San Jose Mercury News * April 27, 2001

Courtesy increasingly missing on Bay Area roads

By L.A. Chung
Mercury News Staff Columnist

At one time, bicycle riding in the Bay Area was a joy.  

I've been on busy roads all over -- along Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road from Cupertino to Los Gatos, on Portola Avenue between Capitola and UC-Santa Cruz, along Page Mill Road en route to Stanford, all along Grizzly Peak Road in Berkeley. And on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. 

Before helmets and road rage and the abandonment of driver education in the public schools in California, one could reasonably expect drivers to know the rules of the road. And one could reasonably expect to be safe riding a bike on the road. All that went out the window.

Long before the death of 24-year-old Michelle Lynn O'Connor on Franklin and Oak streets in San Francisco Friday, before the death of 53-year-old Trudy Heskett in Fremont . . . even long before a judge threw out felony charges against the trucker accused of killing Chris Robertson last November, I stopped riding my bike most places. I'm a motorist. 

Not because I'm lazy. 

But because I'm afraid. I'm fortunate enough to make enough money to have choices in how I get to work and how I enjoy my spare time. And I choose not to ride. 

Is it any wonder that people predicted the Critical Mass Friday night would carry more edge, more bottled-up frustration than in previous years? Is it any wonder -- with another death on the streets of San Francisco -- that police were bracing for a raucous ride, possible clashes with motorists, civil disobedience? 

The last-Friday-of-the-month ritual ride at rush hour has taken on more significance because people feel unsafe, at risk and frustrated. We're all targets on the road. It's not because motorists are evil. But the need for education abounds. 

"We would have been happy if it had gone to trial,'' said Jean Davis, a friend of Robertson's who worked hard on getting felony manslaughter charges pressed, only to see a judge reduce them to misdemeanor assault charges that could still result in trial but are more likely to simply be plea bargained. "The defense said it was politically motivated. But what else are we supposed to do? Someone dear to us has been killed.'' 

Look, let's be honest. Do we really care about Chris Robertson? Or Cecy Krone in Marin? 

Probably not. Most of us don't know any of them. 

But all of us care about our friends, our parents, our siblings, our colleagues . . . our children. 

So we should care about the Chris Robertson. As an idea. As a brother, son, friend, colleague, our own selves who could be at risk someday. Sometimes it's the biker's fault. Sometimes it's the motorist's fault. Sometimes, it's no one's fault. 

But anyone who has been on city streets and Bay Area highways know that there's no patience out there. Everyone is in a hurry, everyone thinks he or she has the right of way. And everyone seems to shave the margin of error down to nil. 

Robertson's friend, Eric Murphy, wonders whether rowdy Critical Mass events, like the massive action three years ago that created a huge traffic mess for motorists, helps or hurts the effort to get respect for the bicyclists. "But what do you do?'' he asked with despair. "You try to use the court system, you can't get police to enforce rights of bicyclists. What's left to do except some sort of agitation?'' 

Sometimes, I think the answer is so simple it's breath-taking. 

"The prescription is basic courtesy and respect,'' said San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, addressing the protesters at City Hall Friday. 

And sometimes, I think it wouldn't be such a bad thing if gas prices went sky high. 

The roads might be a little less congested, people might recalibrate their expectations and we might appreciate the privilege of driving a little bit more. 



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