Bicycle Diaries: Our bill of rights, Part II

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Our bill of rights, Part II

Last Sunday, Matt was instantly killed by an SUV going east on Irving Park Road as he was crossing a 3way intersection north on Lincoln Avenue. In ordinary circumstances, this would've been a personal tragedy for Matt's wife and family and a public tragedy for our bike community if it weren't for 2 extraordinary facts:
  • Matt was racing in the Tour da Chicago.
  • And to win, he blew through a red light.
But first some background: The race is a six-stage alley cat that's been going on for 8 years here in The Windy City. Alley Cats are illegal, or at the very least condemned, in every city where they take place. The usual rules of the road do not apply. Winning requires each biker to take extreme physical risks buzzing through often busy street traffic. Not surprisingly, many of them acknowledge that it is precisely these risks, as well as the illegality, which are the biggest thrills of an alley cat. As Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, has commented:
It's an event inherently designed to have people break rules and break laws. It provides a competitive incentive, almost, for people to run red lights.
The risks of the Tour da Chicago are at least no different, and perhaps greater, than other alley cats. Daniel Burnham's famous north-south & east-west street grid is shot through with is 26 diagonal streets, 6 of which form the city's busiest intersections. And I personally know how dangerous The Irving Park 3way can be. My commute to and from the Loop takes me through it every work-day.

Unlike 2way intersections, this particular 3way forces bike commuters to navigate through soft left and right turns as well as the more usual hard ones. This poses increased risk for 2 reasons: There are only left-turn lanes on each of the three streets and cagers won't necessarily indicate how hard to the right they're going to turn.

So when a biker consciously disregards the lights, they're certainly courting death. The prizes for a win in The Tour da Chicago are a bike jersey & bragging rights. Why a successful catering executive with a wife would die for those is beyond me.

One thing I do understand is that I'm angry. Matt's tragic, illegal choice has thrown the bike community, and me, into an inane controversy over our legal responsibility to share the streets with cagers.

Just how inane it has become is illustrated by the ABC Chicago 7 report from last week. In it, comments by Alex Wilson, the founder of West Town Bikes, are taken completely out of context. Here's an email he subsequently sent to the reporter.

I am disappointed with your investigative report titled "The Alleycats" about the death of bicyclist Matt Mager. I feel that my points on the dangerous environment that we all live in because of auto use were not represented and that your report misrepresented me as an organizer and supporter of these unlawful and dangerous races.

I was skeptical to speak with you on camera during our phone conversation before filming and even asked what the tone or view of what the piece would be about. You assured me that you were just trying to get details and perspectives on the event that led to Matt's death and that it would not be an editorial piece. The piece "The Alleycats" reported very little on the actual events involved in Matt's death and chose to focus generally about unsanctioned bike races on city streets.

Over the phone and in person I gave you my perspective that we live in a culture and infrastructure that has been designed to let tragedies like this happen. I brought up that we all know someone that has been killed or severely injured because of car crashes and that as a culture we choose not to address the larger issues that car use causes, such as over 40,000 Americans being killed each year, hundreds of thousands severely injured, health related illnesses, environmental damage and the poor political position it has put the US in because of our world policies to acquire resources to feed our car addiction. I also commented that it is your responsibility as a journalist to report this larger story to the public but I was skeptical that you would because of the media's funding through advertisements by the auto and oil industry. You assured me that your reporting is not affected by these influences and that my point would be fairly represented. Boy, was I ever duped into being a sucker.

"The Alleycats" report was a sensationalistic piece of work that took a complex issue and simplified into a radical dichotomy that quoted me out of context in order to make compelling sound bites that polarizes the viewing audience into believing that one individual interviewed was the "good" cyclist and the other the "bad" without ever really raising my points. I am not an organizer of alleycat races, I do not advocate breaking the law and this was not clearly made out in your report.

I have received several emails in response to your investigative report insulting me and the work that I do without knowing me or the true causes that I believe. I have been told in these emails things such as "Do us all a favor, Alex.....hop on your bike, and ride into the lake.", "You have to be kidding, because if not, you should just die now." and "Any decent attorney is going to tell you that your appearance on ABC 7 opens you up to a "deep pockets" liability suit to be brought by anyone who was injured by one of these unsanctioned, illegal races that your store clearly supports.". I don't believe that any of these people received the message I meant to purvey and surely viewed me in a poor perspective because of how this report was presented.

