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Meet The Driver’s Ed Instructor Who Aims To Make Cycling Safer

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Angela Azzolino gets a 30-minute block during select 5-hour drivers ed courses to teach people about driving safely around cyclists. Photo: James Ramsay

“Recently, I got in one of those [car2go] Smart cars to run an errand, and I was immediately going 37 miles an hour, when I had no idea I was going that fast,” Angela Azzolino, who teaches in driver’s education courses, told We The Commuters. “I just happened to glance down, like, what, that’s crazy! But cars aren’t meant to go 25 — they’re designed to go over 100 miles per hour.”

Azzolino — who also runs the biking group Get Women Cycling — received funding from the Department of Transportation earlier this year for a four-month pilot program to speak about cyclist safety in driver’s ed courses. From February through May, she spoke in 30 classes a month.

Last week, I attended a defensive driving course in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Azzolino spoke to drivers seeking insurance discounts, or trying to get points taken off their licenses.

“We are not conditioned to look for people, we are conditioned to look for cars,” she told the class. “The profile of a car is so much bigger than the profile of a person, and this is why people are getting killed in crosswalks and turns. When you accelerate, you got that A-frame pillar, it’s hard to see them.”

As of now, there’s almost no mention of cyclists in the New York DMV’s official curriculum for new drivers. A bill sponsored by South Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gournardes would change that, requiring all new drivers to learn about cyclist and pedestrian safety in the mandated five-hour course. That bill is currently in the Assembly, awaiting a vote.

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Azzolino acknowledges that her job is to convince people to drive their cars in a way that’s contrary to how vehicles are built to perform. Photo: James Ramsay

As cycling has grown in popularity, the City’s Department of Transportation says it has expanded the city’s bike network by 330 miles, including 82 miles of protected bike lanes (though there is some debate over their definition of “protected”). And under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, the city’s default speed limit dropped to 25 miles per hour, down from 30.

That said, cycling deaths and injuries have increased this year. And the mayor acknowledged that there’s an “emergency” at hand, vowing to ramp up enforcement of traffic violations like parking in bike lanes.

But how much can the city do — through enforcement, or driver’s ed, or increasing the number of unprotected bike lanes — to keep cyclists safe when sharing the road with people behind the wheel of 3,000 pound vehicles?

Shane Gooding, a 29-year-old driver who also works for New York City Transit, was in Azzolino’s class. And he said that while the MTA stresses Vision Zero for all of its bus operators, there are limits to how well cars and bikes can co-exist on the roads as they’re designed.

New York City is an old city,” he said. “You can’t just reformat the sidewalks as you would like. And in a shared lane, you might have to hug some of the yellow just to be courteous to your fellow cyclists.”

At one point during the class, Azzolino asked if anyone knew what a bike lane was.

“It’s half of your lane,” one student said. “You used to have the whole thing, now you gotta drive like this.” He mimed squeezing himself.

“So what do you do?” Azzolino asked.

“I’ll probably quit driving,” he said.

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