By Phreddy Wischusen
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Detroit is most beautiful seen from the saddle of a bicycle. Our streets are wide. The land is flat. Traffic is light. On most mornings, the city is so quiet you can hear the crackling staccato of a pheasant over the persistent whispering cadence of your chain. All those features make bike travel the ideal way to truly see what is so often overlooked in this wide, magical land.
The process has beauty, the harmony of breath and movement drawing elegant lines over the city’s grid. Your skin is a satin sheet between the hot blood pumping within and the cool air without. You learn to hear every sound, distinguishing one kind of traffic from another, one birdsong from the next, the way the wind sounds different in every tree it caresses. If you’re rolling slowly enough, you can hear whole paragraphs of human conversations, exclamations and exhortations.
There’s only one thing that can take away the magic that bicycles weave between you and this beautiful city: the looming chance that at any minute, someone in a car can kill you.
I’ve been hit twice. My dad has been hit. Many of my friends have been hit. According to MichiganTrafficCrashFacts.org, there were 1,981 car/bicycle accidents in 2012, which injured 1,598 cyclists and killed 20 of them.
I’ve had many people say to me, “Why don’t you just ride on the sidewalk?” The sidewalk is more dangerous. Cars turn into and out of businesses through driveways that intersect sidewalks, and cyclists on sidewalks intersect driveways. Drivers aren’t in the habit of looking for cyclists. Cyclists get hit.
The Michigan Vehicle Code dictates, “A person operating a bicycle upon a highway or street at less than the existing speed of traffic shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except as follows: …
“ … (c) When conditions make the right-hand edge of the roadway unsafe or reasonably unusable by bicycles, including, but not limited to, surface hazards, an uneven roadway surface, drain openings, debris, parked or moving vehicles or bicycles, pedestrians, animals or other obstacles, or if the lane is too narrow to permit a vehicle to safely overtake and pass a bicycle.”
These exceptions are constant. Lane sizes change. Cars are parked. By design, all roads slope gradually away from the center line to keep the surface dry. That design feature also accounts for the fact that broken glass makes its way exclusively onto the far sides. And unlike cars, a bike doesn’t have steel belted radials to protect it.
Over 60 percent of car/bicycle crashes in 2012 happened when both parties were going straight ahead — ostensibly when bicyclists reacted to the constantly changing roadside hazards, causing drivers, who were going much faster and were much less aware of the world outside their rolling upholstered bubbles, to hit them.
There’s been a good effort to build more bike lanes recently. Statistics show that less accidents happen when bike lanes are present. The problem with bike lanes, however, is two-fold. Firstly, bike lanes are great, until you arrive at an intersection where they suddenly disappear.
The lines just end and cyclists are on their own where cars stop too far forward, make sudden turns, zoom through yellows and generally never look once for cyclists — instead watching for other cars coming onto them. Plus, I see people merging into bike lanes all the time to try and get around other cars in preparation for making a right turn. Secondly, less accidents in the bike lane isn’t good enough — even one accident could mean my death. Or paralysis.
People in cars don’t have the same things at stake as cyclists. The average new car built in 2010 weighed 4,009 pounds. The worst damage even a 220-pound cyclist like me can do to a car is scratch the paint or break a headlight. For me, getting hit by a car is the equivalent to getting hit by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and seven adult male grizzly bears at the same time.
The only safe place to ride is right in the middle of the lane, where cars have to see you because you are in the center of their line of vision, where they are watching for other cars, the only other things that threaten them. And if drivers are in a hurry, if they get annoyed slowing down behind a cyclist — well, that’s just too bad.
So until the bicycle laws change, I’m practicing cycle disobedience. I’m riding in the middle of the lane. That’s as far to the right as it’s possible for me to go.
For more information on Michigan bicycle laws, check out this blog: www.m-bike.org/blog/laws