ON DECEMBER 10, a deliveryman named Jordan Barson from Kingman, Arizona, drove his truck into a group of bicyclists, killing five of them and injuring two others plus the driver of a safety vehicle accompanying them on I-95 outside Searchlight. The victims were among a group of 20 riders doing their yearly trek from the M Hotel in Las Vegas to Nipton, California, and back — about 130 miles total. Barson was later shown to have a high level of methamphetamine in his system at the time of the collision. Authorities have charged him with DUI, and he awaits trial in a Mojave County jail.
On KNPR’s State of Nevada last week Michael Anderson, a surviving rider from the Nipton Loop, as they call the route, shared his first-person account of what happened and how he’s coping with it. His story took up the first 12 minutes of the program; another hour was devoted to a discussion about bike safety between three guest experts and listeners, who called, emailed, and Tweeted in droves.
I produced the show. I hoped that, in addition to fulfilling a job responsibility — facilitating awareness of an important public safety issue — it would help me process a tragedy that hit close to home. I’m a longtime recreational rider myself, who’s done several centuries (cyclese for 100-mile treks), including one of Anderson’s favorites, the Tour de Tucson. When I heard about the accident, I imagined my own friends — my husband — lying dead on that road.
The public discussion part of the show was surprisingly civil. Only one caller complained about bad biker behavior. Others — perhaps wanting to avoid victim-blaming — focused on a shared desire to avoid collisions. Motorists pleaded with cyclists to wear brighter lights and ride predictably. Cyclists pleaded with motorists to be attentive and slow down. People owned up to their own faction’s contribution to the problem. Safety advocates offered concrete solutions, from improved infrastructure and laws, to PSAs and law enforcement.
A period of respectful abstinence from criticism is one of scant benefits after a tragedy such as the one on December 10, where the motorist was undeniably at fault and the cyclists within their rights. Whether you think cycling the Nipton Loop was prudent or not, it was legal. And even if it hadn’t been, the cyclists wouldn’t have deserved to die.
At the same time, however, there was a vexing thread running through the conversation on State of Nevada, articulated this way by retired Assemblyman Paul Aizley, who in 2011 introduced the state’s 3-feet law requiring motorists passing cyclists to keep a safe distance: “I wouldn’t ride a bicycle in Las Vegas. I’d be afraid I wouldn’t survive.”
It’s a well-founded fear. Despite the sincere efforts of safety advocates like those that appeared on the show, we’ve had this conversation before … in 2019, 2017, 2015, and before. As guest after guest in the most recent installment noted, with an increasing air of resignation, nothing will change until Southern Nevadans embrace a more inclusive view of roads as shared thoroughfares for all types of travelers. My own observations suggest this view is obstructed, in part, by the prevailing belief that a certain type of traveler has supremacy, a belief that’s sometimes expressed as a form of toxic masculinity.
I’ll give you two examples. A couple years ago, I took my road bike out on the 30-mile Downtown-to-Red Rock route. Going west, I was stopped in the bike lane at a red light on Grand Central Parkway when an older-looking man on a commuter bike pulled up next to me in the auto-traffic right-turn lane, smiled, and tried to strike up a conversation. I replied politely, but briefly, and looked away, watching traffic from the south. As we took off, I zipped easily through the intersection, and for the following block, he struggled mightily to catch up. I could hear him huffing up behind me as I stopped at the red light on MLK Boulevard. I was in better shape on a faster bike, but when the light turned green, he brusquely cut in front of me and went first, forcing me into an awkward choice: go slower than my usual pace and stay behind him, or go my usual pace, pass him, and risk pissing him off. This idiocy continued for miles, with me alternately trying both approaches — and both failing when red lights allowed the one behind to catch up. The whole time, his behavior was aggressive. The first time I passed him, he gestured and yelled something at me. I finally pulled over, sat on the curb, and decided to wait 15 minutes, letting him get far enough ahead that I wouldn’t have to deal with it. As tears welled up in my eyes, I considered calling someone — the police? 3-1-1? What would I say? That an old man on a beat-up Trek was being mean to me? I sucked it up and got back in the saddle.
The second example happened this year, when I was going west in the bike lane on Oakey. I was stopped for a red light at Rainbow when a large pickup truck pulled up on my right. I was squarely in the bike lane, and despite his large vehicle, he had room in the right-turn lane to avoid me. Yet, he chose to get as close to me as possible, going over the line into my lane. As he turned, he gunned the engine, screeched the tires, and swung around broadly. Startled, I wobbled to the left, straddling my bike with one cleat still clipped into my pedal, and nearly fell over. For the second or two he’d been stopped next to me, I’d looked through his driver-side window at him. He was facing my way, checking for oncoming traffic before going. Couldn’t he see that I was a harmless person out for a little exercise on a Sunday morning? Who was I hurting? What did I do to deserve that?
These are two examples of many similar incidents. The common thread, as far as I can tell, is that I’m a woman alone being harassed by a man. I know personal experiences don’t amount to data, but there are plenty of accounts of gender-based harassment in recreational sports. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to connect the dots and say that’s what happened to me.
What does this have to do with cycling safety? If our problem is, at heart, one of attitude, then it can’t hurt to address attitude from every angle, including the intolerance of people who believe their right to the roads supersedes others’ — bicyclists, pedestrians, people of color, women … We can’t be completely honest about inclusivity without addressing entitlement and privilege, in addition to laws and infrastructure.
And on the off chance you think there’s no racism in bicycling, then I invite you to take a couple rides with me for comparison — say, the wash trail into North Las Vegas, and the 215 beltway trail through Summerlin. See which one is full of trash and jarring cracks in the pavement, and which one is clean and well-maintained. Or have a look at a Clark County bike map and tell me: Are there more interconnected, dedicated lanes and trails catering to suburban recreational riders, or urban commuters who may have no other mode of transportation? And why do you think this is?
During the State of Nevada discussion, Keely Brooks talked about Change Lanes for Bikes, the Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition’s education campaign. The coalition has worked to teach everyone from school kids to people passing their driver’s license tests about the 3-feet law for drivers. Brooks said the next push will be aimed at new cyclists, teaching them safe ways to ride.
“We (cyclists) need to be accountable for our own actions as well,” she said. “Be visible, be predictable, be respectful of motorists. In order to get where we want to go safely, we can’t have that animosity. Motorists have to understand we’re people too, we’re drivers too. Educating both sides is really important to keep everyone safe.”
Education certainly is important, but let’s think more deeply about who’s at fault. What if you are visible, predictable, respectful, and it doesn’t matter? What if the person putting you at risk of harm is not a motorist, but another cyclist? As the coalition and other groups tackle the thorny problem of animosity and accountability, I hope they’ll dig beneath the surface and have hard conversations about bias. Sometimes the real problem isn’t leaving too little distance between you and someone else; it’s believing she doesn’t have a right to be there to begin with. If that’s the case, then you need to ask yourself why.