Sympathy for the Devil

I was walking around the city the other day, headphones on, rocking out. I’d just crossed the street, and took a step to the left off of the curb, getting ready to turn left and immediately cross another street. I heard a squeal (which in retrospect was the sound of bike brakes on the rims) and felt a thud against my left shoulder. Before I knew what was happening, I saw a guy smack onto the pavement in front of me. I’d just blindly walked in front of a cyclist riding in the road next to the curb, knocking him to the ground.


The guy popped up – and I could immediately see the blood starting to ooze out of the scrapes across his left arm. He glared right in my face and said “Maybe if you knew how dangerous it is on the streets already you could pull your head out of your ass and watch where you’re going.”

My immediate reaction was “Me? What if *I* knew how dangerous it is on the streets? Do you know who I am???

OK. So in actuality the story above is entirely fictitious. I’ve never actually walked out in front of a cyclist on the streets. However, early today I did almost do that. Or rather, I was preparing to turn left, looked and was surprised to realize how close to the street I was, and an actual, flesh and blood, non-imaginary cyclist that was riding in traffic. That’s when it dawned on me how amazingly easy it is to have a momentary lapse in attention and get yourself in that situation. I then imagined the scenario described above as I stood there waiting for the cross signal to turn.

It was something of a revelation.

You see, I can see me reacting exactly as my imagined cyclist above did. I could see me chewing the guy out for stepping in front of me and knocking me over. And I could see me doing that, all the while assuming that the guy was just a “stupid pedestrian that had no idea about bikes, or riding in traffic, or the dangers.” And that guy losing his attention for just a moment could be a pro cyclist, or the president of the League of American Dudes that Ride Bikes, or the president of Trek Bicycles, or whatever. All I would think in that moment of rage and frustration was that he knocked me over, therefore he was my enemy, and by extension the enemy of cyclists everywhere. (Oh c’mon. Before you go labeling me an egotistical prick, really really think how you would react in the same situation.)

The revelation for me was how often we, as cyclists, tend to look at ourselves as vulnerable – as victims on the road. But is this accurate? I’ve ridden in traffic for a while now and I’ve only made contact with a car in a way that was a surprise once. All of my accidents that resulted in broken bones or scraped flesh were a result of road conditions, hazards, or (yes) my momentary laps of attention while I was on the bike. I’ve drawn more blood working on my bikes than I have riding them.

A lot of the effort to push for safer cycling infrastructure has an unfortunate side effect – it makes cycling look dangerous to the population at large. But is it really? Well, according to data shared on helmets.org, in 2010 616 people were killed in cycling accidents. Obviously there is no denying the impact those unfortunate deaths had on the people that knew them. Each of those 616 cyclists were someone’s riding buddy, mother or father, son or daughter. But if you compare that number to the deaths of people walking on our sidewalks, or riding in cars on our highways, it is statistically almost nothing. According to the 2010 US Census, there were 308,745,538 people living in the United States at that time. That means less than one out of every 500 thousand people were killed in a cycling related accident.

Since I already likely pissed off half of my readers with my “stop talking about helmets” rants, I might as well piss off the other half with this statement:

I really really wish bicycle advocacy groups would stop using the danger of death and injury to cyclists as a tool in their arsenal to effect change.

There have been so many relatively fit, active and receptive folks that I’ve talked to about dropping the car and cycling to work that cite safety as their primary reason for not riding. They’re convinced that if they start cycling on a daily basis that eventually they will get run over by a car. That’s simply not true, and the numbers cited above speak to that. In addition, if places like those glorious northern european cycling utopias have taught us anything, it is that more cycling can actually (and counter-intuitively) result in less cycling related deaths instead of more.

Believe me – I’ve done my fair share of feeling like a victim while I ride on the road. However, the more I reflect and look on that objectively instead of emotionally, the more I realize that it simply isn’t the case. Sure, I’ve been told to get out of the road, to put on a helmet, to get the hell out of the way by motorists. But that is a social, human problem – not a safety problem.

I feel safer on my bike these days then I do when I drive my car. Yes – I even feel safer when I’m travelling along side or amongst all those SUVs that the common wisdom would tell me are trying to mow me down on a moment’s notice.

Knock off the fear mongering folks. If you truly want to get more people out riding bikes (and thus voting for things that support cycling) stop scaring the hell out of them and instead show them how safe it is – even with the crappy cycling infrastructure we have in most places in the US.

 

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  • Eric W

    I believe you have made a very good point.

    Too much emphasis have been put on the “dangerous” road and traffic conditions. It’s easy enough to ride in urban traffic. Just look around, and ride in a predictable manner following the same rules as a car. Once you join the traffic flow, it will be comfortable.

    Getting people afraid to cycle because of a lack of perceived safer places to ride is counterproductive. Almost all the infrastructure we cyclists want to put in is to get people to drive cars in a more reasonable manner. It would be more effective to look at cyclist behavior and improve on that. Too many riders flail all over the street, because they don’t have a clue where and how to ride in traffic. I’m all for focusing more in improving the traffic riding skills of cyclists.

    PS – There’s a typo in your last paragraph – I think Knock of should be Knock off?

  • Andrew

    This is a decent point, on the relative safety of cycling.

    However, you missed a couple things that I think are important here.

    One – You are quoting the percentage out of the whole population that ends up being killed in these accidents. Nowhere near the whole population rides. It is the likelihood of these accidents when riding that is relevant, and that is a major contributor to the fear you cite. False stats aren’t convincing. Stating that a tiny percentage of the human population dies when trying to climb K2 does not make that a safe activity.

    Two – You didn’t examine how likely it is for LAW ABIDING cyclists to be injured or killed vs. the more common type, cyclists who constantly break the law, and I do mean constantly. I ride to work most days, and I have NEVER, not once, seen a fellow cyclist who followed all the laws. Not a single time. Drivers are bad, but cyclists are downright scofflaws where I live (south SF bay area).

    I believe that for riders that follow the law, and ride smartly and defensively, the risk isn’t high at all.

    • JustAnotherCyclist

      “You are quoting the percentage out of the whole population that ends up being killed in these accidents. … It is the likelihood of these accidents when riding that is relevant.”

      You are, of course, absolutely correct Andrew. When I originally drafted this article I compared the percentage of the population killed while cycling with the percentage of the population that actively cycle. However, after checking my facts before publication, I found the latter percentage (number of people who ride) to be so controversial and hard to pin down that I chose to remove that number as unverifiable. While my intent with removing that information was to preserve accuracy, I overlooked the logical fallacy of my argument without that number present.

      To your second point, I personally am not sure that I’ll make the assumption that following all laws actually makes me safer on the road. While I don’t endorse rolling through stop signs and stop lights, there are compelling arguments that it is actually **safer** do that than come to a complete stop. There is also compelling evidence that it is safer to take the lane in situations where a bike lane is crammed up against parked cars instead of remaining within in the bike lane, as certain interpretations of California law would dictate I must.

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