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How two leaders respond to thorny bike issues

Posted by on November 23rd, 2010 at 2:02 pm

“Together, let’s say, ‘I solemnly pledge to behave as considerately as possible no matter how I get around.’”
— Part of a crowd exercise led by Mia Birk in response to a fired up citizen

One of the many things that keeps my fire burning here at BikePortland is a sense that knowledge is power. I know it’s almost trite, but from where I sit, it’s something that proves itself almost every day. Bottom line is that when you know the context of an issue and you know how to respectfully convey your opinion, you can have a huge influence.

On that note, I wanted to bring to your attention two very smart people who have recently shared how they responded to two issues that have a long and storied history of thorniness in the bike world — helmet use and the ‘all-cyclists-are-scofflaws-and-we-need-to-start-enforcing-laws-against-them’ thing.

The first one is from the leader of the BTA, Rob Sadowsky. The Oregonian printed his letter to the editor today that laid out his (and therefore the BTA’s) position on helmet use. Sadowsky’s letter came in response to another letter that called out the BTA for not doing more to encourage and promote helmet use. Here are a few excerpts from Sadowsky’s response:

“Helmets do not prevent crashes. Crashes are prevented by improved road and pathway conditions, driver education, better legal protections for cyclists and increased numbers of bicyclists… A complete streets policy would be much more effective.

The risks of cycling are low… There are significantly higher fatalities for swimmers over bicyclists, yet we do not demand that swimmers wear helmets.

… helmet laws are often used inequitably by law enforcement. The most underserved communities, particularly communities of color, are often disproportionately targeted. Portland already has one of the highest rates of helmet use currently in the nation, and we have accomplished this through effective education and encouragement.

Helmet laws set in place a ready-made “blame the victim” reaction so that each time a helmetless cyclist is in a crash, their bare head becomes the focus — even if the driver deliberately ran them over and they died not from head injuries, but internal injuries.”

It’s not just the content of Sadowsky’s response that are important, but the way his tone does not diminish or insult the other person’s intelligence or opinion. Read the full letter here.

The next example comes from another one of Portland’s very smart bicycle people, author and planning consultant Mia Birk (who will have an event at Powell’s Books on January 4th).

At a recent talk in Ithaca, New York, a man stood up and delivered what Birk called a “tirade” about how bikeway are “inconveniencing motorists” and how “cyclists” are “doing whatever the hell they want, all the time” without any police enforcement. “Where is the enforcement?!” the man demanded to know.

As a former bike program manager for the City of Portland, Mia has handled countless public meetings where folks have offered similar sentiments, so she’s figured out a calm and collected way to respond. But first, she shared three things to remember when someone launches into the infamous “all bicyclists are scofflaws” tirade:

    1. Don’t bother trying to explain the laws of physics, meaning that on a bicycle, we use our body for propelling the vehicle and thus it is desirable, normal, and natural to want to keep moving.
    2. Skip the lecture about how our traffic laws need to evolve in lockstep with the re-balancing and re-design of our transportation systems toward bicycling and walking.
    3. Refrain from comparing cyclists and motorists’ relative level of misbehavior.

As for how Mia responded to the man’s question. Well, it involved hand-raising and a pledge of civility by everyone in the room (seriously):

“Together, let’s say, ‘I solemnly pledge to behave as considerately as possible no matter how I get around.’”

Did it work? Mia reports that the man “stormed out of the room,” so either he was even more incensed or just humiliated. It’s hard to tell. Read the full pledge and see how Mia responded on her blog.

Whether or not you agree with everything Rob and Mia say, their methods for responding are worth noticing and taking note of.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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t.a. barnhart
Guest

Sadowsky fails utterly to even address the real issue regarding helmets, which is exactly the same issue with seat belts and every other safety device we use: worst-case scenarios. the fact that we build safer cars, teach driver’s ed, have cops & cameras in place to watch drivers, and keep most roads in good repair does not mean we make seat belts optional. in fact, we’ve added air bags because when driving a car goes bad, it can go really bad — even if that even is relatively rare (which it is).

