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Thoughts on car culture, truck side guards, and the “cyclist community”

Posted by on April 6th, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Just over two months ago 53-year-old Alan Marsan was killed while bicycling on North Interstate Avenue. He was going north and a large commercial truck turned right across his path.

Based on observations from the scene it was a classic right hook. The truck was stopped a few dozen feet from the intersection and Marsan and his bike were lodged just in front of the rear wheels.

That collision was just the latest in a long line of right hooks that have left bicycle riders dead in Portland over the years. As I stood at the scene of Marsan’s death, the names of other people who’ve died in fatal right hook collisions with trucks flashed through my head: Tracey Sparling, Brett Jarolimek, Kathryn Rickson, Kirke Johnson, Lydia Johnson (no relation).

Bicycles, large trucks and right hooks is one of Portland’s most vexing traffic safety problems. It’s maddening that we haven’t made more progress on it in the past decade.

But don’t take my words for it. Here’s what Susan Kubota, aunt of Tracey Sparling, who was hit and killed in a right-hook collision in Portland in 2007, told KPTV in a story they aired last night:

“It’s very disheartening that this is almost 10 years since Tracey was killed, and these things are still happening.”

I could not agree more with Ms. Kubota. One simple step we could take is to require the installation of side guards on trucks. Side guards might help prevent deaths by keeping human bodies away from a truck’s undercarriage and wheels. A study from the United Kingdom (which inspired Seattle’s department of transportation to mandate the guards on their fleet) found they reduced deaths by 61 percent. We could start with City of Portland vehicles and then use policy and public pressure to get private companies to follow suit. But so far the City hasn’t taken that step. Back in February, a bureau of transportation spokesperson told us it would cost about $3,000 per vehicle. They say there’s no money for it.

Fast forward to last night when KPTV aired a report on the issue. Here’s where things get weird.

KPTV’s headline and reporting framed the issue as being of great concern to the “cyclist community.” “Cyclist community pushing for more safety improvements on Portland streets,” read the headline.

As many of you know, I have a big problem with labels like “cyclist community.” What even is that? Am I member? Are you a member? Is Tracey Sparling’s aunt Susan Kubota a member? Are Alan Marsan’s kids and family part of the “cyclist community”? Or are we just regular people who want safer streets? Even though KPTV doesn’t use the label with any intended malice, I firmly believe labels like this are unnecessary and harmful.

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Labels are lazy. They allow us to paint with a broad brush instead of taking the time to speak in more detailed strokes. Labels assume a large group of people share the same motivations and beliefs when in fact no such common cause exists. Labels also perpetuate hate and divisiveness by serving up a tidy basket for people’s anger. Labels are linguistic punching bags — a conveniently gift-wrapped “other” served on a platter for people to take swings at.

And that’s exactly what happened in response to KPTV’s report on truck side guards. I’m quite used to hate-filled comment sections on network news sites. But the six comments (so far) on this story really bothered me. They are all in lock-step agreement that these calls for safer trucks are simply more whining from “the cyclist community.”

The comments above are very telling. These readers — who feel so safe in our car-centered culture that they say these things with real names on comments linked directly to their Facebook accounts — instantly resort to blaming the victims of these crashes. And of course there’s an immediate urge to absolve themselves (as representatives of all motor vehicle operators) of any guilt whatsoever. It’s really sad on many levels.

Would those responses be the same if the headline and framing of the story was, “City officials want more safety improvements on Portland streets”? After all, that’s true. Side guards for trucks are recommended in our Vision Zero plan.

Compare this to how our society responds to a road safety issue that only involves driving. In 2014 there was great urgency around cable barriers on I-5 after several people died in head-on collisions while driving (including the husband of Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz). “Deadly crashes prompt ODOT to rush new I-5 barriers,” read the KPTV headline.

Except in this case, when we have a recurring road safety problem and a relatively simple fix, it’s ODOT and Oregon’s governor who are pushing for the change. And there’s nothing about a “motorist community” “pushing” for changes.

How did people respond to this issue?

