More minds changed…

More minds changed…

In this time of the world being “on hold,” I’m digging up random things. I found this post that I wrote mid-summer, last year. Somehow I neglected to post it. So it’s old, but you didn’t know that!

Different towns, very different programs. We taught the same material, showed the same videos, said the same things. But the days were very different. 

In one session, there was mild interest, but little interaction, and almost no one participated in the afternoon on-bike clinic. Our experience shows that the classroom session, as expected, gives the “intellectual” understanding of the issues, problems and concerns regarding traffic law and bicycling. But participants who then join us for a bike ride around town after the classroom session get it to a degree that others don’t. 

In a second session, there was real interest, and a lot of interaction among participants and instructor, and EVERYONE participated in the on-bike clinic. They genuinely began to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the saddle. They realized that things do not look the same as when they’re driving in a large metal box that protects/insulates from the outside world. As one officer said after the road ride, “It’s amazing how much more you can see when you’re on a bike!”

During another road ride, officers experienced the lack of care some motorists have for other road users: I was riding at the back of the group. We were riding lawfully, two abreast in the right lane, when a motorist decided to pass us in the same lane. We were taking up most of it – so he moved over just barely enough to sneak by us. The left lane was unoccupied. Nonetheless, he passed so close to me that his passenger-side mirror came within about three inches of hitting my left arm.

…The best part of the story? I’m riding next to a police officer, in uniform, with the word “POLICE” in reflective, capital letters across his back! Karma’s a bitch, though. The light just ahead turns red, and the motorist has to stop. His window is open. We pull up on his right side and proceed to discuss idiot drivers who think it’s ok/funny to do stupid things like almost run over a group of bicycle riders with police officers in the group. Of course, he wouldn’t look in our direction. The officer was not local, so could not ticket the idiot, but I think it was probably a good thing his windows were down – he looked like he had an accident in his pants!

The light changed, and off he went, rather quickly. I think he was just glad to get away from us once he realized what he had done.

During the course of those rides, I saw a change in how the officers view the world. In the first case, their eyes saw more things, and saw them differently. In the second, they saw how people driving motor vehicles treat other road users, and began to understand why people driving bicycles may feel threatened whenever they get on their bikes to travel.

And that was the point.

What’d You Say?

What’d You Say?

OK, I’m not starting with a quote. “But wait, you always start with a quote!” I’m not starting with a quote because what’s most important here is one word: “accident.” I was inspired to write this post having read an article about language, and how it shapes our understanding…Here’s the reference.

TL:DR – The way we talk about crashes is changing. There are few accidents but many crashes.

“What’s the difference?” you may ask. The word “accident” has a certain connotation. When we hear that word, we believe that it “just happened,” that nothing could have been done to prevent it. The reality is that there are VERY FEW “accidents.” There are literally MILLIONS of crashes every year in the United States alone. In virtually all of them, one (or more) of the operators involved could have done something to avoid the crash. And there’s been research to show that the way we talk/hear/write about a crash has a dramatic impact on our perception of the event.

We read about the bicyclist who was run over by a truck making a right turn in front of a bicyclist…and the article says that the bicyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet. Yes, let’s pretend that a helmet would have prevented the death of a person who was run over by a vehicle weighing up to 80,000 pounds. Let’s forget that the truck driver unsafely turned right in front of a bicyclist legally traveling in a bike lane. The bicyclist WASN’T WEARING A HELMET. As if that would have made a difference!

But that statement changes our perception of the crash…blame is shifted to the bicyclist instead of the truck driver who failed to yield to the bicyclist; who did not merge into the bike lane prior to turning; who did not adequately check for traffic around the vehicle perimeter. No, the bicyclist shouldn’t have been there.

