Friday, June 29, 2012

Physics: the eternal enemy! No, really!

I let it sit for a few days, but I've got to respond to this column in the Ottawa Citizen. I suppose I shouldn't actually expect much from a column that starts out by referring to "nutbar bicycle activists," and I know it's an opinion piece, but it really rankled me. The media leapt onto the "mandatory helmets" reccommendation that came out of the Ontario Coroner's Report on bike deaths, predictably, and for the most part ignored the other 13 recommendations that were made. Seems obvious to me that helmets would get all the airtime: making them mandatory requires minimal effort or accommodation by non-cyclists, and allows the government to brush their hands off and say, "There. We did something about bike safety: we made them all wear helmets." Whew, no infrastructure costs, no long-drawn-out civic fights over street redesigns, and you can even make a little revenue on fines!

But you can always hope for better out of the media. I live in hope. I also live in hope that some day you won't read the words, "The victim was/was not wearing a helmet" in the first paragraph of a report on a cyclist hit by a drunk driver, or a speeder, or someone texting or reaching for a quarter on the floor of their car.

But this article - wow, is it ever typical of the attitude. People who object to helmets are pissed off because helmets ruin their "sense of freedom," apparently. She paints a picture of the freedom of a kid on a bike with the wind in their hair, and thereby implies that cyclists need to grow up and stop being selfish. "Share the road? Hah. The cycling fanatics currently in a lather don’t seem to believe in sharing the road with anyone," she says, as though wearing a helmet had anything to do with sharing the road.

My first main objection is that I think she's lumping a huge group of mandatory-helmet objectors, unjustly, into one set of motivations. I'm certainly not screaming that the "dad-gum gummint" is trying to take away my freedom. I personally see no reason not to wear one, and so I do, but I also don't think they're a panacaea (two friends have been in fairly serious accidents in the last year or so: one broke his rib, the other's doctor told her if she had been wearing a helmet she might have been killed) and I object to making them mandatory because I see it as a cop-out by the government. But it's when she resorts to the good old chestnut that "physics will win every time" that I roll my eyes:

"In any case, that road to be “shared” is actually a transportation corridor, not a leisure route for committed non-drivers with no sense of self-preservation. The concept of sharing it is absurd, like elephants and kittens sharing a cot. The elephant doesn’t mean to crush the kitten to death, but that’s what happens when absurdly disparate sizes and strengths are crammed into a contained space. Flimsy bicycles with unprotected operators have no place on strips of pavement filled with tons of hurtling metal. (And don’t get me started on winter biking. Or those infant carriers, dragged along busy streets by parents righteously clear on their road rights and the environmental virtues of cycling, but somehow less clear on the terrifying vulnerability of their precious cargo.)"

Problems with this whole paragraph:

1. I don't have the numbers, but I'll bet a damn high proportion of cyclists are not "leisure" riders. My bike is transportation.

2. What's wrong with being a committed non-driver? It feels to me like there's an implied judgment there.

3. I have a perfectly healthy sense of self-preservation, thanks.

4. Presuming that the idea of sharing the road is absurd only works if you have already presumed that preferential treatment of cars is the natural order of things. There was once a time when cars did not have priority, and there will be again, I think.

5. "The elephant doesn't mean to crush the kitten to death, but that's what happens." I couldn't find an elephant, but will a Saint Bernard do? They seem to have worked it out.

6. "Flimsy bicycles with unprotected operators" versus "tons of hurtling metal": see my previous post on physics. And check out some of Mikael Colville-Andersen's TED talk data that seem to suggest that proportionally more drivers suffer head injuries on the roads than cyclists. But boy, was that a dramatic description. Really got at the ganglia. So kudos for that.

7. On winter biking: seems to me that cars and bicycles are both operating under the exact same weather conditions, so if it's a bit tougher for bikes, it's absoutely the same amount tougher for cars. So, with all due respect, I won't get you started on winter biking if lyou don't get me started on winter driving.

8. And won't somebody think of the children! Way to go after "irresponsible parents" who clearly have their priorities way screwed up, just look at their (self-righteous, elitist, selfish) cycling! Clearly they don't actually care about their kids. Because that's the sort of assumption you can just make.

Thanks for comparing me to a kitten, though.

I'll embed Colville-Andersen's talk, because it certainly raised some interesting points for me: things I hadn't thought about before, and questions I hadn't asked myself.


  1. Great article and video. You're right, the media has really failed to report intelligently on the subject, and Kennedy's bile-spewing piece is arguable the worst example of that.

    The Globe, however, published this interesting nuanced piece:

  2. Every time I read a comment, or a column like that I just want to rent a semi to smash into them saying "Physics always wins, why were you trying to drive a wimpy car on a road that was obviously designed for cargo trucks"

  3. God, she is the spokeswoman for the small minded small town suburban uptight Ottawa that will fight to the death anything innovative urban or cosmopolitan.

  4. I wrote a comment (scathing, but no bad words) on the article in question. It sat waiting for moderation for a day and then disapeared; I guess it was deemed too mean or something...

    Time and again I promise myself I am going to start ignoring this kind of thing, but it is so damn hard!