“Cars” Versus “People”

A recent article in the New York Times covered the closure of the Third Street entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Apparently, some motorists are inching around the barriers and driving through the park, ignoring the “Do Not Enter Except Bikes” signs prominently displayed at the entrance. This is not so surprising, and on its own wasn’t worthy of a blog post, but I couldn’t help but notice the language used by Seth Solomonow, the city Department of Transportation spokesman who was quoted for the article. He said, “The idea is to reduce the spots where cars conflict with people.”

The concept is great, and I support closing roads to automobiles where it’s appropriate, but I’m sorry, cars don’t conflict with people; motorists conflict with other road users. Without a driver, a car doesn’t do anything. This kind of language, whether spoken subconsciously or purposefully, moves responsibility away from the vehicle operator and places it on an inanimate object (the car).

Some will say that I’m picking nits, and I’ll admit that I may be over-sensitized to this issue, but this sort of bias is so widespread that it astonishes me. Start looking for it and you’ll be amazed by how often it turns up. We bicyclists do ourselves a favor by being aware of it and pointing it out whenever language of this sort shows up in the mainstream press.

For more on the pro-motorist/anti-bicyclist bias, check out Bob Mionske’s article linked below.

Bob Mionske on Anti-Cyclist Bias
Read the Article in the NYT

30 Responses to ““Cars” Versus “People””

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Hey Alan:

    Tom Vanderbilt (www.howwedrive.com) is all over the passive voice when it comes to traffic reporting, as in “the car crossed the centerline and collided with a minivan heading north….”

    Everyone knows that motorized vehicles have no volition of their own, but the message still seems to be that innocent captives (many of them intoxicated or half-asleep) were taken advantage of by these malevolent machines.

    Another point of view might be that traffic accidents are Acts of God. We have to have cars. Cars sometimes go astray. People get hurt. But it’s nobody’s fault. Nothing we can really do about it.

    Taken either way, it’s a distortion of the English language.

    … Nate (Salt Lake City)

  • ksteinhoff says:

    Alan,

    Words ARE important. I’d like to see the word “accident” removed from reporting. There are other neutral words that can be used like “crash” or “collision.”

    Accident implies that it was nobody’s fault.

    If I drink and drive, it’s not an accident. If I reach down to change radio stations, it’s not an accident. If I’m going too fast for conditions, it’s not an accident. If I run a red light, it’s not an accident. If I’m texting or gabbing on the cellphone, it’s not an accident.

    If I’m on a bike riding the wrong way without lights while wearing dark clothing and blowing stop signs, it’s not an accident.

    Most “accidents” aren’t intentional, but there IS likely a contributing cause to them and it’s usually the proverbial nut behind the wheel / handlebars. The term “accident” implies that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the occurrence, which is rarely the case.

    I won’t say that there are NO accidents. If you are driving the posted speed limit and doing all the driving things you’re supposed to when a three-year-old breaks away and dashes out from between two parked cars, I’d categorize that as an unavoidable accident.

    If, on the other hand, you’re doing 55mph through a school zone when classes dismiss, it’s not an accident.

  • todd says:

    I don’t read it as pro-motorist, at least not in a polemical or apologetic sense. I do think it reveals the depth of identification people have with their industrial exoskeletons, though. A few times on the road I have been upbraided by “cars” through their enstrapped consumatrons “You’re not a car!” or “Do you think you’re a car?” and the like.

  • Alan says:

    @ken

    I 100% agree with you.

    There is one circumstance where a collision is frequently classified as an “accident”: when a “car” kills a bicyclist.

  • Alan says:

    @Nate

    Good stuff; thanks for that.

    Have you read Vanderbilt’s book? If not, you’d enjoy it. Ironically, I listened to it on my iPod while riding back-and-forth to work on public transit. :-)

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @todd

    I agree, the article in general, and the statement specifically, is only subtly pro-motorist, but sometimes those subtle biases are the most insidious and difficult to ferret out.

