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Share the road, save a life

Birmingham Weekly: Share the road, save a life

By Weekly Staff

By Jenny Dorgan

Dorgan is the latest in a series of Birmingham environmental activists who are contributing articles to Green Space this month.

Many of us have happy memories of our first bike, our first wobbly sprint without training wheels and our first skinned knees and elbows. Bicycles are a part of American history and have been credited with the development of everything from women’s bloomers to the improvement of our roadways before the automobile became part of mainstream culture.

Cycling can improve the quality of life. It can contribute to better connected communities, cleaner air, less traffic and healthier citizens. As the League of American Bicyclists points out, “Bicyclists don’t take up a lot of space (either moving or parked), don’t cause a lot of wear and tear on the highway, don’t generate a lot of pollution, rarely hurt others in a collision, and are efficient and economical in almost every regard.”

It is common to encourage alternative transportation when working to empower citizens to do their share for the environment, and we even encourage our schoolchildren to walk or ride a bike when possible. But really, dear reader, which of your loved ones would you encourage to walk or ride on Alabama’s busy roadways alongside our broken public transportation system?

I wouldn’t encourage my loved ones to do so, and here’s why. My husband Dan Tenpas commutes on his bike from the safety of our home in Irondale to downtown Birmingham, where the worst of his occupational hazards are from the occasional, rabid recyclers at the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) Recycling Center who show up lacking everyday common sense and decency. No, it’s not his place of employment but rather the ride to it that most makes me fear for his life.

As a bike commuter, it’s common for Dan to be cursed at, honked at, high-beamed, revved at, flipped off and, sometimes, intentionally “nudged” out of the way by 2½ tons of car metal. There are also distracted drivers that don’t even notice he’s there. The more severe incidents recently have included a hit-and-run, with Dan flying over his handle bars and sliding on his back through one of Birmingham’s busiest intersections.

The most alarming incident was two weeks ago: a close call with a road-raged driver of a green Mercury SUV that conducted squealing U-turns not once, but twice, to attempt to run over Dan. I repeat, to attempt to run over my loveable and breakable husband. Dan was forced to throw himself out of the path of the rapidly approaching vehicle and then dial 911 to report it while fearing for his life.

Every time he comes home scraped or bruised, and after I’ve calmed myself down and made sure every bone is intact, I find myself a little more frustrated with our society. But more than anything I wonder why there is such rage between motorists and cyclists. Studies show that between 2000 and 2008, the number of bike commuters increased by 43 percent. We rejoice as environmentalists, but consider the following:

Last year 4,378 pedestrians were killed in traffic. That’s 4,378 preventable deaths of Americans who were loved by their friends and family. Nearly 70 of those fatalities were Alabamians.

Birmingham ranks as the eighth most dangerous city in the nation for pedestrians. It’s no wonder that when we give lip service to doing our share for cleaner air in Alabama, pedestrian commutes are scarcely seriously mentioned.

There should be meaningful infrastructure in Alabama to protect pedestrians. The U.S. Department of Transportation currently has federal funds available for states “to promote…the increased use of non-motorized transportation, including developing facilities for the use of pedestrians and bicyclists and public educational, promotional, and safety programs for using such facilities.”

That means that somewhere in the state capitol of Montgomery someone is charged with pedestrian safety. But Alabama is one of only three states in the nation that do not recognize bike and pedestrian safety anywhere in their strategic highway safety plans. For this reason, the state of Alabama is ineligible to use the aforementioned funds that could save lives. All the while, some elected officials on Capitol Hill are fighting against the provision of even more federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects.

But this is Green Space! You’re supposed to come away from here hopeful and empowered—and you should.

We all have a role to play in this issue—cyclists and motorists alike. Call to cyclists: you aren’t immortal, so wear a helmet, follow the rules of the road and be respectful—it could save your life. Call to motorists: you’re not murderers, so employ the respect, patience and understanding your mama taught you—you could save a life. Call to readers: since you are reading Birmingham Weekly, I’m sure you are proactive citizens. So you’ve probably already discussed energy, air, water and land issues with your elected officials. Add bike and pedestrian safety to your list of things to address next. It could save a life. Improving the environment is just icing on the cake.

And for those motorists that are getting pissed off just reading this, maybe you should read the following description of road rage from W. Doyle Gentry, author of Anger Management for Dummies: “(It) overpowers the brain and literally shuts down the sensory systems and the power of reason. You are literally out of your mind.” You can take the life of a loved one in an instant; stay off the road until you can gain control of your senses.

Jenny Dorgan is an environmental advocate and nonprofit consultant who also teaches environmental education at an after-school program. Her husband Dan is the AEC’s recycling coordinator. Send your comments to editor@bhamweekly.com.