Needs to be revised, edited, and sourced

On July 4th 2008, Ron Peterson’s teeth ended up in Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson’s back seat in an incident that has been the most highly publicized story of the decade involving “road rage” over bicycle/motor vehicle conflict.

Peterson, 40, a cycling coach, and Christian Stoehr, 29, a member of the West LA Cycling club, were just two of about 300 people biking down a 5-mile stretch of Mandeville Canyon Road on the holiday.  When Thompson narrowly passed the cyclists in his red Infiniti sedan, he cursed at them.  They cursed back.  Then Thompson pulled in front of the cyclists and slammed on his brakes.  Hard.

Peterson went into the back windshield, severing his nose, and Stoehr clipped the car and went over his handlebars onto the road, separating his shoulder. Though Thompson was a formerly an emergency room doctor, he did not help the cyclists.

My question for this post, whether or not I answer it adequately, is what is the nature of the bodily injury sustained in traffic accidents between bicyclists and motorists?  Is it violence?  Is it force? If so, what is its relationship the maintenance, creation, or destruction of a larger system, the Rules of the Road?

Some consider it war. The media began reporting the incident as an extreme but defining moment in an escalating conflict between motorists and cyclists. They duly reported motorists blaming cyclists and cyclists blaming motorists, both sides at fault.

For example, a Sept 7th 2009 NPR story entitled “In Toronto, Bike-Car Road Rage Escalates,” the reporter interviews pedestrian Carol Shenfield who drives — “and she blames the bikes.” She is quoted as saying, “I think the basic thing is not following the rules of the road,” Shenfield says. “You think you’re exempt. You ride a bike, so you think you can get away with everything.”

The LA incident provided plenty of fodder for two wheel versus four wheel rhetoric, from the mildly accusatory to the outright bloody.

“HOORAY FOR THE DOCTOR. It’s about time you lawless bunch of crayolas get what you deserve!” one woman wrote to the LAWheelmen. “You don’t own the streets, don’t follow the law and are a blight on society.”

The LA Times had to shut down their comment section after 700 commenters left remarks, many of them violent like “Buckshotty” who wrote, “If you seen my rocket ripping up the canyon you better gtf out the way or we’ll be coloring all of your spandex red with biological dye, feel me?”

Read in terms of war, the purpose and implications of violence between cyclists and motorists are easy to interpret as a means to an end.  In a battle for limited territory, violence is meant to intimidate one group or other off the road, to establish one group or other with the right of way, or the ability to set standards for street use and protocol.  And in this frame, the sanctioning of this violence, either through the support or inaction of by standers or officers and judges supports the winner of the conflict.

Complicating the matter is widespread sentiment from motorists that cyclists don’t belong on the road, and the fact that few motorists are charged for collisions with cyclists after blaming the cyclists for the accident.  Thompson’s lawyer, for example, denied that the doctor meant to hurt the cyclists, calling it “a very unfortunate accident.”

But the publicity attracted the attention of Patrick Watson, who had been cycling with a friend when the pair was run off the road by a motorist in March, who then pulled in front of them and slammed on his brakes.  Watson had typed the license plate number into his phone, but Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley decided not to file charges against Dr. Thompson because the case wasn’t “a winner.”

In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic, historian Peter Norton gives what could easily be interpreted as a case study of the foundational violence of American automobile culture.  Norton argues that between 1915 and 1930, America experienced a “violent revolution in street use” that we fail to see today, in part because the automobile and motordom in fact won the battle for street use, confining pedestrians and other forms of transportation to sidewalks, back roads, and the margins. Because automobile use has set the framework for how we see public space, plan infrastructure, and go about our lives, “The full scale of the wave of blood, grief, and anger in American city streets in the 1920s has eluded notice” (2).

If this framing holds, the reason for the escalating violence is clear; the North American Alliance for Biking and Walking reports that the number of people who ride their bikes in metropolitan areas has grown by up to 40 percent in the last few years.  This influx of cyclists is destabilizing for a normative system that exists largely for motorists, but not for cyclists.