“It’s senseless not to have [barriers] when we’ve had so many crashes that have caused injuries or deaths, it just doesn’t make any sense,” one woman told KPTV. “I’m surprised they haven’t already done it. You can’t put a dollar amount on lives,” said another person they spoke to.

And of course there were no comments from readers falsely blaming people the people who died and there were no baseless and completely irrelevant accusations of illegal driving.

The other big difference? The barriers were installed shortly thereafter. To the tune of $7 million.

I can’t help but wonder what the response would be to right-hook fatalities of bicycle riders if the media and society-at-large saw the urgency to fix the problem as coming from anywhere but the “cyclist community.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Champs
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Champs

Trailers don’t need side guards.
Trucks don’t need maximum bumper heights.
Cars don’t need mufflers or catalytic converters.

These things that don’t serve the driver is all nanny staters wanting stuff for FREE.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Side guards are such an easy and obvious (if partial) fix, and will protect motorcyclists as well.

shirtsoff
Guest
shirtsoff

Whenever I am driving, I always assume their is going to be a bicycle over my right shoulder that I have not seen yet (and possibly on the left shoulder as well if I have had my blinker engaged). Why risk another person’s life and safety just to turn casually and “carefree”? Life is too fragile. Whenever I get behind the wheel I never want to assume that it is clear. Headcheck always and assume the worst may happen. If other drivers don’t take driving cars this seriously then they simply don’t take others’ lives seriously either.

Mark
Guest
Mark

The comments *are* very telling. They’re telling me that the people commenting are idiots with no grasp of proper grammar or spelling. When I see such poorly written comments, I disregard them, as I cannot respect stupid people or their opinions.

Asher Atkinson
Guest
Asher Atkinson

Listed in the Vision Zero Five Year Action Plan immediately after truck side guards are sensors, yet they get no mention in the KPTV story, nor in this post. I even went back and read the related post from February 7th, and found no discussion of blind spot sensors as part of the solution, unless I include two out of the 98 comments.

Fortunately, the automotive is making tremendous progress in this area, and it’s driven by consumer demand and insurance incentives. While motorists complain that cyclists should be more defensive, at the same time they opt for ‘driver assistance packages’ in droves, and these safety features are quickly trickling down to base models. I’m sure the same is true with trucks. So while there may be reason for disappointment around the lack of progress in getting side rail protection installed on trucks, find comfort in knowing aspects of the problem are being solved on their own, and without much need for a frustratingly slow ‘action plan’.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

The level of disregard for human life shown in the comments on the KPTV story is appalling. But, to these commenters, half of whom can’t even spell “bicycle”, let alone understand what it’s like to ride one in traffic, it is merely “common sense”. Twister’s a-comin’! Yer a fool to stay outside!

It is so extremely frustrating to me in the era of alternative facts, that the fallacies on which these opinions are based literally cannot be dispelled. Bicyclists are freeloaders. Riding a bike is an activity equivalent to driving a car. Bicyclists constantly break the law, but never get tickets. If I see a bicyclist break the law (or even think I see a bicyclist break the law, even if they’re not), it is then OK for me to endanger them by driving as if they don’t exist.

It’s actually psychologically impossible (or nearly so) to convince anyone who subscribes to them that the sentiments expressed in the highlighted comments are anything other than sound, obvious, common-sense, helpful hints.

And the comparison to the I-5 center barrier in response to motorist deaths is spot-on. I mean, of course it’s common sense in that case to spend millions to protect drivers, who could just drive more carefully, except that they can’t ever be expected to. Sharks gonna bite; can’t blame ’em. No victim-blaming, because in that case it really was the infrastructure, right? I recall a similar uproar over a certain flyover ramp with a defective expansion joint that was causing people to lose control of their cars while disregarding the advisory speed. Something has to be done to fix the infrastructure if poor, innocent, motorists keep crashing.

