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The Blame Game - Putting Cyclists At Fault By Language and Design

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Reading the news of another cyclist killed or injured recently, the idea of blame started to take new shape. You’ve seen it, you’ve experienced it, and whether you’re a dedicated cyclist or someone who simply sees the bike as a way to get around when there’s time, you’ve maybe even been a victim of it. A driver runs a red light, rolls a stop, veers across the white line, causing the cyclist to avoid it, stop, or even fall. When all eyes turn, the car is gone, and somehow, the blame at least feels like it’s on the cyclist. 

There’s a reason for that, but it’s not the reason you think. We’ve been coached for decades that cyclists are at fault for simply existing. It’s a bias that’s been persistent since the earliest days of roadways. Any ‘other’ type of road user beside the motor car was, by default, out of place. The logic was short-sighted; roads exists for cars, so anything else is a fish out of water. 

That thinking ignores some rather obvious facts, perhaps the most basic being that roads pre-dated motor vehicles by thousands of years. Roads existed as a sort of public common ever since man, needing to get from point A to point B, decided there was a more efficient way to get around than bushwhacking through the forest, traverse mountain passes, or wandering lost when a simple marked path would sold navigational issues. 

A look at how we talk about cycling crashes illustrates how drivers repeatedly get the benefit of the doubt. In 80% of 200 stories studied, the article used passive language and reference a vehicle, not a person, hitting the cyclist. Few, it seems, indicated any aspect of inherently dangerous design or infrastructure, aspects of urban communities that have been stripped of anything that doesn’t enable motor vehicles to move faster and faster.

It has really only been in the last century that roadways of all sizes and especially those in urban centers have been dehumanized. Instead of serving as a public space for all to move themselves and move goods, they’ve been structured to move cars, and almost exclusively cars. City and road design has been good at one thing and one thing only since the 1950s, and that’s to get as many cars as possible through a space as quickly as possible. In many cities, even public transit like subways and buses were left out; anyone who has seen a large city bus crammed into a stop near a busy intersection can see that moving one car with perhaps just one person fares better in these spaces than something that can move a whole lot more people. 

Only recently have cities worked to incorporate divided or protected bike lanes, marked intersections and even cycling and pedestrian-specific signals. In theory, these have helped to put non-motorized road users on more level terms with motorists. And yet that sense of blame remains. In accident reports and newspaper articles, terms like ‘the cyclist was struck’, or, the ‘driver didn’t see’ are almost universal. They paint the cyclist not as a person but as an obstacle that drivers contend with, no different from medians or other parked cars. 

There might be no better place to look at this behavior than New York City. This year, NYC has had more cyclists killed that in all of 2018, and we’re just over halfway through the year. And it’s important to point out, again, that cyclists aren’t the only one in danger. The sheer volume of cars in the city put any other sort of potential transportation at risk, from pedestrians to scooters. 

Maybe part of the blame game comes in the consequences of drivers that hurt or kill cyclists. To the observer, seeing a driver walk away from a crash where they’ve done serious harm to another person without being arrested, tried, or at least held responsible insinuates that they aren’t the party in the wrong, and so, the cyclist must have been. That’s a cruel position to put the aggrieved party in by default, but it’s what we see time and time again. 

Again, New York City serves as the perfect example. According to the New York Times, “Of the 18 fatalities this year, arrests have been made in two cases (though in six or so instances cyclists either disobeyed or failed to pay attention to traffic signals). Even when a cyclist was killed by a driver who was exceeding the speed limit by 12 miles an hour in Brooklyn in May, the driver was merely given a summons.” 

In essence, New York and the entire country have decided to put the car higher up the priority list than people. It has designed an entire society around the idea that a hunk of steel powered by fossil fuel deserves primacy. The reason cyclist and pedestrians die, and get blamed for being a nuisance, is that drivers see their very presence as a challenge to that primacy. Until we act to reshape our communities, we won’t change the road-way hierarchy, and that change won’t come until we shift the blame from the victims to the real dangers of the road.