Sunday, June 12, 2016

Laws of Nature versus Laws of Man

Is a bicycle accident preventable or inevitable?

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that riding a bicycle in the street is a very dangerous activity.  Just as with motorcycles, the possibility of a collision with a car is pretty high, and the consequences are almost always devastating.

Sadly, there are people in this country who seriously believe that these activities can be "made safe" if we pass laws, enforce laws, or "raise awareness" of these safety issues.   This is, of course, living in a fool's paradise.

You see, there is a difference between the laws of man and the laws of nature.   Mankind makes laws for its own behavior, and they are routinely flouted.  Hence we have a police force and a criminal justice system to try to enforce the laws - and punish those who break them.   But this does not mean the laws are always enforced.   Our laws are imperfect and weak, and they are more often breeched than obeyed.

The laws of nature, on the other hand, are immutable.

What laws am I talking about?   Well, two come to mind.   First, the laws of physics.  Second, the laws of probability.

The laws of physics dictate that when a 4,000lb SUV hits a bicyclist, the bicyclist will be injured severely or killed, and that the motorist will nary have a scratch.   This is not open for debate.  You can do the math, calculate the momentum and forces of impact and come to the same conclusion time and time again.   You don't want to tangle with cars, period.

The laws of probability dictate that if you ride your bike in busy traffic, you will eventually get hit by a car.   The more you ride, and the more recklessly you ride, the more probable it is this will happen.  And because the laws of physics dictate the outcome, it is almost an assured thing that if you ride in busy traffic long enough, you will eventually be seriously injured or killed. 

Some people, particularly "serious bicyclists" disagree with the laws of nature, and believe that the laws of man will protect them.

"I have a right to a full lane!" they cry - even if it isn't quite the law in their State.   "A bicycle is just like a motor vehicle, under the law!"

Perhaps under the laws of man but not under the laws of physics or the laws of probability.

And it is not a matter of people intentionally trying to run over bicyclists as apparently happened over the weekend.   Rather, people are inattentive, distracted, have poor reaction times, or just are losing their faculties as they get older (eyesight, reaction time, hearing).  They may be texting.  They may be drunk.  They may be high.  Yes, some of these things are illegal.  They are breaking mankind's laws.   But mankind's laws are routinely broken and rarely punished.

The laws of nature, on the other hand, are always enforced with deadly precision.

Yesterday we were driving on our island.   We have 20-30 miles of bicycle trails that are separate from our roadways.   If you ride on them, the odds of tangling with a car are very low.    But our roadways are very narrow with no shoulders.   If you ride on them, well, the probability is, you will tangle with some oldster with poor reaction times, poor eyesight, and poor hearing.   Or a vacationer who is distracted, texting, or drunk.   And the outcome will not be pretty.

And yes, I have seen one bicycle accident already here, where a minivan hit a bicyclist, who was lying in the road in a pool of his own blood.  He wasn't dead, but he didn't look all that happy, either.  The van tried to pass, apparently, at the same time the bicyclist tried to turn left, without signaling or even aware the van was behind him (he did not have a rear-view mirror).

The odds are even worse if you do stupid things.   We came across one bicyclist who had the whole "Lance Armstrong Starter Kit" replete with "sponsor" team jersey (although no one was actually sponsoring him), expensive bike, and the whole kit - sans the steroids, as far as I know.  We were trying to pass him in a particularly narrow part of the roadway when he suddenly veered out into the center of the roadway to prevent us from passing.

You see, he was one of these "bicycle rights" nuts who thought that no one should be allowed to pass him, ever, as he has a "right" to a full lane of the road.

And under mankind's laws, maybe he is right.   Of course, by nature's laws, he will end up dead wrong.   Swerving out into the path of a 4,000 lb car is just plain stupid.   You may be making your "point" but you will end up dead.

So what's the point?

This does raise the question, is it safe to pass a bicyclist?  And this is where it gets tricky, and where "serious" bicyclists are utter hypocrites (as are many motorcyclists).

A friend of mine, who is very old, refuses to pass bicyclists, even in a passing zone.   So she tailgates them in her 6,000 lb quad-cab pickup truck.   Is this safer than passing?   I think not.   If the bicyclist falls or stops suddenly, he is instantly run over.   It is better to execute a safe and quick pass than to linger behind a bicyclist for miles and miles.

