Photo courtesy of Libby Telford
A BMW driver cruises along a scenic boulevard with his top down while enjoying the beaming sun on a warm beautiful summer afternoon.
Out of nowhere, an unrelenting squirrel dashes across the road only metres in front of the shiny black automobile. The driver puts his entire body mass into the brake pedal of his car – skidding to a halt mere inches from the terrified, frozen squirrel.
His heart pounding, he wipes the sweat from his forehead before proceeding on his way – relieved to know that the squirrel will live to see another day.
Minutes later, while the 3 lanes of eastbound traffic build up, the driver becomes anxious about reaching his destination. While driving along the right lane, the driver encounters a slow-moving cyclist.
Furious that the cyclist has the nerve to slow him down, he passes the cyclist while accelerating his car – brushing the side of the cyclist – before quickly slowing to a halt at the line-up of cars only 30 metres ahead.
“How dare he get in my way”, the driver ponders to himself, as the cyclist proceeds past the now stopped motorist – shaking his head in disappointment at the red faced driver of the BMW.
Why is it that our automobile society puts more value in the life of a squirrel than a human being?
They say in North America that running down a cyclist is the only legal form of murder, and in some ways this is true.
The now famous anti-cyclist, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser discussed this phenomenon with Lance Armstrong during their make-up session – one day after Kornheiser went on his rant about running down cyclists because he was angry about bike lanes being installed in Washington DC.
Kornheiser to Armstrong:
“You were saying to me that people will get behind a school bus, people will get behind a tractor, a hay tractor. People will get behind animals – in cars – and ‘wait forever’. But you sense an antagonism when they get around cyclists, and I guess I’m wondering – I mean you drive a car as well as ride a bike – why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know, I often times, I mean I’ve seen cars do all kinds of crazy things to avoid squirrels, and cats and dogs, and tractors, and horses and sheep and runners and everything else, but…
I’m not nearly smart enough to be able to figure out why it is that a single cyclist or two cyclists, or a group of cyclists even – even if they are 2 abreast or trying to stay out of the way – why that gets people so angry sometimes.”
There is some irony in that Kornheiser – the man who went on a raging rant about running down cyclists – has the audacity to ask Lance Armstrong why it is that drivers get so angry about cyclists.
But despite Kornheiser’s ignorance, Armstrong raises an important point. The person that Kornheiser is “tapping” as he passes in his automobile is a human being. It could be a child trying to get to school, or an elderly person cycling to the post office, or as Lance says, it could be a 40-year-old woman who recently started riding a bike.
So why is it that motorists get so angry?
There are dozens of arguments that motorists have about why cyclists shouldn’t be on the road – all of which are non sequitur. For example, roads aren’t built for bikes, cyclists don’t pay any taxes, cyclists aren’t insured and don’t pay license fees, cyclists don’t obey the traffic laws, etc, etc.
But these are just excuses or justifications for motorist anger – they don’t get to the root cause.
The real reason many motorists in North America have contempt for cyclists I think, is because they can’t identify themselves with cyclists – they couldn’t see themselves sitting on that bike seat.
They can relate to pedestrians because virtually all drivers end up walking on sidewalks periodically. They can relate to joggers because once upon a time they were perhaps joggers.
But so many people in North America have been ingrained in the auto-centric society for so long that they could never picture themselves getting around any other way than driving. It’s the North American way – you work hard, and you buy as much of an automobile as you can afford (or not afford) – to show your neighbours how successful you are (or aren’t).
Bikes are for socialists, hippies, and loony environmental types who are on a suicide mission – not for real middle class people.
Unfortunately, this is the result of decades of investment in our auto-centric culture.
With a growing desire to become less dependent on fossil fuels and a growing rate of obesity, this has to change. And it is changing as evidenced by the United States’ Department of Transportation’s recent declaration that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are equals.
As Lance points out in the interview, there needs to be mutual respect between motorists and cyclists:
“To your point of this interaction and this relationship between people on bikes and people in cars. It meets a wall sometimes, and I think that obviously that’s a relationship that has to co-exist now and forever because as I mentioned yesterday to you, we’re both going to be around forever. It’s one that is going to require mutual respect. “
Hopefully the day will come in North American when a passing cyclist will remind a motorist of his mother, or his daughter, or his brother or his nephew… or himself…
James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at email@example.com.
