Thursday, May 28, 2009

Following All the Rules

Last week, a man was killed in downtown Minneapolis while biking to work. I took particular notice of this accidental death because I too bike to work every day in downtown Minneapolis, and in fact I ride down the same bike lane that this biker was riding down when he was killed. In fact, I passed over the very spot where he died not more than 15 minutes before he was killed. Every day I have ridden to work since, I have noted the yellow lines spray-painted on the road by investigators on the spot where this young, 30-something man met his end.

When I heard about this tragic accident and where it happened, I immediately thought I knew what had happened. Along the section of road where the accident occurred, the blocks are very short, and there is a stoplight on every intersection. The lights are timed so that if you are biking a certain speed, you can make all of them, but if you are going slightly slow, you may get stuck one or more times. Downtown is just to the left of this stretch of road, so cars are frequently making left turns, cutting across the bike lane, and drivers often forget to signal their turns, or only signal at the last minute. The combination of bikers wanting to hurry to make all the lights, and cars wanting to turn left, cutting in front of bikers, is an accident waiting to happen. Especially if the bikers or the drivers are not diligent in following the rules of the road.

As a devoted biker, it is a sad thing to have to admit that most of the bicyclists I observe are not particularly scrupulous about obeying the rules of the road. I frequently see bikers not wearing helmets or using signals, blowing through red lights, riding the wrong way down a one-way street, improperly cutting across lanes, and riding in an otherwise erratic and irresponsible manner. So when I heard about the accident last week, I readily assumed that this particular biker met his untimely end due to his own carelessness.

But later, I read a more detailed account of the accident in the paper. Friends and family of this individual knew him as unusually devoted to biking and particularly responsible and attentive to the rules of the road. An eye-witness of the accident testified that the young man who died had in fact been following all the rules at the time of his death.

He was hit by an unusually large semi. I saw a picture of the truck in the paper, and noted that the tires of the truck were almost as tall as a man. Apparently, because of its unusual size, the truck was obliged to make a turn that was much wider than normal. Thus, to the bicycle rider, it may have seemed that the truck was moving forward when in fact it was getting ready to turn. The driver of the truck was up so high, and his vehicle so large, he probably never saw the bike. When the truck did turn, one of those huge wheels bore down on the bicyclist, killing him instantly.

In this case, as far as investigators could discern, everyone -- the bicyclist as well as the truck driver -- was following all the rules of the road to the best of his ability. It was just an unusual situation that couldn't possibly be anticipated by the rules. The accident was easily avoidable, but would have taken extra caution, extra awareness, extra discernment to avoid. In fact, it is quite possible that the rules may have blinded each participant in this drama to the danger at hand. The confidence of each that rules were all that was needed to keep everybody safe may have kept each from paying attention to the very real danger literally just around the corner. I think about this now, every morning, as I pass those spray-painted yellow lines on the intersection of 14th and Park on my way to work.

Sometimes our lives are like that. Some of us are minding our business, riding our bike to work next to an unusually large semi. We may think that all we need to do to protect ourselves is follow all the rules. But in our case, the rules won't help us. The only thing that will help us is keeping our eyes and ears open, watching and waiting and responding.

1 comment:

Ned said...

Furthermore, the large truck isn't being persecuted by the bicyclist that was killed. Thanks for your insights, John. You should send this as a letter-to-the-editor. It could help raise life-saving awareness.