Yesterday's post about the drone crashing into the Clement Street farmers' market which thankfully didn't hurt anyone but easily could have has got me thinking about one of our city's other hot-button arguments, and I feel like the two are linked. Bicyclists in San Francisco and elsewhere often argue for their rights to the road, and their role as benign commuters helping to alleviate traffic congestion, etc., but it generally only takes one bad actor to incite an entire city's rage when it comes to bicycling laws and those who don't follow them. Likewise, I think most of us think of camera-equipped drones as benign and silly adult toys that bring us cool footage of Burning Man and music festivals that technology never allowed us to have before. Sure, there are going to be some privacy concerns around flying them around houses or high-rises where unsuspecting residents could be spied on remember this creepy instance? but it's all in good fun, no?
But while a lot of people focused yesterday on whether or not the drone owner in that case deserved to be photographed and publicly shamed, I was sincere in saying that, with the proliferation of these toys only growing, a serious discussion about drone safety and where in a crowded city they should be allowed to fly needs to happen fast.
Drones are already banned in national parks which, by the way, I'm not sure I agree with given that a place like Ocean Beach seems like a pretty good place to fly one, but, OK and around the Golden Gate Bridge, where off-limits areas could be explored by potential terrorists. They're also banned near the airspace of airports for good reason. But just recently we had the case of a little civilian's drone causing a CHP helicopter to have to duck and weave, making an evasive maneuver to avoid crashing into it just last month, potentially with dangerous consequences for the pilots.
Meanwhile, as a reasonable human being who's no big fan of excessive cars in an urban environment, I'm glad that we live in such a bike-friendly city where bicyclists also have a strong political voice. I'm all for banning cars on thoroughfares like Market Street, and making it safe for bicyclists to do their thing. But I know from personal experience that there are some bad-apple bicyclists, too, who think of themselves as the rulers of the road, forgetting that a fast-moving bicycle can pretty easily kill a person just the way a car can. (Newcomers should refer to this story from 2012, and this case from 2011.) Just in the last two months a friend and I each had a narrow near miss with two cyclists flying down 18th Street near Sanchez, in the dark, without lights, and without making any warning noise whatsoever as they approached the crosswalk we were in. That's by no means the first time that has happened to me either, in different parts of town.
We can't always enact laws that hinder bike travel for all bicyclists just because a few people have no consideration for others and I don't really think Mayor Lee's "Idaho stop" veto is going to save any lives. But just the way bicyclists have to be held accountable if and when they hurt or kill a pedestrian (and they are, but to varying degrees), that drone flyer last Sunday could have and should have been held accountable if he hurt someone, and if we had a law against flying drone directly above crowded streets, he could have at least been ticketed.
The difference being that guy probably had no intention of crashing his drone, while bad-mannered cyclists often have intent when blowing through intersections, without regard for the potential danger they pose. But we haven't even started figuring out how to regulate drone use. And a speeding bicycle may be a potentially more dangerous weapon than most currently available drones, but tell that to those CHP pilots.
What happens when a crashing drone, due to a dead battery or operator error, crashes into a windshield in the middle of 101 and causes a three-car pile-up?
What happens when a small, benign-seeming quadcopter crashes into a group of picnickers and causes some physical injury?
As I step off my Nevius-style soapbox today, I just feel like it's probably time we stopped treating these devices just as flying-camera toys and started to consider the idea that they may be better suited to the playa, or your next wedding reception, than to the middle of town.
Previously: Man Crashes Drone Into Farmers' Market, Then Gets Mad About Being Photographed
Officials Forced To Erect Anti-Drone Signs After Pilots Ignore Golden Gate Bridge Ban
Ground rules needed as S.F. drone use skyrockets [Chronicle, Feb. 2015]