Familiarity breeds carelessness

I am a risk averse ninny, and I ride a bike.

Bobble Head sunglasses experiment

When I began Cyclelicious ten years ago, many bike advocacy groups told us that every trip on two wheels requires advanced mapping, pre-rides, suiting up, carbo-loading, hydration, armor plating, a doctor’s note, next-of-kin notification, and a healthy dose of fear. Partly in response to this, and partly because I’m resentful of the “strong and fearless” label people apply to me, I crafted my mission statement to counter this paranoid school of thought: “Cyclelicious encourages cyclists to promote bicycling as a fun, safe, responsible, reasonable, and healthy means of transportation.”

Since then, I’ve learned that messaging is a difficult thing, and some are more skilled than others at communicating the nuances of bicycle safety. There are certainly actions all of us can take to reduce risk, and I encourage you to ride safely. While riding like a moron amplifies your risks of riding in traffic several-fold, even this isn’t enough to kill off the gutter ninja salmons. Cycling, even when done in a way to maximize Darwinian selection, simply isn’t as dangerous as many people, informed by “common sense” and “intuition,” seem to think it is.

Yet many people, including cyclists, strongly believe cycling has a level of danger exceeding most of everyday life. Bike East Bay, the cycling advocacy group for Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in California, asked their members and other people to take this survey regarding opinions on Carol Liu’s proposed law that mandates helmets and reflective apparel for adults who ride bicycles. The final question on the survey asks respondents what type of cyclist they are: Strong and fearless, enthused and confident, interested but concerned, or no way no how.

Survey question : What type of cyclist?

I’m sure you’ve heard from concerned friends and families that you’re crazy or stupid for riding with traffic. It’s especially frustrating to see this in comments from other cyclists regarding this survey question:

Bike East Bay helmet law survey and discussion

Editorials by non-cyclists frequently opine that mandatory helmet use is a “no-brainer.” The San Jose Mercury News goes so far as to claim cyclists who oppose a helmet mandate are in denial about the risks of cycling in Tuesday’s editorial.

Risk Communication

Cycling advocates do not deny the risks of cycling, and we spend a lot of time communicating how to mitigate those risks. Our arguments that the risks are roughly equal to driving, unfortunately, have fallen on deaf ears so far. Why is this?

“Risk communication” expert Peter Sandman says that risk perception is based partly on familiarity.

For the most part, we don’t “estimate” familiar risks at all; they’re too familiar to bother thinking about. Most of us get into our cars without ever considering whether driving is a significant risk. If we did pause to estimate the risk of driving, we might or might not recognize that it is sizable. But familiarity closes our minds to the very question.

Familiarity closes our minds to the very question. In other words, most of us who drive, including the editorial staff of the Mercury-News, are in denial about the true risks out there.

People view cycling as dangerous because they’re unfamiliar with it. Wearing a helmet seems like a “no brainer” because it’s the only risk mitigation they’ve heard about, even though long time cyclists understand it’s probably about number ten on the list of common risk control mitigations.

Please don’t get me wrong: there are risks in cycling, just as their are risks in walking, driving, bathing, or shopping. We can take steps to reduce those risks. As a society, responsibility should belong to those creating the hazard, even as individuals take the necessary steps to mitigate those existing hazards. The poor kid who got thumped by a gravel truck in Cupertino last October wore a helmet, but he still perished from his significant head trauma. It would have been much better if the gravel truck didn’t hit him in the first place.

What do you think? Is cycling dangerous? Should we really encourage people to risk their lives by moving in the public realm outside of the safety of a metal cage? Or is cycling a fun, safe, responsible, reasonable, and healthy means of transportation?

By the way, I recommend a further read of Managing Risk Familiarity by Peter Sandman when you have a chance. Sandman focuses on crisis management (i.e. the responses corporations should take after a public relations disaster), but there’s a lot applicable to the task of bicycle advocacy in his essay.

Watch for Part II on Thursday: “I’m not dead yet.”


  1. I believe that wearing a helmet is just a prudent thing to do, and it will not prevent head/brain injuries, only lessen the likelihood.

    It is doubtful that someone renting a beachcruser to ride the boardwalk at 8miles per hour needs a helmet.

