Bike salmon: omen or harbinger?

Last summer, I got a new bike, much easier to ride and much zippier than the hand-me-down I’d been using. A little high on my new confidence, I was for about twenty-four hours a somewhat aggressive, even reckless biker. I don't remember my sins very clearly, but I probably sailed through red lights, rode on and off the sidewalk, and cruised down one-way streets the wrong way.

It didn't last, because I discovered that I didn't like the experience of seeing my life flash before my eyes. I reformed abruptly and rigorously. My principle became, roughly speaking, bike in such a way that even relatively inattentive drivers can be expected to see you and know what you’re going to do next. Also: don't be annoying to pedestrians. I began halting at red lights and stop signs. (Later I relaxed this somewhat, almost to Idaho rules.) I made sure to bike in the bike lane, if there was one (or on the outer edge of it, if biking inside it was going to put me within swinging distance of the opening doors of parked cars). I stayed off sidewalks. And I never, ever biked the wrong way down a one-way street.

Gradually I became hoity-toity about my righteous biking. I glared at cyclists who came at me the wrong way down a one-way street and began to refer to such transgressors by a moniker that blogger Bike Snob NYC invented for them: "bike salmon." I shook my head at cyclists who insisted on riding on the side of the street opposite the bike lane. I clucked my tongue at cyclists who didn't even bother to slow down at busy intersections.

I was therefore interested, and a little chastened, to read in Jeff Mapes's Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, that moral indignation about the adherence of bicyclists to traffic laws is absent from the Netherlands, the utopia of cycling, which has, Mapes reports, "the lowest per-capita vehicle death rate in Europe," about a third that of the United States. Except for the requirement that bicycles on the road at night have lights, Dutch police do not enforce traffic laws on cyclists. Explains Mapes:

The Dutch don't see much sense in going after cyclists and walkers when the only people they are putting at risk are themselves. "It's their choice," shrugged [Amsterdam top traffic-safety official Jack] Wolters. . . . The statistics seem to bear him out. . . . One influential 2003 study, by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, found American cyclists were at least three times as likely to get killed as Dutch cyclists, while American pedestrians faced at least six times the danger of dying.

Such laissez-faire will probably not arrive in America. For one thing, there’s no question that it’s dangerous to ride a bike lawlessly. According to Mapes, a 1996 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that "as many as a third of all bike accidents involved simply riding against the flow of traffic," and a 2003–2004 Orlando, Florida, study found that "nearly two-thirds [of bike accidents] involved riding on the sidewalk or another unsafe choice by the cyclist." But the Dutch attitude has nonetheless thrown a monkey wrench in my moralism.

To look at the problem through the most rose-colored glasses possible, might bike salmon merely be a sign that biking is on the rise? What if most bike salmon are like me on my first day with my spiffy new bike? If so, and if they survive, they'll eventually settle into abiding by the law. Moreover, when you first start biking in a city as byzantine as New York, the street patterns are novel to you (streets good to bike on do not often coincide with streets good to drive on) and highly confusing, and a newbie sometimes finds himself following a series of well-marked bike lanes into a virtual dead end, the only exit from which is by the bad choice of bike-salmoning (Bergen Street ending at Court Street, when the cyclist wants to reach one of the bridges over the East River—I'm looking at you here). As a cyclist learns the map, he becomes less likely to repeat such errors. If bike salmon are by and large newbies, they will in all likelihood reform with time, the way I did.

But to try out the Dutch way of regarding it, why should I care if they don't? I might care, magnanimously, because I don't want them to die, and I might care, a little more abstractly, because, as a commenter to my previous post noted, lawless bikers could spoil the good name of bicyclists generally, and contribute to a political backlash. But am I responsible for the anger that motorists might feel? It seems unfair for me, as a cyclist, to have to adopt motorists' displeasure as my own, simply because I fear it as a political force, especially when the motorists might be mistaken in their anger. The Dutch facts suggest that irregular cyclists, by making the streets less predictable, force motorists to pay more attention, and when motorists habitually pay more attention, the streets become safer—for motorists, as well as everybody else. Of course lawless bikers offer this (perhaps hypothetical) public benefit at enormous cost to themselves—at the potential cost of death, in fact, which I can't recommend.

At the end of the day, then, I still do wish that all cyclists went the right way down one-way streets, but maybe I won’t tsk-tsk the bike salmon any more. (Can I ask something, though? If you’re a bike salmon, and you and I are headed for a collision, would you mind being the one to swerve into the car lane? Because I didn’t sign up for that.) It would, after all, be swell if motorists paid more attention to the road. The trouble is that motorists hate to have to pay more attention.
Their disgust has to do, I think, with the asymmetrical nature of the
warfare between cyclists and motorists. As I vaguely recall from
high-school physics, the damage that a moving object can do is
proportional to its momentum—its mass times its speed. A 5000-pound SUV
going 35 miles an hour is therefore about 81 times as dangerous as a
150-pound cyclist on a 30-pound bike going 12 miles per hour.* The worst
thing a motorist can do to a cyclist is kill him, and the worst thing a
cyclist is likely to be able to do to a motorist is saddle him with the
guilt of having killed. But guilt enrages in a way that fear doesn't,
maybe because people are softies underneath, and would rather run the
risk of being killed than of killing. (Between the certainty of one or
the other, the choice might be different, naturally.) The only way a
motorist could level the playing field would be to drive 81* times more
prudently than the average bicyclist, and that may not be humanly
possible.

* Correction, July 27: My memory of high-school physics is even hazier than I knew. As several commenters below have pointed out, the damage that a moving object is capable of is proportional not to its momentum but to its kinetic energy—its mass times the square of its velocity. So the SUV in my example is not 81 times but 236 times more dangerous than the bicycle.