same on a bike. most of the time, riders don’t need one. and when they do, they prevent serious injury & death. i know this personally, my life having been saved by my helmet. i was riding safely, in a well-paved, well-lit intersection that even had green bike boxes. the car that hit me was driven by a bike-rider, too; she knew the dangers, knew what care was needed. and yet she was careless, and only my (optional) decision to wear a helmet saved my life.

we can pretend this is about everything except the rare instance of heading striking ground/car/whatever. but that’s the bottom line here. not bogus arguments about freedom, choice, responsibility, transportation policy, etc. helmets need to be mandatory because they save lives. if that then requires further education about riding, etc, so be it. we made seat belts mandatory & had to educate drivers more about speed, texting, etc.

bikes are not a special case. and helmets are not a choice. they are a responsibility.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Mr. Barnhart, you draw an analogy between bike helmet use and seat belt use. You say that each keeps a person safer in the event of a crash, and therefore, helmet-wearing is mandatory.

I take issue with the premise of your argument. I have looked for good research showing that bike helmets improve outcomes in the event of a crash, and I have not found it. If no crash dummy studies had been run showing that seat belts improve car occupant safety, few people would wear seat belts. Currently, as far as I can tell, no such studies have been run for helmets. Therefore, I do not wear a helmet, and I don’t think it is mandatory.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

Alex, allow me to push you off your bike violently to simulate a crash. Do you wish to wear a helmet or not?

Having hit my head on the pavement with a helmet, I know how I can answer that question from experience. If you need a study to tell you what common sense is, then perhaps you should simply stay inside all day.

It’s as simple as that.

Ed
Guest
Ed

Hi Mr. Barnhart,

I think all Rob is saying is that if our goal is to prevent injuries to people riding bikes, taking steps to reduce the likelihood and severity of collisions is way more effective that forcing everyone to wear protective gear.

This may be a silly analogy, but given you can slip and hurt your head while taking a shower, would it be better to wear a helmet, or put something on the floor so you have traction? 🙂

Dave
Guest

Even in the case of the seatbelt analogy, you can argue that the need for a seatbelt would be much less if people were traveling at lower speeds, on better designed roads, and if everyone was better educated about rules, etc. That is, fixing the system as a whole is a bigger problem than the safety measures we take to mitigate a dangerous and poorly designed system.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

You can have an injury at any speed. However, using your logic there should be much slower speed limits for those cyclists not wearing helmets.

Tbird
Guest
Tbird

So, wear a helmet or not. Who cares.

IT IS about choice.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

Someone should tell Mia traffic laws are not designed around an individual’s desire for perpetual motion, they’re designed to keep all road users safe from colliding with each other.

Peter Noone
Guest
Peter Noone

Traffic laws are designed with safety and convenience in mind, and they take into account the operational characteristics of the vehicles involved (etc).

If (perceived) convenience wasn’t an important factor, speed limits would be much lower overall, because that would greatly enhance safety for the vast majority of road users.

Laws and infrastructure can and should evolve to meet the needs of all road users in a way that’s fair and safe and convenient.

3-speeder
Guest
3-speeder

The unsteady startup speed of a bicycle during the first second or two after coming to a complete halt at a stop sign creates a far less safe situation than slowing to walking pace (1-3 mph) with good sightlines. Maintaining this sort of creeping speed makes control far easier. This dichotomy is amplified if the path into the intersection has a slight uphill (a common case).

Judgment about whether there is enough time to cross the intersection safely will be better in the latter case than the former.

This issue isn’t about laziness – it’s about safety and the lack of understanding about the realities of bicycle travel among those that create and enforce traffic laws.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Oops, the point of this article was about how to respond to upset people, not bike helmets. Thanks for calling our attention to this, Jonathan! I had an argument with my roommate who was angry with bicyclists “not riding in their lane” a few days ago, and I bet I could have used some of these techniques to (a) get less agitated and (b) have a more effective exchange of ideas.

t.a. barnhart
Guest

Alex, tell it to my skull. which hit the asphalt as hard as my back. my ribs broke & punctured my lung (not to mention damage to several internal organs). my helmet cracked – not the cover, the protective foam – clean thru with the force of impact.

and not even a concussion.

helmets save lives. but only when worn. you need a study for that?