    The vast majority of cyclist I see wear helmets which would indicate laws require them are unnecessary. For me, I just feel naked with out it.

  2. I got temporarily stuck on “gutter ninja salmons”! Yes, cycling is more dangerous than being wrapped in 3000 pounds of steel and plastic. I embrace it, though, and appreciate that the crowded Bay Area is safer than many other areas where people are not used to seeing cyclists and taking proper precautions

  3. Thank you. I meant to update the draft and finish writing tonight for publication tomorrow, accidentally hit the “publish” button! Edited to make that a complete sentence.

  4. I honestly don’t believe that we have substantial enough exposure data to rigorously conclude what is risky vs. not risky, but we’re working on it. When conducting safety analysis, it is useful to consider conditional probabilities, i.e. the probability of injury CONTINGENT on a crash having occurred, which can be separated by helmet vs no helmet conditions. I haven’t looked at the literature closely enough on this to have a strong opinion, personally. However, prior to that there’s another piece: the probability of a crash occurring conditioned on wearing a helmet versus not wearing a helmet (or, the expected number of helmet/no helmet crashes PER number of helmet/no helmet riders). This piece is also necessary to look at, and it could be (due to a variety of causal pathways, e.g. risk compensation) that the risk of a crash occurring is higher for those wearing helmets. If anybody is aware of any lit looking at this, I’d be interested to see it, but so far as I know it has not really been explored in depth much at all.

  5. @ William Ironically, because of what helmets are designed for, they are actually more likely to protect the beach cruiser rider tooling along at 8 mph than a roadie doing 20 mph. This is the main reason I seldom wear a helmet – either I’m riding at a slow speed for which the helmet is designed to offer protection, but at which I feel no risk, or I am riding at a speed or in traffic where I feel the helmet offers not protection.

  6. Yes, a helmet may prevent serious head injury in a low speed crash where your head hits the pavement. But the main danger to a bicycle rider is being hit by a 2+ ton vehicle at roadway speeds of 25 mph or greater. A helmet is of limited utility in those situations. The best protection for bicycle riders is not a helmet but to segregate them from automobile traffic via protected bike lanes.

  7. Thank you for a very thoughtful piece, Rich.

    Since 1976 I have lived and biked in the Monterey Bay region. In May 2009 I founded the Bicycling Monterey (County) website and projects, work that I do entirely as a volunteer.

    Personally, I wear a helmet 99% of the time—partly to show solidarity with minors, and partly because I feel it reduces my risk of injury. I encourage people under 18 to wear helmets, as required by California VC Section 21212.

    I oppose, for a variety of reasons, the proposed California law mandating that adults wear helmets.

    The goals of the HER Helmet Thursdays project—a Bicycling Monterey project launched in Monterey County in November 2009—have never included promoting helmet use. The goals are to help sustain the environment and economy by encouraging more bicycling. Read how the project began—“Wheel the Earth”—and get a summary via a 2-minute audio and video at http://marilynch.com/blog/her-helmet-thursdays

    The common accessory of a bike helmet was chosen to serve as the evidence of biking—necessary to get the HER Helmet Thursdays discounts at most participating businesses and organizations. (Why most? Because discounts from lodging providers work differently. And in addition, all other businesses and organizations have the option of accepting alternate evidence, such as a bike pump.)

    When the project was founded, rather than requiring a plastic card, coupon, etc. to get a discount, a local young adult suggested a helmet instead. As it turns out, the helmet component has helped draw more businesses and organizations to participate—those who believe encouraging helmet use helps make people who bike safer. (Of course, as Rich states, helmets are “probably about number ten on the list of common risk control mitigations.”)

    Although surely well intentioned, Senator Liu’s proposed law requiring adults to wear helmets has adverse impacts, including discouraging biking. In contrast, HER Helmet Thursdays leaves wearing a helmet up to everyone, yet still raises awareness about helmets while motivating more people to bike.

    Bicycling advocates can increase the numbers of people who bike by expanding HER Helmet Thursdays to other geographic areas. For the consideration of Senator Liu and others, I offer that this would also result in more adults acquiring a bike helmet. Law enforcement professionals would not have another demand on their time. A cultural shift could happen—more people biking, with many of them choosing to get a helmet.