Or how about the motorist/pedestrian crash where the pedestrian is crossing the street in a crosswalk. And the reporter says that traffic is snarled in the whole area while the investigation continues. Subtly, we process that as though the pedestrian was the cause of all the tie-ups. The reality is that the pedestrian had the right-of-way, and the motorist ignored the law (and the person in front!) or “didn’t see the pedestrian” (were you looking…really looking?). But it sounds like all the motorists are being inconvenienced because the darn pedestrian went and got himself run over…

And then there is the official spokesperson for the law enforcement agency, who almost always makes sure to include that bicyclists should always wear helmets and conspicuous clothing…but never mentions either the rights of the pedestrians and bicyclists or the responsibilities of the motorist to be aware of his/her surroundings.

I have one request…and then I will end my semi-rant. Please pay attention to language when you read (or hear or write) reports of crashes. Be sure that the report accurately represents what happened. Try your best to approach it with an unbiased eye/ear. And be sure that the language does not force you to accept a view of the event that may be inaccurate.

This is changing, but very slowly. Crash investigators I have talked to seem to be more aware of the issue; they typically don’t call incidents “accidents.” They call them crashes. But there’s a lot of noise out there. We see road signs (even on some automated signs from state highway departments!) talking about accidents. News reporters talk about traffic accidents. Insurance companies and trial lawyers do the same. We need to do better.

I’ve talked about crashes in other posts. If you’d like to read on, try these: “Losing my balance…and finding my calling,” “GET OFF THE ROAD!,” “No. NO!,” “It was a crash…it was no accident,” “I just crashed! (hypothetically)

Bicycles…and airplanes

Bicycles…and airplanes

“Society is singularly in debt to the bicycle, since bicycle mechanics developed the airplane as well as the automobile.”

James E Starrs, The Noiseless Tenor

Did you know? Several of the developers of the automobile and the airplane were “wrenches.” Rudolf Egg, Edward Butler, Léon Bollée. Peugeot. Charles and Frank Duryea. The Wright brothers and Charlie Taylor. Glenn Curtis. Surely the automobile and the airplane would have been invented anyway, but the work of bicycle mechanics began the era of motorized transportation. These innovators brought their skill sets to the question of flight, and brought us into the skies.

It’s interesting that we find ourselves in the 21st century with many looking to bicycles again, but for different reasons than those of its developers in the 19th century. Today’s reasons? Transportation, surely. But for many, it’s the joy brought about during a bike ride. Or for the exercise: an excellent cardiovascular workout – with whatever intensity the rider wishes, from leisurely family rides to HIIT training and bicycle racing. Or because it’s WAY less expensive than owning a car. Statistics show that most vehicle trips are just a few miles long: the perfect situation for using a bike.

Or for the environment. Little “carbon footprint.” No burning of fuel (except what the rider has eaten!). Less congestion on crowded roadways. And the pleasure. Behind it all is the sheer joy of a bike ride. The sights, the sounds, the smells; a real experience of the journey, instead of the closed-in space of the four-wheeled box in which we typically travel.



“No quote today.”

Les Leathem

OK, so I didn’t start today’s post with a bicycling quote. I guess it is a quote, though…Why no bicycling quote? Because today I’m going to talk about how I spent one weekend this month.

I was in Sarasota, Florida, working with LCI (League Cycling Instructor) candidates. These folks came to be certified in order to share their passion for bicycling with people in their communities. It was great. Dedicated people, hard at work in their communities already, who want to do an even better job of teaching others how they can use their bicycles to commute, to exercise, to travel…

The group was diverse – some young, some older. For some, a “long ride” would be 10 miles. Others wouldn’t be fully warmed up in 10 miles, on their way to the goal of a “century” ride of 100 miles. Some had a lot of experience working on bicycles; others, not so much. What they all shared was passion. Passion to share their experience with others. Passion to work to make bicycling accessible to all. Passion to teach others about the joy that bicycling can bring.

They demonstrated the ability to teach others. They demonstrated the ability to handle their bicycles in hazard drills. They demonstrated the ability to navigate roads in Sarasota – even one of which a local candidate said point-blank, “I live on that road, and I won’t ride my bicycle on it.” But ride on it he did, as did the rest of the candidates. And no, I would never take less-experienced people on bicycles down that road, but as instructors, LCIs should be able to handle higher-volume roadways. And handle it they did.