Although aspects of this reading of bicycle/motorist road rage are compelling, I’d like to complicate the narrative of “war” promoted in contemporary incidents and Norton’s account of the originary violence of the automotive city, which relies on assumption of a relative stability in the preceding decades that was not there.

In his “Critique of Violence”, Walter Benjamin points out that “the word ‘peace’, in the sense in which it is the correlative to the word ‘war’…denotes this a priori, necessary sanctioning, regardless of all other legal conditions, of every victory.” Thus the peace between pedestrians and carriages assumed by Norton at the turn of the 20th century similarly obscures the violence of earlier transportation conflict.

The conflict between bicycles and other conveyances isn’t a new development. An 1895 publication “The Road Rights and Liabilities of Wheelmen” by George B. Clemson explains the problem of the relationship between cyclists and horse drawn carriages in a way reflects the current conflict between motorists and cyclists.

Then and now, cycling can be dangerous. The legal cases he surveys show that cyclists in the 1890s died or were severely injured by a steam roller left in the road over Sunday; a snow laden awning falling upon a walk, the fall upon a traveler of an insecurely guyed derrick used in repairing the road; an injury occasioned by an excavation made by an individual acting under municipal authority to lay pipe in a street; the traveler leaving the beaten track to get the benefit of snow at one side, and building materials left in roads, dark roads, drainage systems, falling objects, excavations, deep ruts, stones, mounds of earth, stumps and logs in the road. Then, one solution to this problem was the “Good Roads Movement”, which created new public support for and engineered the social and legal means by which road conditions were improved, oddly paving the way for the dawn of the motor age.

In the preface, Clemson writes “In general, it may be said that the trend of decision in accessible bicycle cases is to place the wheel on a plane of equality with other vehicles upon the highway. Nevertheless, the treatment of the wheelman by the courts has not been, by any means, one of universal approval, and especially in the past has the cyclist been often regarded as, and to his utter confusion proven to be, an upstart, a danger to the traveling public, and, finally a persona non grata, an individual to be discouraged if not prohibited.” (v-vi)

In a number of cases, bicyclists were injured when carriage drivers didn’t consider bicycles to be vehicles and refused to return to the right side of the road. In Schimpf v Sliter a cyclist from Albany NY was injured when he collided with a horse-drawn carriage traveling on the wrong side of the road. Since the carriage was traveling 6mph and the cyclist 3 mph, the driver argued that the cyclist was at fault for his injuries since the cyclist “was stubborn and had time to get out of the way.” The court disagreed, arguing that the bicyclist had no way of knowing that the driver wouldn’t follow the rules of the road.

In other cases, carriage drivers sued cyclists claiming that the cyclists were a nuisance that spooked their horses, disrupting traffic and making the road unsafe. In one case, the court argued that an unconventional mode of transport like a bicycle was a problem, and that such a rider used “his bicycle at the peril of others and giving rise to peril.” In a similar case, another court noted that horses had become used to machines more frightening than bicycles, like “steam threshers, threshing machines, movers, reapers, in short all farm machinery” and that an easily spooked horse was much more of a nuisance than a bicycle.

Even Norton includes incidents of motorist and cyclist conflict, opening his first chapter with the story of a 1920s Philadelphia family who lost one son to a motorist who jumped a curb and another to a hit-and-run truck driver, who blamed the dead boy for reckless cycling.

The 1895 booklet and a 2007 book “Bicycling and the Law”, also penned by a lawyer, Bob Mienske, try to address the violence experienced by cyclists through law and the discourse of rights.  They argue that cyclists have a right to the road, that they have rights in court, that both cyclists and other vehicles face similar blame and liabilities when things go wrong.

The problem with their discourse is this: whether or not cyclists have the right of way, when conflicts occur, cyclists lose.  Maybe not in court, but in bodily injury and death.

One limit in judgment of these cases is that of the relationship between a human subject and a machine used by that subject.  What claims to equal legal status mean when the intentions or negligence of one party can be amplified by a combustion engine?