    To date, state and national bike organizations have not expressed interest in the HER Helmet Thursdays project. With the threat of this new legislation, maybe this idea is one whose time has come.

    Before a stream of anti-helmet rants sprouts below this comment, please: bike advocates who are open to learning more, kindly refer to http://marilynch.com/blog/her-helmet-thursdays and http://marilynch.com/blog/its-not-about-the-helmet.html . You are welcome to phone me with questions. http://marilynch.com/blog/contact-me

    HER Helmet Thursdays gently encourages acquiring a bike helmet. It never demands wearing one. I don’t want to see California lawmakers make that demand either.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  8. • I was disappointed with Bike East Bay’s survey because in addition to asking whether I was “Strong and fearless,” it asked respondents for opinions about matters that could be better-informed by research. To be fair, though, I am frequently disappointed with “surveys” and “polls” that bear no resemblance to actual social research. For the helmet issue, though, people have been shouting opinions at each other for decades, to no avail.

    Similarly, the _San_Francisco_Chronicle_ had their best human-interest writer go out and ask random people what they thought. The answers were of course entirely predictable. Yay, more of the same anecdotes, yet again! That’s why my selection on any helmet debate is “No way no how.”

  9. As you point out, there are risks to riding a bike. The challenge is to not let that familiarity dull your sensitivity to the risks around you, while at the same time not let perception of the risks overwhelm you. I think in terms of “competent but not complacent” and “assertive but not aggressive”. I also recognize that I make mistakes and try to understand why, so I can avoid making the same mistakes when the opportunity arises the next time.

  10. Helmets are pretty-much scorned except by racers, in Netherlands. In fact, they are pretty-much useless unless the rider is racing or moving at near-racing speeds. Helmets make vehicle occupants safer too, but vehicle occupants are prohibited from wearing them unless racing. Riddle me that, Batman.

    Also, the Four Types (Geller, Geller & Dill) are pretty much bunk. They sorta make sense if you consider them to be labels arrived at by non-cyclists who are struggling to comprehend what they see, but they’re still bunk when examined more closely. In his whitepaper, Geller says his taxonomy should only be used for transportation cyclists (footnote 2, page 1). Consider:
    1. Strong and Fearless: claimed to only apply to bicycle messenger types by some, in practice this is applied to anyone who “will ride anyway” and it is used to dismiss legitimate criticisms of bad cycling infrastructure by actual transportation cyclists.
    2. Enthused and Confident: Geller describes these as commuters who prefer segregated cycling facilities.
    3. Interested but Concerned: According to Geller, the fear is strong here.
    4. No Way No How: These are by definition, non-cyclists. Why are they being counted?

    In her followup study, Dill called 1,000 people and pigeonholed every one of them into one of these types. The problem with that is, Geller says the types are only to be used for transportation cyclists, in practice they are used for everything else instead.

    Further, no other cycling study produces or has ever produced catchy names like these. This is nothing more than marketing tripe, probably funded by the bicycle manufacturing interests because most places only have about 1% mode share (Portland has 6%) and those manufacturers want to sell more bikes. What better way than to promote what people think will make things safer? Except the prescription has no efficacy, Portland has spent millions over the last 2 decades but their mode share has not increased, it has actually gone down slightly. That’s because people do not commute by bicycle for other reasons than those identified by Geller. Namely:

    1. Distance and time required to commute by bicycle
    2. Weather considerations
    3. Other responsibilities, such as hauling capacity and the necessity of dropping off/picking up children
    4. Lack of storage/change facilities at work
    5. Related, professional appearance requirements at work

    If you want the real scoop, track down the FHWA 10-year study update and read it. It will properly equip you to call BS on the Geller/Dill propaganda.

  11. I read a paper awhile back on risk and its measures. One of the difficulties the researchers had with measuring cycling risk was boiled down into this sentence:

    “The safety of walking and bicycles depends almost entirely on the other transportation with which they must mix.”