I am honored to now call many of them “colleague,” rather than “candidate.” This group of brand-new LCIs are eager to get out there and share their knowledge and experience with others. Several of them already have plans in place to work with their local clubs in upcoming classes. They are wasting no time in giving back to their communities. It’s wonderful to hear, and I am so happy I was able to meet and work with them.

Bikes as a workout, too

Bikes as a workout, too

“My own preferred fitness regime is to use my bicycle.”

-Paul Hollywood, celebrity chef

I’ve done a lot of different types of exercise over the years. Nautilus machines. Dumbbells. Barbells. Kettlebells. Aerobics. Cybex. Universal. Ellipticals. Body weight. Rowers. Bodypump.

You get the idea. For my entire adult life I’ve exercised in one way or another. Maybe that’s why in a recent hospital stay, they kept saying, “Wait. All of your vitals and lab values are great. You’re a healthy man living in New Orleans. How does that happen?”

Or maybe it’s in the genes; or both? I don’t know.

But, I will say that my favorite activity to keep myself going/ healthy/ happy is to ride my bike. For so many reasons. When I train new League Cycling Instructors, part of the very first exercise includes the question, “What one word would you use to describe what learning to ride a bike meant to you?” The most common answer is freedom.

Yes. The freedom to expand your life: from your home, your neighborhood, even your city (for more ambitious riders)…

For me, as an adult, it’s another kind of freedom. When I’m on the bike, I can think about anything, or nothing. I can solve the problems of the world, or I can intentionally let everything go. And regardless, I’m exercising! Oh yeah, this is about exercising.

But bicycling gives me so much more. Out in the air. Seeing the world. Smelling the flowers (and in passing the farms in New Jersey, smelling other things!). Talking with friends (I like riding alone, but it’s better when friends are there too). And thinking, or not. And meanwhile, my heart is pumping more. I’m breathing more deeply. My muscles, at least the lower half of my body and my core) are getting a workout. OK, so I still need to exercise the upper half, but that’s fine. Days on a bike are especially good days.

But ride

But ride

“Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short, as you feel. But ride.” Eddy Merckx

Yes, that. For many reasons. I find that my riding has been neither as frequent nor as far as I would like this year. Part of it is the back and forth of travel. Part of it is inertia. None of it is for good reason. I have noticed that no matter how much or how little I ride, I love it equally. I have managed to get in a few longer rides, but many of my trips this year have been short ones: to the bagel shop, to the hardware store, to the farmers’ market. On that one, I got my wife to ride with me. She didn’t think we could do the trip on the bikes; she assumed we’d drive the car. I grabbed the Ortlieb bags. We carried home corn, tomatoes, and a number of other fresh herbs and vegetables, zucchini flowers (for stuffing at dinner that night!) and a bouquet of fresh flowers for the table. It was nice.

A few trips on the Mississippi River Trail in New Orleans; a few rides on Long Beach Island in NJ. Other than that, short jaunts on the cruiser. But on all of them, the same feeling of joy. Of freedom. Of peace. All days are gifts, but days that include a bike ride are special.

You’ve seen articles on the bike and its contribution to physical health, to the environment, to business, to traffic mitigation…and to mental health. I can only speak for myself: a bike ride is a recharge/reset; a mental break; a chance to enjoy the beauty around us.

Go recharge. Go do yourself some good. Go for a long ride, or a short one…but ride.

A moment…

A moment…

OK, this is a complete (well, not for me) diversion from the usual. I’ll relate an experience I had this week (off the bike) and it’s only tangentially related. So if you’d rather not get philosophical today, move along…

Those of you who know me may know of my fascination with labyrinths. I’ve admired them, walked them…even tattooed one on my leg. That’s part of the story.

