Keeping your eye on the road matters. Sometimes it just prevents you from being a jerk, other times it can save somebody’s life.
Case in point: Earlier this past week I was going down Oak Street looking for a parking space on the street. When I saw one, I immediately hand signaled (my car is 63 years old and lacks turn signals) and slowed next to the spot. A white SUV was approaching behind me from the intersection, so I held the hand-signal for a few seconds, believing that the SUV would see the signal and leave me sufficient space.
Alas, the SUV did not. It advanced right up on my bumper as I grabbed the wheel to turn into the space. Annoyed, I gestured with my hand for the SUV to back up. The SUV complied and I parked, thinking the trivial matter behind me.
Ah, but that would be too easy. The driver of the SUV, a middle-aged woman with a small child in the passenger seat, pulled up alongside me, began berating me for not using my “blinker,” ignored my replies about the hand signal and then drove off, continuing to mutter some asinine garbage about my obligation to use my “blinker.”
This was a stupid encounter. If the woman had simply been looking at the road ahead of her as she proceeded forward, she would have seen my hand signal and realized that I was trying to park.
Admittedly, the stakes there were pretty low, but they aren’t always low. Just this past Thursday on St. Claude Avenue, a bicyclist was struck and killed by a commercial truck that was turning onto Elysian Fields. The cyclist was proceeding straight in a bike lane sandwiched uncomfortably between two right turn lanes; one designated for normal vehicles, the other for large trucks.
“The truck driver DID NOT check for cyclists, pedestrians, or other traffic and made a right turn,” reported Victor Pizarro, a witness to the collision. “I was behind the truck and saw everything.“
Because the cyclist was in the bike lane, he had right of way. There’s no question about that. There’s even a sign posted warning right-turning motorists to yield to bicycles. Thus, the burden was on the truck to be aware of bicycle traffic and yield appropriately. Apparently, he failed to detect the cyclist’s presence and turned right into him.
Nevertheless, in the wake of this accident I’ve heard many knee-jerk reactions against the cyclist. On Nola.com, we were treated to some very truncated analysis. “The cyclist was passing a truck on the right as the truck was making a right hand turn? Darwin wins,” said one commenter.
Others went a bit too far in the other direction. “18 wheelers are death machines spreading tragedy,” said another one of Nola.com’s finest.
The truth was somewhere in the middle. The truck driver was clearly at fault insofar as he lacked right of way, but unless he was drunk or under the influence of drugs, it was a case of failure to yield – ordinary, run-of-the-mill negligence. The consequences were serious, but the crime was not.
Of course, the biggest culprit was neither the truck driver nor the cyclist, but the city. It was, after all, the city that decided to situate a bike lane between a right turn lane for normal traffic and another turn lane for large trucks. As matters stand, bicycles are proceeding between a rock and hard place, and in this analogy, the “rock” may smack them dead.
Instead, the city could have opted to locate the bike lane on another street not designed for heavy trucks, or it could have redesigned the turn lanes, or it could have put the bike lane on the left side (a technique that is gaining popularity). It’s clear to me they chose the worst possible configuration for cyclists.
In the end, however, that’s a broader issue. The brass tacks are that a trucker didn’t see a cyclist, and as a result the cyclist died. Cyclists are more vulnerable than other people on the road, and as a consequence, they merit special attention both from motorists and the city.
We shouldn’t get beyond that simple notion. It’s the fundamental issue here, and in the end, that’s the one we need to address.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.