Squirrel Theory

You’ve probably seen squirrels, those cute, fuzzy critters that climb trees, zipping and zooming erratically hither, thither and yon. Cute when it’s in nature, not-so-cute when it’s in front of your moving vehicle, and their instinctual predator-evasive techniques lead them to darting in front of you and then freezing; not understanding that your goal, strangely, is not to eat them but rather to avoid hitting them.

I’ve seen far too many car-bicycle interactions just like that. When I took driver’s ed two decades ago, seeing and stopping for pedestrians was one of the topics taught. Ignoring ostensibly “modern” (Cold-War-era) urban-planning monstrosities like “stroads” for the moment, this decades-old conventional wisdom still generally holds true. However, it starts to break down when bicycles are introduced to the mix. Shaped more like vehicles, but slower off the line than pedestrians, but with a top speed approaching city street speed limits, many drivers in the US seem instinctively confused: is a person on a bicycle a vulnerable pedestrian obnoxiously camouflaged to look like a vehicle or an obnoxiously fast-accelerating, slow-moving, non-car-shaped, under-lit stealth vehicle? (I’m going to ignore both”salmon,” wrong-way cyclists and”ninja,” unlit stealth cyclists; till a later rant.) Either way, out-of-date expectations are not met and irritation ensues.

Consider the following common scenario: a cyclist waiting for a suitable gap in two-way traffic to safely cross the road.

In the first case (a vulnerable, strangely shaped, pedestrian), a driver from one side happens to see the cyclist, remembers other cyclists that they’ve happened to see who darted, squirrel-like, out into traffic and stops abruptly, regardless of traffic behind them or whether oncoming traffic from the other side has stopped. They cannot fathom from their limited viewpoint in their car why the cyclist is not then grateful for the opportunity but instead frustratedly trying to wave them out of a dangerous situation, and they get mad. The driver fails to understand they not only have a worse overall view of traffic than the cyclist, the cyclist has already calculated how much of a gap they need, and would have already gone if traffic conditions (from both directions) safely permitted it.

In the second case (a fast-accelerating vehicle that isn’t shaped like a car and has less than 110 watts of halogen-powered headlights), a driver from one side fails to see a cyclist waiting to safely cross the road, and then freaks out when the cyclist takes advantage of a suitable gap in traffic to safely cross the road in front of them, mentally adding to the tally of “irresponsible” cyclists who darted, squirrel-like, out into traffic.

In both cases, regardless of who legally has the right of way, experienced cyclists know that disobeying the laws of physics has a much higher likelihood of grievous bodily harm. This has unfortunate consequences even where I’m living in the Netherlands, where most drivers are also cyclists, and will (generally) execute a much more graceful slowdown instead of a full panic stop. I’m still not expecting to be seen or given consideration as a fellow road user, so I hesitate when I should go and go when I should hesitate. I’m afraid I’ll have lost my learned-distrust of drivers should I ever move elsewhere. Stupid squirrels.

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