I’ve never been much on tattoos. I felt that, for me, at least, it had to mean something. Until I found something that truly meant something to me, I would not put it on my body. As some of you know, that happened last year. I had said for years that a tattoo of the Chartres labyrinth would be cool. For me, these were the reasons why: 1) I’ve been fascinated with it for years. The journey of faith, of pilgrimage, of prayer, represented there was important to me; 2) I’ve often considered bike riding a “physical” prayer, much like walking the labyrinth; 3) the dentelles, or teeth, surrounding the labyrinth reminds me strongly of a chainring.

So I finally decided to do it last year. I had it placed on the inside of my right calf, right where a “chain tattoo” would be.

And then this happened early this week:

A local church advertised a labyrinth walk. I decided to go in. I approached the canvas labyrinth, and near the entrance, two ladies were seated. As I got close, I said, “Good morning,” and, having worn shorts, I turned slightly and they saw the tattoo. One responded enthusiastically and asked if she could take a picture of it. The other, meanwhile, asked how much it hurt then said, “You idiot.” The first lady laughed nervously, and said, “Leave it to (second lady) to come up something like that.”

Second lady scurried away, and I began walking the labyrinth. I prayed. I was overwhelmed by the comment and thought that I needed to address it with her. I had no idea what to say. On my way back from the “center,” it came to me. Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (Matthew 18:15)

So I did. As I exited the labyrinth, she was walking by. I said to her, “I really need to speak to you about something.” I told her that Jesus said we should point out our brothers’ and sisters’ fault. I said, “This is the first time I’ve ever come to pray and been called an idiot.”

She apologized profusely and we hugged. She thanked me for giving her the opportunity to right the wrong. She had realized what she had done the moment she said it, and moved away in embarrassment. We talked some more, about labyrinths, about who we were, about prayer, and then we hugged again. It turned full circle – from a wonderful moment, to a moment of doubt, to a wonderful reconciliation.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Losing my balance…and finding my calling?

Losing my balance…and finding my calling?

“There is no reason why a man on a smooth road should lose his balance on a bicycle; but he could.

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra

There was no reason that I should have lost my balance; but I did. At least that’s what they tell me. I “wasn’t there.” My body was there, anyway. I don’t remember anything about what happened. Retrograde amnesia, I guess. The only thing I do remember about the time before my crash is being down at the southern end of the island and starting to head north. The only thing I remember after is thinking, “Wow, I’m in a helicopter.”

I don’t remember the medevac helicopter ride (what a shame, that would’ve been cool). I don’t remember much from the next couple of days. That’s probably because of the drugs they gave me to keep me from being in pain: my face was kinda scraped off. I broke multiple ribs in multiple places. Tore a bicep, and a rotator cuff. Broke a thumb. Road rash on both arms. Chest bleed. Brain bleed (not subdural, subarachnoid: a potentially serious one).

Why am I telling you this at all? Two reasons.

The first is to talk about “crashes” and “accidents.”

All accidents are crashes. But very few crashes are accidents. What difference does it make? A lot. An accident is “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.” But a crash almost always has a cause. The drunk driver, who hits another motorist or a person riding a bike or someone walking down the street, chose to drive after drinking. The bicyclist who runs a red light and gets hit chose to ignore the law. The pedestrian who ran into the sign or fell into a fountain (yes, you’ve seen videos like that!) chose to stare at the phone instead of where he or she was going. And sometimes, more than one party in a crash could have made different choices that would have changed the outcome. Like the motorist who decides to rush past a bicyclist and then make a right turn in the bicyclist’s path. The motorist could have waited the few seconds to let the bicyclist go through the intersection. The bicyclist could have scanned the traffic more frequently, or used a mirror, to see the approaching motorist sooner, and slowed or used an evasive maneuver to prevent the crash.

Doctors ran tests on me in the hospital. They weren’t able to find a cause for my crash, so maybe it really was an accident. Or not. Maybe I did (or didn’t) do something that may have changed what happened. Or not. Maybe mine is one of those outliers. Or not. If not, I don’t know what I might have done differently that day.