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

T.A.

Do you think the tone of your comments toward Alex are likely to result in him engaging you in a thoughtful dialogue? Just asking. Please be careful with your tone around this issue as I know from experience it can quickly get personal and nasty and I won’t tolerate either of those things.

Thanks for sharing your experience and for commenting.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

T.A., I’m sorry to hear about your crash.

But, yes, I do need a study for that. Science has found a lot of seemingly intuitive beliefs to be false. And I’ve heard intuitive arguments why helmets might increase injuries in some cases (e.g., by causing torque to the neck).

John Landolfe
Guest
Augustus
Guest
Augustus

I, too have suffered head injuries. In fact, I have TBI from a CAR accident where my head was smashed. I think that given a statistical comparison (you can do the leg work here if you want) there are more head injuries in car accidents than bike accidents. Collar bones are more often injured from bike accidents. This does not mean that helmets aren’t necessary, but they aren’t the cause of accidents either. If they were then they should be mandatory. It is a personal choice to wear a helmet. I wear a helmet because I chose to, regardless of how many accidents I have have had in the past (with or with out one on!)

Charlie
Guest
Charlie

When someone points out that many bicyclists do not obey traffic laws as a reason why not to expand infrastructure, my answer is usually something like:
“I totally agree. There are many bicyclists out there that are not obeying traffic laws, who are endangering themselves and are being disrespectful to others due to their unpredictability. Which is why in conjunction with expanding our infrastructure for bicycling that we better educate all users of the roadway about how to operate safely and courteously, and that we work with police to help increase enforcement for bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians who are putting others at risk through their behaviors.”

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

Thanks for the comments everyone. FWIW, I’d much rather have these comments discuss the methods that Rob and Mia used to respond, rather than the specifics about helmet use and bike laws. Thanks.

p.s. I will delete comments if they get too emotional or nasty.

Peter Noone
Guest
Peter Noone

@t.a.

Where do we draw a line when it comes to public safety requirements? A person is likely to die or be seriously injured in a wide range of non-essential activities. Should those activities be illegal? Should they be regulated?

Regardless, I think Mr. Sadowsky’s overall point is a good one no matter where you stand on the helmet issue.

Bob_M
Guest
Bob_M

last night while I was commuting south on SE 26th a big honk’n American car made every indication that it was going to perform the “Idaho stop” right over me. I merged out of the bike lane into the travel land and yelled as loud as I could “HEY”. The driver stopped and I rolled on to the stop light at Powell where the car was now waiting for the light. I looked at the driver and pointed a couple of times to my eyes, inferring that he should watch better. Then I just turned forward and let it go. To my surprise the driver apologized and admitted wrong. Time was just a couple of years ago I would be all balistic and full of adrenaline and road rage.
This was better.

mabsf
Guest
mabsf

I have been thinking about the issues in the article a lot, since I am often upset how I get treated as a cyclist (by cars and other cyclists) and often have to engage in discussions about helmet use, cycling etc.

Here is what I try:
The first thing I learned is to listen and acknowledge how that person feels. Often there are personal experiences/stories behind their opinions (the brother/sister/cousin/self who was rescued by the helmet). After that I try to stir the conversation towards what would make that person feel safer – driving slower around bikers who don’t wear helmets, work towards better bike infrastructure that makes biking safer…
(this is my kind of my AA slogan – doesn’t mean that I am always living up to it… but I try!)

jocko
Guest
jocko

I wear a helmet almost every time I ride, notable exceptions are riding a few block to the convenience store for beer, yes I should be then too. I have been saved by my helmet on two occasions, but I still think that it should be a personal choice to wear one. I also think that Mia’s response to the angry dude was a little smug, but really dealing with angry people is tough, and at least he left. My response to folks like this is there are people on bikes, feet and cars who will just never follow the laws and will probably get away with it for the most part. Take the speed “limit” for autos, crosswalks for peds and stop signs for bikes.

Brian E.
Guest

I’m sorry but Mia Burke’s response (as I read it) comes across as smug and insulting to me. She used the man from Ithaca as a tool, changed the subject, and put forward the idea that he should just get along with us.

