The real problem with PCH

October 24, 2012 § 49 Comments

Another person was killed riding her bicycle on Pacific Coast Highway last week, not too far from Cher’s compound. Reports say she clipped a mirror on a parked car, veered out into the lane, and got hit and dragged to death by a bus.

“It was a tragedy and a very sad event,” said Malibu City Councilmember Skylar Peak. Yes. It was. As opposed to being a tragedy and, say, a happy event.

“It was a very, very sad and tragic loss of what seemingly was a wonderful young woman,” said Councilmember Laura Zahn Rosenthal. Yes. And how nice of you to say “seemingly.”

It was sad and tragic, just like the other sad and tragically dead cyclists who have met their end on PCH, and just like the ones who will die there in the future. What’s really tragic, though, is that there’s no end in sight.

What’s killing cyclists on PCH?

The root causes of most bike-car accidents are twofold: Most cyclists are not particularly good bike handlers, and PCH is essentially a narrow, obstacle-filled road with speeding cars, trucks, and buses. It doesn’t take much, especially when PCH cyclists are often enthusiasts who are going hard, for a biker to lose control.

It might be a mirror, an opened door, debris, a pothole, uneven surfaces, longitudinal cracking in the pavement, wide “tire traps” around manhole covers, a howling onshore wind, the air vortex from a fast passing large truck, another cyclist, a moment of inattentive wobbling, a parked car, a parked trash can, a mechanical failure, a flat tire, something getting caught in the spokes…it’s an endless list. To make sure these predictably unpredictable hazards don’t crash you out takes skill; it takes the skills of constant alertness, of being able to react quickly without losing control, and of being able to forecast problems and avoid them before they occur.

These are precisely the skills that most cyclists lack, and they often lack them to a shocking degree. The average cycling enthusiast is a terrible bike handler for many reasons. They tend to start later in life, when the learning curve is steeper. They tend not to have a background in moto or BMX, two-wheeled activities conducive to great bike handling skills.

They’ve never raced, and so don’t have a lot of experience crashing and avoiding crashes. They don’t train with large groups, so they’re not on a state of constant high alert, or accustomed to being surrounded by reckless, unpredictable idiots who can crash them out at a moment’s notice. They cycle for exercise, not for errands or commuting, so they don’t have a lot of experience using a bike for transportation and learning the survival skills that go with fighting traffic in a morning and evening commute.

They don’t have a skilled mentor from whom to learn.

PCH is a high-skills corridor. The deaths there prove it. And although thousands and thousands of people ride PCH every year and never get hurt, I’d hazard a guess that everyone who rides it much at all has a long string of stories about near-misses and the mishaps of others.

So that’s part of the problem: High-skills corridor, low-skills users. Bam.

The other 90% of the problem

However, it’s not the kooky wankers whose wheel you wouldn’t want to follow on a dare who are killing themselves. They’re being run over and killed by cars, trucks, and buses. And as the NRA would say, cars don’t kill people. People kill people.

They’re right.

Because however inept the average cycling enthusiast is, the average driver is far worse. More damning, terrible driving skills in America can’t be excused from lack of practice. It seems that no matter how many years people drive, the roadways are still cluttered with terrible drivers.

The comments from idiots like “Hellwood,” a Malibu type whose philosophy is that PCH is too dangerous for bikes, prove the point. Most drivers, Cher included, simply don’t know what to do when they come upon a bicycle, whether it’s in the lane, on the shoulder, or straddling the two. A skilled driver wouldn’t even shrug: He’d see the bike far in advance, move over, pass the bike, and get back into his lane.

He might be slowed down a few seconds, if at all.

This, of course, hardly ever happens. Tottsy Dundershoot is barreling along in his restored Chevelle SS with the top down and “WHOA! What the fuck! A bike!!!”

Yikes! Hit the brakes! Or better yet, veer! Or better yet, accelerate, buzz, honk, and wave the middle finger! Get flustered!

None of these reactions is the reaction of a skilled driver. They’re the reactions of an unskilled, easily unnerved, easily frightened driver. And it’s no different on the freeway, where no one understands what a “passing lane” is, and where 999 drivers out of 1,000 believe that the far left lane is the “fast lane,” meaning “the lane I stay in because I’m going faster than the guy I just passed.”

Drive the autobahn and you’ll get a quick education in real driving skills. You hit the left lane to pass, then get the hell out. Autobahn driving, if you’re going fast, is a series of passes followed by returning to the slower lane until you have to pass the next person. It requires constant attentiveness, the ability to see what’s going on well ahead of your own car, and the patience and skill to seamlessly pass, return, pass, return, pass, and return over and over and over again.

In Germany, that’s one of many skills that make up the ability to “drive” a car.

In America, we don’t drive cars. We point them.

Skilled drivers relish using their skills

Like road cyclists who enjoy a tricky descent, or mountain bikers who get a kick out of negotiating difficult terrain, skillful drivers enjoy using their skills. Driving situations that require forecasting, reaction, avoidance, coordination, and thought make driving fun.

This is the antithesis of how people drive on PCH. They point, mash the pedal, and scare the fuck out of themselves when anything unexpected happens. You know, unexpected things like bicycles, of which there are thousands every single weekend.

Frightened, inept, barely-in-control car pointers are not dangerous because their cars are big, moving fast, and weigh thousands of pounds. They’re dangerous for the same reason that a clumsy, unskilled idiot is dangerous with a loaded gun: He doesn’t really know how to use it.

The toxicity of “My Space”

Partnered up with a laughable set of driving skills, the PCH car pointer becomes even more deadly due to his xenophobic sense of space. The roadway is his turf. Anything that is smaller and slower than him is a foreigner without an entry visa. When his space is invaded, his cloddish driving skills combine with his outrage at something being where he thinks it doesn’t belong, and cause him to freak out.

In order to make PCH safe for cyclists, it doesn’t require any new studies or infrastructure or laws. It requires something even costlier and more impossible to attain: The admission that bikes in the middle of the road, even erratic and badly handled ones, are a piece of cake for anyone who pretends to be a skilled driver, and the realization that as a cyclist the biggest hazard to your health on PCH may well be the way you ride your bike.

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