And it doesn’t stop there! Detours: Drivers get them well-marked, bicyclists usually don’t. Construction zones: motorists are “caudled” (give me a break!) and given every accommodation to get through, bicyclists just aren’t, or are, but only after a complaint. Signs and trucks block bike lanes on 45 mph roads, ‘cuz it’s no big deal, right? The Law: it would have been technically illegal for any of the right-hook victims Jonathan mentions in the article to have avoided the crashes that killed them by exiting the bike lane to merge with through traffic.

But it’s the bicyclists who are doing it wrong, obviously, since they keep getting themselves killed.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

maus…I think you’re trying way too hard to make an association with phrases you mentioned, such as ‘cyclist community’, and the animosity towards people biking, ladled out in the type of comments you highlighted in the KPTV website comment screenshot. The kinds of people writing those comments, are going to resort to the same kind of animosity, whatever the word used to refer to people that bike, as individuals, or as a group.

Those types of borderline crank characterized comments, are ubiquitous to the Oregonian’s online story comment sections, because, I’m guessing, the site moderation is so poor. You can’t really do anything about them, except ignore them and write your thoughts in your own way, encouraging by example, other people to avoid descending into obnoxious self righteous, self absorbed indignation.

I rarely read the comment sections to the O, and when I do, it’s almost exclusively the same dopey blather, entirely. Not worth the time, period, except to check for possible changes in moderation standards there. There are a few serious people commenting, but they have a very hard time keeping a solid, constructive conversation going, with people having no self control

Many comments by a bunch of people, to comment sections of your stories, descend to the same kind, or close to the same kind of dismissive attitude towards people that drive, and also,to transportation dept staff, city council members, the police. I guess as a weblog owner, it’s an ongoing question of where to draw the line on moderation: all fun, or balanced with serious, constructive thoughts contributed.

Ultimately, what those people write, doesn’t matter a whit. They don’t want to think through an issue, or a situation, and work towards ideas for resolving problems…they just want to react, to get something off their chest. release ‘their outrage’, so the potential for a constructive discussion with them, is very low. And I think most people know this, so when it comes time to make a serious decision, the people that write the type of comments highlighted in the KPTV screen shot, won’t be seriously considered…they’ll be dismissed as the nutty extremists they present themselves as.

rick
Guest
rick

I avoid riding northbound on the Terwilliger Parkway to downtown during rush hour because jammed Barbour Blvd has almost protected bike lanes in the car jammed spots. A nice place to ride except for the fumes. Zoom past the gridlock.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Some roads have restrictions for truck weight and height of the vehicle. Not every kind of large truck can go across every bridge or through every tunnel. Why not also designate some roads with heavy VRU activity as “side guards only”. This could be a valuable bargaining chip PBOT could use for negotiations with ODOT.

Andrew N
Guest
Andrew N

This post makes me want to track Jonathan down and give him a bear hug. If only we could squeeze this onto a bumper sticker: “Labels are lazy. They allow us to paint with a broad brush instead of taking the time to speak in more detailed strokes. Labels assume a large group of people share the same motivations and beliefs when in fact no such common cause exists. Labels also perpetuate hate and divisiveness by serving up a tidy basket for people’s anger. Labels are linguistic punching bags — a conveniently gift-wrapped “other” served on a platter for people to take swings at.”

Ovid Boyd
Subscriber
Ovid Boyd

Sigh, really sad. I grew up in Oregon, and have always liked to think or maybe imagine we have a culture that really does think you should care about other people, your actions and your effect on the world, but when people don’t even seem to want to think with care for people literally outside of their passenger window… Well, it just makes me think we need to do a lot better

Andrew Margeson
Guest
Andrew Margeson

First of all, there is no point reading comments on newspaper and television sites. There are so many trolls that spend their days spilling vitriol that it’s not worth your time and will only upset you. These people are not representative of the community and thrive on the attention they receive. Ignore them.

Second, I think it is perfectly natural to refer to this issue as being of interest to the cycling community, although it is an issue that should concern everyone. The station surely believed the story would be of broad interest. Personally, I think that the more publicity that occurs regarding right hooks and the sometimes fatal consequences the better off we are. Most people would be devastated to injure or kill a cyclist and publicity increases awareness of the risk.