Would a better approach be to agree with the frustrated man from Ithaca. Find some common ground then discuss what has been done, how it does or does not work, how we are frustrated too, then suggest that if we all just get along then our efforts will be more successful?

Machu Picchu
Guest
Machu Picchu

Thank you, Brian, for that. I was wondering who else would catch that. And Jonathan, you kind of set up for these comments by throwing out a couple of divisive issues in the midst of a piece on diplomacy. Brian makes a good point: A good case-study in diplomacy should not end with the other party storming out of the room.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

At first I thought this was about punctures by the nefarious “goatheads”…

You are right, Jonathan, that thorough knowledge of an important issue and respectful demeanor can produce responsive action by elected officials. A modest history of public involvement has made those virtues clear to me.

Sadowsky and Birk are well paid professionals who owe their successes, at least in part, to ability smooth over troubled waters. That is good. Their chief problem is avoiding the passive-aggressive put down, like the TSA dude “defending” the absolute necessity for sexual perversion in airports.

Perhaps it is just my ancient attitude, but there are cringe-worthy elements even in Rob’s and Mia’s missives. Still, both are very good models.

elaine
Guest
elaine

I particularly liked Mr. Sadowsky’s swimming analogy, and may use it myself in the future when discussing helmet use laws–although I think the proper comparison would be mandating that all swimmers wear life jackets (and not helmets).

Dave
Guest

It was great to read the article from Rob, and I really appreciated his tone and point of view. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk calmly and rationally about the issue, especially an official in the public realm and in a political position, and it gives me hope that maybe there can be some rational discussion about this issue.

As far as the Mia Birk incident goes, I think I kind of agree with Brian E., that maybe engaging the individual a little bit more might have been helpful – I can see how it might have just felt like a quick evasion of the issue. Not that the guy was being particularly rational in the first place, but still. Then again, he may have just been primed to only get more aggravated no matter what happened, giving that he started the whole situation by ranting.

RyNO Dan
Guest
RyNO Dan

This one is great…

> Refrain from comparing cyclists
> and motorists’ relative level of misbehavior.

The assymmetry is mind-boggling. Yet the myth of “bikes and cars are equal on the road” will not die. Motor vehicle drivers can be such jerks on the road, and they won’t take responsibility, they don’t even understand, and of course they are cowards accelerating away after almost killing me.

How does one explain it to a mv driver ? How do we cut through the self-centered car-centric mindset ? American’s relationship to their car is the ultimate paradigm for everything that is wrong with fat, slothy, self-absorbed and conceited America. Good luck.

Michael M.
Guest

Just how much condescension and how many insults can you fit into one comment?

I think you kinda missed the point of the article!

KWW
Guest
KWW

http://www.yehudamoon.com/index.php?date=2008-07-09

Bicycle helmets are not designed for car impacts.
They are designed for a normal fall from a bicycling height at bicycle speed.

KWW
Guest
KWW

The point being is that Rob is correct, perhaps even more so since whenever there is an accident involving a car and a bicycle, the police are required to report whether the bicyclist was wearing a helmet.

In a way this predetermines the ready made ‘blame the victim’ stance that we hear so much. No helmet laws are required, it is already happening.

Don’t blame the police on this, they are only doing their job. It is the media that distorts the issue by not revealing the context of the requirement.

rider
Guest
rider

My response to the scofflaw argument is that most people are idiot or assholes and frequently both. Putting someone on a bicycle doesn’t change that it just makes it more obvious.

A.K.
Guest
A.K.

Dave
As far as the Mia Birk incident goes, I think I kind of agree with Brian E., that maybe engaging the individual a little bit more might have been helpful

I think Mia’s point still stands though – normal, rational engagement wouldn’t have worked with this individual. He was ALREADY primed for a fight, and my guess is that he wanted his viewpoint validated… “oh yes, yes sorry car driver! You are right and I’m wrong!”.

Even if it may have come off as “smug”, I have to say Mia has MUCH more experience talking with the public than I do (and probably most of us here), so I’ll trust in her judgment to make a decision when someone wants a real discussion or wants a conflict and make an effort to diffuse the situation in the best manner possible.

