Juggling Chainsaws Is No ‘Accident’


Background Reading

In his article “No Accident” Aaron Naparstek writes:

Words are powerful. They shape the way we see the world around us. As a recent study by Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shows, small changes in language can have a profound impact on how we conceptualize and act on public policy issues. Boroditsky presented two separate groups with nearly identical paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city. For one group, the story started: “Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison.” The other group’s story began: “Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.” For both groups the story continued with an identical set of alarming statistics. After they read the paragraph, Boroditsky asked her subjects what the police should do about Addison’s crime wave.

Participants who read the “beast” story overwhelmingly called for more police enforcement. They wanted criminals to be captured and punished. Participants who read the “virus” story leaned toward social reform. They tended to want police to investigate the root causes of the crime to stop its spread. Changing just a single word, Boroditsky found, “can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make ‘well-informed’ decisions.” When the study’s 485 participants were asked to highlight what they thought was the most influential part of the text, almost everyone insisted that they had been persuaded by the statistics. The influence of the beast and virus metaphors, Boroditsky concluded, is “covert.” People often don’t recognize when they are being swayed by a specific choice of words.

I re-read the words above after having read these in a thread on the ChainLink Forum:

Cyclist doored, struck has fractured skull and 23 broken ribs but is OK; hit-and-run driver still at large

Posted by John Greenfield on February 14, 2013 at 10:37am

Milwaukee Avenue Rider © John Greenfield

Milwaukee Avenue Rider
© John Greenfield

It was a perfect storm of factors that are all too common when Chicago bicyclists are injured or killed by cars. Dustin Valenta, 27, a delivery biker, yoga teacher and actor was commuting in Wicker Park when a driver opened her door on him, throwing him into traffic. As he lay in the road, another motorist stuck him and then fled the scene.

Valenta suffered a fractured skull, broken pelvis, 23 cracked ribs and a punctured lung but he miraculously survived and is currently alert and in good spirits. The question remains: why would a driver who accidentally struck someone already lying in the road not stop to give aid? Valenta’s family is currently working to bring the hit-and-run motorist to justice: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/02/14/cyclist-doored-then-struck-hit-and-run-driver-still-at-large/

Friends have set up donation sites to help cover medical expenses for Valenta, who is uninsured, at Go Fund Me and Give Forward. Cut Cats Courier and Johnny Sprockets bike shop are organizing a benefit event for late February or early March, probably at Bangers and Lace tavern.

I have ridden Milwaukee Avenue towards Honore Street to the Native Foods Cafe in Wicker Park, many times. During the weekends the place is alive with pedestrian foot traffic that must bring a warm feeling to the hearts of merchants all along the stretch. Just north west of where the photo above was taken is the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, North Avenue and Damen Streets. Again a very lively corner just about any time of the day on nearly every day of the week, all year long.

What makes Milwaukee a bit of a “sticky wicket” is that it is too narrow for bikes to have a lane of their own on each side. Instead the two lanes in the center are Sharrow lanes. And of course there is parking on either side of the street. When I first started visiting Native Foods Cafe I would ride along Halsted Street to intersect with Milwaukee Avenue and take that up. The underpass just before this intersection is pretty gnarly and the overpass that crosses just before that is full of potholes and glass. So I decided to find another overland route.

It was then that I hit upon using Wood Street. It is quieter and frankly more scenic. At the very last bit of Wood Street you have a bit of a dogleg and then it crosses under the elevated train tracks and then crosses Milwaukee Avenue. I remember watching a fellow on a fixie showing his girlfriend how good he was becoming at perfecting his “hockey stop” on that bike.

He was standing and talking with her as we rounded the corner following Woods to Milwaukee. I thought that anyone who could do that had to have a great deal of courage and a fair amount of thrill seeking nature to even try. Maybe he was the fellow who on a ride led by Kathy Schubert had performed just this maneuver as we were heading over to the Chicago Lakefront Trail while waiting for the light to change. The rider came up and popped a “hockey stop” and those who witnessed it must have been somewhat impressed. I was.

But juggling chainsaws brings on the same feeling of alternating horror and excitement. It must be what keeps NASCAR fans coming back weekend after weekend, year after year. You really hate to see someone get hurt but you have a secret urge to see a crash (from which everyone walks away). But like the two brothers who within a half hour of one another dumped their snowmobiles on ESPN everyone who was there that day is drawn to the X Games because of the possibility of danger. I think in fact that folks who ride fixies on Milwaukee Avenue are at some level thrill seekers as well.

The Words Used Do Count

The Dreaded "Door Zone" (In Red) © Boston Biker

The Dreaded “Door Zone” (In Red)
© Boston Biker

Cyclists are more than forgiving of their own kind. We bend over backwards to never criticize a fallen or injured comrade. I am never quite certain whether this is because we are uncertain of the “karma” that might accrue to us for speaking ill of someone who has undergone trauma or whether we are simply “willfully ignorant” of our behavior. I think it is a bit of both.

To borrow from the gun lobby “Guns don’t kill, people do“. The fact is that “Cars don’t injure or kill, drivers do“. The distinction is important. The onus is on the driver if he fails to drive at a speed consistent with the road conditions and is unable to brake in time to avoid a collision. And usually tickets are handed out to drivers on that basis.