    Alan

    PS – love it: “industrial exoskeletons” :-)

  • Wind Farmer says:

    Not that it is appropriate or even relevant but this post calls to mind the concept of what is responsible the machine or the man. It reminds me of the long-standing argument of guns kill/people kill.

    The correlations between them are astounding: both are machine of convenience and there is reasonable evidence that if neither were invented the world may be a better place.

    The real issue is that if we as a community start to fight the subtext battle, fight the subconscious mindset of the commuting public directly, we may become exhausted with the effort and alienate more than we convert. While it is good to be conscious of the subtext, it is more powerful to consistently use the terminology that forwards the view of people in motor vehicles vs. people who are not and not take out our aggression on the words of others who are not as conscious as we are of the sub meaning of their statements.

  • ksteinhoff says:

    When I was just a high school kid, I worked as a reporter/photographer for a couple of smalltown papers.

    One of them had a copy editor who could find a mistake in anything anyone on the staff could write, but he had a thing about not talking. He’d sidle over to your desk with your copy in his hand and drop it like something a dog had deposited on his porch.

    Attached to it would be a pithy question or comment. (Never a compliment, because good work is what you got paid for.)

    The staff would collect some of his better efforts and tack them on the bulletin board.

    One I’ll never forget (and it’s been at least 42 years), read, “Cape Girardeans, alas, do not hit each other in the rear.”

    He must not have known my mother, who was known to send us boys out to cut a switch from time to time, but I never used that phrase in a crash report after that.

  • Robert Frith says:

    One could abstract the whole thing by talking about shoes and bikes.
    “An unobservant car killed a bike” “Some shoes were injured today after colliding with a bus”
    Ghost bikes do this to some extent.
    In the end while it may serve to illuminate the semantics the fact is accidents, crashes, collisions are all caused by human error. Our five year old is well versed in the use of the phrase “it was just an accident!” We have become well versed in the use of the phrase “accident happen when people aren’t being careful / are tired and need some sleep”
    Rob

  • RJ says:

    A very good catch; I’m with you on that.

  • Lush says:

    Before I comment I should say that I’m pro-bike (to a point). Here in Boulder, Colorado we have a HUGE problem with bicyclists that are obnoxious and constantly flaunt rules and behave not only badly, but obliviously to anyone else. Examples include moving from bike land to sidewalk to crosswalk (against a Do Not Walk) and then back into traffic/bike lane. They also rarely EVER stop at a stop sign and blow red lights constantly. They whiz past pedestrians on paths and sidewalks. They use PEDESTRIAN crossings without dismounting their bikes. Basically, they obey no rules but their own.

    Having said all that I’m currently selling my Cannondale Prophet for a pre-ordered Civia Loring (black) because I want to enjoy commutes and jaunts to the grocery store with my wife and kids. I love biking, but I’d be ashamed to be counted among the “regular” crowd here in Boulder. They are, by and large, a mess.

    So, in response to your article, I’m not anti-cyclist and I’m not pro-car necessarily (although drivers around here are atrocious as well). What I mainly want to point out is that at least here in Boulder, cyclists have a very bad name (other than in their own circles) and I just wish we could get back to a time of common sense, common decency and simply treating each other with respect. I always try to give room to the cyclists when I’m driving but they make it very hard not to be upset with how they behave and how they endanger everyone – drivers, other cyclists, and pedestrians.

    That said, I’m looking forward to my new Civia next month.

  • Lush says:

    And PS – I know my comment probably sounds like a generalization to some degree and I realize that it’s easier to notice the bad behavior than the normative, but geez, there sure are a lot of terrible bicyclists in this town.

  • Alan says:

    @Lush

    We have plenty of terrible motorists in my neck of the woods. Just last evening a teenager in a Scion tore through our neighborhood at 40-50 mph (a 25 mph zone), slid into a side street, spun a donut and tore back out of the neighborhood at high speed. I was going to throw a brick but my wife stopped me. And get this – the car had no license plates. This all in a neighborhood with lots of young children out playing and riding their bikes and an elementary school one block down the road. The difference between “bad” bicyclists and “bad” motorists is that bicyclists are only likely to get themselves killed; bad motorists are also risking the lives of everyone in their vicinity.

