Car Insanity

6 minute read

Drivers will blindly pilot a car into an oncoming lane rather than wait literally 20 seconds

Over the last couple of years I’ve taken to riding an electric bike. You should too, it’s great. It’s the things that are good about bikes, without the necessity of it being an exercise activity. Where I live in Atlanta, you are always one hill away from being covered in sweat, and so a little support is welcome.

Another advantage of the electric support is that you tend to ride closer in speed to cars. This is more fun for the bicyclist and more tolerable for the auto driver. An electric bike traveling 20mph is going slow by car standards, whereas a bike traveling 10mph is almost stopped from the perspective of a vehicle that can accelerate to 35mph with a slight increase of pressure. That extra 10mph makes everyone happier.

The one thing that slows me down is a hearty hill: if I’m not really pushing it on pedals my speed can drop down to the low 10s, thus, from a car’s perspective, resembling a discarded box or some other stationary object that has unfortunately ended up in the middle of the street.

This situation fills motorists with a powerful urge to pass which I do not see at higher speeds. It is a compulsion, like withdrawing your hand from a flame. They simply couldn’t not do it. However, this is a bad moment for this urge: the very hill that slows down a bike also makes the oncoming lane of traffic unseeable. And the same is true for the oncoming lane: in the event both cars crest the hill at the same moment, there would hardly be a moment to break before their bumpers met.

I’ve seen this almost play out a few times, where a car had to scramble back into its lane to keep from hitting a suddenly revealed oncoming car. It has been fortune that had them pass untouched, instead of collide at a combined 60mph. I am a good enough person that I’m always glad when these collisions don’t happen, but I am also a bad enough person that I’m a bit disappointed when they do not.

A thing to remember is that while 10mph is slower than a car might take a hill, it is not in fact stationary, and it is much faster than a discarded box. Atlanta’s landscape rolls, and with few exceptions, an incline will transition to a slope in a few hundred meters. Usually we are talking about a 20 second trip up a hill before the visibility improves. Objectively, risking a blind collision for a delay of 20 seconds feels like a terrible tradeoff to me. I always wonder what the driver thinks in the wake of one of these encounters. Do they recognize the it was a lapse of judgement? Do they blame the bicyclist for “making” them pass? Or do they not think about it at all? Beats me.

When I was a driver

So this might sound like a bit of a screed, but like all good screeds, this projected judgement comes from a reflection on my own behavior. I remember this compulsion from when I used to drive, inching forward at a stop light. Wanting to get around a car driving several MPH slower than I desired. What does that accomplish? And yet most drivers do it. Any amount of space that can be claimed must be.

In the US, so much of our transportation investment was pushed into cars. It’s an ingredient in the soup of the country. Cars are good for hundreds miles of rural areas, with the United States certainly has, as well as for a way to avoid being near poor people or whatever minority or religious group you’re afraid of, which sadly is also still a potent desire.

Cars are magnificent, they are incredible feats of engineering that have been improving for over 100 years. The cheapest car you can buy in the US can go faster than 80mph and will likely last for 10+ years with normal maintenance. This is in no small part due to us collectively pushing all the transportation chips into the pot.

Driving requires constant attention, yet you do it reclined and bathed in likely the best stereo environment you have access to. If I had a car today I’d probably have a playlist, “songs that sound great in cars”. It’s a genre, typically base-heavy jams you feel cool cruising to. Simultaneously, you’re a misjudgment away from straight up assassinating someone. Or maiming yourself. Where else do these opportunities exist in our lives?

In college I worked on grounds crew and there was a small fleet of trucks we would use to haul around mowers and the students who pushed them. One was an old, small truck whose power steering had broken. Turning this vehicle took a fair amount of effort: nothing a scrawny college kid couldn’t muster, but not the effortless guidance you could provide with an outstretched arm. One day we decided to see how fast this elderly truck could go. We found a straightaway and pushed the peddle down to what was left of the floorboard (there were some cracks where you could see the road through the floor of this truck). We brought it up to what felt like a terrifying speed, where an error in judgement would send us careening off the road. It was about 45mph.

A Toyota Corolla, the most canonically average vehicle in existence, could have gotten up to 80+ on this stretch of road and still felt comfortable. You could drive that fast while listening to the Indigo Girls, it’s that unremarkable. Of course, that’s also a speed where a pedestrian would be completely devastated by a 2000+ pound missile of suburban commuting.

Car helmets

In a previous career I heard about a driver who fell asleep, entered the oncoming lane of traffic, was hit by a semi, AND LIVED. That’s impressive, and a product of decades of safety engineering. In early days of of cars people were routinely impaled by steering wheels. Today, steering wheels convert into pillows on impact. It’s a wonder, although small consolation to a pedestrian or bicyclist who might get involved. Despite this, for most people, driving is one of the more dangerous activities they engage in.

Bicyclists are encouraged to wear helmets because they can protect the noggin in the case of certain types of impact. We kind of see this as table-stakes for responsible biking. But the same risks exist for driving. And walking, for that matter (because of possible interactions with cars). Why don’t we wear helmets all the time? I don’t know what you thought I meant by “safe sex” but I’m going to insist on helmet use.

Helmets are uncomfortable and a ridiculous compromise. Transportation is so necessary and common it just can’t be that heavy metal. Countries with bicycling cultures do not push helmet use, it is the domain of cultures where we discourage bicycling by making it dorky and uncomfortable.

The great equalizer. Reverser?

A few years ago I came to a realization: I’m a big dude, and to some extent that is just implicitly threatening. I weight 100lbs more than many women within the height/weight bell curve. Proportionately, I am to a small woman as “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones is to me. And that is one big dude. Men have (rightly) been criticized for thoughtlessly, or perhaps even aggressively, wielding this power. Anyway, I’ve tried my best to adjust to this, provide space, give off a pleasant vibes, etc. Hopefully no one is feeling uncomfortable passing me on the sidewalk, aside from their robust sexual attraction.

Let’s imagine tomorrow a spell is cast and women became significantly larger and more powerful than men. When given the upper hand would they still perpetuate the behaviors they lament? Well gang, I have the answer. There’s a place where this dynamic exists: when I’m crossing a road and small woman is piloting a 5000lb SUV. Yes, turns out she absolutely will aggressively roll towards me in this machine that could literally kill me. Those women are not universal in the driver seat, but they aren’t rare either. A win for gender equality? I suppose, but doesn’t feel like a win.