The little girl burst into tears, as I turned and walked back to my car. Her mother, my neighbour, huffed and ushered the children inside. I hadn’t sworn, nor barely raised my voice, but the anger and fear in my voice was pretty clear.
My anger was at the mother, who had repeatedly allowed her preschool age children to ride their bikes and tiny tricycles on my driveway. As I explained to her – the emotion in my voice seething through – my anger was out of fear: fear that every time I maneuvered down my driveway, my car might collide with a tiny wheel or a tiny limb. Her indignant response, that she had permission from my landlords to allow the kids to use the driveway only fuelled my frustrated cocktail of shock, anger and fear. I wanted to scream ‘How can you not see how dangerous it is to allow your children to play on someone else’s driveway!” – instead I calmly said ‘I’m afraid for your children’s safety.’ The little girl started to cry. I went into my house and did the same thing.
It is that same primal, emotive response of fear and anger that is triggered when I hear of yet another cyclist being hit by a car. I boil with frustrated anger when the media focuses on what the cyclists could have done differently, especially when it later comes out that the cyclists were doing everything possible to be visible, and the driver just acted recklessly. I cannot fathom it when I hear people blithely say that cyclists bring it on themselves or that compulsory helmets inhibit people from cycling because they look ‘uncool’. I can only tell myself that those who hold such attitudes have never known the physical and emotional destruction that is caused when drivers act recklessly around cyclists. May their innocence never be brutally shattered by knowing these realities first hand.
Helmets save lives. My father, a cyclist, sits in his lounge in Cambridge with me and another cyclist, who I have brought home to visit my parents. We go through photos of my childhood. Amongst the pictures of school balls and family beach holidays is a singular photo of the mangled road bike wheel. We didn’t photograph the smashed-in windscreen of the car but I still remember it clearly. A concave indent caused by skull hitting glass at great speed. The human body isn’t built to survive that kind of interaction.
I can’t read of a cyclist being hit without remembering seeing my father’s bike’s mangled wheel, his destroyed helmet. I can’t know of cyclists being injured or killed without hearing my mother’s cries that night when we were finally at home, having left Dad at the hospital. There is no sound like the pure grief of someone who has narrowly avoided losing her husband the same way as she lost her brother.
Driver error and stupidity takes cyclists’ lives. A photograph of my uncle sits on top of the piano in my parents’ lounge – bright eyes beaming out with the youthful joy of a teenager mucking about . The photograph is in black and white, one of the last photos take of him. Helmets weren’t commonly worn by students cycling to school in the early 1970s.
As I look up from the photo of the mangled wheel to the one of my smiling, youthful uncle, I hold the hand of the visiting cyclist tightly. These days, I see through from him and his bipedal adventures the joy that the sport can bring. I observe the camaraderie of riding with others and the carefully chosen and cared for bikes and parts. I sense the freedom of a Sunday morning ride when the weather is good. It’s exercise, transport and hobby in one. I remember visiting my brother in Denmark and being encouraged to see how cycling is considered a normal form of transportation, with separate cycle ways and a culture which encourages, rather than marginalizes, cyclists.
Sitting in my parent’s lounge with my father and the younger cyclists, I casually mention I’d like to get a bike to try commuting the 5km distance to work. I look to my father and my boyfriend see the same look in both their eyes – a mix between wanting to encourage me but also of loving concern and the desire to protect me from harm. Their identical looks are borne of first hand experience of cycling on New Zealand roads. I know their concern. I want to encourage my boyfriend to ride much as he wants, but I am afraid too. I am afraid of becoming the third generation of women in my family to answer calls from the hospital, thanks to driver ignorance and error around cyclists .