I don’t know what realistic steps could be taken to significantly reduce right hooks. I know this though. Having once been very nearly right hooked by a semi in a way that could have been fatal, I basically plan for one unless I make eye contact with the driver. There is nothing like seeing the rear wheels of a semi inches from your head as you dive onto the sidewalk to focus the mind. It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s better than being dead.

Dante Green
Guest
Dante Green

In a sarcastic way, what I find funny about the above comments makes me feel that these are the same people that feel semi’s should see them in their blind spot, wait for them to merge, don’t have an issue with said semi overtaking them and what not. In all actuality, the roles are reversed with people in cars and those driving in semi’s. I bring this up because anytime a semi hits a car, first thing that’s brought up is that people in cars should be mindful of semi’s, don’t do anything drastic, be a defensive driver. I call bs in every sense of the status quo. The same people that want cyclist to be defensive and all the other things mentioned above, don’t want to do the same things when they are driving and a semi is involved. You can’t have it both ways. Respect people walking, riding, in cars, semis, anything. Life is fragile as someone mentioned above. Killing someone to save a few seconds will always be on your heart/conscious forever.

dan
Guest
dan

Hmm, should I be surprised that the guy who works at Uroboros Glass doesn’t care about his community?

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

I agree that certain labels such as “cyclist community” conjure up unhelpful imagery. But we live in a clickbait age where few people seem willing to expose themselves to anything other than short catchy blurbs that validate preconceived ideas.

I thought about this issue as I rode home last night within arm’s reach of a tandem FedEx truck equipped with such guards. My first thought was that the guards are only going to help in accidents where you bounce off the side and are deflected away — if you go down, those wheels are still going over you. I also found I look through and under trucks more than I realized and felt like my vision was slightly obscured and found myself slightly missing the space that the guards were covering. They still struck me as a decent idea and I’m seeing more trucks with them.

At the same time we encourage safety improvements in infrastructure and equipment, we need to encourage safe riding practices. Riding on the right of trucks that might turn is an extremely dangerous practice.

In other areas, people just don’t do this. But I see PDX cyclists doing this all the time (and frequently getting hooked). I’ve never ridden in a car where the driver pulled such a cornball maneuver — this is bad driving for the simple reason that you’re betting your life that someone was looking in the right place during the right couple seconds and you weren’t in a blind spot. If the odds of the driver not noticing you are even one out of a thousand, the math still catches up with you.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Facebook comments in general tend to be a cesspool of ignorance; particularly on local news stories. These aren’t a few isolated trolls, though. I work with people like this, and some of them aren’t afraid to say the exact same thing to your face when you tell them you commute by bike. It’s ugly cultural tribalism, and it seems to be most pronounced in people that lack empathy.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

Cycling is the last civil rights frontier. Society has finally condemned the harassment and belittling of every other minority group for the most part….But not if you are on a bike. Look at the language “want for free”registration” “they never follow the law”…Etc.

Take out the word “bikes” and put in the word “blacks” or whatever minority. Am I suggesting that those who have an irrational hate of bikes are racist? No, I am suggesting they are deep down, bigoted and have the need the need to feel Superior.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

This is bigger than just labels. The automobile manufacturing, retailing, repairing, insuring, road building, and human casualty treatment business is gargantuan. As a society we don’t seem to care what we do to keep it going even though it is killing the planet, killing people by the thousands and driving the people who participate in it insane ( as proved by the comments showcased by jonathan). Cycling is a small, but existential threat to this giant motoring racket. Thus distortion, and disrespect for cycling is the order of the day.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

The trucking companies are so opposed to the side guards. My older sister was a school bus driver for nearly a decade and an independent long haul driver (independent) for another decade. She had side skirts on her semi 55 foot Reefer the whole time. It side guard paid for itself in insurance costs every year she drove with it.
Strangely, many dispatchers would not call her with loads because she had “sissy skirts”. This was in the late 70’s through the 80’s.