    Alan

  • Lush says:

    Alan, I agree fully. We have lots of bad motorists around here though. However, in 12 years of living in Boulder I’ve witnessed three very bad accidents (two resulted in fatalities) where a cyclist flaunted a rule and people were forced to swerve to miss them and ended up hitting other cars or in one case a pedestrian. Cars are deadly with bad drivers behind the wheel, no doubt. But cyclists who run stop signs can kill just as easily. They are just as much of a menace.

  • Alan says:

    “Cars are deadly with bad drivers behind the wheel, no doubt. But cyclists who run stop signs can kill just as easily. They are just as much of a menace.”

    The statistics (and common sense) don’t support this statement.

  • Lush says:

    Statistics can be wrong. Studies can change. And the fatalities that I’ve witnessed that were caused by cyclists were real. I treated one of those who lost their life myself.

    So, the next time a cyclist blows through a stop sign they should ask if it’s worth the cost of not seeing a driver coming over a hill which ends up swerving to miss them and ends up killing an 8 year old girl. That’s a real statistic for you.

    And by the way, the cyclist never stopped and because he had no license plate on his bike (as they’re not required) nothing was ever done to him.

    All I’m saying is that cyclists aren’t always saints. If they break traffic laws by failing to yield, failing to stop or by moving from bike lane to sidewalk to pedestrian lane and back to bike lane then they are just as guilty of being the bad guy. When I ride I always obey traffic laws. That means stopping at a stop sign, just as if I were driving. I just want to see more well-behaved cyclists AND drivers.

  • Alan says:

    I’m sure the collisions you witnessed were quite upsetting and I’m sorry you had to go through that.

    I fully agree with you; bicyclists, like motorists, should behave responsibly and courteously, and obey all traffic laws.

    The difference between bicycling and driving an automobile is that the average weight of a bicycle and rider is 200 lbs. with a maximum speed of 20-25 mph on level ground. The average weight of a car/SUV is pushing 4000 lbs. with a maximum speed of over 100 mph. With that power and weight comes much more potential for harm and a greater responsibility; that’s why we require driver’s licenses for cars and we don’t allow young children to operate motor vehicles.

  • Lush says:

    Alan, I think we have an agreement then. Drivers and cyclists need to be aware of each other and of their own unique responsibilities and issues. And ultimately we should treat each other as we ourselves wish to be treated.

  • Alan says:

    “Alan, I think we have an agreement then.”

    Agreed… ;-)

  • Duncan Watson says:

    They use PEDESTRIAN crossings without dismounting their bikes. This is not illegal. In fact ped crossings are often part of bicycle city planning for difficult intersections. Crossing a street on the right, then switching to the ped crossing queue for the cross street is a recommended technique for making left turns in multi-lane situations.

    Motorists rarely stop at stop signs, Motorists will often run a so-called “orange” light. Motorist speed constantly, the typical motorist views the speed limit as the minimum speed, not the max. Motorists rarely stop at crosswalks with pedestrains them. Every crosswalk I try to cross has 1-3 motorists zoom by before someone comes to a stop, allowing me to cross.

    The force imparted by a car->pedestrian collision is 100 times greater than that of a bike->pedestrian collision on average. Sure a bike can injure someone, no denying that, but a car will kill. In NYC they did a study (not sourced) and there were many times more car->ped collisions on the sidewalk than bike-> ped collisions on the sidewalk. I will try and dig that study up.

  • Adrienne says:

    Alan,
    I am with you about language. It is very subtle. It is also a way of passing responsibility off to someone/thing else. When we talk about machines, we don’t talk about people. The machines are nothing without the people who make and use them.

    Isn’t it funny that we will hold a door for someone else, even when we are in a hurry but allowing ‘car’ to pass, or waiting to make a right turn to allow safe passage of a ‘bike’ becomes too much? When the machine becomes the focus, this is what happens.