And I have had people do this to me, too.   I was riding in the road on one of the few occasions I do so, and someone just followed me.   So I pulled off onto the grassy shoulder, eight feet from the road edge and stopped.

The car stopped too.   For some reason, they thought they were obligated to follow the bicyclist forever.   But I had no desire to be at the head of a "parade" of 5 cars going down the road at 15 mph.   No thanks!

No, it is better to execute a safe pass.   And when a car passes you, as a bicyclist, you should stay to the RIGHT and get onto the shoulder if possible.    Not that that is the "law" it is just common sense as the laws of physics and laws of probability are stacked against you.   Swerving out into the lane to "prove a point" is beyond idiotic.   It is suicidal.

And this is where "serious" bicyclists get hypocritical.    When you are trying to pass one in a car, these bozos will swerve out into the lane to "assert their lane rights!"    They believe you should not pass unless there is a passing zone and you can move into the oncoming lane to pass.   Theoretically, this may be the law in some States.  Realistically, it ain't gonna happen.   Just move over, let the cars go by, and get back to enjoying riding without some Buick breathing down your neck!

At the next intersection, however, the same bicyclist who "asserted his lane rights" will then try to "lane share" with you, by riding between cars or between cars and the shoulder to pass everyone waiting at a light or stop sign.   And once they get to the light or stop sign they run the light or stop sign and continue on their way, once again swerving out into traffic to prevent cars from passing them.

(Motorcyclists do this all the time to zip through traffic, and apparently "lane sharing" in some States is indeed legal.  However it is very, very dangerous.  Someone stuck in traffic opens their car door to spit, and you are toast!).

This is asinine.   If you believe that bicycles are "just like cars" and should follow "the rules of the road" then you should follow all the rules of the road.    You can't do this cafeteria style by following only those laws which work in your favor and ignoring the rest.

And speaking of ignoring the rest, when you run a red light or a stop sign on your bicycle, you are really ignoring the laws of physics and the laws of probability.  As I noted in The A-Pillar Accident, rolling stop signs or running red lights predictably leads to an accident, not because of luck or skill, but because of science.   If someone's A-pillar is blocking their view of you, they have no idea you exist.

And yes, I was almost run over on my bicycle just standing at a stop sign when a car driver cut the corner and couldn't see me because his A-pillar blocked the view.   It was only when I was on the hood of his car that he saw me.   And of course, he blamed me for "not stopping" (when I had both feet on the ground!).   Lesson learned (not by him, of course!) - square your corners.   Being lazy and rounding corners and passing into the oncoming lane is just a really bad idea.  Yea, I know, it takes that whole extra turn of the wheel, but it is worth it.

Because of incidents like this, as well as a friend of mine being severely injured in a bike accident, I have pretty much given up on riding on the roads.   If there is a bike path, I take it.   And when I ride on the road, I stay the fuck away from cars.   I keep to the right as far as possible.  If there is a shoulder, I ride on it and let the cars pass.   I am not out to make some political "point" about what the laws of mankind are, because I took a course in physics and a course in probability.    As a lawyer, I understand how weak mankind's laws are, and as an engineer how immutable are the laws of nature.

I frankly don't understand the "serious" bicyclists of the world.  They spend literally thousands of dollars on racing bicycles and say they are doing it "for the exercise".    But when you ask them why they don't get a mountain bike and ride on a bike path, they say, "Too much resistance!  Too heavy!" - but wasn't exercise the entire point of biking?

Of course, not all of these "serious" bikers are this way.   Most get out of the way of cars.   Some ride two abreast, but will revert to single file when they see traffic behind them.   They wear helmets, have rear-view mirrors, wear colorful jerseys, have LED lights, and so forth.  They want to be safe and they don't want to get run over, as they understand the horrific consequences.

But others go out of their way to be dicks - intentionally swerving out when a car comes up behind them, or suddenly deciding to ride 2, 3, or even 4 abreast, when a car comes up behind them.   Legally, they may be in the "right" but morally, I am not so sure. 

It is like the thing with the Lesbian wedding cakes.   It is one thing to be offended when some Christian baker refuses to make your wedding cake.   It is another thing, in my opinion, to seek out Christian bakers and intentionally try to start some confrontation.   And this goes for both sides of that, or other debates.   You can't blame someone for being discourteous when you intentionally set out to make them so.

