Always play it safe!
Safety is a hot topic these days. The public fears danger and
craves safety. Parents are afraid to let their kids play out of their
sight. Drivers buy huge motor vehicles, for protection against other
huge vehicles. Aspirin bottles have seals that can defy a safecracker.
You can't be too safe!
What does this have to do with bicycling? Plenty, it seems, because
everyone "knows" about bikes and safety. People say
"You could get run over, you know," or "A simple fall
could leave you brain damaged!" In his book The Polar Bear
Strategy, author John F. Ross cheerfully admitted to camping near
potentially man-eating bears, but he expressed fear for cyclists
riding on quiet streets!
Better safe than sorry!
Yes, many find bicycling very scary, because they "know" about the
dangers of bicycling.
Or do they know? What do they really know about the danger
- or the safety - of bicycling? What do you know?
Let's find out. This article is arranged in the form of a brief
quiz. Answer each question with your best guess before moving on.
Don't be afraid to make a mistake. We won't give out
your score. We're not even keeping score. Your secret's safe with us.
|So, we're going to talk about the scary stuff.
We're going to talk about the dangers of riding a bike. And this
is the scariest: "You can get killed riding your
Of course, you can get killed doing other things too. So
let's start with a comparison:
1. Rank these activities from MOST
dangerous (#1) to LEAST dangerous (#5). Here, we're talking
about the number of fatalities per million hours of people doing
a) bicycling ____
b) swimming ____
c) on-road motorcycling ____
d) flying in small planes ____
e) walking near traffic ____
|Of course, fatalities aren't the only measure of
safety. People can be injured - perhaps badly enough to need
Emergency Room treatment. So:
2. Rank these in order, giving #1 to
the item causing the most ER visits per year in the USA; Give #5
to the activity or device causing the fewest ER visits per year.
a) bicycling ____
b) basketball ____
c) beds ____
d) carpets & rugs ____
e) chairs & sofas ____
|But don't people fall off their bikes, hit their
heads and die? Isn't that why you're told to never ride without
Let's do a multiple choice question:
3. Of all the people who die of head
injuries in the US, what percentage are killed while riding
a) 30% b) 20% c) 10% d) 5% e) less than 1%
|Still, you can fall off your bike! Everybody
knows that! So let's talk about crashes while cycling.
4. On average, how often do
enthusiastic cyclists (that is, bike club members) crash badly
enough to damage equipment or require medical treatment?
Roughly every: a) 1500 miles b) 5000 miles c) 10000 miles d)
30000 miles e) 100000 miles
|So serious crashes are not common. But we do know
that cyclists sometimes end up at the hospital, so let's go back
to the ER data. A trip to the ER for any reason sounds pretty
5. For a cyclist being treated in an
ER, rank the most common injury being treated #1, and rank the
least common injury #5:
a) minor injuries to legs (like skinned knees) ______
b) minor injuries to arms (like skinned elbows) ______
c) minor injuries to shoulders ______
d) moderate or worse injuries to arms ______
e) moderate or worse head injuries ______
(For those who know about the Abbreviated Injury Severity scale,
we'll define "minor" as AIS #1: scratches, bruises,
etc. AIS #2 injuries are described as "moderate," #3
are "serious," #4 are "severe," #5
"critical," and #6 " unsurvivable.")
what do the data tell us?
To review the answers from questions
#4 and #5: Eventually, you will fall off your bike - face it!
But, you almost certainly won't get
badly hurt. Even a trip to the ER is rare. If you do go to the
ER, it's probably not going to be for something serious. The
modern idea that every fall off a bike is a near-death
experience is clearly false!
|6. Now let's return to fatalities.
Question #1, risk of fatality per hour, deliberately left out
one of the most common activities: driving or riding in cars. If
we now compare motoring and cycling, which is more dangerous, in
terms of fatalities per hour?
We must realize that the relative levels of danger are not
the same in all countries. And certainly, different countries
have different agencies collecting different data in different
ways. We can't expect the answers to match.