JR'eh
Guest
JR'eh

I made the mistake of reading those same KPTV comments soon after the article was published. I wish such sites would either disable comments or take seriously their responsibility for managing comments the way that BikePortland does. While I’d like to think such ignorant and hateful participants don’t matter a whit, as wsbob mentions above, it seems to me they are a toxic influence on society at large. Considering all the handwringing about fake news and the death of journalism, I would expect such publications to stake out strong interactive policies that establish themselves as authorities on truth and rebuild the Fourth Estate’s importance in civics. Apparently that doesn’t pay.
Sad.

Jonathan Radmacher
Guest
Jonathan Radmacher

There are just way too many other significant sources of danger to people all over this community — those who ride their bikes and those that don’t — to be suggesting that right hooks are somehow a disgrace. Vision zero is a great goal, but in a ranking of the most deadly things that happen on our streets, every one of which is tragic, right hooks are undoubtedly very low.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

It seems that there are people that just need to feel that there’s someone else out their that’s inferior to themselves. They probably come from a place of feeling powerless or are feeling guilty of their own misgivings.
In the homophobic days (I know they’re not really over but…) it was the womanizers that were the most likely to complain about gays being promiscuous. This idea therefore made their own promiscuity okay because they could tell themselves that at least there’s someone worse out there.
Instead of improving themselves they invented someone worse.
I would speculate that it’s the worst drivers who are the most anti-cyclist.

I have a friend who identifies as a car-head. He loves cars and knows all the models, etc. (I think that’s a cool hobby and am happy for him.) We’ve gone cycling together and he spends some of the time complaining about cyclists, seemingly not aware that at the moment he is one himself. He can cycle all day and in his mind he still isn’t a cyclist. (To keep things civil, I don’t bring up certain topics with him.) I’m not sure how his mind works on stuff like this.
There’s a couple I know who go on long bike trips together and bike way more than I do but in their minds, they’re not cyclists, but I’m one. Even if I haven’t biked in a month or so, to them I’m still one. I don’t understand how that works. I should bring it up sometime because to me it’s a tool and not an identity.

Another factor is trust or lack of trust of the mainstream news media and the messages it tells us. Some people are versed in it and are sceptical and others just blindly eat it up. To suggest that the bent of a news story is biased or wrong means that all the other things they’ve been told and that they believed therefore could be wrong too. That’s hard to take. It’s better to just not think about that.

I don’t think that cycling is the last civil rights frontier, I think that they will just think up something else in the future. Nobody is safe really. You might think that the category of person that you happen to be in is benign and respected by society and the system but then one day they could decide to demonize you.

It’s pretty sad. I have no answers.

Mark smith
Cycling is the last civil rights frontier. Society has finally condemned the harassment and belittling of every other minority group for the most part….But not if you are on a bike. Look at the language “want for free”registration” “they never follow the law”…Etc.
Take out the word “bikes” and put in the word “blacks” or whatever minority. Am I suggesting that those who have an irrational hate of bikes are racist? No, I am suggesting they are deep down, bigoted and have the need the need to feel Superior.
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Terry D-M
Guest
Terry D-M

“As many of you know, I (Jonathan Maus) have a big problem with labels like “cyclist community.” What even is that? Am I member? Are you a member? Is Tracey Sparling’s aunt Susan Kubota a member? Are Alan Marsan’s kids and family part of the “cyclist community”? Or are we just regular people who want safer streets? Even though KPTV doesn’t use the label with any intended malice, I firmly believe labels like this are unceccessary [Sic] and harmful.”

As a lifelong activist, I firmly agree that labels are REQUIRED for us to move forward in the safer streets movement. Further, there IS an identifiable Cycling Community and denying that is harmful as it enables making us invisible. We are in the age of post-modern identity politics articulated politically partially through the street safety movement.