As far as I can tell, trying to rationally discuss something with someone like that who has already made up their mind doesn’t work.

Brian E.
Guest

Dave,

I would assume the room is full of varied opinions. Scattered from one side of the issue to the other. The goal should be to draw more people to your side of the issue. This is your opportunity to persuade or alienate. Don’t waste it.

A.K.
Guest
A.K.

Yes, that is all well and good but sometimes there is no winning them over, and it’s better to move on, for everyone’s sake, than waste a bunch of time on someone who has made up their mind already.

Steve B
Guest

I wanted to share something that blew my mind recently while looking into helmet research:

The biggest cause of serious injury from falling on your head is when your neck bucks, which can lead to paralysis or even death. What I didn’t know is that helmets that are cloth covered, have excessive vent holes, or otherwise have something sticking out of them (bullhorns, reindeer antlers, fun hats, etc.) actually prevent the helmet from doing it’s job: to keep you sliding. If any of those aforementioned things gets caught in a rough spot of asphalt as you are sliding on your helmet, that is what will lead to a serious injury.

So, if you want to be goofy, leave the helmet at home and put the antlers straight on your head.

David Haines
Guest
David Haines

Having been in situations similar to Mia’s (which I handled way too snarkily), I can attest that the priority isn’t engaging the disruption, it’s keeping the event on track.

Her specific tactic won’t always apply, but her overall strategy might: Keep it light, involve the group, don’t get derailed.

Mia was addressing people who came to hear her and ask questions about her work. It wasn’t likely the upset guy could hold a mature conversation about his concern, even if he could it was outside the scope of the gathering.

Maybe Mia’s approach could be seen as smug, but she had an obligation to those who devoted their time to the talk. Letting it devolve into ranting or argument would’ve sucked for almost everyone.

So she engaged the whole group in acknowledging a different point of view. Then she refocused on the reason all but one of the people were in the room. Maybe there was a better way to do it, but I’m sure taking a lesson from Mia.

For a public speaker, forty-nine people laughing and one guy pissed is a lot better outcome than the inverse.

Dwainedibbly
Guest
Dwainedibbly

I choose to wear a helmet not because I’m convinced that it is necessary for my own safety but because if something bad happens my family won’t have to fend off the old “it was his fault because he didn’t have a helmet” argument from whoever they are suing. That is a really sad reason to wear a helmet, but unfortunately that’s the state of cycling in this country.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

the reason i wear a helmet:

…we found that riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury and an 88 percent reduction in their risk of brain injury.

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198905253202101

Clyde
Guest
Clyde

The world before whiners. San Fran, 1905:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NINOxRxze9k&feature=related

David Parsons
Guest

I think that even if bicycle helmets were the infallible cure-all for injury in any accident that the BTA response wouldn’t make sense. Sure, they might be really helpful when you end up lawn-darting, but it’s /much/ more important to make the cycling environment safer so fewer people end up lawn darting in the first place. The arguments that Mr. Sadowsky uses don’t make any sense unless the BTA has decided to become another anti-helmet lobbying group.

And I’m not sure how humiliating the anti-biking nut counts in any way as being respectful.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

I usually just insult their mother. I’m a mean lookin’ dude though so what’ll they do?

Pete
Guest
Pete

A couple of observations…

1. User groups routinely resist external recommendations or regulations. Mountain climbers resist requirements for carrying locating beacons. Motorcyclists resist helmet laws. Hikers resist Forest Pass fees. It’s understandable that we all want to self regulate, but it’s also true that none of us are very self-observant or critical. In this regard, cyclists don’t act much differently than many other user groups.

2. I’m preplexed by Mr. Sadowsky’s letter. If it’s true that he was responding to another letter that called on the BTA to ENCOURAGE helmet use, then his reply seemed to miss the point. He argued against helmet laws. I challenge him to answer the letter writer’s question. Why doesn’t the BTA encourage helmet use? Is helmet use a bad idea? Does helmet use make us less safe? Perhaps he can cite some data that would help daily cyclists like myself make reasoned decisions.

