Here’s what people usually say when they almost kill you in traffic:
“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
Here’s why I never want to hear it again:
1) I assume you didn’t see me, because I assume it wasn’t your goal to run into, hurt, or kill me. Most people don’t set out into traffic with the goal of running into someone else and hurting or killing them. But it happens all the time anyway. 35,000 people a year die on American roads, or about 100 a day. So your intention is both assumed to be good and also not really adequate as far as not killing me goes.
2) It’s your responsibility to see me. If you didn’t see me, you either didn’t look where you needed to look, weren’t paying attention to the right things when you did look there (attention blindness, which everyone has to some extent and most drivers are especially afflicted with where bikes are concerned), couldn’t see because of conditions and therefore shouldn’t have been driving at all, or should have been going more slowly, or you made a maneuver when you couldn’t look where you needed to look.
3) Frequently, what you did was illegal even if you had looked and the way was clear. In some cases where you just almost ran over me, failure to yield or a similar failure is the only violation. But far more often, you changed lanes or turned illegally or failed to stop at all or did some other completely illegal thing. In that case, I don’t really think NOT SEEING ME is your problem. Your problem is that you were driving illegally and unsafely and I just happened to be in your way at the time.
Here’s what I want to hear instead:
“I’m sorry, I was being careless and I came close to causing a crash that could have hurt or killed you. I will be more careful in the future.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking / I wasn’t paying attention. I know I should pay careful attention when driving, and I apologize for scaring you like that.”
“I’m sorry, I was focused on getting where I needed to be and did something foolish and risky. I’ll try to avoid that in the future.”
Granted, I’d rather hear “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” than any number of other things, like “You were in my way”, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “Get off the road”. You might say this is a first-world problem, or a Platinum Bike City problem, or even a Portland Problem. But it’s not just that. Understanding that good intentions are not enough is a critical step in the progress toward Vision Zero and designing for safe traffic flow. The fact that you could kill someone without meaning to, just because you forgot to look, or couldn’t see well, or suffered from over-focused attention, means that the street lets you create unsafe conditions just because you’re a fallible human being. As the Onion says, it’s pretty incredible that Americans are entrusted with driving cars.
I’d really like everyone using the streets to travel in a vehicle get past the notion that “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” is an adequate answer to scaring and almost hurting or killing someone. That goes for people biking and walking too. Because if you had actually hurt or killed them, that wouldn’t really be a good reason, would it? Let’s design our streets to be safe even when they’re being used by tired, stressed, inattentive, fallible humans. And let’s try to be the best falliable humans we can be, and admit our fault when we aren’t.