The Wheels of Perception
The Texas Department of Transportation sponsored a “Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety and Accommodation” workshop put on by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The course was put on for TxDOT engineers and Safety coordinators, as well as local law enforcement officers and transportation planners. The presenters were Dan Burden (previously the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation) and Kirby Beck (Effective Cycling Instructor, bicycle police officer from Coon Rapids, Minn., and a board member of I.M.B.P.A.).
The three-day course is an informative, if shallow by necessity, overview of bicycle/pedestrian transportation issues. There were many great case studies of bike paths, lanes, wide outside lanes, tunnels, bridges, and other treatments to make cycling safer and more convenient -- including bike helmets and “conspicuity” (I love that word -- it sounds like something my grandfather did that required him to keep a spittoon handy). But there was an over-riding (although beneath the surface) message that needs to be addressed.
By focusing so much attention on safety, we are communicating an entirely different message -- one that has been picked up by cycling’s foes. The unintentional message that we are sending is this: “Bicycling is an unsafe activity". Add to that message our preoccupation with expensive gadgets and highly specialized equipment (not to mention Lycra shorts), and we are reinforcing the all too common belief that cycling is a remote and esoteric activity.
A local city councilman, in explaining why he was voting for a mandatory bicycle helmet ordinance for all ages, compared cycling to skydiving! See if you can follow me on this: jumping out of a plane a few of miles above land and hoping that a glorified bed sheet will stop your fall doesn’t require a law making the skydiver wear a helmet, but getting on a bicycle to ride a mile to the local 7-11 does. If that comparison doesn’t make sense to you, just look at the visual similarity between a cyclist dressed for a winter ride and a skydiver preparing to jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet. Goggles, gloves, bright colors, helmet, and tight-fitting clothes are all common between the two. But is the attitude?
I always find it ironic for a bicycle/pedestrian expert to show slide after slide of cyclists in Europe and Asia safely using bicycles for transportation, but who then launches into a warning about the dangers of cycling by showing all the hazards that exist here. The irony is compounded when they offer the magic elixir of bike safety; a bike helmet (or as some more accurately prefer to call them, a bicycle crash helmet). I too have been guilty of pushing bike helmets beyond their reasonableness. I won’t launch into this except to point out that the design speed of bike helmets matches the safety requirements of life on the bike path (mirroring the conditions of European and Asian cycling, oddly enough), not life on the streets. If a bike helmet offered real protection from automobiles, it wouldn’t say inside it, “Not for use with motor vehicles.”
The simple fact is that such a lightweight helmet (lightweight by design and necessity) can only offer protection from low speed crashes. But don’t mistake low speed for low danger. At relatively low speeds, the sudden stop caused by a head hitting a concrete curb at only a few miles per hour can cause severe trauma to the brain. Falling off a bike while standing still, if the head strikes a hard surface, can be very dangerous. On rare occasions, it can even be fatal.
Very rare occasions, it turns out. But we are reacting like death is at our door, inviting us along on a bike ride! If bicycling was as dangerous as many wish us all to believe it is (cycling professionals as well as politicians and pro-helmet activists), our political and economic tensions with Communist China, Japan, and Asia would be greatly reduced. There wouldn’t be anyone to threaten us (perhaps those bodies in Tiananmen Square were only cyclists who had died while riding around the square).
Because the rhetoric is so intense, it’s easy to be misunderstood on this issue. But we need to look at the monster we have created in “bike safety.” I have even heard one nationally prominent cycling advocate compare bike safety to gun safety. “There we go again,” equating bicycles with life threatening activities, when we should be emphasizing (both to cyclists and non-cyclists) the health benefits of cycling.
When did cycling begin to be seen as a health threat and not as a healthy activity? In talking to some friends in the bicycle retail industry, it seems that it was the aftermath of the 70’s Energy Crisis that sparked “the great fear.” Recall how an existing bicycle boom was fueled even faster by the gasoline price shocks. Nationwide, people who otherwise used bicycles only to define ceiling height in their garages, began riding their bicycles to work, school, and on errands.
Where does an inexperienced bicycle commuter ride their bike? On the same streets that they drive their cars (it’s the only route they know). These inexperienced cyclists soon found that mixing with high speed automobiles on multi-lane thoroughfares and on crowded, narrow roads, wasn’t much fun. It not only felt dangerous, without the proper skills it was dangerous.
When fuel supplies increased (and gasoline prices decreased slightly), these people abandoned their bikes for the “safety” of their cars. The bike boom went bust. A panicked cycling industry began looking for reasons for the bust and identified “safety” as a prime suspect. Two solutions were adopted; bike lanes to protect bicycles from cars, and bike helmets to protect the cyclists.
The great irony here is that “safety” didn’t fuel a new cycling boom -- mountain bikes did. And how were (and are still) mountain bikes advertised? As gonzo fun toys for death-defying, risk-takers! But what was the real appeal? An upright, stable riding position. In a classic marketing campaign borrowed from the automobile industry, consumers were shown gonzo wild-men (and wild-women) flying through the air coming down Mt. Tam in Northern California. In the store, however, the vast majority of consumers were buying low-pressure, fat tired, upright riding bikes that have about as much in common with pro racing bikes as your Chevy in the driveway has to do with a NASCAR racer (very little).
Do you see what we are doing? We are promoting bicycles to gentle people by showing them how dangerous they are as part of the advertising. Their experience is that cycling is safe and fun, but we are telling them that it is dangerous. People all to often believe what they are told by ad agencies more than what they learn from experience. How many guys with beer guts and a six-pack of Bud pick up super-models in thong bikinis? How many young women become successful by smoking Virginia Slims? That’s advertising overcoming reality.
Here’s the message we should be sending out; Cycling is safe and fun! Very safe and very fun. Crashes happen (and can be avoided), and a helmet is a very good safety precaution. I never leave home without mine, because it is pretty cheap insurance. But cycling must be put into relationship with other risks. Statistically, stairs are a far more dangerous place than bicycles. Bathtubs are a far more dangerous place. Jungle Gyms? Give me a break (no pun intended).
How much more dangerous are stairs, bathtubs, swing-sets, and riding in a car than riding a bicycle? I don’t know, because the Head Injury Prevention lobby won’t release that data for fear of showing that their demands for mandatory bicycle helmet laws are unjustified (the chairman of the local bike helmet law advocacy group withheld that information because he felt that the data would, “be used against mandatory helmet laws.”
Now say after me, “Cycling is safe and fun.”
“Cycling is safe and fun.”
That’s the point that the League of American Bicyclists makes in Effective Cycling. Effective Cycling courses teach cyclists how to be prepared for most any conditions they will meet on the road: how to behave in traffic, how to dress for the weather (cold, rain, and heat), how to keep your bike in good mechanical condition. Why it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. These are the skills that prevent crashes, not just mitigate the danger. And perhaps more importantly, there is no false sense of security imparted in developing Effective Cycling skills, only the confidence gained from understanding your environment.
Obey the laws, wear your helmet, don’t be foolish (riding at night without good lighting is about as smart as working on your toaster without unplugging it), and have fun. Live long and prosper.
Repeat after me. "Cycling is safe and fun."
“Cycling is safe and fun.”
“Cycling is safe and fun.”
“Cycling is safe and fun.”
Now let’s saddle up and ride!
(This article was originally published in 1998. Times have changed, but not all that much.)