Thursday, November 10, 2011

Post-Idiot Stress Syndrome

We may not be able to prevent every fatality on our roads but we owe it to those who have died — and to each other — to do what we can to make our roads safer”.
Toronto Star op-ed article, August 28, 2011

Call me prejudiced. To me, a person who would get in his car, drive a few blocks, line up with other cars, and then remain seated behind the wheel to order, pay for, pick up and consume his breakfast would not seem like a big supporter of cycling in the city. I’ve often joked to myself that it can be dangerous to get between a McDonald’s customer and his Sausage McMuffin. This morning I did, and almost became a Sausage McMuffin myself.

I was riding to work, westbound in the bike lane on Cosburn. A car turning left very rapidly in front of me into the McDonald’s drive-through came within inches of knocking me down, hard. Did the driver later think later about the fact that he could have killed me? Or did he think: “stupid bikes; shouldn’t be on the goddamn road”?

I don’t think I am a stupid bike. I try to be a safe rider. I wear a helmet, signal my turns and use lots of bright lights at night. I actually come to a stop at stop signs. This last action causes some bemusement among drivers, who take it as an invitation to roll on through in front of me without stopping themselves. So what more can I do?

This section of Cosburn is a bit of a graveyard. There is always a crowd of vehicles trying to squeeze into the hopelessly un-supersized McDonald’s parking lot. The last thing any of the burger-for-breakfast club are looking out for is a bicycle, despite the fact that a painted bike lane runs right down the side of the road. Should I expect less from the drive-through demographic then?

The frightening thing is that this morning’s scare was only one of many such near misses, and every cyclist has a compendium of similar there-I-wuz stories. (As I write this, a driver has been charged with driving up onto the sidewalk and knocking a woman off her bike with his car following an altercation, then fleeing the scene.)

What defense do we have against this? Almost daily I have to take some kind of evasive action to escape a sloppy or selfish driver while I’m riding to work. The other day I was cut off by a car making a last-minute unannounced exit off the Bloor Viaduct towards the Don Valley Parkway. His car sported a bumper sticker reading “Jesus is the Answer”. No, I thought, signalling your turns is the answer.

I can testify that nearly being run over, even if it happens often, is not something you get used to.

A female cyclist was killed the other day by a right-turning truck. Although there is no way to know if this particular accident could have been avoided, what I do know is that the circumstances of her tragic death lessen the value of living in this city. To borrow from John Donne, the death of anyone on our streets diminishes us all.

Bike lanes are not the answer; side guards on trucks are not the answer; pitched war between cyclists and motorists is definitely not the answer. Awareness and enlightenment might be the beginning to an answer, and sadly I suspect that neither of these things will happen here any time soon. Our mayor has implied that we cyclists – along with streetcars and other forms of above ground transit - are part of some perversely imagined ‘war on the car’, which he pledged to end when he took office. He was elected by a landslide.

Mayor McCheese and his Sausage McMuffin Brigade have won this battle for now; I am weary of the stress. After this week, my commuting bike is going away for the winter. Even though the roads are still clear and there is plenty of autumn riding left to do, it is getting too dark and cold and mean out there.