Still, how do you suppose cycling and motoring compare in the
following countries? Take your guess for:
For each of those, regarding risk of fatality: is an hour
of cycling safer, or more dangerous than an hour of motoring?
|But saying something is "more
dangerous" does not mean that activity is dangerous in any
absolute sense. Washing dishes may be more dangerous than
dusting, but that doesn't mean we must use only paper plates! So
let's get a feeling for the actual level of danger.
7. For the country whose comparison was
worst, Great Britain, let's look again at dedicated cyclists -
the members of Britain's Cyclists Touring Club, or CTC. These
are people who frequently do long club rides, or who tour by
bicycle. These people ride their bikes a lot.
On average, how many person-years of CTC riding are there
between fatalities? Or to put it another way, how long would the
average CTC member have to ride to reach a 50% chance of dying
on the bike?
a) 100 person-years of cycling per fatality
b) 500 person-years of cycling per fatality
c) 1500 person-years of cycling per fatality
d) 15000 person-years of cycling per fatality.
|So, contrary to public belief, you are not likely
to be killed by cycling. In fact, most people are far more
likely to be killed while riding in a car.
Next: If cycling doesn't cause you to die, is there a chance
it will help you to live?
8. Of the four top causes of all deaths
(not just accidental deaths) in the USA, how many does cycling
reduce or help prevent? a) 1 b) 2 c) 3 d) 4
|9. But perhaps that's not a
fair comparison. Consider: if an 18 year old is killed while
riding his bike, he may have lost 60 years of life. Perhaps an
older gentleman who rides his bike daily postpones a fatal heart
attack by five years. 60 years lost to five years gained - is
that a good trade?
So for all of society on average, in terms of years-of-life
gained versus years-of-life-lost due to cycling: how does
cycling do? Out of these approximations, pick your choice:
a) one year of life is gained for every 10 years of life
lost. (10 to 1 against biking)
b) one year of life is gained for every year of life lost.
(approximately a tie)
c) 10 years of life are gained for every year of life lost. (10
to 1 in favor of biking)
d) 20 years of life are gained for every year of life lost. (20
to 1 in favor of biking)
|We've looked at a lot of data in terms of hours.
Now let=s look at mileage, instead.
10. Roughly how many miles do cyclists
ride, on average, between bike fatalities? (This will be a rough
average, putting together data from USA, Britain, and Australia)
a) 15,000 miles of cycling per fatality
b) 150,000 miles
c) 1.5 million miles
d) 15 million miles
e) 150 million miles per fatality
|Finally, a bonus question: Take your average
annual mileage on your bike. Given the answer to the last
question - 15 million miles of cycling per fatality - if you
were of average skill, how many years would you have to ride to
have a 50% chance of dying on your bike?
As an example for that bonus question, let's consider a
person who rides 3000 miles per year. Most people consider that
to be a lot of cycling, although some ride much more. Dividing
3000 miles into 15 million miles per fatality, yields a
50/50 chance of dying on the bike after riding for 5000 years.
And that's assuming the person riding 3000 miles per year has
only average skill!
That brings us to the most important fact about Bicycle Safety:
1) Bike Safety:
We already have it! Cycling is NOT very
I think, for the general public, this would be a surprise. I've had
people say "You ride your bike to work? Isn't that
dangerous?" I've had people say "Oh, please be careful out
there" - in the tone of voice they'd use for a person crossing
Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Clearly, they think cycling is
Even avid cyclists frequently have a mistaken attitude. They
cheerfully sign registration forms that say "I understand that
cycling is a hazardous activity," and they give dire warnings
about the terrible things that can happen if you make the smallest
Do people make mistakes? Of course! We've all seen people riding
bikes facing traffic, ignoring traffic lights, riding at night without
lights, making improper turns, and riding bikes with bad brakes. Even
some avid cyclists do those things!
