Almost daily, as I’m absorbed in the homeward commute routine – packing my bags, strapping lights on my bike, buckling and zipping my helmet and my bright jacket – I’m startled by someone calling out behind me:
Sometimes I know the coworker saying it; more often, I don’t. They’ve seen my bicycle. They’re about to drive home. They look at me wide-eyed and grave, with a mix of fear and reverence, as though they’re sending off a soldier to die a heroic but inevitable death in combat. I mutter a “thanks,” but it rankles me every time. I try to assume the best, that they are simply wishing me safe travels, but the phrasing is a command: Be safe. As though I could do more than my blindingly bright gear and lights. As though I’m not wearing my helmet. As though I don’t know and study and follow the rules of the road more closely than many drivers ever will. As though it’s not in my own best interest to watch out for my own life. As though the roads are dangerous, but the onus is wholly upon me to be safe.
No, you are thinking of none of this when you say it. You mean the best. You know that I am vulnerable, and that vehicles are big and fast and reckless. It is a dangerous thing that I’m about to do, and I know it too well. I don’t say it, because it would sound too snarky for our brief interaction, but I want to say to you: “You too.” You may have a cocoon of metal and airbags, but the fact is that roads in the US claim thousands of people in cars, too, at an order of magnitude unsurpassed by wars or natural disasters. No one thinks about this before jumping in a car. You do not think you will be in an accident. You have not told anyone you saw getting into a car to “be safe,” because you assume that they will – and because it’s impolite to tell people how to drive. You are blissfully unaware of the danger facing you; I am fully aware of mine.
I want to tell you to be safe, to drive safely. It is you, after all, piloting the two-ton object at speeds that kill. I want to tell you to put down the phone, to fiddle with the music later. I hope you won’t race through a yellow light, or run a red. Everyone does these things. You mean no one any harm. You know that the roads are dangerous, but have you considered that the danger is you? Those little things well-meaning people driving cars get away with every day – the distracted driving, the speeding, the red-light running – cause no harm, until they do. I want to tell you to treat driving as though it is the most dangerous task you will do today, because it most likely is.
I do appreciate that you care – I truly do. But your well wishes for safety are not magic, and they will do nothing more for me than I can do for myself. I can festoon myself in all the lights and bright colors I can possibly wear, to get you to see me, but you will not see me unless you are looking. This is the single most important thing you can do to save lives, and to keep both you and me safe: Look. Watch for people in and along the roads – not just people in cars, but people walking and people biking. Scan ahead, and drive with care. If you pass a cyclist, change lanes fully, just as you would do for a car, and if it’s not clear to make that safe pass, wait a few moments, until it is. Being attentive and leaving space for everyone on the road goes a long way for safety.
I want to tell you, too, that I’m looking forward to my commute, in a way that I never do when I drive. I wish you could experience riding on crunchy leaves as more swirl and fall around you, or getting caught up in a pack of kids biking home, or just feeling the satisfaction of moving under your own power. I never feel safer than when I am on a bicycle, free to see all around me, traveling at slow enough speeds to have time to react. Unlike a person sealed in a car, I’m recognizable as a person, and I can speak and gesture and communicate with a wider repertoire of signals than just a horn honk or a turn signal. If safe travel is your goal, we’d do better to have more people on bicycles.
I’d love you to join us. We’re some of the happiest commuters. Even if you don’t, though, you can make the roads safer for everyone by being a caring and conscientious driver. And if you want to wish us well, try this:
Have a great ride.