Cars Are Not Human

Last week I wrapped up this year’s bicycle commuting season. Usually it’s the end of October, but I’m going out of town next week so Friday was the day.

My workplace is about 15 km. (9 miles) from where I live. Since 1998 I have commuted by bike 2 or 3 days per week. In the stellar year 2001, it was 4 days more often than not, but lately 2 days has become the norm, due to physical limitations and fear.

My route involves side streets, main streets and a very nice bike trail. Biking to work is in many ways a win-win-win situation — I get exercise, I get to work, and it costs me nothing but time (my bike has long paid for itself and maintenance is ridiculously cheap). No need to pay for a gym membership and add workouts to my schedule.

But (the inevitable “but”) there is a downside. For about 1/3 of my route, I travel on regular roads with regular traffic. In 16 years I’ve had only one relatively minor accident, in which I was going through an intersection on a green light and was hit by a sun-blinded, left-turning driver. Fortunately, he was starting from a dead stop so wasn’t going very fast. Scrapes and bruises were all I sustained, and I didn’t even lose time from work because the accident happened on a Friday. But ever since then, I have had to force myself to ride, a mind-over-instinct exercise which is stressful in itself.

Something I’ve noticed as I share the road with motor vehicle drivers — behind the wheel, people are different from when they’re walking around without their metal carapaces. As I wait for traffic lights to change and watch cars whizzing by, the drivers look less than human, especially if they are wearing sunglasses. There is something robot-like about them. The faces are often expressionless or grim. Intent on getting somewhere as fast as possible, these folks do not look happy. Encased in their two-ton machines, they look frightening.

“The cars don’t want to slow down.” How often do we hear a sentence like this, which endows motor vehicles with sentience? That in itself is frightening. Cars are constructions of metal, glass and plastic. They don’t have desires. It’s the people driving them, the fallible humans with emotions and impulses, that determine what the cars do. It’s the guy who’s had a bad day at work, or the woman who’s late picking up her kids and no groceries in the house. These bundles of anxiety, whizzing along at speed, sometimes “multitasking” with their cell phones, are what my defenseless bod is sharing the road with. Most of the time I can live with these facts, but sometimes they get to me. Equating cars with people is a bad trend. Everyone should be a pedestrian or cyclist some of the time, or take public transit. Look your fellow humans in the eye, smile at them, and remember that we are (mostly) members of the same species. Then remember that again when you’re driving a car.

Right now, I’m happy that bike commuting season is over until March.

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