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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

If you were a bug...

We recently enjoyed an idyllic week on the Oregon coast, with both activity and relaxation. My granddaughter Mackenzie seems destined to be some sort of critter wrangler - unlike many 6-year-old girls, she loves bugs, snakes, toads, salamanders, etc. Except for spiders. I believe certain adults - the ones who stand on chairs - have brainwashed her into being afraid of spiders.

She even built a "bug hospital" outside the house we were staying in - complete with leaf beds and pebble pillows.

During our visit to Shore Acres State Park (beautiful!), we saw lots of honeybees and bumblebees, busily moving from blossom to blossom.

We observed "wooly bear" caterpillars. (If the Wikipedia is to be believed, they hatch around this time of year, and then literally freeze over the winter in their caterpillar/larva state, and thaw in the springtime. Amazing!) When I was cycling, I saw literally hundreds of 'em on the roadway. I wish I could report that they were displaying some uncanny migratory instinct or traveling to a mutual destination, but 360 bugs were creeping in 360 different directions.

One of her favorite and routine finds was big, slimy, slow-moving banana slugs. We don't have anything like that in Boise, but they thrive in the humid and temperate coastal area. She
asked me, "What are slugs good for?" You know, in comparison with bees that pollinate our fruits and flowers, and ants that are famously industrious. I couldn't give her an answer.

(An interpretive sign in the redwoods area said banana slugs eat all vegetation in their path - except for redwood sprouts.)

Since then, I've thought about bugs and people. (Bike riding affords time for unproductive thinking about a wide variety of subjects.) And I've come up with a philosophical question, right out of the Barbara Walters Interview Manual:

"If you were a bug, what kind of bug would you be?"

Mackenzie would be a chipmunk. (Chipmunks are bugs... right? haha)

Many people these days are banana slugs, at least in their mobility habits. We've become a sedentary ease-seeking society. If it weren't for bicycling, I'd probably be a banana slug. But I'm probably a bumblebee - not very fast, no obvious usefulness, and looking at me, you'd guess that flight is improbable, even if you see me flying.

Zombies on Bikes!

The festivity-minded folks in Key West, Florida, have a pretty cool Halloween-time tradition - a Zombie Bike Ride. (All zombies can lurch about, but I'm guessing only the more graceful and balanced zombies can propel a bike forward.)

All of these people dressed for the occasion! Except for the smart-phone zombie girl in the foreground. Or at least I know I see smart-phone zombies lurching about every day... mostly on foot but sometimes on a bike.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Change of scenery

Wish you were here!

I'm away from Boise for a few days with family... visiting the southern Oregon coast.  For the first time ever, I bought a back-of-car bike carrier, so I could bring the beloved steed along.

(The rack is an Allen Sports receiver-mounted rack; $70 at  I'm very impressed by the engineering, build quality, and functionality.)

We're staying in a house a few miles south of Coos Bay, and I've enjoyed the riding on Oregon Highway 42, US Highway 101, and a local gem, the North Bank Road that ends up in Bandon.  The weather has been "Chamber of Commerce" - high 60s and lots of sunshine.

Earlier today, I did a 37-mile loop including all three above-mentioned roads... nice!  There was a somewhat daunting 2-mile steady uphill on US101 (they seem so much shorter in the car!), and a steep-grade downhill on Beaver Hill Road.  I was applying as much brake as I dared, and wondering if they would hold... and still hit 39+ mph.  (And was glad I was riding down, instead of up!)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

More Boise bicycle fatalities

Sadly, we've had a couple of bike-car collisions that have resulted in fatal injuries.

In the wee hours of September 26, cyclist Victor Haskell, 58, was struck as he rode on State Street near 30th street. The driver who hit him, Gavin Bradford Haley, fled the scene, but turned himself in the next day.

Since it was dark at the time, my first assumption was that Mr. Haskell may not have had adequate/legal lighting and reflectors, but the police reported that he had working lights at both ends of his bicycle. And Mr. Haley was driving home from a bar, and has a significant criminal record including DUI offenses. So now the obvious assumption is that driver impairment was at least a contributing factor.

Friends of Mr. Haskell described him as a "delightful man," and as an experienced transportation cyclist.

And then on the afternoon of October 7, cyclist James Kelly, 56, was riding on Federal Way when he was struck by a motorist in an SUV, who was turning eastbound onto Federal Way from the Broadway ramp. He had a baby trailer behind him, but (thank goodness!) it was filled with groceries, and not babies.

That incident is still under investigation, but it's obvious that one of the parties failed to yield. The intersection has a traffic signal (light).

What can be done to prevent such incidents?

Well, first of all, there's a risk inherent in bicycling. (And taking a bath, and getting out of bed in the morning.) The only way to avoid getting injured or killed when riding a bicycle is to avoid a crash. Let's review how to minimize the likelihood of a crash:

BE LEGAL! Know the traffic laws that apply to you, and follow them.

BE VISIBLE! Bob T. has made a convert out of me - you cannot be too visible! Go overboard with bright and hi-viz attire, lights, reflective material, whatever. Day and night, but particularly when visibility is compromised by poor ambient light.

BE PREDICTABLE! Be in a position on the road where people expect you to be (legal), don't make sudden direction changes, signal your intentions.

BE DEFENSIVE! Do everything right... and expect everybody else to do everything wrong. If there's an occupied vehicle, another cyclist, or even a pedestrian, nearby... expect 'em to do something crazy/stupid, and be ready to react.

NOTE! Even if you do everything right, you cannot totally eliminate the possibility of a mishap. They happen. But you can greatly reduce the chances, by adhering to safe cycling practices. (And riding more often probably improves your chances rather than reducing them, because of the experience you gain along the way.)

Condolences to the families and friends of the deceased cyclists. May we honor their memories by making our roads safer.