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Looking around our neighborhoods we see families where parents are kind, nurturing, empathetic and responsible regarding the relationship with their children. It makes our reaction to the rare situations where a parent is dismissive, neglectful or abusive to their child, that much more intense. It is so afar afield from normal behavior that it can easily bring us to a point of rage; and certainly to a point of passion for justice.

Similarly, observing those driving our streets and roadways, we see a reasonable majority adhering to the rules of the road and exhibiting reasonable and civil behavior. Again, it makes the actions of those at the wrong end of the Bell Curve that much more aggravating and problematic. I encountered a “Bell Curve” someone a while ago. I’d like to speak to them.

On one of the rare snowfall periods of this season, I was returning from a late afternoon meeting downtown to my home a bit south of the university. I make these trips by bike; the time needed for short trips is about the same as with my car — less if I take into account time spent looking for a parking spot. Snow and ice conditions made the space typically used, bike lane or shoulder, unsafe for biking. In these situations, lane tire tracks, being merely wet rather than icy, become the only manageable path. And, of course, Montana traffic code (MCA 61-8-605) grants a bicyclist full access to virtually any right-hand travel lane regardless of seasonal conditions. In any case, most Missoula drivers are empathetic and considerate of winter bike commuters, giving them some extra space in consideration of the many challenges they face. To the driver of a white sedan on that Tuesday afternoon: you were not one of them.

I was riding, with a flashing rear light, at about 10 mph on southbound Higgins a block past the bridge; pavement markings indicate bikes should occupy the right traffic lane (there is no longer a bike lane). And just past Fourth Avenue I saw that you had pulled up to within 10-12 feet of my back wheel. Experiencing tailgating is annoying experience when one is in a car. On a bike, with no real opportunity to vacate your space without slipping/falling on snow or ice, it’s downright terrifying. After about a minute, just before Sixth, you were finally able to get into the left lane and pass me. Since you didn’t honk or cut right back in front of me, you were probably just impatient and clueless rather than criminal (threatening me to get me to move out of your way). So now you know; you put a fellow human in imminent danger — please don’t do it again.

Some reading this may be thinking, “If he didn’t want drivers running down his bike, he should only use his car in the winter.” Fair enough, perhaps. But this is more meant to be a lesson or advisement rather than a protest. Also, I’m speaking for hundreds of others whose financial issues, and perhaps where they live, mean that a bike is their only reasonable means of transportation year round. They are not second-class citizens, and are not to be relegated to being second-class users of the public right of way.

The point of this story? Bicyclists have a right to be there. They’re vulnerable. Might doesn’t make right. If you are human, please remember to drive humanely. If you find yourself being less than human, consider turning yourself in for scientific study.

Thank you. And you’re welcome.

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Gene Schmitz is a retired small-business owner and science teacher. He is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate, and serves as chair of the Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and are not necessary shared by the board. 

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