Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Madness 12/15/06 : Bicycle Madness!

I've been carless for six years now; I've been a bicycle advocate for four of those years. As a long time bicycle commuter, I am highly concerned about safety. Two lemmas that are drilled into us and that we parrot back to novices are:
1. Always wear a helmet.
2. Obey all traffic laws.

What I am about to say will probably make heads spin if any of my friends over at the bike coalition should stumble upon this post. I don't always practice what I preach. In fact, I think I'm being safer when I don't.

To be clear, I do wear a helmet most of the time. It's demonstrably helpful for most spills a cyclist will take. But does that mean that you're safer when wearing one? Not according to Dr. Ian Walker.

Dr. Walker performed a study where he rode a bicycle fitted with an ultrasonic distance sensor both with and without a helmet.

Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck.

He found that drivers were as much as twice as likely to get particularly close to the bicycle when he was wearing the helmet.


“By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.

“We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial.

“Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place.”

But why would this be so?

Dr Walker suggests the reason drivers give less room to cyclists wearing helmets is down to how cyclists are perceived as a group.

“We know from research that many drivers see cyclists as a separate subculture, to which they don’t belong,” said Dr Walker.

“As a result they hold stereotyped ideas about cyclists, often judging all riders by the yardstick of the lycra-clad street-warrior.

“This may lead drivers to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without.

“The idea that helmeted cyclists are more experienced and less likely to do something unexpected would explain why drivers leave less space when passing.

That actually makes some sense. I know that when I ride on the public bike (and multi-purpose) paths, I always give extra space to unhelmeted riders (or riders with cellphones, ipods, etc.). Although I can usually gauge a cyclist's bike handling skills by simply watching them ride for a second or two.

I'm still a believer in helmets most of the time, but if I'm just making a quick trip to the store, I'll generally pass on the foam hat. My own philosophy is that I always wear a helmet when I'm donning lycra (~90+% of my riding). If I'm out of uniform, the helmet is optional. This fits in well with Dr. Walker's findings. His conclusion is quite apt.

“The best answer is for different types of road user to understand each other better.

“Most adult cyclists know what it is like to drive a car, but relatively few motorists ride bicycles in traffic, and so don’t know the issues cyclists face.

“There should definitely be more information on the needs of other road users when people learn to drive, and practical experience would be even better.

“When people try cycling, they nearly always say it changes the way they treat other road users when they get back in their cars.”

Now what about obeying traffic laws? According to your driver's manual, a bicycle on the road is a vehicle and must obey all the same laws that automobiles follow. I'm sorry but that's just ridiculous. (coalition heads spinning) First, that statement isn't technically true: all motorists must be licensed. Second, the vast majority of those laws were not written with bicycles in mind. Some of the traffic rules seem absolutely preposterous for a vehicle that can travel in the shoulder. Others make no sense for a vehicle that weighs under 200 pounds.

I generally use my own judgement as to when to obey and when not to. I think that I'm actually riding safer when I use my acumen rather than following motorist's rules. I realize that that's just based on gut feeling and anecdotes, but they come from at least ten years experience riding almost every day. And Coturnix thinks that even cars are being safer when negotiating traffic rather than acting like automatons.

Seed Magazine has an article by Linda Baker about how some cities (like Portland--rated the best cycling city in the USA) are even taking some of those rules away in order to make the roads safer.

Portland's so-called "festival street," which opened two months ago, is one of a small but growing number of projects in the United States that seek to reclaim streets used by cars as public places for people, too. The strategy is to blur the boundary between pedestrians and automobiles by removing sidewalks and traffic devices, and to create a seamless multi-purpose urban space.

Combining traffic engineering, urban planning and behavioral psychology, the projects are inspired by a provocative new European street design trend known as "psychological traffic calming," or "shared space." Upending conventional wisdom, advocates of this approach argue that removing road signs, sidewalks, and traffic lights actually slows cars and is safer for pedestrians. Without any clear right-of-way, so the logic goes, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.

Now I'm not advocating riding like a bicycle messenger--those guys are crazy! But seriously, messengers are probably some of the best cyclists out on the road. They are experts at negotiating city traffic. (Another myth is that bicycling in the big city is more dangerous than out in the suburbs. Quite the contrary is true. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that city motorists expect to see bikes. A suburban motorist who isn't expecting bikes, can look right at a cyclist and not "see" him. Then after the accident say "He came out of nowhere!" City drivers know cyclists are entitled to share the road. In all my years of city cycling, I've never had a motorist scream "Get off the fucking road!"--the same cannot be said for the suburbs.) They (messengers) use their judgement just like I do, albeit with different lines they don't cross. When you see a messenger riding like he's oblivious to all the traffic around him, remember that he sees more than you. For example, while an automobile driver is contained inside a box at least two meters behind the front of the vehicle, a cyclist is only a foot or two from the front of his vehicle and out in the open with full use to his peripheral vision.

In the following video of a 2004 New York City bike messenger race, you get to see them in action. The first time I saw this, I thought they were all lunatics. But the more I watch it, the more I recognize how skilled they are. For example, while it may seem that they are recklessly blowing through red lights, if you pay careful attention, you'll see that they are following each others cues as well as running interference for each other. And remember that the helmet-cam doesn't have the same perspective and peripheral vision that the cyclist does. In fact, the most dangerous thing I saw was the guy coming off the bridge without brakes and with his feet off the pedals. (I also wouldn't recomend getting stoned right before you go riding.)

Welcome to the jungle!

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