Saturday, September 3, 2011

You're in Trouble, Little Girl!!! (a follow-up and a bigger perspective)

In my last post, I brought up a case that's been receiving some national attention involving a young girl riding her bike to school. I posted a link to my entry on Facebook and a somewhat lively, though civil, discussion ensued in the comments to that post with a good friend of mine, who is from east Tennessee herself. 

I thought it brought out some interesting additional information, so I thought I'd share some of that here in the interest of fairness and a more complete view of the story. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about this case. What follows are mine.

Before we move on, though, let me make clear I'm not out to get east Tennessee by pointing out this story. I have known some lovely people from those parts over the years. If this had happened in California, my comment would have read "messed up situation in California." So to all my friends from Tennessee, I still love you.

I found this local news piece that provides a little more backstory. With this additional context, this situation makes a little more sense, but only a little.

No one, even the police officer who took the girl home, has made any contention that city ordinance was violated. It all relies on the judgment of an officer. And I am very reluctant to just take that judgment at face value without at least questioning the facts a little. I have no doubt that the officer's intentions were good and his interests were for the girl's safety, probably much in the same way that I've heard of cyclists in Alexandria (and other jurisdictions) being told by law enforcement they need to ride on the sidewalk to be safe, even if said sidewalk cycling is a violation of city law.

I'll assume the fact that no one is alleging a violation of the law includes the passing maneuver made the first day. The officer had stopped his car and put it in park behind a stopped school bus. If the bus was stopped long enough to make a police officer put his cruiser in park, I assume the bus was stopped with its flashers on. School buses don't generally stop in random places along the road for that long for purpose that wouldn't entail putting out the stop sign. If the bus was stopped and there is no median, this means that all oncoming traffic should also have been stopped. To me, this means that the car that "stop[ped] to avoid running her over" wasn't really stopping for the girl on the bike, it was stopping for the stopped school bus, or at least should have been.

From the news story:
The next day, the officer saw that girl again.

BAILEY: "He sees the child crest the hill, she starts over the top of the hill on Cedar Avenue, a car comes from behind her and has to swerve over."

Bailey says this time the officer stopped the child, put her inside his cruiser, and drove her home.
Again, no one should have had to swerve to avoid this girl traveling with traffic. A speed limit is not an absolute number. Because a road is posted for a certain speed limit road doesn't mean you're legally required to maintain that speed. With some exceptions on interstate highways a speed limit is a maximum speed limit, not a minimum. If a driver can't see around a corner or over the crest of a hill well enough to slow down for and safely navigate around a slower vehicle or debris, including a bike, a tractor, a fallen tree, or a deer just to name a few, (s)he should probably not be going that fast to begin with. Just as a driver should slow down and exercise caution when ability to see up the road is limited by fog or other inclement weather. So, in this case, the driver who swerved was likely either driving while distracted or simply going too fast. There is no other explanation for having to swerve.

To the extent that any of the facts in this story demonstrate poor cycling practices on the part of the young girl, this story demonstrates the need for better education in school about how to properly ride a bike. Drivers education is offered in high school. Presumably, any manner of look both ways before you cross the street kind of messages are delivered in elementary school health and safety curricula, even if Eric Cantor wants that stripped from the budget (hyperbole but probably not far off the mark). So, why not incorporate proper cycling safety education into elementary school safety curricula too? (And by proper I mean developed by law enforcement AND the relevant state/local cycling advocacy organizations). This is common practice in other countries where cycling is widely regarded and accepted as a legitimate and safe road use.

Such education could be combined with a public information campaign to educate motorists about the rights of cyclists on the road. Such efforts would go a long way towards helping motorists and  students (in all likelihood future motorists themselves and hopefully future cyclists as well) to understand that cycling is a legitimate road use. It would make incidents like I had the other day near my apartment less likely. In that incident, a driver came up behind me on a street marked with sharrows, which should make my right to be on the road as broad as daylight. Instead he honked his horn angrily and passed me way too close for comfort. He did all this only to have to slam on his brakes for a red light just up the road. At the light he rolls down his window and yells at me "You're not supposed to be on the road! Get on the sidewalk!" This is not the first time I've had this happen. And again, all of this in a city where sidewalk cycling is a violation of city law.

The facts pointed out in the news story go to show that there is more to a story than catchy headlines. I have devoted several paragraphs here to interpreting this particular news story as I see it. I'm sure others will see the facts differently. Cases like this should help us to have a civil, rational public discourse about road safety in general. That's not always what happens. Sadly, things being what they are, this often devolves into cyclist vs. motorist mudslinging. (When that happens, naturally I sling mud from the cyclist side of the battlefield).

But for me another important part of the "more to the story than the catchy headline" of this incident lies is a much bigger and more deeply rooted issue facing our society. It's about the underlying social and physical infrastructure that has developed in our country as a result of favoring individual motorized transport to the detriment of public transportation, cycling, and walking. It's about the myriad of skewed zoning and fiscal policies that have been around for decades which have given us sprawl, environmental damage, and over-reliance on fossil fuels. It's about communities where it is difficult, if not downright dangerous, for someone to get around by any means besides a car. And that, in my opinion, is wrong. And that's part of why I think urban planning and advocacy issues will be an important staple of this blog and why I hope to eventually try to start reversing some of these huge problems that we've created for ourselves in work as a practicing planner or smart growth advocate.

Until then, ride safe, walk safe, drive safe, and be good to your fellow man (or woman) and have a happy holiday weekend!