    This point seems to be completely missed in the helmet debate. It’s not the bicycles. It’s not the riders. It’s the cars and their drivers. The way that I count bikinginla.com’s crash stats, solo or bike-on-bike crashes kill annually about one-tenth of the total number of those killed overall, or in other words, ninety-percent of cycling deaths are caused by interactions with cars.

    Do we have any sense of how much protection helmets offer cyclists in crashes with cars? Do we know the physics? I see these charts from time to time that measure car speed against risk of death to pedestrians — at 20 mph, there’s a 90 percent survival chance, and 40 mph, survival odds are less than 10 percent. Do helmets help in that equation? Do we know?

  12. Great piece! I have been thinking about this a lot lately too. People’s perception of risk determines what they’ll do. They drive because they think driving is safe–because of familiarity, but also because the media doesn’t dwell on the vast numbers of people maimed & killed by drivers. Every time a cyclist gets killed in my city, it’s on the news. People think it’s more dangerous than it is.

    In the same vein, I doubt you’d get anyone suggesting helmet laws for pedestrians or telling you to be careful when you walk a few blocks to the farmers market. Yet in my province (BC, Canada) the fatality rate of pedestrians is more than double that of cyclists by distance travelled.

    Of course, when you look at the numbers, it’s a tiny difference: 1 (car passengers/drivers), 3 (cyclists), & 7 (pedestrians) per 100 million kms travelled. (yup, that’s EIGHT zeroes). Here’s the post I wrote on this topic, if you’re interested: http://www.spokesmama.com/2015/02/dont-call-me-brave.html

  13. The data shows the risk for the average cyclist is reasonable compared to other risks. And that’s for the average cyclist. If you use BKM methods and ride defensively, then for sure the risk is not excessive. I think there is too much emphasis on discussing risk and not enough on ‘comfort’. Thoughtful infrastructure increases comfort, which then increases mode share, which then further increases both comfort and safety.

    Portland mode share is 6% city wide, but 10% for the core area. I will take 10% over 0.5% any day. When riding there I often can see another cyclist in front or behind me, which is so much nicer than feeling like the one guy out there, They increased ridership though thoughtful infrastructure that somewhat took into account comfort. This is in contrast to San Jose DOT which seems to just slap paint on a road without any thought going to things like traffic calming, designing roads not to encourage speeding, and putting in bike detectors for signals. For example, Portland combines sharrows with speed humps, while San Jose just puts sharrows and does nothing to calm the traffic to improve comfort. I haven’t found that sharrows alone feel all the comforting, and when I’ve asked some non-cycling friends what they were, most have no idea what they actually mean. This is just one example, but overall I think San Jose DOT is just not listening to cyclists the way SF and Portland seem to.

    Hopefully the discussion of helmets and risk will soon be over when the bill is killed, and we can get back to infrastructure.

  14. “…the main danger to a bicycle rider is being hit by a 2+ ton vehicle at roadway speeds of 25 mph or greater.”

    Really? Any proper evidence to support this? I have had many injuries on my bike over 40 years of riding. NONE of these involved any motor vehicle. I DID have a close call back in Seattle in 1973, though the vehicle shot out of a driveway and was doing less than 10 mph. I might agree with the statement were it limited to fatal injuries only, though even then, the supporting data is shaky. No pun intended.

  15. Mandatory: many people stop biking (Aus)
    Expected: most people biking are seen as taking risks (US)
    Omitted: superb modeshare (Netherlands)

  16. Bike East Bay Education Director Robert here, and I’m the one who put together the highly non-scientific poll referenced in this article.

    Thanks for your feedback Jym Dyer, but please note that it was not intended to be scientific or holistic in any way. I put it out there one evening both to help inform people about what’s actually in the helmet law as well as to collect input from the local bike community regarding their opinions on it, so that if it turns out that the proposal has legs (unclear at this time) and we are forced to take a position on the issue then we can more accurately represent our base. The questions about ridership numbers and bike share were also intended to get people thinking about how a helmet mandate might have unintended side effects, and let that inform not just how they think about the utility of helmets, but more specifically the utility of a mandate.

