momentum, hanging onto it does not justify hitting people, no matter how drunk and stupid they are.


kae said...

I know what you mean about your annoyance with riders who take terrible risks with the traffic, and then abuse someone who may do what they think is the wrong thing.

I have ridden a bike in Melbourne, along the Yarra. You had to share with pedestrians and you had to stop and dismount for things like, oh, flights of stairs and so on. A bit silly. It was just a leisurely ride.

I don't think there'd be any risk of me trying to keep up my momentum even then, and at my age and fitness level now, I'd be lucky to ride up my driveway without having an asthma attack, heart attack and whatever and dying!

Anonymous said...

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