Riding a Bicycle IS Safe
Why the call for bicyclists to avoid highway is completely misguided.
Bicyclist and Bike Fed member Andrew Nowak was recently killed by a man driving a pickup truck on Highway 54 near Algoma. One of the comments we got in response to Tom Held‘s story about this asked why our organization doesn’t recommend people not ride on roads without wide paved shoulders. Here is the comment:
I fail to understand why you would recommend riding to the left of the fog line when there is so much room to the right if it.
I notice that in most of your posts you do a great job of describing how motorists can drive more safely without any mention of good safe defensive riding for bicyclists. If your intention is to help make road riding for bicyclist more safe, why don’t you recommend a few things like:
- Use bike paths whenever possible
- Choose roads with asphalt right of the fog line and ride there
- Ride single file whenever cars are present
- Avoid riding when the sun is low in the sky
- Come to a complete stop at ALL stop signs
- Ride without earbugs so that traffic can more easily be heard
If the goal is to keep bicycles and cars from coming into contact with each other, both car drivers and bicycle riders share the responsibilities. It would be helpful if you would spend equal time in describing road safety to car drivers and bicycle riders. After all, it’s the bicyclist who has the most at risk and making recommendations like riding to the left of the fog line when there is room to the right of it sounds dangerous.
I think this comment and the suggestions were made in a respectful manner, but they reflect a pervasive culture among people who don’t ride bikes for transportation that blame the victim rather than the perpetrator in the United States. I try to answer questions like this in a way that helps people rethink the perspective that blames the victim and emphasizes the responsibility we all shoulder when we are driving a motor vehicle in a space we must share with other road users, some of whom are walking and bicycling. Below is my response:
Hi Jerry, relative to the fog line, according to state law and best safe practices, bicycles should ride as far to the right as is “practicable.” For most riders, that means leaving about three feet from hazards since bicycles stay upright in part by moving from left to right when the wind blows, including gusts from passing motor vehicles which tend to push a bicycle to the right. The one-to-two feet to the right of the fog line on this road is not sufficient width for safe travel.
Since people like this victim need to get to places like work that often do not have a separate path or even a wide-paved shoulder, it is necessary to ride to the left of the fog line. Since people in cars are doing the killing, using your logic but putting the responsibility where it belongs, you would be better to argue people should not drive on roads without wide paved shoulders when their visibility is limited if they think there may be people walking, bicycling or farmers using them.
Instead, we choose to ask that everyone who gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and operates that potentially dangerous moving object obey our laws and take their responsibility for other’s safety seriously and drive with extra caution when there’s a potential to cause serious injury or death through personal negligence.
As a further practical measure, we advocate that roads be constructed for the safe passage of all users. The purpose of our roads is to transport goods and people, not move people in cars. With proper design, a complete street is much safer for all users.
To reiterate what is mentioned in the post above, despite this tragic death, when the health benefits are factored in, riding a bicycle is probably safer than driving a car — and riding bicycles has a positive return to our society and communities, whereas driving personal motor vehicles, however necessary for many, has a negative return.
Thanks for reading and writing though, civil dialogue is always a good thing.
–Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director, Wisconsin Bike Fed
Furthermore, while crashes like the one that killed Andy, whom I have ridden with recently on a couple Spring Classic rides, are horribly tragic, they remain relatively rare. Statistics show that riding a bicycle is actually very safe, and when you factor in the health benefits, riding a bicycle is more likely to lengthen your life than shorten it.
Recently there have been some studies done to quantify the relative risk of cycling and weigh that agains the health benefits.
For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.
Conclusions: On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.” Source: Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? Jeroen Johan de Hartog1, Hanna Boogaard1, Hans Nijland2, Gerard Hoek1
Annual Risk Of Death During One’s Lifetime
|Disease and Accidental Causes of Deaths||Annual Deaths||Death Risk During One’s Lifetime|
|Heart disease||652,486||1 in 5|
|Cancer||553,888||1 in 7|
|Stroke||150,074||1 in 24|
|Hospital Infections||99,000||1 in 38|
|Flu||59,664||1 in 63|
|Car accidents||44,757||1 in 84|
|Suicide||31,484||1 in 119|
|Accidental poisoning||19,456||1 in 193|
|MRSA (resistant bacteria)||19,000||1 in 197|
|Falls||17,229||1 in 218|
|Drowning||3,306||1 in 1,134|
|Bike accident||762||1 in 4,919|
|Air/space accident||742||1 in 5,051|
|Excessive cold||620||1 in 6,045|
|Sun/heat exposure||273||1 in 13,729|
|Lightning||47||1 in 79,746|
|Train crash||24||1 in 156,169|
|Fireworks||11||1 in 340,733|
|Shark attack||1||1 in 3,748,067|
Sources: All accidental death information from National Safety Council. Disease death information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shark fatality data provided by the International Shark Attack File.
We also regularly share the following graphics about crash data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Safety. We share it whenever people worry that riding a bicycle is dangerous, complain that traffic is just getting worse and worse, or admonish people for taking their life in their own hands by riding a bicycle in traffic. The fact is that bicycling is safe and has gotten increasingly safer.
All the risk assessments like the one above that I have seen tend to show the risk of death for bicycling is lower than the risk of death in a motor vehicle. Some still argue we don’t have the best data for bicycling to fairly compare it to other activities that have been studied more. We are all for more studies and better data, but it seems clear already that in general, riding a bicycle is a pretty safe activity and much safer than driving a car.
Of course, like our partners at the Wisconsin DOT, we are working for safety improvements in engineering, education, encouragement and enforcement so that nobody dies in traffic-related deaths. Zero in Wisconsin is more than a vision, it is part of every roadway redesign and our improving traffic safety education programs like Share And Be Aware. We can all play an active role in moving closer to our goal by taking extra caution when we are driving a motor vehicle and following safe practices when walking and bicycling.