- Share the road? (Photo: flickr/Donald Lee Pardue)
"Bicyclists seek special legal advantages not afforded to sexual harassment or wrongful death litigants," Chuck Thies tweeted yesterday morning along with a link to his Huffington Post column, "Bicycling and Equal Protection," published not long before. "Crazy."
Thies co-hosts the D.C. Politics show on WPFW and has now written two columns for the Huffington Post's D.C. page that have helped light a fire on the subject of the District's bikes and cars — and there will, I suspect, be much more fiery emotion directed at bicyclists in the month to come.
Why? At the heart is the subject of Thies' column yesterday: the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's proposed legislation from earlier this summer, which attempts to offer bicyclists additional civil protections if harassed and potentially assaulted by any feisty motorists on the road. A couple months went by where nothing happened ... then a video emerged in early September. A pick-up driver was driving down Rhode Island Avenue and yelled at a cyclist to move his "genius ass" and apparently struck him with his vehicle, knocking him to the ground. The whole encounter was captured on bikecam film. Naturally people were stunned at such callousness. What is to be done? they asked, and WABA of course offered their suggested legislation, modeled after a similar initiative in California. Multiple D.C. Councilmembers responded by introducing the legislation, "Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act of 2011," which is now slated for debate on November 2.
Thies' column yesterday completely tears apart the idea of such a law. The notion is, he says, "hogwash and represents yet another expansion of our increasingly litigious society." His question: Why add more protections to a class of traveler not granted to others on the road? Shouldn't existing laws protect any person from assault?
In theory. In reality, WABA argues in an October 4 post from executive director Shane Farthing, bicyclists run into difficulties regarding the number of witnesses required and in legal fees — and, perhaps most damningly, police did manage to locate the driver who struck the bicyclist in that video yet no charges were filed. The big question there is also ... why?
Thies' most recent Huffington Post column reinforces the notion he brought up in a prior column — that there is indeed some "war" between motorists and cyclists. The thinking that underscores this rhetoric is rather outrageous, but you wouldn't know it by watching the debate the broke out online between Thies and the District's bicyclists.
Several of the District's bike proponents, from chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee and WABA board member Mark Blacknell to WABA's Shane Farthing to Greater Greater Washington's Geoff Hatchard (AKA, @IMGoph) and Michael Perkins, among others, voiced serious objection on Twitter to what Thies had to say. Thies has engaged in an intense dialogue with many of them and delivered in the neighborhood of 20 responses to his column as of mid-afternoon yesterday. Blacknell dismissed him as a "troll."
And yes, there is a rather trollish notion to how Thies pushes his argument, and by the logic of the Internet, I shouldn't be feeding into what would, ostensibly, be "hogwash" in and of itself. But here's my problem and concern — Thies is hardly alone in his views and in his bristling reaction to the different biking communities that have risen up in recent years. When the video above first emerged, many comments online dismissed the assault and failed to blame the driver.
To drive an automobile in the District truly does mean exercising great caution in regard to the number of bicyclists out there — as I've known and observed from experience when driving here — and I see this attitude reflected in the comments and personal remarks from other drivers I know here. Is this a fault of bicyclists? In many cases, no ... and both drivers and pedestrians behave in reckless ways themselves. Yet some drivers react like the pick-up driver in spirit, though less violently in action. They scoff at bicyclists, profess anger, dismiss them. It's a real reaction and reflects how some drivers feel the need to dig in and embrace a motorist pride that's distinctly anti-bike. Are cars threatened? Not truly, in my opinion.
But the editorial board of The Examiner newspaper still felt the need to offer a ridiculous column the night before Car Free Day a couple weeks back in which the staff said we should celebrate the car and call it "the freedom machine." Who would argue that there aren't thousands out there who feel the same?
WABA's concerns are real, and they and the D.C. Council are right to have this debate on bicyclist safety, whatever happens with the legislation. But they're also likely kicking open a hornet's nest of driver rage with this step forward ... one that will pass, of course, with time but one that's very real, very visceral, and very strange to those who don't share the entrenched sense of car paranoia and pride.