Cycling is a point of convergence for being present and focused both body and mind. With body, you must focus on each pedal stroke, maintaining position and flexing your core. With mind, you must be ever aware of your surroundings, always on the lookout for debris in the road, the next corner, other riders and cars. When either commuting by bike or training for races, I find myself to be more aware and concentrated when I am on the bike than any other domain of my life.
It shouldn’t be, though. Driving should be the sphere where I am the most focused on each instant. In no other realm am I more in control of the fate of another person’s life. Life can change in an instant. Life can change in the same period of time it took you to notice this article. Life can also end in an instant. It did this winter for two Central Texas cyclists I knew at the hands of cars. It does for 50 other Texas cyclists each year and over 700 cyclists nationwide each year. I wish I could say those will be the last cyclists I will know to die on the roads after being struck by cars. But I can’t. It could also be me.
However, there is another “it could be me” statement: It could have been me behind the wheel. I am also a driver. While I like to consider myself a kind driver to cyclists, giving more room than the 3 foot passing law when I safely pass, I am also guilty of distracted driving. While it is frustrating as both a cyclist and a driver when people on the roads don’t follow the rules, the stakes are higher when it is a driver. Unfortunately, cyclists face the weight of that responsibility head-on every time a car passes too close or doesn’t use a signal.
People behind the wheel have a spectrum of attitudes towards cyclists — both positive and negative. Since learning of the death of a friend this week, Tommy Ketterhagen, a 19-year-old cyclist from Georgetown left on the side of the road after a hit and run, every time a car has passed me I wonder what the driver’s attitude towards cyclists is and whether they are distracted. I brace myself each time I hear a car approaching.
It does not have to be this way. Public health issues are often approached through an ecological lens looking at the multiple levels of influence on a problem. Certainly, the attitudes and awareness of drivers is one of these levels that needs to be addressed. But the design of roads needs to take into account the safety of all users and is a factor that could be more easily controlled on a population level than the attitude of every driver. Local and state agencies have a significant role in determining the safety of a transportation network. Transportation agencies, enforcement agencies and elected officials have the role and responsibility to plan roads and sidewalks, ensure awareness, and pass and enforce laws that protect and enhance safety for all on roads.
Does this seem like a big ask? It is. Local organizations like Bike Austin and Please Be Kind to Cyclists work every day to make it happen — and you can support their work. You can talk to your City Council member and ask for safer roads for you, your children and your community.
There are other things you as a driver can do to support safety right now: Be aware of cyclists, acknowledge our humanity and rightful place on the road, and be present. Have the time in the car be the sphere where you are the most present and most focused, and by doing so, save my life and the lives of my friends on Central Texas roads.
Ganzar is a doctoral student and Dell Health Scholar at the University of Texas School of Public Health. She is also a competitive cyclist for an Austin-based women’s racing team, Athlete Architecture p/b Hyperthreads.