by Scott Slingerland
I believe that most people truly care and have the highest respect for human life, clean air, and clean water. Yet, people are conditioned and desensitized to things that kill us every day—traffic crashes and vehicle emissions.
In 2016, more than 37,461 people in the U.S. were killed in traffic crashes and about 2.5 million more were injured. Traffic fatalities were the leading cause of death for 8–24 year olds, while overdoses are the second overall unintentional cause of death. Of these deaths in 2016, 30,600 people were in cars or trucks, 5,987 were pedestrians, and 835 were on bicycles (Data:NHTSA).
We are… conditioned and desensitized to things that are killing us every day.
As if this weren’t enough, we could add to these numbers an estimated 53,000 premature deaths per year caused by vehicle emissions (Study:MIT), and thousands of other deaths caused by diseases of sedentary lifestyle. Despite this, roads are still getting wider. For a first-world country, why do traffic crashes cause so much senseless heartache? Is this the quality of life that we are striving for? Is this even sustainable? What can you and I do about this?
Slow down. Focus. Drive sober. How about driving less?
People in the Lehigh Valley predominantly drive cars. People don’t walk, bicycle, or ride the bus due to perception of convenience, social status, and safety. Convenience: Living in the Lehigh Valley can be challenging since people need to cover vast distances between home, work, school, after school activities, chores, and visiting friends. You may wonder why are so many people are driving their kids to school these days. Well, leaving that question alone, it can be a puzzle to live close to our needs.
A frugal driver drives about 12,000 miles per year, which is 33 miles a day—that’s probably more than most people want to walk or bike. So, what is the ideal commute distance? Most people say it’s about five miles each way on bicycle, or one mile on foot (both are hour). Is it practical to build our communities within these walking or bicycling distances? Yes, and we are seeing this in the neo-urbanism in some of our cities and boroughs. This isn’t not easy, but it’s possible by prioritizing, planning, and a little luck.
Social status: People don’t often talk about how bicycling, walking, and taking public transport can be looked down upon. When’s the last time you saw a film, music video, or TV commercial where cool people didn’t drive a car to get to their destination? Yet, if you ride your bicycle along a trail or show up at a grocery store, I guarantee that people will be happy to see you because you’ve escaped from the conditioned norm. If you seek out the LANTA bus route that goes closest to your destination, you will have an adventure, and you will feel more connected to community. Besides, your fuel economy on average will be 50–330 pmpg (people miles/gallon).
Can we see a disconnect here? Popular culture is selling cars, but experience comes from vitality and personal connection.
Safety: Mothers worry about their kids, regardless of their child’s age. People worry about those on bicycles and on foot because they see vulnerability. However, speed is a perennial cause of crashes; while distracted driving may be the cause for the recent double-digit rise in traffic fatalities, the bottom line is that most bicycle crashes can be prevented by the behavior of the bicyclist. In fact, almost half of all bicycle crashes do not even involve motor vehicles, and are preventable just by knowing what potential hazards to look for.
The big question is, what can drivers of bicycles do to minimize conflict with drivers of cars, trucks, and buses? The key is bicycling in legal and designate areas, having situational awareness, and cooperating with other drivers. We know the major traffic laws: one: ride the same direction as traffic flow, two: obey stop signs and signals, and three: turn on bicycle lights at night. Beyond the law, there are nuances that make all the difference in how a bicyclist is seen and understood. “Taking the lane” is legal for a cyclist to do to avoid edge hazards, or when it is too narrow to share the road and riding on the edge would encourage a too-close pass, a right-hook, or other turning conflicts. Here’s the key to how a cyclist can minimize confusion and frustration on the part of the motorist—positive and proactive communication. When a following motorist first approaches, the cyclist can acknowledge them. The cyclist can clearly indicate that it is either a good time to pass or that the motorist should wait. When it is prudent, the cyclist can move right and wave to encourage the pass, and then can close the interaction by waving again. This can be a rewarding exchange for both parties, can incrementally change the landscape of driver expectations, and can replace fear-based perceptions with informed awareness.
Communication is also key for pedestrians. By stepping one foot out with a hand in the air, a person makes clear intention of crossing to drivers, and can greatly improve how drivers yield as they legally should. Have an escape plan, but don’t give drivers carte blanche to pretend that the pedestrian doesn’t have the right of way.There is much more that we can do to improve our interaction with vehicles. Autonomous vehicles promise to mitigate crashes caused by human error, yet they may introduce new errors. We can build a rail system or a pedestrian bridge, and they would be great, but that’s for the future. Today, we can improve our preconceptions. Let us shine a light on the now-potential that we have and use it for health, adventure, and a sustainable community.
Dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Antonioli and Liz Rivera.
by Scott Slingerland
Scott Slingerland is the director for CAT—Lehigh Valley Coalition for Appropriate Transportation. He also teaches with Shanthi Project, a group that shares mindfulness and yoga to people in schools, prisons, and other underserved groups.