But is cycling a hazardous activity? No! It's hourly
fatality rate in the US seems to be about half that of riding in a
car; about 1/4 that of going for a swim. In absolute numbers, drowning
during recreational swimming outnumber bike fatalities at least three
Cycling is not even on the map for head injury fatalities. Despite
the dire warnings of the past decade, cycling is less than one percent
of the head injury fatality problem in the U.S. (Riding in cars is
roughly 50% of it, yet nobody proposes car helmets!)
And cycling has benefits that balance out the cost to society of
any injury that might occur. Should we tell people to stay off bikes,
and use their cars more? If we do, there will be more air pollution,
more traffic fatalities, more obesity, heart disease, cancer,
diabetes, and yes, more fatal head injuries.
What about having good equipment? Sadly, it's very easy to find
bikes with bad brakes, loose parts, or suspicious-looking tires. Some
cyclists even claim you shouldn't ride without the very latest
equipment, saying the equipment used ten years ago had significant
But that, too, is false. Equipment that's completely broken - a
brake that fails, or a crank that breaks in two - causes a small
percentage of bike crashes. But again, "bike crashes" does
not mean fatalities; it means falling off a bike. And if your bike's
equipment is in good working order, it doesn't matter that your pedals
were made in 1994 instead of 2004.
So again, the first point to remember is: We have bike safety!
CYCLING IS NOT VERY
2) It does us no good to pretend that
cycling is dangerous.
The acceptance of the "cycling is dangerous" idea is bad
for cyclists. For example, cyclists are sometimes harmed by negligent,
or even aggressive, motorists. Too often, police aren't willing to
ticket motorists who are at fault, because they feel that in something
as risky as cycling, you deserve whatever you get. Too often, cyclists
do badly in the courts, because prosecutors, judges and juries think
cyclists should expect to get hurt.
The assumption that cycling is dangerous also leads to some
terrible facility design. Examples are sidewalk bike paths that run
cyclists through blind curves, alongside collision hazards, over
terrible pavement - anything to keep cyclists away from cars. Why?
Because designers believe riding near cars is so dangerous!
There are communities that impose restrictive and inconsistent laws
against cyclists. Astoundingly, there are municipalities that require
riding on sidewalks, which are much more dangerous than roads, or even
require walking bikes across all intersections. This is because the
lawmakers know nothing about cycling, but they "know" that
cycling is very dangerous.
But overall, the "cycling is dangerous" idea hurts us
worst by reducing the amount of cycling. Many people are afraid to
ride a bicycle! Researchers have shown that when there are more
cyclists, cycling is actually safer . Perhaps it's because motorists
become accustomed to watching for cyclists and dealing with cyclists.
Perhaps it's because when cycling is more common, transportation
planners do a better job of accommodating cyclists. But cycling is
even safer when there are more cyclists.
Cycling should also be more pleasant when there are more cyclists.
There would likely be bike racks on buses, bike parking in front of
shopping centers, and perhaps special bike access connecting
neighborhoods with adjoining shopping centers.
Pretending cycling is a hazardous activity scares others away from
cycling. It makes our society even more car-dependent, and it makes it
worse for those of us who do ride bikes.
IT DOES US NO GOOD TO
PRETEND CYCLING IS DANGEROUS.
Finally, it's good to remember a sad fact: The average cyclist's
skill is not impressive. Most cyclists perform worse on the bike than
they do when driving a car - and anyone who's complained about
motorists knows that's sad, indeed! It's estimated that half of
cyclists' serious injuries are caused by the cyclists' own mistakes,
at least in America. And Jerrold Kaplan4 found that experienced
cyclists who only "occasionally" obeyed traffic laws had an
accident rate 38 percent higher than those who "usually" and
"always" obeyed laws.
In a way, this is good news. It means that not only is cycling
safe, on average, but it's even safer for a competent, lawful cyclist.
Ride by the rules, and your risks are even lower.
Cycling is not very dangerous.
It's at least as safe as many other
And it does us no good to pretend cycling is dangerous.
Doing so discourages
cycling and makes conditions worse for cyclists, and for society as a
Now get out there and spread the word!