In 1973, when I and a large number of others responded to the then-dawning energy crisis by getting rid of our cars and commuting to work by bicycle, we were praised by others and congratulated by ourselves. Ten years later, cyclists have blown it.
Too many of us ride recklessly. We break traffic laws as if we have a permanent right-of-way. We injure or scare pedestrians, cause accidents with motorists, and maim or kill ourselves. With good reason, we are seen as roadway terrors. William Saroyan believed that "the bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind," to which it now must be added that Americans in 1983 are the most ignoble users.
I have only a few statistics and 10 years of surviving the odds of 50 pedaled miles a week, but I can say that what I fear the most on the road are not cars, taxis, buses or trucks but other cyclists. We are dangerous because we are unpredictable. We share the road with other vehicles, but sharing the rules of the road is often something else.
The data suggest we are not the civic-minded, virtuous underdogs up against The Killer Car. In 1981 in Washington, a year in which the 547 reported accidents involving bicycles represented a 10 percent increase over 1980, cyclists were at fault in 49 percent of the accidents and motorists in 35 percent.
What the police state is what everyone can see in open daylight: cyclist lawlessness is rampant. Twice as many of Washington's accidents in 1981 due to running lights or stop signs were caused by cyclists. In the traffic anarchy of New York City, 461 pedestrians were injured by cyclists in 1981.
Before the mid-1970s rise in recreational, commuting and courier-service bicycling, children were the major accident victims. Washington's 1981 figures show a change. The age group 10 to 19 was involved in 40 percent of the accidents, while those from 20 to 34 accounted for 41 percent.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that this is a national trend. The greatest increase in cyclist death rates was in the 25- to 34-year- old age group. In 1980, nearly 1,000 cyclists were killed in accidents.
With the death rate rising and an increase in lawlessness visible in the streets of any American city, cyclists show a rank disregard for even their own safety. "Few bicyclists wear helmets," the Institute reports in its forthcoming "Injury Fact Book." A "review of bicyclist deaths in Dade County, Fla., indicated that the head or neck is the most seriously injured part of the body in five of six fatally injured cyclists."
What kind of lasso should be tightened around the necks of these street cowboys? First it needs to be said that a fair portion of cyclists obey the law. For me, next to my helmet and my prayers to St. Christopher, the law is my surest protection. I keep it, it keeps me. In addition, all of us cyclists have tales of taking motorist abuse. This ranges from deliberate sideswipes that send us flying, to foul language, which is a severe problem for women cyclists.
Three initial reforms are obvious: mandatory helmet laws, licensing of cyclists after age 16 and more safety courses in elementary and junior high schools.
I am uncomfortable criticizing cyclists, being one myself and knowing that many of the Earth's freest spirits are fellow two-wheeled travelers. For years, we thought that motorists were our natural enemies. Us Against Them. Now we know better. We've become as frightening as we always believed motorists to be. It's Us Against Us.
The statistics showing we are accident causers more than accident victims, and that we ride helmetless, can't be ignored. Nor is there much to the argument that motorists do their share of lawbreaking, so why pick on cyclists?
Bicycling need not turn nasty. The simplicity of the machine, the healthiness of the exercise, the freedom from the car addiction: these peaceful joys shouldn't be squandered in the ugly street wars that more and more cyclists seem to relish. In 1973, we were above the battle. We should get back there again.