Sunday, October 27, 2013

How safe is cycling?

That is the question posed in a column by Gina Kolata on the NY Times website. Experienced cyclists weigh in... some say crashes are inevitable; others feel they can be mostly avoided. (Thanks to fellow cyclist Ellen for bringing the column to my attention.)

Dr. Harold Schwartz thinks you will have an accident. But the accident he had, that cemented his opinion, was when "his bike slid out of control while he was going 35 miles an hour downhill around a sharp turn."

I say Dr. Schwartz could've avoided that accident. I'm in the "99% of crashes can be avoided" camp, for sure. And the article only reinforced my feelings.

Consider (according to the article):

San Francisco General Hospital treated 2504 cyclists for serious accident injuries - nearly half didn't involve a car. They were single-vehicle (bicycle) accidents. Couldn't most of those accidents be avoided?

My firm belief is that if you ride legally, visibly, predictably and defensively, you can avoid most accidents.

How do some cyclists expose themselves to an increased likelihood of injury accident?

Some are either unaware of, or willfully break, traffic laws. They ride against traffic (illegal). They "blow through stop lights and stop signs" (illegal in many cases, even in Idaho). They ride at night without adequate lighting (illegal). They ride without hands on handlebars (illegal).

Some ride "invisibly." There's the night-light thing. They wear dark clothes that blend in with the background. They ride on the sidewalk, or in the gutter pan, where they are much more difficult to spot.

Some ride unpredictably. They zig-zag through traffic, squirrel-like. They ride on the sidewalk, except when they decide not to. And - illegal cyclists by definition are unpredictable. Since they're not following traffic laws, you can't expect them to do what's legal.

Some ride as though they think they have an invisible force-field protecting them! Or that they are sharing the road with nothing but expert and totally-attentive drivers! They are oblivious to their surroundings. They ride with sound-blocking earplugs and over-the-ear headphones to listen to their righteous tunes. They ride on slippery surfaces without exercising a proper amount of caution. Road hazards take them by surprise.

Fellow cyclists! Motorists do stupid stuff all the time! And if they involve you in their stupid stuff, YOU are likely to end up the injured or dead party! Are you good with that? If not, you better ride defensively, and be ready to get yourself out of a tight fix wherever possible. When you ride down the road with your tunes in your ears and your hands in your pockets (or holding your electronic music gizmo)... you might as well paint a target on your back, too!

(Yeah, cyclists do stupid stuff all the time, too... but generally they're just endangering themselves. Or at least aren't often killing or gravely injuring other roadway users.)

The one other caveat I might add, in the context of all types of bicycling (not just transportation) - when you tempt the laws of physics (gravity, inertia, friction, etc.), you are also increasing your likelihood of having an injury accident. Dr. Schwartz's crash, mentioned above, is a case in point. If you don't compensate for slippery surfaces, sloping surfaces, etc. ... good luck with that.

The article never really declares that cycling is safe, or unsafe. I assert that it can be pretty darn safe, if you're not tempting fate or pushing your luck.


Anonymous said...

Steve - I totally agree with you. Way too many accidents are a result of careless and dangerous bike riding. My bike commuter friends have observed the majority of the people riding their bikes at night are not using reflectors or lights. We need to increase bike safety education in our elementary schools. We have bike groups in the Treasure Valley that have the resources to do this.

But, there is another dimension to this issue that needs far more public attention. Street construction sites that are not properly signed to protect walkers and bike riders. The State Street fatality is an example of poor signage. ACHD and ITD are the culprits here. The motorist focused mentality needs to change to give equal attention to the safety of those using active transportation, e.g., bike riders and walkers.

Marcus said...

One conversation that society never talks about is the proficiency of drivers and cyclist. I have been a motorcycle commuter, driver and I teach bicycle education to child and adult and an overwhelming majority of the folks in all modes of transport are quite poor at operating the machines. I will hear stories of people getting into accidents over and over and wonder what is going on. Then when I ride with them or see them riding in town, it is apparent that they are simply awful at riding. They don't know how to brake correctly, use weight distribution, scanning or emergency maneuvers. I think a little skill practice could be in order for every road user. Steve, you may remember the Idaho STAR course, it required all riders to lock up the rear wheel for braking, practice slalom as well as weight distribution in turning and braking.

tucker_arch said...

One item that I always like remind people is the Laws are always minimum requirements. The bike laws in Idaho are just minimum levels for compliance.

If cars are waiting at the same red light as I am on my bike, I will sit and wait for the green light and proceed with the cars.

An example: As an Architect the Building Code tells me the minimum load capacity for floors. I will always design the floor to hold more is to provide the client a better floor with less vibration or deflection.

Scott said...

All in all, I'd agree with you. I avoid dozens of accidents with cars every year just by being vigilent and being seen. That said, I had two nasty accidents within about two months of each other a few years back:

1: I hit a pothole at 4 AM after a heavy rain. I had a headlight, but the road disappeared in front of me and I went down hard enough to destroy a pedal and bend up my rack. I walked away with a few nice bruises.

2: I hit ice in January and went down hard enough to ring my bell and give me a nice helmet-shaped bruise on my head. Had I not worn a helmet, I have no doubt I would have been seriously injured.