When a cyclist is avoiding a collision with a door we should not describe the situation “throwing him into traffic“. That would imply that he was either on the sidewalk and suddenly bounced out into the street. What happened to our Milwaukee Avenue rider is that he was already in traffic and was riding in the “Door Zone”.

We know that he was riding in that area because as the writer says someone step out of their car and he either collided or attempted to avoid the collision by moving to his left. The conventional wisdom is to “take the lane” on streets like Milwaukee. And as the Boston Biker notes riders will often complain:

“But how can being over on the left hand side with the moving cars be safer than over on the right near the parked cars, surely moving cars are more dangerous than parked ones!”

The complaint has some basis in fact, but is obviously what gets riders who hug the car doors in trouble.

There are really only two ways to deal with this problem:

  1. “Take the Lane” and ride away from the “Door Zone” and maintain your speed or…
  2. Slow down enough so as to allow yourself enough braking distance to stop, while keeping a close watch on all drivers seats to note whether a person is likely to suddenly exit.

When the campaigns against what is commonly referred to as “Dooring” took place in New York City it was largely a reaction to passengers who would enter and exit taxicabs which were not parked but rather out in the street. But then again if you were a cyclist who routinely rode between cars this could be a deadly problem. The trick in those situations is to stay behind the vehicle in front of you (just as any automobile would have to do) and you cannot get doored.

Lastly there is the question of how someone flees the scene without stopping to give assistance. Tragically it has happened more than once and made the newspapers. One high profile situation involved the sister-in-law of a prominent Harvard Law School professor. A woman was in a protected bike lane and was trapped under a turning truck and crushed to death.

TakeAways On Lane Designs

Quote by Abraham Lincoln

Quote by Abraham Lincoln

“Shoehorning” in lanes is all the rage at the moment. Everybody wants to be seen as having taken the steps to increase their bicycle infrastructure. Some streets are just too damn narrow to offer very safe passage for bikers who refuse to “take the lane“. Tragically most riders from my generation were raised on the teachings found in the book Effective Cycling by John Forester. Taking the lane is one of the key strategies taught in that book.

We have lost a great deal of our knowledge of how to function in situations where protected lanes are not available. And whether we like to admit it or not riders hug the “Door Zone” because they feel safer and less threatened by asshole drivers who are impatient and entitled and severely in need of having an NRA member on a bicycle administer a bit of street justice.

But since most cyclists are more likely to keep their heads down and pedal all the faster we see folks end up mangled or worse.

But let me take a moment to climb on my “high horse” yet again about “fixies“. Like the two brothers who were injured in the X Games you have the right to take risks. What you do not have the right to do is expect me to be supportive of that risk taking.

I will call you out in a heartbeat when you do something silly as was written about on StreetsBlog by Morales. We cannot claim the high moral ground if we do silly stuff. How the heck do you make the case for protected bike lanes and claim that the data show them to be safe when we have riders actively proving the contrary each and every day?

If you are on a fixie you have just a few options. You can either slow down and do a soft pedal until you get past the parked cars, or you can ride further to the left to avoid the door zone. If you insist on being on a fixed gear bike with no brakes, fine. But at some point you need to reconsider your method of travel. A busy city street is not the best place to practice your X Games riding style.

And should you be forced to “lay the bike down” to avoid the door collision please be aware that you are likely to be involving someone else in your folly because now you are likely to get run over and perhaps the driver never senses what they have done. Check out the article above if you want to see what I mean. Cars and especially trucks are these days such lumbering behemoths that a human body being crushed is barely distinguishable from a pothole or speed bump.

Be safe out there. And you folks who are writing about these collisions. Please do not slant the story to keep the bicyclist blameless. If you should ever find out that a cyclist took chances with their lives report it honestly and compassionately but let the chips fall where they may.

One Additional Thread Entry On “Dooring”

Reply by Anne Alt 4 hours ago
Having been doored a few times over the years, I’ve found that there is no universal answer for all situations. The closest I could come is this.

  1. If at all possible to ride completely out of the door zone, DO IT!
  2. If you’re on a street like Lincoln where it’s usually a choice between riding in the door zone vs. drivers breathing down your neck if you take the lane, take the lane when possible and GO SLOW when the door one is your only option.
    If you’re going 10-12 mph vs. 15 or more, you’ll have more reaction time to avoid a crash. If you have a crash anyway, you’re likely to suffer less damage. The slower your speed, the lower the force of impact = less trauma to your body.
  3. Some factors will be beyond your control. The nature of the crash and extent of your injuries will vary quite a bit depending on whether the door opens in front of you or next to you, how high the door is relative to your riding position (low sports car may stop your bike but not you, while SUV may stop both), how fast you’re going, whether there’s a vehicle in the lane next to you when you get hit, etc. In other words, your mileage may vary.
  4. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you see a car parallel parking ahead or brake lights going off, you know that driver is likely to get out sometime soon. If you’re near a cab with a passenger, the passenger’s movements may give you advance warning that he/she will exit soon. When in doubt, slow down and/or stay further away from that vehicle.

I’ve been doored 3 times over the course of 20+ years and avoided hundreds more by looking, listening, braking and swerving. Again, your mileage may vary.