Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How to Deal With Bullies

We are all in peril of our lives because of a lawless subset of society that has taken over what used to be a public space, and they employ bully tactics to discourage others from using it. Indeed, these people have made the commons so dangerous that they are in a defensive arms race among themselves!

And while all this is taking place, where is the outcry from our elected officials? Forty thousand people were killed last year in these turf wars, but elected and appointed officials are just shrugging their shoulders. They express dismay, but they never do anything about the situation.

Most of them seem to think that the situation is normal and inevitable, so any action on their part would be doomed to failure anyway. That’s just the way it is, they tell us!

That's a pretty bleak picture. If it had been a criminal gang that had taken over a community park, then everybody (Citizens, police, judges and elected officials) would be united in evicting them from it.

But what happens when those in positions of power, and the leaders of the community are members of the gang and have empathy for them? Does that make it alright for gangsters to take over a public place? When the formerly public place is understood by the criminal gang to be their exclusive territory, some of them will begin to aggressively defend it from outsiders. At that point it ceases to be a “public” place.

I think that this criminal activity imagery is helpful to put into context the nature of the task before us in seeking to make the public streets safer for all. After all, inadvertently striking something or someone with an automobile is not a mistake, it is not an accident. It is not a crash. It is not a tragic but unavoidable circumstance.

It is a crime.

Hitting something with your automobile is a criminal act. Menacing someone with your automobile is a crime. Failing to exercise due care is a crime.

Texting is NOT a crime. Using a cell phone is not a crime. Eating and reading and fishing around in the back seat is not a crime. Unless you are driving, that is. Consider this law:

(a) A person commits an offense if the person drives a vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.

One of our difficulties is that the “wrongness” of operating an automobile in an unsafe manner is no longer a part of our society’s consciousness. How do we bring the wrongness, the notion that these currently acceptable acts are actually unacceptable, back into the American understanding of civilized behavior? Of normal and expected behavior?

I believe that ghost bikes, and “ride of silence” events are attempting to get us started down this path, but I don’t like them. They add to the hysterical claims that cycling is dangerous, and are as likely to aid in cycling restrictions as they are in leading us to demanding responsible automobile operation.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving were able to marshal sympathy by appealing to the heartstrings with compelling and emotional personal stories of tragedy. In this way they gathered media support and funding . They spearheaded broad public education campaigns and promoted stiffer laws and stricter enforcement at the same time. They also had an awesome acronym!

Another very successful public attitude campaign is the war against littering. I can still remember when tossing trash out the car window was common. Yet in just a few years it became a very bad thing to do.

Our chances of changing American attitudes about acceptable driving behavior has a greater chance of success if it is de-coupled from cycling specific issues. The appeal has to be to the broadest cross section of society. The idea that irresponsible behavior harms all of us needs to be clearly heard.

We have natural allies across a broad section of American life that we can tap into- Allies that have networks in place. Pedestrian advocates, vehicle class groups like motorcycle advocates and AAA, insurance associations, public safety outfits, PTA, child welfare advocates and PETA. (Less road kill carnage maybe?) Environmental groups are a natural because they need to counter the fact that smaller cars offer less protection in crashes to their occupants. And what business today can afford to lose customers to senseless and avoidable deaths? (OK, perhaps that is a stretch!)

Our appeal must be primarily emotional. This is the only way to capture the artistic among us, those who control the vast mass media enterprises. The media stars and their handlers. The producers and the directors.

The focus has to be on the consequences of the bad behavior, not a lecture on the behavior its self. Cautionary tales that allow automobile operators to change their habits voluntarily, rather than being directly told to. As the Great Recession drags on through the next decade, property damage may be as big an emotional hook as getting maimed or killed.

The biggest question of all is, how does one person start such a movement? By posting this, I have exposed the idea to those who read my blog. (By the way, I thank both of you for stopping by!) How do we gently reach drivers around us? How do we bring on board the movers and shakers of society, the ones that are the trend setters?


  1. I hope this becomes a movement, but Here's I've tried to get started:

    One of my clients is a local health foundation that was wanting to "healthscape" the community — change or enhance the social and physical structures that would encourage healthy and active lifestyles. They were offering grant funding for citizen ideas, so I proposed a social marketing campaign to change the traffic culture— infuse civility, awareness and caution for all road users. It's been funded through the research phase, that is complete. We're devising the strategy next and then will have to seek funding for phase 2.

    You have the right idea, ChipSeal. It's about increasing the stakeholders to everyone. The text below is copied and pasted from an interview. I'm discussing civility more than recklessness, but they are really related. People would not drive recklessly if their responsibility as roadway citizens was re-framed and socially upheld:

    ALL citizens are stakeholders in creating a more civil and cooperative roadway environment. The roads are the public space in our community where we all interact every day. The way we treat each other, the way we coexist in that space, affects the quality of our community and the quality of our lives. Think about it, even if you are driving a car, if your drive home is marked by tailgating, honking, finger-wagging animosity, how are you going to feel when you get there? How are you going to feel about your community when you have to deal with that day after day?

    More here

  2. Oh and...

    "Indeed, these people have made the commons so dangerous that they are in a defensive arms race among themselves!"

    Arms race is a fabulous metaphor!

  3. Chipseal - good post. I think you're on the right track about seeking mass appeal for "the cause". The difficulty, in my opinion, is that MADD was appealing to everyone who had children or has a Mother, i.e. everyone. In the case of road cyclists, there simply aren't enough of us out there YET to create the popular momentum we would both like to see. I have hope, however, that the more generalist ways of framing the discussion (like Keri's) will 1) attract more popular support and 2) create a climate in which more people ride. SNOWBALL!