Pete M (formerly just Pete :)
Guest
Pete M (formerly just Pete :)

Agreed about user groups… the news segment I reference below (about the new bridge) showed residents holding “no new fees” signs followed by the imposition that bicyclists don’t pay for roadway use – and we all know where this is heading. When I was young mandatory seat belt laws were repealed repeatedly at the state level before becoming federally influenced. My 75-year-old Mom still doesn’t use hers (in protest)! I believe the popular term du jour is “nanny state”…

I don’t see where Rob doesn’t encourage helmet use. In contrast, he credits the BTA’s “effective education and encouragement” for Portland’s notable helmet use record.

t.a. barnhart
Guest

Ed, you put a bath mat or such in the tub, to prevent slipping. if you don’t, you’re negligent to the point of criminality.

dwainebibbly gets closest to my other main concern about helmets: our responsibility to others. had i not worn a helmet in Dec 2008, my “choice” would have meant the woman who hit me would have had to live with the knowledge she had killed me – yes, i know it was my fault for not wearing a helmet, but how many people can shed that kind of guilt so blithely? and what about my kids, or my dad & siblings? my friends? everyone who cares about me, all wondering why i didn’t wear a damn helmet? when did it become a right to put that kind of pain on other people?

it’s time for bicyclists to grow up. not wearing a helmet is a choice that demonstrates you should not be trusted with a bicycle. bikes are not toys. they are vehicles on public streets & we need to use them as we do cars. that means safety equipment, and that means a helmet.

resopmok
Guest
resopmok

From an outside the room perspective, I would agree that Birk’s response seemed condescending. Context is everything, though, and I think David is probably right that in this instance she made the right move, not that the move would always be the right one to make. Given that I’ll admit my average response – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” – is not much better. The truth is though, that the “Idaho stop” is basically the same as the “California stop”, the only difference being one takes place on a bike and the other in a car. I really doubt that more traffic laws are broken by people on bikes than by people in cars, but I’d like to see some numbers that prove it either way.

I think Sadowsky makes some good points, but I take it one step further – why do we regulate people’s personal decisions about their safety? Unless their actions endanger other people, I say let people do what they want. Let’s spend the time and energy on education, to make sure people know their decisions are stupid, but let them make those decisions. We allow people to smoke cancer causing cigarettes and fattening, artery-clogging fast food. We should let them ride with the wind in their hair or swim with full breadth of movement. If the people who are your friends and family care about your safety, they will tell you (at least once) what you should and shouldn’t be doing with your life and how you put it at risk. The letter leaves me unclear though on the real nature of the BTA’s stance, does it recommend helmet use or not?

Steve B
Guest

We regulate safety simply because if we didn’t, it would be a lot more expensive.

resopmok
Guest
resopmok

Then why don’t we regulate smoking and fast food? Cancer and heart disease are the leading causes of death and health problems in this country, and arguably the biggest strain on our healthcare system as a result.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

They are regulated. You can’t put lead in food or smoke if you are under 18.

Marcus Griffith
Guest
Marcus Griffith

The easiest way to derail an bicycling advocacy meeting is to bring up the helmet issue.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

Where, on The Oregonian website, is the letter to the editor, published in the Oregonian on the 22nd, that BTA leader Rob Sadowsky refers to, and apparently is responding to? I looked and couldn’t find it. As it turns out, I read the letter yesterday in the O’s print version, so I remember somewhat, what it said.

The letter suggests its writer has a very limited understanding of the protection bike helmets can provide those that wear them while biking. It wasn’t informative. When I read it, it struck me as simple minded, and not much worth responding to. I’m not sure why The Oregonian even publishes those kind of comments, when the papers could do its readers much better.

Except for the fact that the letters writer broadly charges that the BTA should be getting more people to be wearing bike helmets, I wonder if Sadowsky would have even bothered to respond to the letter. Sadowsky should have kept his response simple, focusing on simple information about what level of safety bike helmets can realistically offer their wearers, and not have gotten tangled up in a bunch of other allegations that are highly debatable and almost impossible to prove.

