Friday, July 16, 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls ...

I biked to work today.

On the way, I came across a situation that had not occurred to me on a bike before. Rounding a downhill curve, I came upon a stopped school bus facing me, red lights blinking. My on-bike computer, safely enclosed inside my head, immediately began analyzing the situation: "a school bus, stopped, blinking, cars have to stop, I'm a bike, do I have to stop, what's the purpose of the rule, to protect kids crossing the street, am I a threat to them if I blow through, of course I am, the rule applies to me, it applies to everyone, it is a rule of safety and that trumps everything else ..." That analysis was completed in about a half a second, and I stopped. When the bus resumed, the bus driver looked at me, waved and smiled, and I smiled and nodded back. The social compact was respected. She did what she was supposed to do. I did what I was supposed to do. No one was harmed. We all went on our way.

Not even worth mentioning really, except that less than 24 hours ago, on a nearby road that I have regularly biked, a biker was hit and killed. He was headed west on West Chester Pike, passing the north bound on-ramp to what old timers here call "the Blue Route" - an interstate highway. He was apparently hit from behind by a woman turning on to the ramp. My son had called me later in the day to ask whether I had biked in that day. He heard the news report of a biker down. At his job, a person who had driven past had seen the aftermath, and it was not pretty.

It is a crowded area of large roads handling lots of traffic. I am actively afraid when I either run or bike past here, and must cross the mouth of the on and off ramps. People hit them flying, ready to gear up for that high speed merge that is coming up, or come off flying, still used to interstate speed as they exit. I know. I drive as well.

Some people jump immediately to the next question of "who's at fault?" or "Was he wearing a helmet?" (yes). "Is the driver or biker someone I can abuse because of their sex, race, politics, age ... " It is amazing to me the level of nastiness, prejudice and vitriol that is exposed in the comment sections of online news reports these days. It scares me, frankly. Thoughts that should never be thought, much less see the light of day, are freely posted by anonymous trolls ... who then go out and mingle with the rest of us all day.

I'm a lawyer - so of course people think that my first thought is "who is at fault and how do I profit from that?" Actually, most of us lawyers (particularly transactional lawyers!) don't think that way at all. We are in the business of dealing with people and their problems. Every day this is what we do. We see the dark side of the human condition. Lives are lost, or permanently damaged. There is pain and anguish for everyone involved, for their families, their friends. Physical pain, emotional paid, scarring, many lives changed and irreparably harmed. That's what I immediately think of. The loss, the harm, the lives affected. And of course my next thought is "there but for the grace of God, goes me."

We all make mistakes in life. Fortunately most of them don't result in our death or the death of others. But sometimes they do. Let's leave the finding of fault to the lawsuit, and find some other lessons to take from these tragedies.

I biked to work today. I was sharing the same roads with walkers, runners, cars and trucks. The rules of the road apply to all of us. The three C's of high school driving class - care, courtesy, consideration for others - apply to all who use the roads. If I see a biker who breaks the rules, that does not mean that all of them do and I can therefore pin a label on them and care less about them. If a driver breaks a rule, that does not mean all of them do, or all of a certain class do, and I therefore can be less courteous to them. If a walker steps in front of me, with his Ipod on, that does not mean that I get a free pass to be inconsiderate to all walkers, or all of them wearing Ipods. Leave those excuses for trolls.

When you see me on my bike, think of me as an eggshell out there, as fragile as can be. Stop for a moment right now and come up with the ridiculous mental image of me as an eggshell on my bike. Add legs, skinny little arms, think of me as grade A extra large, or perhaps think of me as a brightly dyed Easter egg. Fix that image in your head - think of every biker as a large Easter egg on a bike. We crack easily. When you hit us, we crack. When you come too close, we crack. When you throw things out the window at us (trust me, this happens), we crack. Our little section of the road is typically not there for our needs. It is too narrow. It is where the deterioration occurs. It is where storms wash the debris. There are branches down, washouts, piles of gravel and pebbles, things we have to avoid. At bridges, the road typically narrows even more. And at highly trafficked highways and interstate on-ramps, it can be downright frightening. When we reach these areas, we need to share the road with you - so please have a little patience with us and slow down for us and trust our judgment here. We wouldn't be out there unless we thought it was necessary. We would rather have dedicated lanes and bikeways to do our riding and commuting. But until that day comes, we have to share the roads with you.

As eggs on bikes, we have two single layers of insulation to protect us from death and disaster. The first one is our trust in you, as another human being, to use care, courtesy and consideration when you are near us. The second is your trust in us to do the right thing and give you the same respect. That is the social compact between us. It applies to all of us - every color, age, size, and condition. Drivers, bikers, runners, walkers.

That social compact appears to be frayed or broken in much of our anonymous dealings with each other. Let's work to change that in our daily lives. Let us take as a lesson from this most recent tragedy the reminder of how much we are dependent on each other to pay attention when we are out there, whether it is driving next to each other at high speed on the highway, or sharing the road together. Put the damn cell phones away. Save the Ipods for a more appropriate time. Be aware of places and situations where accidents occur, and respect them. Obey the social compact. We are all fragile eggs, and we all shatter on impact.