can be shifted in myriad ways, including trickery, bombast, and the strength of overwhelming numbers.
Such debates often involve too many moving parts to sustain tidy conclusions. It is in seeking to reconcile competing viewpoints and priorities on complex topics that preemptive burden-shifting becomes so effective. When both sides must rely heavily on anecdote and moral conviction, the game is rigged in favor of whomever shifts the burden. And when one side in a public debate has vastly superior numbers, like drivers, it can shift the burden on sheer noise.
The argument based upon misbehaving cyclists depends on a particular burden-shifting syllogism: Those with a lesser claim to a given resource owe deference to those with the superior claim; cyclists have a lesser claim to the road; therefore, cyclists have an obligation to accommodate drivers, who hold the superior claim. Never mind that this contradicts the laws of most jurisdictions in the United States: The debt cyclists owe to drivers is moral; normative but not rooted in the law.
Tellingly, those who make this argument seldom (never, in the author’s experience) assert what would seem to be the corollary proposition that no driver owes any other driver full respect until all other drivers obey the law. The reason is straightforward: One driver’s moral claim to the road cannot readily be disentangled from another driver’s by a category distinction, such as exists between cyclist and driver. Hence, drivers honor each other’s rights regardless of some drivers’ bad behavior. Burden-shifting doesn’t work; if your fellow driver isn’t entitled to equal respect as a consequence of the misdeeds of the few, then neither are you.
If we can agree that cyclists, even reckless ones, are far less dangerous to drivers than other drivers are, and both numbers and common sense make that much irrefutable, then something other than risk must underlie drivers’ reliance on cyclists’ reckless behavior to justify their own elective approach to the rules of the road. The answer lies in the syllogism: Cyclists have an inferior claim to the road. They are tolerated as a matter of grace, which is forfeited the first time any cyclist fails to afford a driver whatever tribute he thinks is his due, often a tribute not required by law.
No recent event has so vividly illustrated this attitude as a Boston-area grand jury’s recent refusal to indict truck driver Dana E.A. McCoomb for allegedly causing the death of 41-year-old cyclist, Alexander Motsenigos.
Law enforcement authorities have released traffic camera footage of Weston Road, a busy, two-lane, shoulderless thoroughfare in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. The footage shows Motsenigos proceeding swiftly down the road on his road bike. He rides with the posture, cadence, and speed of an experienced roadie, and his equipment and kit suggest he is precisely that. He crosses McCoomb’s field of view as McCoomb waits to enter traffic on Weston Road.
Motsenigos rides to the right on a stretch of road with no parking lane or shoulder. McCoomb’s 18-wheeler turns left onto Weston just a moment after Motsenigos speeds by. He accelerates quickly, and immediately attempts to overtake the cyclist on the narrow road as the two vehicles crest and begin to descend a shallow rise. There are no visual obstructions, no shadows or overhanging trees, to interfere with McCoomb’s view of Motsenigos as he closes on the cyclist. It’s a sunny day; they are crossing a short bridge. As the two recede, they are traveling more or less abreast, the rig still nowhere near completing the pass. Seconds later, witnesses say, McCoomb strikes Motsenigos with the side of his truck. First responders find Motsenigos unresponsive at the scene.
Authorities spent three months investigating the crash, enlisting the help of an accident reconstructionist and a trucking expert. They learned that McCoombs repeatedly was disciplined for driving infractions over decades as a commercial driver. After its investigation