While traffic law and traffic policies are important to cyclists, they are far from the whole story.  While Derrida in the “Force of Law” is talking about deconstruction itself, he notes that the problem in distinguishing law from justice is “a matter of these concepts (normative or not) of norm, of rule or criteria. It is a matter of judging what permits judgment, of what judgment itself authorizes” (231).

In that sense, it is not the battle between cars and cyclists that will change the rules of the road as such.

Studies indicate that a norm under which bikes are anomalous is dangerous for cyclists.

As numbers of cyclists increase, the rate of fatalities decreases, according to a 2003 report entitled “Safety in Numbers” by Peter L. Jacobsen, a public-health consultant in Sacramento, California. Studying cities of varying sizes from California to Scandinavia to the United Kingdom to the Netherlands, Jacobsen concluded: “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking or bicycling if more people walk or bicycle.

While Jacobsen speculates that this is because of a greater sympathy between motorists and pedestrians and cyclists, other incidents of July 2008 indicate that sympathy is not actually the answer.

Within two weeks of the LA road rage incident, three other violent bicycle/car incidents in Portland OR gained attention from both from Portlanders and the national cycling communities abuzz about the Mandeville Canyon incident.

In the first, a cyclist beat a motorist’s car and then the motorist with his bicycle. A passerby punched the assailant to end the attack, but ironically, the motorist was a bicycle mechanic and the crowd had fingered him as the instigator.

A week later, a cyclist yelled “Slow down, gashole!” at an aggressive motorist who slammed on his brakes, jumped out of his car, and threatened to beat the cyclist.  When the cyclist attempted to ride away, the motorist got back in his car and drove at the cyclist, who abandoned his bike and jumped on the hood of the car. The bike was crushed.

Then, a bike courier cut of a vehicle carrying a co-worker of the bicycle mechanic from the first incident. When he yelled at the cyclist for being rude and not wearing a helmet, the courier yelled back and then followed the vehicle to a restaurant, where the courier keyed the door while the owner and passenger were inside.  But the passenger had been watching, and when he went to confront the messenger, they began to brawl.  Eventually the bicycle U-lock was involved in the tussle and the passenger grabbed it and swung it at the messenger’s head.

The road infrastructure and American’s relationships to their cars have long histories.  They are networked results of social norms, legal precedents, and the material properties of technologies that can act on human bodies.

Traffic is violent, and in a different way, so is any easy interpretation of these incidents to fit into a mythical narrative about the superiority of cars or the oppression of bikes is clearly performative and fictional, however usefully violent.

The SC is a 2004 Raleigh Sport Comfort 40, which I purchased used.   

The SC isn’t my favorite bike, but it’s currently my most functional. The wide tires are good for gravel, the folding rear baskets I added good for library books, and the 21 speeds helpful for the steep hill in front of my house (1-1 all the way!).  I like the upright posture of hybrid bikes, and the step through frame means I can ride while sporting some interesting skirts!  

2005 Raleigh SC 40


The frame looks like this, but the paint job on mine is reversed–the frame is mostly silver with bits of maroon on the head and fork.  

I consider it my beater bike. Since I don’t have my own garage, the SC sits under an awning on my front porch, and the aluminum frame and added plastic fenders I picked don’t get completely ruined by the elements, which blow in through the rails. I ride the SC to and from campus when the roads and weather leave something to be desired.  

Me and the SC on a cold December day


One day, when the seat got rained on and I was trying to adjust my seat pants while riding, I went over the handle bars, mangling the facings on the “Revoshift” selectors.  The bike is a bit heavy and the shocks make it sluggish, but speed doesn’t make much difference for the riding I usually do.  

The number one most annoying feature of the SC has to be the seat post with built-in shock. It both slips and compresses, so it never seems to be at the right height. I adjust it too high, and a week later, it’s uncomfortably low and irritating my knees.  

While it’s been good to me, I will probably sell it when I move.


Bicycle Commuter