Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bicycle versus SUV

The Santa Fe New Mexican printed my letter to the editor apologizing, once again, to the owner of the black SUV that I clipped with my bicycle basket.  I further offered to stop by with some black touch up paint.  That's all that I'm able to do.  I worry, though, that I might end up touching up half the bumpers of black SUVs in the city, or else I'll get a call from him saying that he had to pay $1800 to replace his bumper because of a possible scratch.

The letter to the editor format did not give me enough room to tell the whole story, and I think it is a story that raises some interesting observations and interesting questions.

The city built the St. Francis Trail along the side of St. Francis Drive, a busy, eight lane road that runs through the middle of the city.  It connects to the trail system on my side of St. Francis by a new tunnel, and it's very nice having a tunnel to go under the road rather than having to wait at the light to cross with traffic.  The St. Francis Trail is set off from the road quite a ways, so it isn't exactly that most dreaded of bicycle facilities, the sidepath.  In general, I like it well enough, though I have other friends who are bicycle advocates who feel it is useless at best.

Its main problem is that it crosses Siringo Road at an intersection.  Mid-block crossings are much safer for bike trails.  There is also a high school located just up Siringo, so the traffic is very busy, and most drivers don't exactly follow the law.  I've almost gotten myself hit several times, because I've been checking to make sure the right turning traffic is going to yield to me when I cross when the light turns green, (are they supposed to?  it's really not clear), and I've pulled out because I think they're waiting for me, and I want to get out of their way as quickly as possible, when actually the oncoming traffic that is turning left has not stopped for their red light.

The crosswalk that serves as a trail crossing passes through a median that runs down the middle of the road.  Frequently, drivers pull over the crosswalk, which is illegal, but no one seems to be aware of where they are in the road anyway.  The other day, I was waiting for the light to change, and a black SUV pulled all the way over the crosswalk.  To me, it looked like a overtly aggressive act.  I was waiting right there!  In hindsight, he probably didn't even notice.  The way he was parked left me a tiny two foot wide strip of pavement between the median and his vehicle, and I then had to cut back straight so I didn't drift out into the cross-traffic.

"It's tight," I thought, "but I think I can make it."

I had forgotten, temporarily, about my folding WALD bike basket, which I had my backpack in.  I felt it bump against the SUV when I went pass.

"Whew, I'm still upright," I thought.

The driver laid on his horn.

Somehow he caught up to me in the intersection where the trail ends.  I was going straight on Galisteo, and he was next to me in the left turn lane.

"Hey, are you the asshole that damaged my car!"  He shouted.

"I apologize for bumping into your car, but you were all the way over the crosswalk.  I went around you as safely as I could."  I said.

"Is that all you have to say?  Is that all you have to say?!"  he shouted.

"Yes," I repeated.  "I apologize."

"It's not like we bumped into each other in the store.  You caused monetary damage to my car!  You caused monetary damage to my car!"

I was amazed at the level of stress I caused him.  He had to do some fancy driving to catch up to me.  He was heading in the complete opposite direction when I bumped him.  Now, here he was shouting at me about monetary damage.  I was going to offer him the $5 I had in my wallet, but the light turned green.  I'm really not sure what he wanted or why he was so angry, (and I was disappointed that he did not apologize for illegally pulling over the crosswalk, though not surprised).

I sent a letter to the editor of the newspaper as soon as I got to work offering to come by with some touchup paint.  Partly, it is a sincere offer to take responsibility for whatever scratch might have occurred.  Partly, it was to counter any stories he might be telling about reckless, dangerous, asshole bicyclists.  I was very polite and calm during our exchange, and it was an accident.

Here's my takeaway.  I realize that I expect drivers to be assholes, (just like drivers expect bicyclists to be assholes).  If I had proceeded calmly toward him and pointed out that he was in the crosswalk, he may very well have backed up out of the way.  I often have drivers notice me and back up of their own accord.  Most drivers are very decent people who don't have an axe to grind against people riding their bicycles.  I had pre-judged this person as an aggressive jerk who pulled over the crosswalk without a second thought as to who might be using it.  I didn't give him a chance to do the right thing.  I could have been much calmer at the outset.  If I had to wait for another cycle of the light, it wouldn't have killed me.  People often act exactly as we expect them to act.  We should work harder at expecting people to be kind, magnanimous, and beautiful.

My coworker was not as sympathetic toward my side.  She pointed out that people often scratch car doors with their car doors in the parking lot, and it would be nice if people took responsibility.  I've thought about that.  It's kind of irritating when you come out of the store and your car door is scratched, but if someone were to open their door and scratch my car when I was in it, I would expect an apology, but I would feel somewhat embarrassed if they offered me money for touchup paint.  A scratched car door is such a petty thing, it's not worth making a fiscal issue of it.  Cars get scratched.  Who makes a big deal out of a scratched car, unless it was scratched maliciously?

If I had been parked over a crosswalk, (and I have noticed myself doing that occasionally, especially if I am anticipating making a right turn on red), and a bicyclist had bumped into my car trying to get around me, I would have been embarrassed and would have checked to make sure the bicyclist was OK, and would have apologized for being in the crosswalk.  I would worry about my paint being scratched, but not very much.

So, basically, I'm not sure what was going on with that driver.  An apology in return would have been nice.  I'm not sure if I scratched his car.  It's possible with the wire of a WALD basket, and I am truly sorry if I damaged his car because I tried to squeeze past him on the assumption that he was inconsiderate to begin with and probably wouldn't back up out of the way.  I'm happy to buy some black nail polish or touchup paint for him if he calls me based on my letter to the editor. The best I can do in the wake of the incident is work harder not to prejudge drivers and to try to remember I have a basket on the back of my bicycle.

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