|Washington, DC: provincial to me|
- but full of cycling savages according to one Facebook user
During a visit last week, it nevertheless occurred what an advantage it was that
Washington seemed a far
calmer place than New York
to ride a bike. The cyclists I saw during the visit mostly seemed to be riding
sedately, calmly and in general harmony with other road users around them.
This was, however, entirely the wrong conclusion, according to at least one person I know. On Friday evening, two days after I came back from my DC daytrip, a Facebook friend commented on a story about an altercation between a cyclist and a motorist in North-West Washington the night I visited. The motorist appears to have somehow alarmed the cyclist, who responded by hitting the driver’s car with his D-Lock. The ensuing argument ended with the cyclist stabbing the motorist, who suffered rib injuries but looks likely to survive.
“Savages,” my Facebook friend commented. “Civility is an alien concept,” someone else replied in agreement. The clear implication was that I, as a cyclist, was complicit in an appalling, entirely unjustified assault of a kind I would never have contemplated.
My immediate instinct was to launch into an argument, pointing out the fatuousness of jumping from a single, knife-wielding cyclist to the implied generalisation – all cyclists are savages. Concluding that I was unlikely to change clearly entrenched attitudes, I limited myself to “unfriending” the person responsible.
But, as I cycled home that evening, a more mature reflection occurred to me – one sparked in part by the controversy in the
UK over the inflammatory “War on Britain’s
Roads” documentary. If it made no sense to draw a conclusion from a single
stabbing - or the misleading footage of an alleycat race in the documentary - to cyclists’ general behaviour, why did I
feel free to criticise in general the culture of driving or the police? Was I
making any more sense than my former Facebook friend?
One possible response to the “cyclists are savages” claim would, of course, have been to point to some of the numerous incidents of motorist-cyclist violence. In the space of a year of cycling in
London, I suffered one
actual – albeit mild – assault and had to make an emergency call to police to
avert another. The first incident involved a bus driver who abandoned his bus –
and passengers - to confront me because I’d photographed him blocking,
illegally, a cyclist-only area at traffic lights. He smashed the mobile ‘phone
I was using as a camera out of my hand. The second incident came as I tried to
photograph a motorist I’d previously seen deliberately drive across the path of
a cyclist who’d complained about his driving. He threatened – alarmingly
convincingly - to smash up both me and my camera.
The most pertinent case I could have raised, however, was the stabbing in September of Colin Albright, a cyclist in
Pittsburgh, whom a motorist pursued as he
carried his bike away from a road up a set of steps. The motorist stabbed
Albright repeatedly, including in the throat, possibly over some perceived
slight involving a traffic incident.
|You might have prejudices about people who make strange|
transport choices - like skateboarding down Sixth Avenue.
It doesn't mean you know anything about this individual skateboarder.
Albright’s case would have been pertinent precisely because it illustrates the absurdity of generalising from something extraordinarily rare – a stabbing over a disagreement on the roads – to the generality of day-by-day on-road relationships. In late October, Anthony Scholl confessed to attacking Albright. Scholl was already in custody over an alleged attempt to burn down his parents’ house. While there is little information so far on Scholl’s motive for stabbing Albright, the alleged arson attempt seems to have been aimed, in Scholl’s mind, at preventing his parents from killing him and feeding him to their (presumably imaginary) pet alligator. Albright’s stabbing also looks likely to have stemmed from what Scholl’s mother has called his “psychological issues”. It seems similarly unlikely that the appalling
Washington stabbing will turn out to involve
an ordinary, mentally-balanced cycle commuter who just happens to pack a knife
to mete out summary justice on uppity drivers.
That anyone could ever have thought the
Washington stabbing had anything to do with
broader cyclist behaviour, of course, stems from humans’ powerful desire to pin
blame for problems on out-groups. The only thing so far known about the Washington motorist’s
assailant is that he was on a means of transport against which large numbers of people have powerful prejudices. Few people have the mental self-discipline to
avoid working on the basis of such limited information and their prejudices to
jump to wholly unwarranted conclusions.
It’s telling, for example, that hardly anyone blames the antics of bank robbers’ getaway drivers purely on their being drivers. Drivers are too numerous and familiar to act as convenient out-group scapegoats. No-one sought to blame the assault I suffered or the threatened assault merely on the perpetrators’ status as motorists. I received, instead, some close questioning about the immigration status of the bus driver and the race of the man who threatened to assault me. Establish a link to immigrants or African-Caribbean men, the implication seemed to be, and the incidents were far more easily explained away.
|A cyclist, cars and pedestrians at 55th Street. Which of them|
is a "savage" will be in the eye of the beholder
The truth is that, in each of the incidents I’ve described, the attacker acted as an individual, rather than a member of a group. Their behaviour stemmed from their own character or mental state, rather than their status as cyclists, motorists, bus drivers, immigrants or anything else. To imagine that the behaviour in a single instance of a single member of a large group has anything to say about the wider group as a whole is a thinking error of a kind that would be shocking were it not also fairly common.
That point could, of course, lay me open to the objection someone recently made in an online forum to my use of statistics to point out that cars generally posed a far greater danger to pedestrians than bikes. That was beside the point, the poster wrote. Each motorist or driver differs so much that it makes no sense to discuss a general level of risk from motorists or cyclists. A very poor cyclist could conceivably pose a greater danger to a pedestrian than an extremely careful, conscientious motorist. I am perhaps particularly vulnerable to such a charge because of my habit of illustrating points on this blog by reference to specific – usually extreme – incidents that I take to illuminate a wider truth.
Yet I have, I hope, been careful when complaining about general problems to have sought evidence that my experience reflects some wider truth. It remains a verifiable fact, for example, that motorists kill a disproportionately high number of other road users in both the UK and New York City. Collisions with cyclists in both places account for a far lower proportion of road fatalities than cyclists make up of road traffic. Research in
suggests motorists’ failure to yield as required to pedestrians is the biggest
single cause of road deaths. Research in the UK suggests failure on motorists’
part to pay attention causes a disproportionate number of crashes.
|Court Street at night. Just because most motorists speed here|
doesn't mean they all do.
It makes sense on such a basis to say there is a general problem with motorists’ failure to yield to
pedestrians or to pay proper attention in the UK. I am even confident enough in
my own judgement to diagnose a few more local, unmeasured problems. There is,
for example, a general problem that many motorists regard Brooklyn’s
Court Street as an appropriate place for excessive speed and not somewhere
where cyclists’ requirement for space on the roads need be considered. It just
doesn’t make sense to predict on this basis that the next motorist one
encounters on Court Street won’t be a model of caution, courtesy and respect.
I feel acutely sorry for the victim of the
Washington stabbing. His experience last
Wednesday must have been appallingly frightening. I trust the District of Columbia police will swiftly
identify the attacker and bring him before the courts. I wish the victim a
swift and smooth recovery. But I also devoutly hope that no-one in future will
make the lazy and offensive mistake of imagining any of what happened had
anything to do with me.