Bicycle safety means you have to understand the laws of physics and the horrific consequences that occur, with regularity, when cars and bicycles collide.   Bicycle safety means doing everything in your powers to reduce the probability of such horrific events from occurring, simply because they are horrific.  Bicycle safety does not mean seeking out confrontation with motorists, as you have no idea who the motorist is, and what they may or may not do.   You could end up dead, and it just isn't worth it.

I should mention that this is another one of those causation versus probability things, that usually demarcates the young from the old (but not always - the "bicycle rights" doo-doo head we nearly ran into was well into his 70's).   Kids believe that mankind's laws will protect them.  They believe that putting up signs and bumper stickers that say, "watch for motorcycles" or "share the lane" will help reduce the incidence of horrific motorcycle and bicycle crashes.

They believe that "but for" some action by a motorist, or a slick of oil on the road, or a blowout of a tire, or some other causational factor that they will be safe from accident.    It is only when someone fails to do their duty that accidents happen!

And there may be some truth to that.   But as you get older, you realize that the law of probability is inflexible and must often be fed with blood.   If you ride a motorcycle, there is a high probability you will be in a wreck.   If you ride in busy city traffic, the probability goes up.   If you ride like a jerk, it skyrockets.   Yet so many young people get into motorcycle wrecks and say, "Well, if that little old lady hadn't turned left in front of me while I was doing a mile-long wheelie at twice the speed limit through a residential neighborhood, I wouldn't have been hurt!"   In their minds it is "but for" the little old lady turning left, everything would be OK.

In my mind, being older and having been in a couple of wrecks, I see the little old lady as inevitable.   And one of my "little old ladies" was actually an off-duty cop, and a Harley rider of 30 years to boot.   When Police Officers can negligently run into you, all bets are off.  And they do, too, as Police Officers are human like the rest of us.

For bicyclists, it is the same story.   You may argue that if everyone obeyed the rules, you would be as safe as in your Mother's arms.   And that might be true.  But it ain't likely to happen.   What is far more likely to happen is you do get injured or killed.  Every day, two people lose their lives in bicycle/motor vehicle accidents.   Statistically, this is a small number of people in a nation of 330 million.   However, statistically, it is a far larger percentage of the number of bicyclists out there, as bicycling is just not very popular in the USA, while driving is.   In terms of the number of man-hours spent bicycling in the USA, it is probably an appalling number.

Pedestrians fare far worse - clocking in at 12 per day.   But there are far more pedestrians in the world than bicyclists.  A pedestrian is someone who parked their car.  And crossing a street is sort of unavoidable.

And of course, the injuries are reported at about 50,000 per year for car/bicycle accidents.   And by injury, we could mean anything from a skinned knee to months of reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, as my friend went though.  Maybe it isn't as bad as dying, but it isn't any Swiss picnic, either.

So what's the point of this?   Well, what you learn from this can be applied to all different areas of life.   If you engage in high-risk behaviors, you can expect bad consequences to occur, as the law of probability will eventually catch up with you.   If you drive recklessly, speeding and tailgating all the time (which some folks think is "normal driving" - I know I did at age 25!) you can expect to get into accidents or at least get tickets and your insurance to soar.   Whining that it is "unfair" and that those "mean insurance companies" are "just out to make money!" isn't helping your personal situation, even if you could pin the causation on them (which you can't).   The laws of probability kick in, and insurance is all about the laws of probability.

Similarly, if you engage in risky financial behavior, odds are you will end up in trouble.   Rewards cards with high interest rates sound like fun, but if you can't off the balance even for one month all those "rewards" are flushed down the toilet in short order.  And no, blogging about how your bank is mean and rotten isn't going to change this.   Nor is voting for Bernie Sanders.

Believing in causation as the source of your difficulties is a form of externalizing.  It is a way of relieving yourself of personal responsibility.   When you take risks - and we all do on a daily basis - we have to take responsibility for the outcomes, both good and bad.

Increasingly, it seems as a society we want to do the reverse.   We want to take risks and when they turn out in our favor we want to reap the rewards.  When they turn out to our disadvantage, we want to avoid the consequences, blame other people or institutions, and somehow "pin" the cause on to a single person, company, or government agent.

It is a popular sport, to be sure.  But one that leaves you with little satisfaction if you are bleeding out on the pavement.