But usually we choose to do things, though sometimes the choice is not well-thought-out.

And now the second reason why I told you all this: because I think He isn’t done with me yet.

I was already committed to teaching others about safe road use. But if I had ANY doubts whether this was what I was supposed to do, they were certainly put to rest then. Since then, I started working towards educating potential educators. First, I became a coach for the League of American Bicyclists – training new instructors nationwide so they can educate others. And then, I found a real groove: working with some of our most influential educators: law enforcement officers.

Some people think of police as “enforcers,” as the “strong arm.” Yes, they are that, sometimes. But more often, they are educators. The stop you because a taillight is out. They direct traffic to help you avoid a dangerous situation. They respond when a crash happens, and, often, someone gets a ticket. Are these “punishments?” Perhaps, but these are also powerful educational moments…More often than not, just a discussion with an officer is sufficient to cause a change in behavior. The authority given these men and women puts them in a unique position to educate. That’s what I hope to tap into. If I can change the perspective of police officers, so that they see the world as it appears from the saddle instead of from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, then they can better understand (and change) behavior of the citizens they encounter, both in cars and on bikes.

So maybe there was a reason I lost my balance. Maybe there’s a reason I had time to think about the next step. And maybe I’ve figured it out. But maybe there’s more…He hasn’t told me yet.

I’ve talked about crashes in other posts. If you’d like to read on, try these: “GET OFF THE ROAD!,” “No. NO!,” “It was a crash…it was no accident,” “I just crashed! (hypothetically)

The same…but different

The same…but different

I was in Oklahoma this week. I did my law enforcement class in Tulsa on Tuesday. Representatives from several agencies in the region were in the class. It was a very rewarding session; good questions and comments, good participation overall. One officer even got up to draw scenarios and ask the other officers how they would deal with it! Another officer who commented early in the day that he’d “pull over bicyclists when they’re doing things that aren’t safe” left the class with a different perspective.

Wait! That was the point of the class, wasn’t it? The idea was to get officers to think about how the road looks when you’re sitting on a saddle instead of sitting behind the wheel of a big metal box hurtling down the road.

That second officer came up to me at the end of the day to say I had really changed the way he looks at bicyclists. Wow. He realized that, often, the things bicyclists do may look like they’re being unsafe, when in fact they’re moving in a certain way to keep themselves safe!

Safe…now there’s an important word. In Oklahoma, that word is used in the law. Bicyclists “moving at less than the normal speed of traffic” don’t have to ride “as far to the right as is practicable.” They have to to ride “as far to the right as is safe.” The same, but different.

As far as is safe. Not a weird word that no one understands anyway. Not a word that can be mistaken for “possible.” Not a word that causes confusion. Because who gets to choose how far right that is? The bicyclist does.

In the class I use a momentary diversion to illustrate that point. I talk about passing laws. I ask, “Assuming a motorist is in a place where passing is allowed, who decides when it’s OK to pass a slower-moving vehicle?” Of course, the answer is: the motorist who wants to pass. The passer decides when it is safe to move left and pass the slower-moving vehicle. Then I ask, “OK, then, who gets to decide where/when a bicyclist may move left, because any further right is unsafe?” Of course, the answer is: the bicyclist who is in the lane. And then I watch several heads explode as officers process that…

It’s one of the “AHA!” moments that I get to see during this class. It’s one of the moments that make it so worthwhile, because I can see the shift. In each of those moments, their viewpoint moves a bit further.

I had a rare opportunity to go even further with this scenario in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. I spoke at the Traffic Safety Forum of the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office. It’s a statewide gathering of LEOs, many of whom are police chiefs.

I had walked to dinner Tuesday night and noticed a streetcar track, across the street from the hotel. Someone in Tulsa had said that a bicyclist went down in OKC because the tracks “grabbed” the front tire and he was hurt when the bike went down. Here’s a pic of the layout I saw. I simply had to talk about it during my presentation. Why?

