By Bob Mionske
There are a lot of good reasons to ride a bike—among them, it’s good for your health, it’s good for your pocketbook and it’s good for the environment. In fact, according to the League of American Bicyclists some 52 million Americans ride bikes. Yet we know that the number of daily riders is much smaller. So if biking is so good for us, what’s stopping more people from riding more often? In their own words, many casual riders are afraid of riding in traffic.
That’s not an unreasonable fear. Although most bicycle crashes are relatively minor solo crashes, the more serious crashes tend to involve an automobile. And although cyclists tend to experience fewer crashes as they gain riding experience, there’s always a risk posed by careless drivers. Every cyclist, no matter how experienced, has innumerable stories to tell about close calls—or worse—with careless drivers.
David Zabriskie is one such cyclist. A professional racer who rides for Team Garmin-Slipstream, David rode the fastest time trial in the history of the Tour de France in 2005, and is the current United States Time Trial Champion. David is the only American to have consecutively won stages in all three of the grand tour races—the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia, and the Tour de France. It takes many years and countless miles of training to achieve what David has, and yet that training has come at a price—David has been hit by cars three times—each of them in the United States. The worst crash occurred in 2003; as David recounts:
I was enjoying one of my favorite rides when I was hit by an SUV on the way down. The SUV made a left hand turn directly into me. I flew through the air and landed on the ground, unable to move the left side of my body. After spending a week in the hospital, I left with pins in my wrist and my leg, and some cadaver bone in my knee. The doctors did not think I would walk again. It took a lot of hard work and determination to come back from my injuries.
Out of that crucible of pain and hard work, David’s determination forged the recovery that saw him go on to achieve new heights in cycling. Something else was forged in that crucible, too—David’s determination to make the roads a safer place for all cyclists.
Thus was born Yield To Life, David’s campaign aimed at promoting positive attitudes toward cyclists, and replacing hostility between motorists and cyclists with “understanding, respect, and appreciation for all life on the road.”
I had a chance to ask David about Yield To Life just before the current racing season began. He noted that in his experience, the differences between riding in Europe and in the United States are quite stark: It’s interesting because the roads can be much more narrow in Europe than in the States, yet drivers in Europe expect to see us on the road and not only look out for us, but give us the space and time needed for our safe passage. This deference and respect given to cyclists might stem from cycling being very much a part of the European culture. You see all these older women and men riding their bikes to the market, women in skirts, mothers taking their children to school — virtually everyone rides or has many close friends and family members who do, and as a result, it is part of their psyche to look out for them.
Cycling is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, but we still have a way to go before we reach the point where virtually everybody rides, or has close friends and family members who ride.
And that’s where Yield To Life comes in. As David explains, “Yield to Life hopes to increase its outreach to motorists so that every time someone is behind the wheel he or she knows to expect cyclists and is sensitive to cyclists’ equal rights to the road.” So how is Yield To Life going to accomplish this outreach? Through education. For new motorists, that means working to ensure that every driver education program is teaching new motorists proper road rules with respect to cyclists; for seasoned motorists, it means outreach through an incentive program, public awareness movements, and media campaigns. In addition to educational outreach to motorists, David notes that an integral part of Yield To Life is educational outreach to cyclists:
We want to have a presence in every state and are working with bike clubs, shops, teams, and bicycle coalitions to help us disseminate our message as well as work together to help us achieve our common goals. I feel a heightened responsibility to make cycling safer because I am very much an advocate for cycling — I go to schools and encourage students of all ages to ride for not only their own health, but the health of their environment and the health of the planet — and I want to do so knowing that they will be safe.
Studies show that with more people riding bikes, the roads become safer. And yet the greatest barrier to getting more people riding is that many who would like to ride simply don’t feel safe on the road. Yield To Life is one idea that will help us escape that conundrum; David reports that his conciliatory and humanistic approach to easing tensions has been well-received, resulting in a broad base of support for Yield To Life. That kind of success in promoting awareness of and tolerance for cyclists is a crucial piece of the puzzle in creating the kind of cycling-friendly culture that will get more people on bikes.
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)