Category: safety

They say cycling is dangerous…

Silicon Valley Highway 101 Traffic Hell I don’t know if this has made the national news yet, but three motorists on U.S. Highway 101 in the San Francisco Bay Area have been shot this week.

Highway 101 is one of the main north-south routes that runs the length of the San Francisco Peninsula along the west side of the Bay.

Elsewhere around the nation:

A Nice Morning Drive

As a teen growing up in the early 80s, I was a huge fan of the Canadian “math rock” band RUSH. Among my favorite songs: Red Barchetta , which takes place in a future world where the “motor law” prohibits driving older “unsafe” cars on public roads. In the song, the protagonist visits his uncle to drive his old Ferrari Red Barchetta sports car. “Alloy air cars” then give chase to run the Ferrari off of the road. The wonderfully evocative lyrics and music transported me to a future where freedom can still be found if you knew where to find it.

“Red Barchetta” was inspired by a short story in the November 1973 issue of Road & Track entitled “A Nice Morning Drive.” Author Richard Foster predicts a future where safety requirements for new cars results in huge “Modern Safety Vehicles” (MSV). Way back in 1973, Foster wrote, “Cars became larger, heavier, less efficient. They consumed gasoline so voraciously that the United States had had to become a major ally with the Arabian countries.”

“People became accustomed to cars which went undamaged in 100-mph collisions,” the story continues. “They gave even less thought than before to the possibility of being injured in a crash. As a result, they tended to worry less about clearances and rights-of-way, so that the accident rate went up a steady six percent every year. But the damages and injuries actually decreased, so the government was happy, the insurance industry was happy and most of the car owners were happy.”

In Foster’s world, some MSV drivers would purposely run older, smaller cars off of the roads simply because they could get away with it.

In our real-life 21st Century, cars have indeed become much safer, and in fact they are somewhat less likely to be in an accident because of safety improvements beyond just adding bulk to a vehicle. There has been one deleterious side effect, however: people drive faster and more dangerously so that the more vulnerable road users — pedestrians and bicyclists, for example — are now dying at a higher rate while overall road deaths have dropped. We’ve all heard that “the laws of physics” mandate that we keep our bikes off of the road, and that if we’re hit and killed it’s our own fault.

I’m amazed at Foster’s anticipation of the psychology of “mass rules” 35 years ago, but these things ought not so to be. ABS, traction control, stability control, rollover protection, adaptive cruise control, airbags, crumple zones and all the other advanced safety features of modern automobiles are great to have, but often these things only enable motorists to behave even more like boneheads when they’re behind the wheel. And of course, when I say “bonehead” I include myself in that category, because better control almost naturally leads to faster driving.

Cycling still has about the same relative risk of serious injury or death as driving, but the risk seems to be trending upward for some areas. A real solution is to increase the number of bicyclists so that all road users expect to see us on the road and adjust their driving accordingly. I’m not convinced that tougher or new laws (such as the fad for 3-foot passing laws) is entirely the answer, though enforcement of existing laws would be a tremendous help. I’m also a fan of road diets and traffic calming, though these measures are generally appropriate for slow traffic areas such as residential neighborhoods.

I’m not clever enough to come up with the solution to this safer vehicle paradox. What are your ideas? What have you seen in the media or blogosphere on how to mitigate risk compensation?

Bicycle risks and safety

Raise The Hammer in Canada posts a good article about the safety of bicycling relative to the risks of other common activities such as driving and walking. The author, Ryan McGreal, uses real numbers and everything!

The fatality rate for every million hours spent cycling is 0.26, compared to 0.47 per million driving hours (on-road motorcycling comes in at a whopping 8.80 deaths per million motorcycling hours). For every million cyclists in the US, 16.5 die each year, whereas for every million motorists, 19.9 die each year.

Another way of evaluating risk is to examine the odds of dying if you do crash. The odds of dying from a bicycle crash are one in 71. This compares to one in 75 for a light truck (pickup truck, SUV, van), one in 108 for a car, one in 43 for a truck, one in 26 for a motorcycle, and one in 15 for a pedestrian.