See anything problematic? Yep. The bike lane (lane 3) is against the curb and the streetcar tracks are in the next lane to the left (lane 2). Motorists can use lane 1 (hard to see in this pic) or lane 2. In Oklahoma, bicyclists are not required to use bicycle lanes, by the way. So, if there’s debris in the bike lane, or if a streetcar is coming, or if the gutter pan is part of the bike lane, bicyclists certainly would not want to be in the bike lane. What position puts them “as far right as is safe?” Is it lane 2, between the rails?

Just like train tracks, streetcar tracks are just about the right size to grab a bike’s tire. If that happens, the bicyclist may completely lose the ability to steer the bike…and fall. The fall is dangerous regardless, but if it is to the left, and there are motorists traveling in the left lane, it could even be fatal.

So the correct travel lane for the bicylist is…lane 1(the far left lane)! You should have seen the heads explode when I said that! And then I could see the heads nodding. An “AHA!” moment. I think even in that brief talk, I was able to get a bit of a change in perspective. I hope so.


…a small step. And a big one…

Yesterday I had the pleasure of working with nearly two dozen officers in the New Orleans Police Department. On what? Traffic law and bicycling. Officers from every district came to the session wherein we discussed how traffic law applies to people driving bicycles rather than cars. The session was the culmination of almost three years of effort.

A bit of background: I am a League Cycling Instructor (LCI) for the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). I am also a National Coach for LAB, training other instructors nationwide. In conversations with friends who are law enforcement officers, several of whom are avid bike riders, the topic of police interactions with bicyclists arose. We agreed that many officers, like everyone else, are unaware of the difference in perspective when you’re on a bike. You don’t look at the world the same way as you do behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. So we put together a course for officers. It included classroom time to discuss what the laws are and how they apply to bicyclists, and when they don’t. We included sections on engineering (how road design can help…and hurt), education (what we teach citizens), and enforcement (how officers can enforce the law equitably). It also included time on a bike – to put that classroom knowledge into practice, for officers to experience what it’s like to drive a bicycle as part of traffic. We did a pilot program in 2014, then got a grant to conduct it in multiple locations in one state in 2015. We’ve done it since with close to 400 officers in 4 states.

When I first moved back to New Orleans three  years ago, I tried to get the program up and running here. Two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, three steps back…You know how it goes. Multiple dead-ends. A glimmer of hope, and then another brick wall. But I didn’t stop. And then…a small step. And a big one…I didn’t know it at the time, but a conversation in January led to yesterday.

After the deaths of Sharree Walls and David Hynes on March 2 of this year, New Orleans rose up to voice concern for road safety for all. And after a City Council meeting with hours’ worth of testimony by Ms. Wall’s family, friends, and many other concerned members of the community, my phone rang. That conversation in January planted the seed. The phone call was from NOPD. “Les, that course we talked about? We want to do it.” “Great, when?” “Now.”

Then yesterday happened! I co-taught the class with two officers who are active bicyclists as well. Their dual perspective made it even more real for attendees. We discussed Louisiana and New Orleans law. We discussed the bad behavior we see…in both bicyclists and motorists! We talked about how the road and motorists look to bicyclists, compared to how motorists see the road and bicyclists. We reviewed the most common violations they may see, again, for both motorists and bicyclists.

And after the talking, we got on bikes. And you could see the “Aha!” moment. “Why did the bike lane disappear?” “Riding here (in the door-zone bike lane) is dangerous….” “You expect me to go through all the water and debris in the bike lane?” “Wait – if I turn left here, the road markings say to go all the way to the right…and then cross an interstate on-ramp???” The theoretical knowledge turned into the practical reality of getting from Point A to Point B without the protection of a several thousand pound box of metal. And I think we made a difference. I hope that the officers who came yesterday will see things just a bit differently when they hit the road today. It was a small step. And a big one…


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