    The reason I included the “four types of cyclists” question in the poll is to get a sense of how many people are already on the fence about biking, some of whom (mostly the “interested but concerned”) could easily be discouraged from doing it altogether if a helmet mandate was imposed. Again, NOT SCIENCE, but with 14% of the poll respondents in that category it lends some legitimacy to the concerns that a helmet law would reduce ridership.

    I’ll also mention that in the free classes Bike East Bay operates, we are now talking a lot less about the risks associated with biking, and a lot more about the benefits, as our end goal for the program is to get more butts on bikes which we do by boosting confidence and not by scaring already apprehensive people. A “study of studies” that we reference in our presentations calculates the health benefit to risk ratio of bicycling anywhere from 9:1 all the way up to 96:1. So even while we work to make biking even safer for everyone via better infrastructure, laws, and education, the biggest health risk is already from being inactive, and healthy/active transportation is one of the easiest and cheapest ways for people to integrate more of this into their daily routine.

  17. Robert Prinz writes: “The reason I included the “four types of cyclists” question in the poll is to get a sense of…”

    …the saturation of that particular bit of marketing propaganda?

    Geller said the four types were only to be used for transportation cyclists, did I mention he also said that this was only for the city of Portland? He and Dill both claim the existence of these types are justified by study after study, but they never say which ones. If you look at their references, the types cannot be sourced in any of them either.

    Stop using those types, they are unadulterated bunk of the first order. Read the FHWA 10-year study update for the real reasons why people do not – and will not – commute by bicycle.

  18. I’m just going to reiterate that we conducted a simple opinion poll that I hobbled together in 15 minutes, not a scientific study. Rhys, if we try passing off the responses as a peer-reviewed, empirically valid survey then your reaction will be justified, otherwise it seems a little over the top.

  19. The types as presented, as used, are invalid. Any use of them whatsoever gives them legitimacy they do not deserve. You can call that being a little or a lot over the top if you want, I call it being intellectually honest.

  20. As of now the poll responses are not being used for anything, and it is unclear as to whether they will ever be. As I stated, my objective with the poll was to inform people about what is in the proposed law, and to gauge local cyclists’ opinions on it. I don’t feel any intellectual dishonesty about providing that info and asking that question.

  21. You’re missing the point. I think your poll is wonderful, except for your use of those invalid transportation cyclist types – which should not be used, by anyone, ever. Since the “No way no how” type is by definition a non-cyclist, why is it getting counted as a cyclist? If you can rationalize your way around that, there are larger issues. Read the FHWA 10-year study update, read the Canadian study, go forth and sin no more.

  22. Really, Andy? That was a finding of a referenced study, one by Gatersleben and Haddad (2010). It is not a finding of this study. I have to ask, read for comprehension much or just knee-jerk when you feel it is appropriate?

  23. Well I don’t believe in Voldemort-style “he who shall not be named” prohibitions, so although I appreciate your stance that you don’t want the “four types” nomenclature to gain any further traction I do reserve the right to use it if and when I feel it’s appropriate and intellectually honest. Just because that categorization may have been used inappropriately in the past (I’m guessing, I have no opinion on this) does not preclude it from being used appropriately in the future.

    With regard to the Canadian study you mentioned, I feel like I could classify myself in all of the provided categories at different times and on different rides, and I feel as though most of the people I know cross over most of if not all of those categories as well. As such I think I would be more likely to ask people to rank their personal “comfort” or “confidence” levels biking on city streets rather than use those categorizations.

  24. But that’s the point, Robert. There is no legitimate use of illegitimate taxonomy like that. The primary cause for not riding – Fear, as found by Geller and Dill – is so grossly exaggerated as to be a caricature if not completely invalidated. All the real reasons given by cyclists everywhere else receive scant or no mention at all.

    I agree that a cyclist’s reasoning and how they might categorize themselves can vary from one ride to the next. That isn’t what we’re talking about here. A study will typically control for that by asking about the last ride only, or asking for the predominant behavior without regard for the specifics of a particular day or ride. If you’re unwilling to acknowledge that, we are done here. Otherwise, perhaps you’d be willing to help the cycling community with the course correction it needs, by abandoning any and all use of those invalid types, that marketing jargon. The choice is yours.

