Entitled. That’s a word I hear often from people irritated by bicyclists. With derision, they say people who ride bikes believe they are “entitled” to their place on the road.
Hell yes! We are entitled to exactly that.
And people driving cars and trucks have a responsibility to honor that right, because failing to do so kills people. We have seen that all too often this year.
On a Friday morning in July, Cynthia Arsnow was commuting to work at HSA Home Warranty in Cross Plains. She was riding her bicycle on Highway 14 from her home in Madison, as she did every work day. A driver, who admits that he was looking down at some papers, veered off the travel lane and struck her as she rode on the shoulder. She died at the scene.
Exactly three weeks later, Shelton Berel was riding his bike on a quiet road in the town of Oregon. He was training for a triathlon. The father of two was struck and killed by Kevin D. Meister, who fled the scene and later told investigators he thought he had hit a deer. Meister was charged Aug. 18 in Dane County court with second-degree reckless homicide and hit-and-run resulting in death.
Claiming you hit a deer is a popular defense for hit-and-run drivers. The man who hit and killed Keith Habenicht near Germantown last August also said he thought the thing he saw in daylight, with the flashing red rear light, was a deer. Habenicht was riding his bike home after picking up groceries.
So here we have three people riding bicycles: one commuting, one training and one doing daily errands. We’ll have to wait for the justice system to sort all this out, but this much is clear — none of these three had to die. Each was the victim of, at best, needlessly distracted drivers and, at worst, homicide.
The problem isn’t the choices cyclists make. It’s the behavior of the drivers.
Arsnow’s chosen form of transport was the bicycle, and Highway 14 was the fastest route to work. Berel was training for a competitive bike ride, and quiet country roads are exactly where his race would take place. Habenicht needed to be on his road to get to the grocery store.
Actually, it doesn’t matter why they were there. A bicycle is legally a vehicle just like a car or a truck. And except for limited-access highways, bicycles belong everywhere. Cyclists do not need to explain why they are at any given point on any given road any more than people who are driving cars need to.
Those driving vehicles with internal combustion engines do not own our roads. In fact, the history of the road long predates the predominance of cars, or even their existence. The Romans built an intricate road system, most of which was made for walking. Bicyclists founded the American “Good Roads Movement” of the late 19th century, paving the way for the motorists to follow.
It’s also good to keep in mind that the laws of physics trump the laws of society. Behind the wheel of my 2,500-pound car, I am in charge of deadly force. Riding on my 25-pound bike, I am not. If I hit a cyclist with my car, I will likely injure and perhaps kill that person. If I hit a car with my bicycle, I will almost certainly injure or kill myself.
So, driving and cycling are not activities with equivalent moral responsibilities. I have a greater responsibility as a driver because of the size and power of my vehicle. It’s not unlike any relationship among people, communities or even nations. Where there is greater strength and power, there is also greater responsibility and the need for restraint.
Part of the problem is the rarity of cyclists in certain situations. We know from many studies that there are fewer crashes in places where people on bikes are more common. As more people get on their bikes and ride in more places, drivers start to look for them, and the roads become safer for everyone.
In fact, cycling is becoming much safer, despite the focus on recent deaths. The number of cyclist traffic fatalities in Wisconsin has dropped from an annual high of 30 in the 1970s, to an average of 11 over the past five years, according to data compiled by Professor Robert Schneider at UW-Milwaukee. Since 1990, the number of injuries to people riding bikes has dropped from nearly 1,800 per year to about 800.
But there’s no reason we can’t push these numbers even lower. It starts with a simple recognition of the right to the road.
Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is executive director of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. He blogs as Citizen Dave at Isthmus.com.
[Editor's note: This article was corrected to indicate that the data on cyclist traffic fatalities pertained to Wisconsin.]