Your report has damaged my and West Town Bikes reputation and done nothing for car/cyclists relations. I have learned to be even more skeptical of the media and not step in front of the camera especially if a controversial topic is being reported. You have also showed me that there really is no such thing as journalistic morals or ethics, just whatever it takes to write a story. I will look elsewhere for informative and unbiased reporting.

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Anonymous Karl McCracken said...

Last February (2007), Jordan Wickington was killed by motorist, Kiera Coultas in Southampton. He'd ridden through a red light, and she was driving at 45 mph in a 30 zone, while texting with her cellphone. (Details on this BBC page)

Most of the coverage here has been polarised though, like the ABC 7 report. It's either "irresponsible, idiot driver kills cyclist" (most of the regular press), or "crazed, law-flouting cyclist ruins innocent woman's driving life" (mostly on blogs & car-oriented media).

The truth is probably somewhere in between - precisely the point that pre-editing, Alex was probably trying to make. Running a red light is a stoopid thing to do, and doubly stoopid when you're cycling, where your crumple zone consists of 1/8" of flesh, 1/4" of bone, and a film of fluid that supports your brain.

However, when you're behind the wheel of a couple of tons of metal, the consequences for others of your actions, and the level of responsibility you must take are significantly higher. Basically even with an effective impact speed of only 30mph against an un-caged victim, you'll exceed the human body's 200G practical shock limit by a very uncomfortable margin.

In Matt's case, there's no telling if the driver was paying attention, distracted, or out on his own personal race to beat the lights & get home early. The tragedy of Matt's death though is a lesson for us all though - both on two or four wheels.

Cyclists: Remember that cars, buses, lorries, and in fact, pretty much every other vehicle on the road can kill you in an instant, and the drivers don't even need to want to kill you for this to be the result.

Drivers: Remember that cyclists are actually human beings like you. They're made of the same brittle, fragile stuff as you, but they're not protected by the several tons of armour you're wearing.

2/3/08 16:43  
Blogger Dingbat said...

On a slightly cheerier note, WTTW's Chicago Tonight did a piece on winter bike commuters that aired last Tuesday (the 26th). They promise a link to the show on their website soon if you haven't seen it. It was really quite excellent at pointing out, from a variety of voices, all the fun and benefits of bike commuting year-round. I was interviewed for the segment, and I have to say that, though I felt like I'd been a complete moron on-camera, the producer, Jay Shefsky, did an excellent job of making all the important points stand out from all the folks he interviewed.

There is good journalism out there--that is comes from public media may or may not be a surprise.

3/3/08 09:26  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Thank you both for your comments. In one way, at least here in The Windy City, the level of debate over Matt's death and the increased media coverage of such bike initiatives as BikeWinter appears to indicate both the growing popularity and curiosity of biking in general.

Therefore, dealing with challenges posed by The Tour da Chicago should become as important to bikers as they are to cagers.

3/3/08 10:31  
Blogger Fritz said...

I've been interviewed a handful of times about bicycling issues, and I've learned that it's very important to just repeat the one or two messages you believe are important. If you ramble, the reporter will find the sound bite that's the most interesting or compelling or controversial. Don't mention the side issues or filler detail because that's what the reporter will highlight.

3/3/08 14:19  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...

If you've ever been deposed for a legal proceeding (I have!) the same rule applies: take time to think thru your answer, keep it brief, and no riffs.

3/3/08 15:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading Chuck's email to the reporter, I think he made a mistake. When discussing the specifics of a bike / car crash in which a cyclist is injured or killed, raising the issue of the larger context of automotive death in this country is a canard, the point of which will likely be completely missed by the reporter. Matt's death was entirely preventable by Matt. Incidents like this are entirely preventable by not racing on open streets. So instead of focusing on that obvious reality, Chuck changes the subject. Imagine the outrage cyclists have if motorists deliberately engaged in a mass group race, whose very purpose involved violating traffic laws as a group. We have the same kinds of discussions here in NYC; when a cyclist is killed in a bike / car crash, the cycling community automatically assumes, frequently without or even against any evidence, that the motorist was at fault, despite widespread evidence of cyclists poor traffic skills here. The knee-jerk "closing the ranks" reaction that substitutes for objective analysis serves the cause of cycling poorly, and does little to prevent other cyclist fatalities.

6/3/08 09:17  

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