“People drive like crap in this town.”
–Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, 9.25.07
A somber group of around 60 passionate cyclists went to hear Sheriff White explain and answer questions regarding the death of James Quinn last night. It was a very timely meeting, what with many BikeABQ members and other area cyclists outraged at news reports of the treatment and views of Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) officers about the incident and cyclists in general.
The meeting at UNM Law School was notable for several things, perhaps most strikingly how intelligent and thoughtful both the questions and answers were. Unlike many public forums, especially on emotionally charged incidents/issues, questioners were polite, controlled and asked questions or made statements in a reasonable amount of time. Sheriff White was very impressive as he related his own horror stories of being a cyclist on the dangerous roads of New Mexico, and in offering apologies for the actions of some of his officers at the crime scene and in media reports.
Still, I came away from the event just as depressed about the state of cycling in New Mexico as ever. In relation to our more powerful motoring brethren, cyclists here necessarily have a bunker mentality. We are non-violent transportation guerillas, trying to sneak unarmed through a war scene in which the odds and actions are always against us.
I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but there are similarities between the plight of New Mexico cyclists and other discriminated groups over the years. No, we’re not as oppressed as African-Americans (for example) in this country, and we choose to be what we are instead of being born into an unfair system, but the transportation mix we insinuate ourselves into is simply set up for us to be periodically killed and seriously injured at a rate far, far higher than other members of that transportation system.
And that was never more clear than at the meeting last night.
Sheriff White did an excellent job of explaining that the investigation into the accident that killed James Quinn is just getting started, and that a final determination of criminal negligence on the part of the driver will not have been made for some time. In the Q&A session, excellent points were made about the very poor quality of the road shoulder of “Old 66” where the Quinns were struck, and Sheriff White noted that fact and had ideas on how the shoulder might be repaved as part of a new on-ramp system between I-40 and NM 333 going up the canyon.
Yet despite all the good points and ideas, the lecture hall at UNM Law last night was dominated by the invisible presence of myriad 4,000 lb. rampaging elephants: Drivers in New Mexico. People do drive like crap here, and everybody from Sheriff White on up to the last row of seats had story after story of cars trying to drive cyclists off the road, passengers shooting bottle rockets and beer cans at cyclists, berating and threatening the lives of folks whose only crime is having the audacity to share the road surface with something larger, faster and much, much more deadly.
And these were the folks, cycling Sheriff Darren White included, who haven’t been killed, yet. It was somewhat inspiring to see all these abused frequent riders climbing out of their bunkers and clipless pedals, getting together and mapping strategies to change the situation. Much discussion was had about “educating” the driving public, via things like questions on the NM Driving Test and public service videos informing motorists of rules of the roads, etc.
Even as these points were being made, however, you can see the audience becoming uncomfortable with the realization that a bunch of instructional videos weren’t going to have much impact soon, if ever. Neither was increased enforcement of traffic laws, even if stepped-up patrols and follow-through was possible given shortfalls in the number of law enforcement officers both at APD and BCSO.
What made the depressing fog of holding a meeting about a killed cyclists even deeper is the blunt fact that drivers in this area, even more so than in other parts of the country, have either little regard for or active detestation of cyclists on their sacred roads and highways.
Part of this is simple size and survival. A driver given the choice between hitting another 4,000 lb. car and hitting a dog/cat/cyclists, etc. is gonna hit the smaller object. Part of this is the speed discrepancy between autos and bicycles. Try as we might, cyclists are gonna slow people down with our presence in front of or even beside an attentive driver.
And part of the equation, a large part, is the cruelty of a certain cross-section of the human population. For reasons I’ll leave to more qualified psychologists and students of human behavior, the interaction between slow, small cyclists and motorists offers some the chance to overcome their innate feelings of powerlessness, and exercise these feelings through domination of something at which they can dominate, control and express their rage without fear of retribution.
And our somber little party of a cycling Sheriff and 60 avid bicycle lovers just had to laugh about that fact . Sheriff White, rightly, responded to one question from a new resident about cars parked along bike route with “welcome to Albuquerque”. That got a laugh, as did almost every mention of drivers ’round these parts. When you have a love for something, feel strongly about its importance in bettering the world, but are forced into a bunker mentality by a stronger enemy, what can you do but laugh?
Laugh until you cry, I guess. And there will be tears at the memorial ride held for James Quinn on October 13th. And at the next memorial service held for a cyclist killed on the roadway, and the next one, and the next one.