Guest Opinion: Safety is everyone's responsibility, and what's the rush anyway? | December 13, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 13, 2006

Guest Opinion: Safety is everyone's responsibility, and what's the rush anyway?

by Elizabeth Lee

Numerous cyclists have been injured or killed over the years, including children. Those accidents probably could have been prevented if people had been paying attention.

I've lived in Palo Alto for most of my life and regularly drive, cycle, and walk our city streets. There are two things people do on the road that amaze me:

Drivers not looking for cyclists and pedestrians in order to avoid hitting them.

Cyclists and pedestrians darting out in front of cars, as if they assume the drivers see them, when the drivers actually may not.

Over the years I've had numerous near misses. Trying to cross the street on a green light while cars turn right is the most problematic because the drivers almost never look to the right while I wait for the green light. I look at the driver in the vehicle, but all I see is the back of their head, as they look left for oncoming traffic.

The light turns green. They begin their turn, cutting me off, and only then do they look to the right where I'm standing with one foot ready to step off the curb. Sometimes they brake quickly and wave me by, but usually they don't.

If there are more right-hand-turners behind them, I'm lucky if I can cross at all and may have to wait for another light unless I yell at them to stop. If I had crossed when the light turned green I would have been hit.

It's as if cyclists and pedestrians are nothing more to drivers than ghosts or shadows flitting about, seen only by people with "the sight."

The judge who sentenced Megan Coughran to prison for felony hit-and-run, killing Amy Malzbender and injuring Chloe McAusland, said Megan must live in a parallel universe to the one she herself lives in.

If so, she is not alone in that universe. Many drivers also seem to drive around in their own parallel universes, talking on their cell phones, brooding over problems, looking only for other vehicles but driving as if people outside of one don't exist.

I understand why many people don't walk places, and never cycle, and so don't know what it's like to feel vulnerable -- to feel at the mercy of motorists protected by hunks of metal.

Dirvers don't usually mean to hit people on bike or foot unless they're aggressive-driver sadists, and I've encountered a few of those. Most just don't think to look for them.

It's time to start.

The following are tips from both my own experience and the Palo Alto's Department of Planning and Community Environment.

For cyclists, pedestrians, and anyone on scooters, rollerblades, or skate boards:

Never, ever assume a driver sees you. Never enter an intersection until you're sure all drivers see you and are either stopped or are slowing down to a stop.

Make eye contact with drivers.

Be visible. Use a light and wear light clothing while cycling at night, and only walk or ride where motorists expect to see you.

Look around any objects blocking your view of oncoming traffic, such as parked cars, before crossing a street or driveway.

For drivers, always look for cyclists and pedestrians, especially in these situations where they have the right-of-way and must be yielded to:

Before right or left-hand turns on a green light.

Before turning into or backing out of driveways and parking spots.

Before entering right-turn lanes -- those are often bike lanes that double as turn lanes shortly before intersections.

Before crossing over bike lanes to enter right-hand turn lanes.

Where roads fork off to the right.

Before pulling to or away from, the side of the rode.

At designated crosswalks.

At stop signs.

One day while driving my daughter to school, I stopped to turn left off Middlefield. The traffic cleared. I looked in all directions as I began my turn. All remained clear -- but I had an uneasy feeling that something wasn't right.

I slammed on my brakes. A small boy riding a tiny bicycle yanked his bike back at the sound of my brakes. He was low down and therefore hard to spot and, since he was on the wrong side of the street, I hadn't been expecting him.

What was a child that age doing out alone? I signaled him past and he finished crossing the street.

I saw that child because I looked for cyclists and pedestrians. What, like the hundreds of drivers who didn't see me when I had the right of way, would have happened if I hadn't been?

That alternate scenario is something no one should have to live with.

Elizabeth Lee is a full-time mother of two, writer and a licensed Marriage and family Therapist. She lives in Palo Alto and can be e-mailed at


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