We’ve Gotta Be Perfect

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A few days ago, storied boxer Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker was killed when he was struck by a car.

In my hometown of Rochester last weekend, two small children were sent to the hospital in critical condition when a car struck the wagon they were riding in, dragging them 50 feet. The driver was taking a smartphone video when the crash occurred.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man was struck and killed on a sidewalk by a driver of an unregistered pickup truck. The driver received a few tickets.

In May, an intoxicated man piloting an electric scooter in Nashville was killed when he was struck by an SUV. As a result, e-scooters were banned in Nashville, thanks in large part to the victim’s girlfriend who has made it her mission to ban e-scooters in her city and across the country.

But what about the three tragic stories of famed athletes, small children and elderly pedestrians I just told? Surely it would be hypocritical to ban a new and emerging form of transportation like e-scooters without citing the inherent dangers of an established form of mobility that already kills 40,000 per year and injures millions more?

Nope. Cars are still surging through my home city of Rochester. They are still milling about in Virginia Beach where Sweet Pea was hit without question or hesitation.

People die every day in car crashes with incredibly few calls for cars to be banned. But when mass transit suffers a deadly collusion, or a micro-mobility option incurs a death, citizens cry for changes, restrictions, and outright bans on their use.

The truth is, there is almost no situation in American culture where 40,000 lives are lost each year without a serious debate about whether or not the context of these deaths should lead to drastic changes. Except when it comes to cars.

Let’s look at this another way. If electric scooter crashes caused by negligent piloting led to the death of the elderly pedestrian and the hospitalization of two young children in my community, the public would likely call for the end of these machines. But since negligent driving was the cause of both, we see these incidents as “tragic” but ultimately accept them as normalcy. In reality, if these pedestrians and children were hit by electric scooters, bikes or skateboarders instead of cars and trucks, they would likely still all be alive and relatively healthy. The hypocrisy in the face of potential loss of life is staggering, and shows just how addicted to our cars, trucks and SUVs we truly are.

Some may believe that addiction is too harsh a term. But when we look at the terrors of addiction, we see the unquenchable need to repeatedly engage in an activity, even if the end result can easily be dangerous or deadly. We accept the risk based on an addiction to the high. We defend its potential to ruin our lives and the lives of others around us, especially our loved ones.

A friend and fellow bike commuter recently said something that stuck with me:

“We’ve gotta be perfect. If a negligent driver kills someone, people see it as a necessary evil. But if a cyclist runs a red light, or a scooter hops onto a sidewalk alongside a busy street, we are just jerks driving crazy little vehicles with no regard for the law.”

Indeed, it’s a double standard with maddening predictability. In general, If it’s a car crash, we blame the negligent driver. If it’s a bike, scooter or skateboard, we often blame the machine itself, or the “culture” associated with said machine. For example, if there is a rash of car accidents on the news, one might say “people drive like idiots here!” But if there are a rash of electric scooter crashes, the reaction is typically an urgent call for these machines to be banned or limited.

Drivers can speed, weave and text while driving, but the cyclist or scooter rider that commits a moving violation is vilified.

Getting back to my friend’s comment, we don’t really have to “be perfect” when we ride. But it feels like we do. Every time I see a cyclist run a red light or take the sidewalk in a busy downtown, I cringe, knowing that his/her actions will reinforce the already rampant, but terribly ignorant stereotype about “those law breaking cyclists.” Yet every day on my commute, I watch as cars roll through rights-on-red, pull into crosswalks without looking to see who’s coming, blow through red lights, and a host of other traffic infractions that are far more dangerous given the car’s weight, yet always accepted as an associated evil.

But I’m preaching to the choir. Tell this sociological construct to people of color, and to anyone who is part of a racial, cultural, religious or gender minority. The machine that is the established “American Way” can commit countless legal and moral errors and be excused as an individual mistake. All it takes is one perceived misstep by a member of a “fringe” population and the entire movement is seen as deviant and dangerous.

Will we ever reach a point when cyclists and scooter riders aren’t seen as the bane of the road? Will active transportation methods ever truly be accepted to the point where they are seen as legitimate? We know so little about what transportation will look like in 10 years, so there’s really no solid answer to this question. What we can do as a nation is begin to come to grips with the fact that the car-centered city design is losing favor, and our mindsets regarding active transportation must adapt to our changing urban environments. As our infrastructure allows for greater use by multiple modes of mobility, our approach to driving and how we see smaller vehicles, as well as pedestrians, must make a serious leap.

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