Archive | December, 2014

Distraction and Privilege on the Road

3 Dec
Photo by Nate Flu, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Nate Flu, Flickr Creative Commons.

In his most recent “Why Richmond, Why?” column, Phil Riggan takes on the issue of distracted driving.  For anyone who even contemplates riding a bicycle on Richmond streets, this is a huge issue.  I cringe every time I see someone using a cellphone, whether I’m driving a car or a bicycle, and that doesn’t begin to cover all of the other distractions.

While it’s probably impossible to prevent all distraction, it’s worth reminding ourselves and others that, when we’re behind the wheel of a machine that weighs a couple of tons and can very easily take someone’s life (including our own), it’s worthwhile to cultivate a degree of attentiveness proportional to those stakes.

That’s both important and difficult because, as Riggan suggests, most of us drive so much that we 1) try to do all sorts of other things while driving, like texting or phoning or eating; and 2) get so used to driving that we get a bit lazy and develop bad habits because it hasn’t resulted in anything terrible yet.  People are also inclined to think that their driving is good compared to other “bad drivers,” which also reduces vigilance.

How most of our streets are for pedestrians.  Now imagine some scaffolding along the edge to represent a bike lane… From the Swedish Road Dierectorate.

Who gets priority on our streets?  Ironically, the least vulnerable of those using them: cars.  From the Swedish Road Dierectorate.

Privilege on the Road

One way of thinking about distracting driving is not just as a bad habit, but as a symptom of privilege.  This goes back to a  point that I like to hit on quite often — because like other kinds of privilege, it’s generally taken for granted by those who enjoy it.  Our roads are designed mainly for cars and only secondarily if at all for other users.  The fact that Complete Streets policies have become a trend in the last few years is an indication of just how incomplete they’ve been for the last several decades, and for how long the problem was not seen as a problem.

I was reminded of this issue last week by a fascinating blog post entitled “What Riding My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege.”  I wish I had written it.  I say that because I’ve had exactly this thought a number of times: riding a bicycle on American streets is kind of like being a minority in American society.

But almost immediately after thinking of that comparison, I thought, “It would be hard to talk about that without sounding like a well-meaning but oblivious white person saying something like ‘I know what race discrimination is like because I experience the same kind of thing when I ride my bike.'”  That would be lame for many reasons, to put it mildly.

The author of the post makes clear that you can think of this comparison without pretending to equate minority status on the road with minority status in a broader, social sense.  His aim is really to suggest a way to talk about privilege to people who have it.

Trying to talk to people about privilege is hard because if they feel they are being blamed personally for it, they tend to shut down or get defensive to avoid feeling guilty.  But comparing our roadways to the structure of our society is helpful in this case, I think: no individual car driver is to blame for the way our roads are, but it’s way too easy for most of them to keep using them and not think that much about those marginalized by that system.

This is good for those of us interested in bike advocacy to keep in mind for two reasons.  The first is that white middle-class people and neighborhoods tend to be over-represented when it comes to advocacy and infrastructure.  Second, thinking about our roads this way might help us find better ways to think and talk about the built-in imbalance in our roadway system.