  25. “The reason I included the “four types of cyclists” question in the poll is to get a sense of how many people are already on the fence about biking, some of whom (mostly the “interested but concerned”) could easily be discouraged from doing it altogether if a helmet mandate was imposed.”

    That question really tripped me up because the “four types” are so weird. How about asking directly?

    If helmets were mandatory:
    1. I would be more likely to bike
    2. I would be less likely to bike
    3. I would still bike the same amount

  26. Excellent write-up Richard. You already got a copy of the letter I wrote my Senator regarding this bill, and I suggest others do the same. I’ve split two helmets at low- to mid-speed crashes and will always wear one to reduce the risk of head injury, which would have been particularly bad in one of those crashes. That said, I have several reasons to oppose a mandatory helmet law (I’m sure you’ve seen them all) and I’ve told my Senator so.

    After decades of riding safely with heavy traffic in Boston, Portland, the bay area and elsewhere I have a hard time seeing RD Frazier write “the main danger to a bicycle rider is being hit by a 2+ ton vehicle at roadway speeds of 25 mph or greater.” My response would be identical to that of SteveA, and it’s this very notion we’re actively trying to discourage our city and county planners away from. If you ride E Fremont eastbound in Sunnyvale and are subject to what I call “the Lombard Street of bike lanes”, it’s this very notion that drove the planners to push the bicyclist into and out of the drivers’ field of view along that roadway, and force them to the (dangerous) far right in mixing zones such as by the school/post office. I had to fight hard to get a RTOL on the eastbound side at Bobwhite, and the concession was that across the intersection they try to hide the bicyclist from view of drivers pulling out of Floyd. They start out just past 85 with a reasonable buffer and straight lanes keeping the cyclist in the same field of reference to the drivers, but if you want to stay in that visible ‘safe zone’ that we teach at LAB you have to pretty much ignore the lanes and ride over the large hashed areas for the rest of the journey. Gutter ninja salmon otherwise…

    During STACT construction there was a large concrete wall that acted as both a sound and “safety” barrier for peds/cyclists down towards Cabrillo. In trying to keep cyclists safe, what it did instead was obscure the rider’s vision of (turning) car traffic. On top of that it deposited the cyclist around the corner from the driver’s view onto Cabrillo. I was one of the vocal ones in getting them to fix that, but unfortunately the incident stats helped. It may not be enough, but it is best for bicyclists to be SEEN by drivers, period.

    Statistics taken several years back in Santa Clara (pre-STACT days) showed that San Tomas Expressway was the most highly bicycled route in the city, yet had the lowest rate of incidents. Most of the LAB statistics I’ve seen showed that solo crashes comprise the majority of bike injuries. Yeah, all of this can be debated, as bike incidents (and the details surrounding them) are grossly under-reported, but I will continue to say this:

    We MUST educate our planners that BOTH separated and non-separated facilities are necessary for both safety and congestion mitigation (the two things they tend to care most about). I strongly disagree with over-emphasizing the need for fully separated bike paths, as there are many disadvantages to them and they are much more costly to build. In my experience working with cities as a ‘bike advocate’ I have time and again had to explain that building a separated bike facility (which is almost always a bike/ped facility) does not mean you can stop considering the safety of bicyclists on neighboring roadways. Believe it or not, convincing cities to build separated bike/ped trails is not the hardest challenge we face.

  27. After 30 years of riding the streets of Seattle, I would answer “All of the above” to the question of how I feel about riding in the company of cars and trucks. The circumstances at the moment dictate how I feel about any riding adventure. Sometimes the “adventure” is too great, and I’ll take a different route.

    You must be confident, but at the same time you need to respect the possibilities of something going wrong. It is this respect that keeps us alive.

  28. Nice article, Richard. I recently wrote this one, which I see as related because it’s about something that 99%+ of the public sees as absolutely foreign to their experience, therefore is easily believable to be extremely risky. Eli Damon pointed out exactly what your article says, that motorists don’t even think about the risks of driving their car, yet see someone on a bike in a snowstorm and OMG, he’s going to get himself killed! I wrote this article to try to help friends, family, and co-workers feel less fearful for me. 😉


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.