    Granted, this is anecdotal, but when my son is on the back of my bike, I get treated better by those who are driving around me. Why? Because my child reminds them that we are people not machines.

  • Alan says:

    Adrienne,

    Your description about how you’re treated differently when your son is on the back of the bike is not surprising. I think status/class at times plays a roll as well. During the pedestrian portion of my commute, I’ve noticed a very distinct difference in how motorists treat me at intersections and crosswalks based upon how I’m dressed. When I’m dressed in business attire, motorists are the most polite and almost always give me a nod at crosswalks. On the other hand, if it’s hot out and I’ve changed into shorts and a t-shirt, I’m much more likely to be ignored and made to wait. I have to wonder how this plays into how bicyclists are treated; are we given more respect on the road when we ride in business attire?

  • Lush says:

    Duncan, from what I can tell (after reading our local rulings on pedestrian crossings and speaking to a number of police officers regarding the issue), it is my understanding that cyclists should dismount and walk their bike through a ped crossing. At least that’s what is supposed to happen here in Boulder.

    And regarding cars stopping for pedestrians we’re particularly fortunate here as most do without fail. You’re right that many cars will only slow down or blow through a stop sign. It’s just that I see cyclists doing it routinely. And any time I bring it up with any cyclists I know they tend to blow it off as “no big deal.”

    And yes, I think the fact has been well established that cars are heavier and faster and more deadly than bikes. I just dislike seeing cars/drivers demonized when bikes/cyclists can have their own negative impact which leads to injury and death.

  • Alan says:

    Lush,

    I think, at least partially, the reason behind our differing perceptions has to do with where we live. I’m only guessing, but my impression is that Boulder is a mountain biking town that has a young, somewhat dare-devilish biking demographic. There have been other commenters on this site who live in college towns and are also frustrated with the young, reckless bicyclists in their area.

    I don’t live in a college town or a biking mecca; around here it’s mostly lots of younger kids, a handful of bike club road riders, and a few odd birds like me. For the most part, the bicyclists I encounter are obeying the law, and if they aren’t it’s often out of ignorance, not a disdain for traffic laws.

    Alan

  • Lush says:

    Alan, excellent point. I think you’ve struck the real issue (at least with regard to our situation here in Boulder).

  • Duncan Watson says:

    It may be one of those things like sidewalk riding that are very regional, but King County, WA where I live, directs at least one major bike trail through 4 pedestrian crossings here. It is also part of the design books for many traffic planners. Portland Trimet actually has diagrams of cyclists using ped crossings near one of their transit malls to avoid the issues of crossing the tracks unsafely.

    I am extremely reluctant to trust a police officers idea on what is legal. The track record of police officers on bicycle laws is extremely poor.

    I am personally on the opposite side, I hate seeing cyclists demonized when the impact of motor vehicles and their drivers is so much larger. The impact of motor vehicles on health, the environment, regarding law observance and the dangers of crashes as well as the incidence of crashes are so much greater than that of cycling that it is hard to compare them.

    The human mind loves to find patterns, it is prone to generalizing from very small data sets due to this proclivity. Unfortunately it sometimes is hard to show how different the risks of riding a bike are from driving a car due to this desire to find patterns and similarities.

  • Lush says:

    Duncan, I agree with you on all counts – particularly the pattern finding. Again, all in all I think cyclists and drivers, all of us, just need to treat each other as we’d want to be treated.

    Nice discussing this with you all.

  • Eric says:

    At least it is cars conflicting with people and not the other way around,

  • Adrienne says:

    Alan,
    A rider’s appearance makes a great deal of difference. I am not sure it is a class issue, at least not entirely. I think it comes from the fact that people really do want to do the right thing. When they see a woman with a child on a bike it reminds them of their manners, much like getting up to give a seat on the bus.

    I am convinced that if every bike group out there targeted Moms and got them riding with their kids, everything else would fall into place.

  • ratrod says:

    I never think that, cars to run but people to walk,so how people living later without cars?

 
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