Sunday, 9 December 2012

Washington, a stabbing - and why an individual cyclist tells you nothing about the rest

Washington, DC surprises me every time I visit. While New York feels just as bustling, large-scale and chaotic as the films and TV programmes would suggest, the US’s capital feels nothing like the West Wing. Sure, there are people influencing the whole world’s fate in lots of those neoclassical buildings – but Washington’s atmosphere most reminds me of other sleepy US administrative capitals like Richmond, Virginia or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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 prejudices are all the more powerful for not appearing to the prejudiced to be prejudices at all. Have your eye out for poor cyclist behaviour in Washington and you’ll spot instances of such behaviour, rather than the courtesy and calm I witnessed. Assume the main road problem is the cyclists and you’re unlikely to spot the multiple ways motorists misbehave.

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 New York 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 New York 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.

5 comments:

  1. Stereotypes aside, a car at 40mph has at least 80 times the impact energy of a cyclist/bike at 20. Far more than operator characteristics, that disparity explains why motor vehicles disproportionally maim and kill pedestrians.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve A,

      You are, of course, right about the physics of the situation - and it's a point I've made several times before. But I thought for once I'd get away from going on about safety and whine about nasty people being nasty about cyclists (another of my Great Themes). Your point is nevertheless a useful corrective to some of the things I've said, so thank you.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Great post and blog. I just spent way too much time at work reading your previous posts. You have some great inisights about human behavior and cycling. I have always felt a great deal of unexplainable anger and rage from drivers in this city when on a bike. I have never been able to comprehend exactly why they seem to hate me so much merely for riding a bike and following the ruls/laws. You make some great points about individual versus group behavior. thanks, NB

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. NYC_Cyclist,

      You are too kind - and I always feel a surge of joy when I hear I've helped someone to waste a lot of time through this blog. I probably shouldn't feel that way, I know, particularly now that the US economy is about to go off a cliff (or whatever).

      You are entirely right that people feel irrational anger towards bikes - but I should tell you the atmosphere is pretty similar in London, from where I moved in August. I think it's the kind of low-grade, inarticulate anger that people feel towards people who do things differently from them. Apologies if you've already read it, but I expounded my theory on the subject at greater length back in January here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-some-people-get-angry-with-cyclists.html

      Don't let the angry people put you off. History isn't on their side,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Cheers! And if you couldn't tell from my handle I am in NYC too. Love to go for a ride together sometime. Neil 'NYC_Cyclist' - nebregman@gmail.com

      Delete

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