About Mia Birk’s situation:

Two excerpt’s from maus’s above story…

“… At a recent talk in Ithaca, New York, a man stood up and delivered what Birk called a “tirade” about how bikeway are “inconveniencing motorists” and how “cyclists” are “doing whatever the hell they want, all the time” without any police enforcement. “Where is the enforcement?!” the man demanded to know. …”

“… Mia reports that the man “stormed out of the room,” …”.

Probably wouldn’t have much mattered what Birk had said, the guy would likely still have stormed out of the room. Some people are are only interested in opportunities to make a bold statement and a grand exit. They don’t want to actually…think…and try raise a point that has much basis in reality, leading to an actual constructive resolution.

Seizing the opportunity the red-faced guy offered to her, to be calm and rational was probably quite the smart thing to do.

jim
Guest
jim

He just got into the job and allready he is acting like a sinking ship (politician)

John Landolfe
Guest
John Landolfe

I think tone is important but it’s also possible to be gently dismissive about important issues in a way that is itself can feel like an escalation.

Sadowsky makes some great arguments when he discusses helmets as they relate to law but, and I read the whole letter, I emphatically reject the notion that a consideration of law requires a general criticism of helmets.

I’m talking of his first point: “helmets don’t prevent crashes.” This is a straw man argument. Helmet advocates have never claimed helmets are a crash prevention device. Helmets are for injury prevention. It can feel insulting when helmet critics assume we don’t know the difference.

I worked a month at a NeuroICU, during which two bicyclists were on unit. Head injuries are in a class of their own. I’ve also been saved from serious injury by a helmet myself.

People say “show me the study.” Why not go looking for the study before you advise others to endanger themselves? The science IS there if anyone bothers to go looking. Here’s a motherload. Happy cherry picking. http://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/practices/topic/bicycles/helmeteffect.html

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Thanks for the links, John and spare_wheel . FYI, I had searched, and had not found those articles. I wore a helmet today because of the potential iciness and because my assumptions had been challenged. What I do in the future depends on if those studies seem valid upon a deeper look, and if the added safety is a big enough effect to be worth the discomfort of a helmet.

John Landolfe
Guest
John Landolfe

Thanks for checking it out and keeping an open mind. I think there’s still an open debate for how to approach the law and personal choice. But I’m worried when influential people repeat slogans that could lead the general public to potentially dangerous choices.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

Mr Sadowsky uses a silly argument.

“There are significantly higher fatalities for swimmers over bicyclists, yet we do not demand that swimmers wear helmets.”

yes…those people die from drowning, not head injuries. And that’s why we require flotation vests when boating.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

i think he’s referring to divers from high places — like bridges and cliffs

Steve Brown
Guest

Mia has one of the best responses I have heard. It focuses the issue on safety for everyone. I come across irrational arguments all the time. There is no answer, you can only distance yourself. Mad car driver is mad. My only success in these situations is to ask how these people respond to bad car drivers and traffic problems. Takes the issue away from bikes and tries to focus on traffic and operator behavior. As for helmets. The no helmet thing is like the Pope and condoms. Time to get pragmatic. If everyone wore a helmet that should there would not be a need for a law.

Mia
Guest

Hi folks – one of the organizers of the Cornell meeting sent in a note to say that the gentlemen who stormed out actually hung around in the hall chatting for a while. Like many, he felt better once he got it off his chest.

I’ve run into this same comment at just about every public meeting and social event I’ve been at in almost 20 years of promoting bicycle transportation. Two recent ones: at a friend’s house for a party; a friend introduces me to her Dad, says he’ll love my book. Guy next to him asks what it’s about; I tell him; he asks, “tell me this, what percentage of people biking in downtown Portland do you think obey the law.” At parties, I try to diffuse with humor rather than argue (again, never gets you anywhere), so I say, “oh about the same as motorists…” He jumps down my throat… “that’s ridiculous… 90% of cyclists blow through/ride in the lane/ride on the sidewalk/do what they want/ruin my day/have bad breath, etc… Example #2: at synagogue recently a woman came up to me and let loose about cyclists doing this and that. I replied, “Shabbat Shalom (= a peaceful sabbath) to you too.” She later sent me a sincere apology. Apparently she almost hit someone; this I find to be a common underlying experience for those venting. It scared her. Fear provokes strong emotions.