On a related note, I think Lance Armstrong could make a world of difference if he shifted his efforts toward promoting utility cycling.
- United States Moving Forward After Decades of Neglect (March 2010)
- Bike Lanes Become Election Issue (March 2010)
- Bike Lanes: A Motorist Invention? (Feb 2010)
- Cyclists Paving the Way for Ungrateful Drivers (Oct 2009)
Very interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me. I think “lack of empathy” is a pretty good bet. Just read a few comments on the various blogs/newspaper sites when anyone mentions the possibility of *gasp* biking to work. They bring out all the negatives, real and imagined, as to why they couldn’t possibly do it.
There’s likely another aspect as well to the rage: “They should know better!” A squirrel is perceived as unaware of the risk he is taking and the possibility. Meanwhile, we go out there aware of the risks and the delays we cause (both perceived as much higher by the driver) and still we petulantly “take the lane”. Not realizing why we’re doing it, the driver takes it personally.
One more point: that guy who braked for the squirrel? My caffeine-deprived brain can’t recall the technical term for it but often a little stop like that in busy traffic amplifies over time into those inexplicable slowdowns you see in rush hour.
Do you really believe the majority of drivers care a rat’s ass for the safety of squirrels, rabbits, racoons and other rodents?
The more likely reason that driver braked so hard? Because mashed squirrel meat makes a real mess of a clean engine bay. And fast-moving fragments of racoon rib-cage have been known to puncture gas tanks and brake lines ;0
Don’t give us drivers too much credit: Stay safe out there.
Kam: In my case when I drive it’s neither. I never gave any thought to what an animal could do (other than a skunk). And having on a couple occasions hit an armadillo (which sounds and feels like a rock – in their panic they will jump up as they go under the car sealing their fate) I can say that usually small animals do little to a car. I stop because my first reaction is “Oh no! Something just ran in front of me!” Pretty automatic, really.
So maybe it occurs to me that it might be as simple as this. Cars stop for things coming from the side because drivers don’t have a chance to quickly identify and assess what it might be they’re about to hit. A cyclist is in the road already and may stay there for a while, not moving out of the way giving time for folks to fume a bit…
Good points Todd, I’ve heard all the excuses from friends (I used to make excuses myself), but it’s a great feeling when a friend decides to start riding to work – they realize it isn’t so bad after all. It really clears your head and is sometimes the best part of my day.
Kam, good point that sometimes I give drivers too much credit 😛
Todd, keep in mind that Kam is a proud BMW owner. But I know Kam well enough to know that he isn’t your typical BMW owner. Plus if I recall correctly, his BMW is almost an antique now 😉
That’s funny, burned by my own stereotype, Of course I realize that we’re not *all* what we drive. My last car was a big (but older) Mercedes and I didn’t fit that stereotype at *all*. And I *really* don’t fit the stereotype of someone who might drive *this* car: http://imgur.com/BrsNF.jpg (come on, it was 20 years ago – I was young and foolish! 😉
lol, I was almost taken out by a lady who slammed on the brakes for a squirrel that stopped in her lane momentarily.
Problem was that everybody was tailgating and there was a cacophony of skidding tires with a car over shooting her car and sliding into the bike-lane.
Why do people invest so much in animal shelters when homeless are starving and dying of drug addictions… most people would secretly answer themselves: “because they choose, they deserve what they got.” This rationalization seems to ease people’s minds enough that they can feel comfortable shifting the responsibility on the victim of abuse(the cyclist in the case). You’d have a hard time trying to blame a squirrel.
Not to long ago I had to slam my brakes on because a squirrel jumped in front of me.
It’s not as if I was driving a car (no license, no interest), however I would feel pretty guilty if I ever ran over an animal.
At least here in St Catharines, judging by the amount of road kill I see daily, I don’t think motorists care all that much about animals either (or at least care if they hit them).
It’s a “me, me, me” attitude.