DO AS I SAY … A decidedly morbid sense of solidarity compelled me to attend Tuesday evening’s gathering in response to the death of Jake Boysel, the 12-year-old La Colina Junior High School student who was knocked off his bike, out of his shoes, and into the next world by a sun-blinded SUV driver last week. I never knew Jake. I’ve never met his parents. But news of his violent death compressed the proverbial six degrees of separation that allegedly link us all down to just two or three. I have a 12-year-old child. I have a son who attended La Colina. And I’ve been commuting to work on my bicycle long before it was ecologically fashionable. Jake’s death hit me hard. As it turns out, it hit a lot of people hard. That the demise of one child in a freak accident could cast such a pall is grim testament, I suppose, to Santa Barbara’s down-home essence despite our eagerness to be otherwise. And that, I guess, is the good news.
A few hours before the meeting started, I got a phone call from a traffic engineer I’ve known for many moons. Once upon a time, he’d written admiringly of how the freeway was the cathedral of Southern California culture. Since then, however, he’s seen the error of his ways and has become a card-carrying member of the anti-car conspiracy. His righteousness is tempered by the practical realities he confronts on the job. In other words, he’s not a zealot. And that makes him effective. He was worried about the meeting, he said. As a parent, he was concerned that the pro-car and anti-car clans might seek to claim Jake as a gory icon for their conflicting causes. Yes, it would be nice to have more bike lanes, he acknowledged. Necessary even. The problem afflicting our roads, he cautioned, transcends the quantifiable and the obvious. Sure, there are more cars on the roads. And they’re so much bigger. But the most significant change is the disposition of the people behind the wheel. We’re mad, distracted, and in an awful hurry.
Write an investigative exposé on that, he urged. But on reflection, I might not be the guy to write it. The fact is that as a bicycle commuter I’m a cool-headed road warrior righteously wary of all the four-wheeled nitwits out there, any one of whom could steal my life in a simple moment of bone-crunching distraction. But behind the wheel of a car, I become a gear-grinding, clutch-popping man on a mission — a fuel-injected Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. It’s taken me a while, but I finally figured out that all those people have not been waving to me, but flipping me off. Like that father holding the hand of his young daughter on Shoreline Drive who stopped in the middle of the crosswalk to give me the one-finger salute. Hey, I’d eased off the accelerator; what was his problem? My affliction is not so much arrested adolescence; it’s having to cram too many trips into too little time, mainly shuttling my kids to and fro. At their age, you might think they could ride their bikes. But with drivers like me out there, what kind of parent would I be to allow that?
At the meeting itself, there was much talk of avenging Jake’s death with practical and positive solutions. I heard many fine ideas, more mundane. La Colina principal David Ortiz was very intense about separating cars and bicycles on the road in what he acknowledged would be a very expensive and ambitious public-works undertaking. There was much talk in support of a bill that would outlaw cell-phone use among motorists. Naturally, I think anyone who talks and drives is a menace to society. But when my cell phone rang on the way to the meeting, I took the call. I tried to get off, but it was a News-Press worker who had to talk. There’d been yet another wave of resignations and firings, and my source was too distraught for me to hang up on. So I drove one-handed and half-brained into a sunset rendered blood-red by the forest fires to our south. Sometimes it’s hard not to be a hypocrite.
Two police officers in their dress blues were at the meeting, but they took pains to spill no beans about the ongoing investigation. Some La Colina parents wanted to know if more enforcement would help. The cops acknowledged it might, but pointed out there’s only one motorcycle cop on duty at any given time. That’s down from two earlier this year, and that’s down from eight not long before that. In recent enforcement efforts near La Colina, the cops noted that the speed demons they’d ticketed were not testosterone-fueled gearheads but La Colina parents running late getting their kids to school. At least I wasn’t the only one.
Optometrist Larry Bickford was positively disdainful of solutions that involved new bike lanes and road improvements. All that’s way too slow, he argued. He was likewise dismissive of efforts to pass new laws. We already have the means to make immediate change, he said. It’s called the accelerator. Take your foot off it. Drive slower. Pay attention. Focus on what you’re doing. As the meeting broke up, another speaker chimed in, “Get going five minutes sooner. Give yourself more time.” None of this will bring Jake back. It might, however, prevent future Jakes from happening. As I slipped my car into gear on the way out, I thought of my friend the traffic engineer. I also thought of the old Pogo adage: “We have met the enemy and it is us.” It’s a great line, but Pogo got it wrong. The enemy is me. The bad news is that there are a whole lot of me’s out there. The good news is that the solution is simple. Slow down. There are worse things than being late. Like being dead.