NPR Story on Aggressive Drivers Normalizes Motorists

In a story on All Things Considered, NPR reporter Mandalit del Barco uses the road rage conviction of Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson to discuss the perceived growing tensions between cyclists and drivers in Southern California, and by implication, how the “problem” unfolds nationally.

(I listened to the first edition on the East Coast feed on WFCR, Amherst MA – ed.) The transcript can be found here.

The story begins with some numbers regarding cyclist fatalities and injuries:

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic crashes killed 716 cyclists last year and injured 52,000 people riding bikes, trikes and unicycles. That includes recent fatalities from Brookline, Mass., to Portland, Ore. But unlike the Los Angeles case, Mooney says drivers who kill or injure cyclists are rarely convicted.

The problem of driver convictions is made plain. Importantly, the story does not mention that there were 39,800 total motor vehicle-related deaths in 2008 (a record low!). Certainly, cars and trucks represent a threat to cyclists. But the numbers make clear the fact that motor vehicles are deadly for tens of thousands of people every year – a vast majority traveling in cars and trucks. These numbers remain stark, even in light of the millions of miles traveled.

Yet, del Barco uses the Thompson case from early this year to dig into the issue of motorists’ growing resentment toward cyclists:

The Mandeville Canyon driver’s reaction was perhaps an extreme example of the everyday resentment heard from other motorists.

“These bicyclists are extremely rude, and they take up the road — four, five people at a time,” complained one caller to NPR member station KPCC’s show AirTalk. The caller said he lives in Mandeville Canyon, and he has had it with cyclists.

“When you pull up alongside them and ask them to stay out of your way, they yell at you,” he said. “They’re extremely provocative, they’re asking for trouble, and this is not the worst case that’s going to happen. Someone’s going to get killed, and to be frank with you, the residents aren’t going to feel too bad about it.”

This story constructs the problem as cyclist behavior, not the aggressive driving, honking, and impatience. This frame is strengthened by two subsequent passages from the cyclists’ “side.” The first tells of reasonable but lawless behavior:

“When I see the light turn red, I try to race as fast as I can through it,” she says, “because I know I will have a block of peace and quiet, where there won’t be cars behind me.”

And the second provides an example of cyclists complaining bout law-breaking cyclists:

But even Thompson and another bike blogger, Ted Rogers, disapprove of reckless bike riders who maneuver through traffic as if playing a video game.

“Oh, we hate these guys,” says Rogers. “We absolutely hate them. The driver you tick off is the one who’s going to run me off the road.”

These instances are not out of the ordinary. For responsible and safe cyclists, sometimes running a red light is safer (like waiting to make a left turn) than standing in the middle of an active intersection like a sitting duck. And much of the “problem” of cyclist behavior comes from irresponsible riders who flaunt both safety and the law.

This story has some real positives for cyclist safety – it gives advocates a voice and lays out the danger that motorists facilitate. But the overall tone of the story is that the problem lies in cycling, if not specific cyclists. We have a right to be on the road, and we should be treated as normal. Most motorists are patient and friendly in my own experience. But also in my own experience, far too many drivers are aggressive, rude, and outright dangerous. Why aren’t motorists and motor vehicles treated as a variable here? In this story, it is the cyclist who causes things, not the drivers. del Barco, in effect, further normalizes “motorism” and implicitly marginalizes cycling as a normal, appropriate, and legal method of travel.

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6 comments

  1. dukiebiddle

    I think my favorite part is this quote: ““When you pull up alongside them and ask them to stay out of your way, they yell at you,” he said. “They’re extremely provocative…”

    Yes, when the driver rolls down his window and politely suggests that the cyclist does not belong in the road, cyclists become rude and impertinent. The gall?! I am sure that this caller is just sweet as sugar when he or she is telling cyclists to stay out of their way. Never mind that the driver has no right to make such a demand.

    With that said, I think it is important to note that 99% of drivers share the road with us safely and courteously. It’s just that 1% that don’t seem to stick out in our minds more.

  2. reverend dick

    VROOM! VROOM! Whoooosh!
    “FAGGgggggggggggggggggg…”(dopplers out)

    Makes sense to me. Hear it all the time. A well aimed soda cup or whatever is handy also gets the point across.

  3. Esteban

    Sam – sure – of course! Thanks!

    Dukie – this was the point I was trying to make – most drivers are very polite and safe – but many are dangerous if not just rude. Too many, considering the danger of driving motor vehicles.

  4. BicControl

    Great piece, Esteban.

    Do you mind if we post it up on Bic Control? We’ll cite your name and include the link to the original location of your piece–Velo-Flaneur.

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