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May 2, 2011

Dear Washington Post:

While we take some issue with your tone and the logic that leads to your ultimate
conclusion, we do agree with that conclusion: “Traffic safety laws need to be
enforced year-round” and those who “seek to make the District more bike-centric
[cannot] shirk on getting people—no matter if they are driving or riding—to follow
the laws.”

In a February hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary, Chaired by

Councilmember Mendelson, we said exactly the same thing. We complained of poor
enforcement of roadway safety laws, poor training of MPD officers, lack of
understanding among motorists and officers of the proper application of roadway
laws to cyclists, and a general lack of responsiveness among enforcement officials
the concerns of the cycling community.

But before that, in January, we also—somewhat controversially—spoke to the

cycling community, asking cyclists to resolve to ride responsibly in 2011.

Why was it controversial to ask cyclists to ride responsibly? Because for many
years, we have been encountering deadly situations with drivers and having to take
full responsibility for our own safety. Far before Mayor Fenty and Gabe Klein, and
even long before the founding of WABA in 1972, cyclists have been exercising their
right to travel the region’s roadways. And during that time, cyclists have regularly
been run off the road, had objects thrown at them, been threatened, harassed, and
assaulted. And yes, a number of cyclists have been killed on the District’s

And when a cyclist goes to tell a police officer about a dangerous interaction, rarely
is any action taken. Common responses have included: “I didn’t see it so I can’t do
anything.” “Were you slowing the driver down?” “I can’t take a report if nobody’s
hurt.” “How do you know he was too close to you?” and “Why weren’t you on a
road with a bike lane?”

In this context, the cyclist’s primary motivation becomes self-preservation, and

strict legal compliance becomes a secondary concern. As the vulnerable user, the
cyclist is more than just “more apt to come out the loser in a collision with a car.”
Motorists simply are not vulnerable in the same way to death and injury at the
hands of a cyclist. And that is largely why we take issue with your argument.

The very title, declaring cyclists “welcome in DC” smacks of entitlement and
condescension, as if it is the motorists who own the road and are allowing cyclists
space due to their largesse. In fact, cyclists have equal right to the road. We
simply don’t choose to drive vehicles with the accompanying mass to enforce our
rights through intimidation and physical confrontation. And that inability, as
vulnerable users, to enforce our rights through force is precisely why WABA
supports enforcement of traffic laws to make the region’s roadways safer and more
predictable. We rely on the protection of law and its enforcement, as we lack the
protection of seatbelts, airbags, and surrounding of steel.
But to date, enforcement remains poor. The old excuses from enforcement officers
for failing to protect cyclists persist, and the District’s leadership—while it has made
significant steps in creating bicycle infrastructure—has done little to make
protection of cyclists using that infrastructure a priority. And in that context, with a
system that fails to protect them, many cyclists will continue to make their
decisions based primarily on self-preservation and only secondarily on legality.

We do not deny that some cyclists ride irresponsibly and choose to ignore certain
laws. Whether through lack of knowledge, opportunism, or simple carelessness,
every mode has those who fall below the expected standards. But imperfection
among all roadway users is no justification for systemic failure to protect cyclists
and pedestrians.

It is in the best interest of all to have safe streets on which all users feel protected
by the system. This means fair levels of protection and enforcement for all users,
as well as laws and facilities that recognize and account for the multitude of
differences among pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists and their modes of travel.
WABA advocates for such a system in which traffic enforcement and pedestrian and
cyclist safety is prioritized year-round, and in which laws and facilities sensibly align
safety and legality for each mode of travel. We hope that the Washington Post will
join us in promoting a system like that, rather than simply calling for heightened
enforcement of the status quo.


Shane Farthing
Executive Director