The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t make bicyclists more visible. Make drivers stop hitting them.

Mandatory helmet laws and glow-in-the-dark spray paint just show who really owns the roads.

A bike lane, where — if you’re lucky — a car won’t try to hit you. Probably. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

About 100 years ago, the auto industry pulled off a neat trick:

It stole the public roadways from us.

See, in the early days of the motor vehicle, there used to be this quaint idea that the person operating the giant machine should look out for other people. Then came mass production and the Model T. Suddenly there were automobiles all over the place, and by the end of the 1920s, cars (or, more accurately, their drivers) had killed more than 200,000 people.

We clung to our humanity, though. Cities called for stricter traffic laws and better enforcement. The auto industry responded by mounting a propaganda war masked as a safety campaign. One of their most successful salvos was inventing the concept of the “jaywalker,” which effectively robbed us of our right of way. (You can read more about all this here.)

It’s still carnage out there now, but we’ve long since sublimated any outrage over death-by-auto into victim-blaming. Crossing the street has long been criminalized, save for the handful of seconds you get when the “walk” signal appears. Effectively, we’ve lost equal access to the public roadways unless we’re willing and able to foot the hefty bill for a car. Instead, what we have is an infrastructure optimized for private vehicles and a nation of subsidized drivers who balk at the idea of subsidizing any other form of transit, and who react to a parking ticket as though they’ve been crucified. Sure, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are all supposed to “share the road,” but see how equal you feel riding in the gutter on broken glass as cars speed by. It’s the American idea of “equal,” an insidious form of inequality in which we pretend the powerful and the weak are exactly the same.

(And no, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be cars. Hey, I have a car. It’s just that cars are like white people and Wall Street — they don’t need any more defending from anybody.)

But all that’s changing, right? Millennials are moving back to the cities and demanding livable streets! Cities are installing bike lanes and bike shares! Every Sunday they close a street in your neighborhood for a farmers’ market, and smiling professionals walk and cycle back to their townhouses to cook up the locally grown organic greens that will fortify them for yet another work week of pricing you out!

[With bike lanes, fewer riders on sidewalks, study says]

The auto makers have changed, too, haven’t they? Sure they have. They’re all friendly and lovable now. No more Henry Ford the anti-Semite — now it’s Bill Ford, Jr., the bike share sponsor. They’re making electric cars and family-friendly “crossovers” with sensors and cameras to compensate for well over a century of culturally reinforced driver obliviousness. Oh, and don’t forget the tech companies: Google and Apple are going to make car crashes a thing of the past, and soon we’ll all be puttering around in a utopia of self-driving golf carts.

Don’t be fooled. What the auto companies have planned is so devious, so insidious, so science-fictionally terrifying that it’s going to make the whole “jaywalking” flim-flam look like philanthropy in comparison:

They’re turning us into cars.

Yes, it’s true. They’re not starting with pedestrians, though. They’re starting with cyclists. The first step is passing mandatory bicycle helmet laws for adults, like the bill that’s been introduced in California (which would also require reflective clothing at night). We’re already at the point where every car-on-bike “accident” (police always assume it’s an accident; drivers are allowed unlimited “oopsies”) is always the cyclist’s fault, and where helmetlessness automatically equals guilt. That’s why whenever you read about a cyclist who’s been injured or killed, the article mentions helmets, regardless of whether this detail in any way relevant. (“The cyclist’s legs were flattened by the runaway steamroller. No criminality suspected. The victim was not wearing a helmet.”)

So why make helmets mandatory? For your safety? Please. Cycling head injury statistics are so ambiguous that even the federal government has been forced to stop exaggerating the effectiveness of bicycle helmets under the Data Quality Act. Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks not wearing a bicycle helmet is tantamount to suicide.  Maybe you’re one of those people who refuses to wear one under any circumstances because they mess up your hair. Or maybe you’re like me and don’t care much about your hair because you’re losing it anyway, so you wear one when you’re riding a go-fast bike in a special outfit but you don’t bother when you’re noodling around town in street clothes. The point is you have a choice.

Here’s why the auto industry, the insurance industry and the officials they lobby want helmet laws. First, forcing people to wear helmets shifts responsibilities onto cyclists and absolves governments from having to build better cycling infrastructure and drivers from having to obey traffic laws. “Want to be safer? We’re not gonna build any bike lanes. They take up too much free parking. Put this foam dunce cap on your head, you’ll be fine!” Done, and done.

Second, helmet laws discourage people from using bicycles for everyday transportation by making it inconvenient, and by making it seem more dangerous than it really is. In Australia, there’s plenty of evidence that helmet laws have done far more to curb cycling growth than to keep riders safer. Take a look at the bike share in Melbourne: Hardly anybody’s using it, because you’ve got to buy a helmet first. Meanwhile, in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where lots and lots of people ride bikes, a helmeted bicyclist is about as rare as a helmeted driver here in America. And yet they seem to be managing pretty well — maybe because they’ve got bike infrastructure, and because they still subscribe to the notion that the person operating the giant machine on public roads needs to be responsible for not killing people with it.

But say you’re willing to strap a foam bumper onto your head every single time you ride your bicycle, even if you’re just going to pick up some overpriced local kale. That’s just the beginning! Because now Volvo — those endearingly safety-minded Swedes — wants cyclists to take “safety” a step further and spray themselves with something called “Lifepaint” so they glow in the dark.

This is just another way for drivers to outsource any and all responsibility for what they do with their cars to other road users. The giveaway? Volvo’s promotional video is full of testimonials, including this one from a driver:

“Putting something on that will make you scream out to drivers like me is a fantastic thing.”

What? How oblivious are you? Nobody should have to “scream out” to you to get your attention while you’re driving a car. You should already be giving it, and undividedly so.

But hey, Lifepaint will look great on your Volvo “smart helmet.”

[Mapped: How hard it is to get across U.S. cities using only bike lanes]

So  politicians want mandatory helmet laws, and auto companies are suggesting we spray ourselves from head to toe with glow-in-the-dark paint before riding our bicycles. At this rate, it won’t be long before you need a license and registration to operate a bicycle, and you’ll be wearing a giant Dayglo bodysuit with illumination circuitry, one of those Australian “smart hats,” and a GPS beacon up your posterior so you don’t get hit by an Apple iCar.

Poof! You’re an SUV!

And that’s when they’ll move onto the pedestrians. You may find cyclists annoying — it’s the American way, after all — but don’t laugh too long. Pretty soon we’ll all be walking around town like Dynamo from “The Running Man.” Say goodbye to non-augmented analog locomotion.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.