Who is part of this “post modern” Cycling Community? Well, it depends on your social location. From a sociological perspective there are common interests that bind cyclists. There are clothing traits, common medical problems, Commuter patterns, social networks. We have common language vocabulary, sporting events and group rides where we supply our own mobile music, unique lighting systems and even food. We are building parks designed for us like Gateway Green. What is Pedalopalooza if not a yearly cultural celebration for, and about, the Cycling Community? It is even crowd sourced.

Now of course most “people who bicycle” do not consider themselves part of this “cycling community.”……But those 200 people last night at the Second Anniversary Thursday Night Ride #TNR, certainly seem to.

To me, the denying of our common bonds and unique culture is just as damaging as the victim blaming from those comment trolls which we all have such problems with (which I won’t litigate here). Let me use a personal social movement analogy to illustrate.

As a gay rights activist in the 1990s I was, no surprise, a radical. I identified as Queer before it was cool, and spoke out in assertive, sometimes disruptive ways. I was told, by some (mostly white gay men of privilege) that to “make progress” we needed to “Assimilate to mainstream values.” I was criticized for holding hands in public, not wearing a suit, and “hurting the cause” by speaking out for equal rights and treatment for alternative family forms to the dominant two person couple. The LGBT​(QIA) community did not really exist as our only common interest was same sex attraction…..In their eyes.

If so, then what is the meaning behind gay Neighborhoods? They have all the requirements of a minority culture and many people identify with the Gay Community. Coming out of the closet, being proud of our culture without denial and educating the majority “straight society” is how we made progress. In only two generations we went from mentally ill criminals, survived a plague and came out stronger than ever….mainly because we built on this urban community culture. This political leveraging of Culture, helped us gain fundamental rights, even if more fundamentally assimilated into most levels of mainstream culture was the end result …..As least in parts of the country.

Of course many, if not most, of those who are labeled by society as LGBTIQ would not identify with urban, mostly white middle class, gay culture….but that does not negate this community’s existence. If we had done that historically, the opening this very month of Portland’s first LGBTIQ Focussed Health Center would never have been possible.

I am not only a out and proud gay man, but am a self-identified part of the Cycling Community. The bicycle is part of and colors almost everything I do. I go to cultural events, dates, run errands, adapted our house remodel and is a required part of vacations. Biking is integral to my mental and physical health regimen. We are even training our kitties to ride with us. By comparison, my sexual identity has become a personality trait that is always there, but I have the privilege of living in Portland where equality is the norm. Hence, I rarely think about it while speaking; by comparison I chose my words​ carefully when talking about safe streets and bicycle policy.

To return to my main point, we can talk about safe streets for everyone all we want but “save the children” and Vision Zero rhetoric will only get us so far. We have to learn from the comparative successes of the more radical elements of the LGBT Community and the lack of success of the Assimilationist Log Cabin Republicans…..Use the commonalities we have, whether you identify as part of the cycling community or not, to speak to our common needs. Yes, most “people who bicycle” are just doing it for fun, exercise or as a transportation tool, but calling out labels as being “divisive” makes our biggest strength….invisible.

Instead we need to be proud of our common culture, and use this as a foundation to educate the rest of society about our safety and cultural needs. Come Out of the Closet as part of the Cycling Community, and leverage this for long term cultural change…..In order to reinvent the way American Society as a whole looks at transportation. History tells us top down edicts, laws and even infrastructure will go only so far. It is minds and worldviews that also need conversion. That can only happen if all of us who bicycle out ourselves and talk to those who don’t.

That can not happen without “labels.”

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

Good stuff, Jonathan, but I’m thinking that the label “car culture” also leads in the direction of broad brush strokes. Too bad; it invokes memes I tend to agree with.

DC
Subscriber

Well said Jonathan.

jeremy myers
Guest
jeremy myers

You have valid points but didn’t you also oppose HB 3255? I thought it was odd that you did that, it seemed like a good idea and very minor inconvenience in a city with so much gray skies and low light. That kind of mentality (they should add expensive guards while we should not be required to pay even 3-4 bucks) makes bicyclists sound whiny to be honest.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

How do people manage to believe that the “the cyclists” are going to save them from climate change without thinking someone needs to save “the cyclists” from drivers?