My lovely wife told me tonight that she's concerned for my safety out there on the roads. It's dark and it's icy she says. I'm afraid other people won't see you. She's probably right. Riding a bike is probably much more dangerous than riding the train or driving a car. But at the same time, is it?
In 1999 (a popular year for traffic statistics on the net) over 40,000 people were killed in automobile accidents in the U.S. In the same year, 750 bicyclists were killed. Bicycle accidents accounted for both 2 percent of all traffic accidents and 2 percent of traffic deaths. So I could be riding, or I could be driving. And part of me says that hey, I want to be in the group that only accounts for 2 percent, not the group that accounts for 98 percent.
massbike.org has some interesting statistics about why bikes get hit by cars:
Category 1: When the motorist and bicyclist were on initial parallel paths, either in the same direction or opposing directions, the three most frequent categories of crashes were:
Motorist turning or merging into the path of a bicyclist (12.1 percent of all crashes). Almost half (48.8 percent) of these crashes involved a motorist making a left turn in front of a bicyclist approaching from the opposite direction.
I'm always on the lookout for the left turn from the opposite direction. These people are pretty easy to spot once you're aware of the behavior.
Motorist overtaking a bicyclist (8.6 percent of all crashes). Of these crashes, 23 percent appeared to involve a motorist who misjudged the space required to safely pass the bicyclist.
I do try to stick to the roads where there is a bike lane, which most cars respect. If there's no bike lane, I either ride on the shoulder where possible or ride fully in the lane so the car can't pass. If they can't pass, they can't misjudge. But, if they don't see me they don't see me. It doesn't really matter what I do.
Bicyclist turning or merging into the path of a motorist (7.3 percent of all crashes). Within this category, 60 percent involved a bicyclist making a left turn in front of a motorist traveling in the same direction.
During the MS150 this year, I saw a fellow cyclist get hit by a truck when he did this. It was one of the scariest things I've ever seen. I stopped, ran over to him and the first thing he said was "That was stupid. I knew I didn't have enough room to make it, but I tried anyway." He was holding another guy's jersey to his face to stop the bleeding at the time. He was lucky, the truck swerved at the last minutes and managed to just barely clip the guy's back tire. It could have been a lot worse. But let's just say that, while I was cautious about this move before I'm now downright chicken about doing it. I have to cross highway 13, a fairly busy road, every day on my way home. I look both ways for cars, and if there's not close to 1/2 a mile distance between me and the car, I pull over to the side and wait. There's a little pull off spot just up the road from our place that's perfect for this.
Category 2: When the motorist and bicyclist were on initial crossing paths, the three most frequent categories of crashes were:
Motorist failed to yield right-of-way at a junction (21.7 percent of all crashes). Of these crashes, more than a third (37.3 percent) involved a motorist violating the sign or signal and drove into the crosswalk or intersection and struck the bicyclist.
So most of these, the motorist failed to stop for a red light or a stop sign. So if I were driving I would get hit too. I never assume they will stop until they do. And until I see some sign of an impending stop, I start to prepare to stop. This one isn't high on my worry list.
Bicyclist failed to yield right-of-way at an intersection (16.8 percent of all crashes). Within this category, 38 percent involved a bicyclist who had stopped for a sign or flashing signal and then drove into the intersection and was struck by the motor vehicle.
Again, I never assume they're going to stop until they actually do it, so not a big worry.
Bicyclist failed to yield right-of-way at a midblock location (11.7 percent of all crashes). Almost half of these crashes (43.4 percent) involved a bicyclist riding out into the roadway from a residential driveway.
This is why I try to stay off of the sidewalk as much as possible. Joining into the traffic flow makes me nervous, so I try to avoid it. Once I'm in, I stay in.
Another interesting thing in the 1999 statistic is this one. Ninety-eight percent of bicyclists killed in 1999 reportedly weren't wearing helmets. This is why I wear a helmet. Religiously. My helmet isn't cutting edge cool. In fact, it's border line dorky. But it's on my head every day. Now that it's cold it's making headgear a pain since I still haven't found a hat that fits under the helmet well. But I'm still wearing it.
There's also another side to this coin. The health benefit. Mayer Hillman of the British Medical Association has estimated that the total health benefit of cycling is twenty times the risk. In other words, for every life year lost through accidents, 20 are gained through improved health and fitness. He's a fascinating guy, and cycling is just one of his transportation interests. In the linked Guardian article he's got an interesting scheme on "carbon rationing" to decrease pollution.
So, is cycling safe? Depends on who you listen to. Clearly, there is a chance of injury or death. Our friend was hit by a car walking across the street earlier this year. She was in the crosswalk, the car just didn't see her. Cars and busses crash, trains derail, walkers and bikers get run over. Shit happens.
I'll probably end up catching the bird flu and making this all a moot point.