I hope/think you get the point. Arguing the details usually gets both parties nowhere but frustrated… plus it eats up precious time in a public meeting setting. But we can easily agree to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. A public pledge is a strong way to make that point. And finally, we really should model good behavior, no matter how we get around, no matter what we’re wearing. I always think to myself, “Am I modelling good behavior I’d want my kids to repeat?”

Lots more good discussion at my blog http://www.miabirk.com. Thanks Jonathan for sharing my experience and thanks all for the comments.

Mia
Guest

One more thing: I can assure you that neither the organizers nor the rest of the people in the room found my response to be smug or condescending. It was a wonderful moment of unity and a great transition to the task at hand, which was designing a network of neighborhood greenways/bike boulevards for the town of Ithaca.

I think we have a video of it – I’ll check and if so, let you know where to find it.

Happy thanksgiving everyone! Mia

Pete M (formerly just Pete :)
Guest
Pete M (formerly just Pete :)

I enjoyed this article – thanks Jonathan, and thanks Mia for the follow-up comments. I caught a piece of Portland news tonight (KGW?) about a town meeting about a new bridge (Sellwood?) and they showed a clip where a guy said “what about the bikes – they should have registration to help pay for this too!” to a big round of applause. (Yeah, we know how well bike registration programs have fared raising funds).

I credit people like Mia and Rob for coming up with calm, eloquent, clever responses to the rampant ignorance and emotion that most of us have dealt with (yeah, I’ve been accosted by coworkers in lunchrooms with the ‘scofflaw bicyclists’ lectures too many times to count too). Imagine how many times a week advocates are confronted with this crap – it’s their job!

I agree with Elaine; I like Rob’s swimming comparison (presumably it’s true). Having ridden for as many years as I have I feel much safer on a bike than in a car (and I drive lots), but the public’s fear of biking on roadways is staggering! And helmet conversations are always emotional, dividing cyclists between themselves and inevitably bringing up the (apples and oranges) seatbelt/air bag comparisons.

I disagree with earlier comments and believe Rob did a great job laying out a diplomatic stance on helmet use. I’m sure he’s been immersed in the emotional “freedom versus logic” helmet arguments far more than the average BP or Oregonian blog reader! Seeing the number of BTA programs advocating (and teaching proper) helmet use leads me to believe there’s misguided emotion in criticizing Rob and his organization for not ‘talking the talk’ in an editorial.

jim
Guest
jim

Does Sadowsky wear a life preserver when he rides his bike?

Marcus Griffith
Guest
Marcus Griffith

t.a. barnhart: …not wearing a helmet is a choice that demonstrates you should not be trusted with a bicycle.

Really? There are many valid arguments in favor of helmet use, but the “cyclists-need-to-wear-helmets-so-I don’t-kill-them-when-I-hit-them” argument is flawed.

It’s too close to the argument that convenience store clerks should wear bulletproof vests when on duty so armed robbers don’t kill them with gun fire.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

No one ever messes with the hell’s angels. Other bikers yes, but not the mean and burley hell’s angels. Cyclists will continue to be picked on as they don’t appear to be tough. Whom do the bullies pick on — the weak. Get some backbone people.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“… No one ever messes with the hell’s angels. Other bikers yes, but not the mean and burley hell’s angels. Cyclists will continue to be picked on as they don’t appear to be tough. Whom do the bullies pick on — the weak. Get some backbone people. …” mello yellow

Oh great. Just what everybody on the road needs…more outlaw sociopaths to contend with.

Yeah Mia, maybe you should think about what mello yello has to say. Why’d you even bother trying to respond in civil, intelligent, rational fashion to the angry guy that left the room in a huff, when you could have promptly showed him who was right with the swing of a bike chain against his head? Think of all the people that would admire you for showing ‘backbone’. A little jail time would have been worth it, don’t ya think?

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

That’s the spirit!

adam
Guest
adam

one technique I have been trying is to ask the person who disagrees with me what they would do.

I got into a bike discussion with a self identified old redneck who pulled the old, “damn hippie bikers dont pay for roads…” routine. i said, what would you do? he said “ban bikes from the road and build them separate trails.”.

“Deal”, I said.