In other words, the odds of dying in a bike crash are about the same as the odds of dying in an SUV crash. The false sense of security that comes from an SUV tends to produce far more dangerous driving behaviour.

The author discusses risk quite a bit more and talks about commute homeostasis and the factor of improved health of cyclists, but in the end he concludes that cycling is a relatively safe activity.

Part of my mission at Cyclelicious is to note that bicycling is a safe activity. There’s a perception among too many that bicycling is a dangerous activity — it seems counterintuitive that sitting exposed in traffic on a bike is about as safe as riding inside of a metal cocoon. McGreal makes an important point in his article that our riding behavior can have a significant impact on risk. Following the rules of the road and an educated awareness of traffic risks reduces the risk of injury collisions significantly.

If you want to be a safer cyclist, read Ken Kifer’s archived information on bicycling safety. I recommend the book The Art of Urban Cycling by Robert Hurst, which is good for all kinds of city cycling, not just downtown urban cores. I also recommend the League of American Bicyclists bicycling education courses for instruction in safety and bike handling skills. Even if you’re an experienced cyclist, you can learn quite a bit from taking the LAB classes.

A hat tip to Paul Dorn for pointing to the risks article. He also posted good commentary on motorist advocacy in Seattle.

Photo credit: “Hand Signal” from San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Do as I say, not as I do!

Warren stopped to take video of law abiding motorists at a stop sign. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find any law abiding motorists. Because of the great damage and carnage that can result when motorists don’t obey the law, motorists always obey traffic laws for the safety of everybody! That’s the myth, anyway.

Cannondale folder update: Bike Designer Guy James found some more information about the development and design of the Cannondale folding bike, dubbed the Cannondale ON. Cool stuff.

Another bike-ish fitness device. Via Bike Horn and others.

Most of my U.S. and Canadian readers have a three day weekend with Labor / Labour Day coming up. It’s also my 17th wedding anniversary. Other than a possible Eurobike update later today, posting will be sparse to non-existent. Enjoy the weekend, all!

$1000 speeding ticket

The state of Virginia recently hiked traffic fines so that going 20 mph over the limit can result in a fine of $1000. If you’re caught driving under the influence for a third time or if you’re “felony reckless driving,” the fine is $3000. Other offenses result in similarly high fines.

While the motivation of the state legislators was to increase revenue, I applaud efforts to make dangerous driving more painful to those who commit the crime. While roads generally have become safer for drivers and car occupants, traffic fatalities have gone up significantly over the past few years. Safer cars with better crash protection, better suspension, better brakes, and more powerful engines just means you can drive even more like a bonehead. Drivers are more likely to wreck their cars, but the wrecks are more survivable as long as you happen to be inside the metal cage. Wrecks are also more likely for the more vulnerable users of our road systems — pedestrians and cyclists — but the improved crash worthiness protection doesn’t extend to us.

Unfortunately, many Virginians are so outraged by these new fines that the state legislator will meet in a special session just to repeal the fees. If you live in Virginia and support safer driving, contact your local representative and let them know of your support.

One drawback to high fines: Police are less likely to write tickets if they feel the fine is excessive. That’s one reason many cops don’t enforce traffic laws on cyclists.


Motorist’s brilliant suggestion to improve bike lanes

From “Letters to the Editor” in the Menlo Park Almanac, August 22, 2007. This motorist clearly misunderstood the answer to his question and the problem. There’s debris in the bike lane precisely because it’s been swept there from the passing cars and trucks.

Bike safety in Portola Valley

I have asked various bike riders for their views on certain safety issues.

Q. Why do many bikers ride directly on the white line of the bike lane rather than within the lane?

A. Debris can be seen and avoided.

Based on the foregoing, one might ask why not put the white line of the bike lane in the middle so debris could readily be seen, and double yellow lines on the outside to delineate the lane, thus encouraging both the bikes and the autos to stay out of each other’s lanes.

Name Withheld
Santa Maria Avenue, Portola Valley

Posted to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition mailing list.