Sunday, November 14, 2010

As if you live in the early days of a better nation

When I was a kid, I biked to school. These days, lots of people will tell you that kids don't bike to school because it's too dangerous. While it is true that these are dangerous days, giving in to fear doesn't make things safer. Parents driving their kids to school instead of letting them walk, bike or take the bus puts even more cars on the road. It may be that the greatest risk to a child is being struck by the vehicle of well-intentioned parent dropping their child off at school.

I have to add that "may be" qualifier to this post because I've been unable to find hard data to back up an oft-used quote (I've used it myself) that "Fifty percent of the children hit by cars near schools are hit by vehicles driven by parents of other students." Here is a link to a 2004 article containing that quote, but while it's a good sound-bite, there is no link to data. The people at PolitiFact are are better at digging than I am and they came up empty. The 50% stat may in fact be true or the real number could be higher or lower, but I'm going to stop using that line when I talk to people about safety and cycling. I'll still champion the position that we're safer with fewer cars around schools but I'll manage to work towards that goal without a nifty quote that I can't back up.

While we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, choosing the wisest course of action based on logic and data, we have big blind spots in our thought processes. The phenomena of illusory superiority (sometimes called the Lake Wobegon Effect) causes us to discount the dangers we add to a situation and amplify the perceived dangers that we think of as "out of our control". A child on a bus is much safer than a child in their parents car (OK, I've got a link for this one!) but because we have this tendency to think of ourselves as above average, we're certainly not adding to the problem by driving to school or work or whatever.

But we are. I read the comments that come into this blog and I try to think about them. I sure don't have all the answers and when somebody disagrees with me, I try to look at their point. Sometimes I wind up changing my view. Sometimes I wind up changing my approach. Sometimes I wind up restating my position or asking for a clarification. Recently, in a comment to a post of mine titled "Life'll Kill Ya" a commenter who owns a company that makes bikes in Portland Oregon "a Platinum-level bike friendly community" concluded his thought-filled comment with the words "if I had my way, I would force my employees to drive cars for their own safety and my peace of mind."

I disagree with that commenter, but I understand his viewpoint. I certainly disagree with his idea of "forcing" people to behave in accordance with his view of risk. I also have to wonder if he "had his way" would that in any way make the streets of Portland safer or better for his employees? I certainly believe his concern is genuine, but I also believe that our actions build our world.

It's natural and good to be concerned for others, our friends, our employees, our kids, but with we can easily over-fear and often we fear the wrong things. I'm not certain of enough my own assessments of risk and reward to compel anyone to do anything my way. But I ride my bike and I'll continue to suggest that riding bikes is a good way to make the world a better place in which to live.

My favorite Glasgow pedestrian, Alasdair Gray, is fond of saying, "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation." The kids in Oak Cliff are doing just that with bicycles and root beer floats. I think that's something worth doing.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA
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