As I’ve mentioned, we’re in an era of “safety inflation.” It seems nothing is ever safe enough!  I’ve had people seriously tell me “If any measure will make life safer, we ought to use it!”

So things get “safer” every year.  Playgrounds are now paved with thick rubber instead of dirt.  Inside certain cars, every surface hides an air bag.  Kitchen knives come with warnings that they may be sharp. Screwdrivers come with warnings to always wear goggles, and so on.

But I think that some thing actually are safe enough. And I think some “safety” detriments outweigh the benefits. For example, I don’t think we need to replace every stop sign with a traffic light. I don’t think motorists need to wear helmets, even though their brain injury count completely eclipses that of bicycling.  And as I’ve shown with lots of data, I think bicycling is actually a very safe activity.  

(See for some numbers.)

But what if we did want to make cycling even safer, to satisfy the “safety inflationists”?

There are three common strategies that are proposed.  I’m a fan of only one of them.

The first “safer!” strategy: “Buy something!”  Buying things is the American way!  Helmets, super-bright clothing, super-bright lights even in daytime, disk brakes, warning flags and more have been touted by some as absolutely necessary, and arguments from skeptics have been, um, treated rather unkindly.  But I don’t think much of the “Buy something!” idea. Riding an ordinary bike in ordinary clothing is very safe, if done right.

The second “safer!” strategy: “Finally, a safe place to ride!” This is  very popular now with certain bike advocates: “Let’s separate bicyclists from cars by any means possible.”  An ordinary road?  Heavens, no!  A bike lane stripe?  They’ll say it’s better than nothing, but not good enough, because a motorist might wander over and hit you from behind.  Best, they say, is a completely separate bike path - but those can’t possibly go everywhere a person might want to ride a bike.  So they want “protected cycletracks,” where parked cars or other barriers sit between bicyclists and motor vehicles. 

I think this is crazy, for several reasons.  For example, these radical designs try to solve a rare problem, but make common problems worse!  They aim to prevent hits from behind, or “fear from the rear.”  But the best research shows those collisions are a tiny part of daytime car-bike crashes.  Far more common are conflicts from in front of the cyclist, like left crosses (an oncoming car turning in front of you), or right hooks (a car almost passing, then suddenly turning right), or pull-outs (by motorists at side streets or driveways).  And a “protected” cycletrack can hide cyclists from drivers turning or pulling out, making those crash types more common. AASHTO design manuals recommend against these designs, for very good reasons.

Also, I’m distressed that false propaganda is being used to sell these designs. I’m aware of fraudulent research papers that have promoted them by use of cherry-picked data.  I’m also aware that these cycletracks were tried decades ago (in Columbus and in Davis, CA) and removed due to increased crash rates.  But proponents pretend that never happened.

So if lots of new equipment and lots of weird new facilities aren’t the way to make cycling even safer, what can be done?

Why not consider a third idea: Education of bicyclists and motorists?

It’s a sad fact that half of all car-bike crashes are caused by cyclist mistakes, and many of those mistakes are huge.  What can you say when someone doesn’t know which direction to ride on the road?  When someone thinks red lights don’t apply to bikes?  When someone rides out of a driveway directly into a car’s path?  When someone thinks lights aren’t needed at night if a bike has reflectors?  How is it that nobody’s taught the rules of the road to bicyclists?

But motorists aren’t blameless.  Why hasn’t anybody taught them all that cyclists have full rights to the road?  And that they are delayed far more by other motorists than by bicyclists?  That it’s wrong to pass a cyclist with just inches of clearance?  That they should watch for two-wheelers before making left turns?

In the northern European countries, education is given high priority.  While American school kids are learning the rules of dodge ball, Dutch and Danish kids are learning the rules of the road for bikes. Not that the riding is perfect - but wrong-way riding, I’m told, is almost unheard of.  And police do ticket for riding without lights, as well as motorists who harass cyclists. 

In America, it’s different.  Even avid riders can be seen riding three or four abreast, or on the wrong side of the road.  I’ve watched avid cyclists run red lights to catch up with buddies.  I’ve even seen them ride facing traffic because they thought it would make a left turn easier!  (And yes, I’ve seen these things on OSW rides!)  People think the rules of the road barely matter.  And if you crash by not anticipating gravel or potholes?  Oh, that’s just bad luck.

Those fundamentals are taught in cycling classes for adults. (Yes, I’ve taken them.)  Advanced techniques, like super-quick stops, emergency turns and negotiating complicated traffic are also taught in cycling courses.  But cycling courses get no interest!  The general thought is “I already know how to ride a bike.  I don’t need to be better.”

But Americans could be better.  Most American cyclists could learn a lot just from reading a booklet (say, Street Smarts by John Allen

And most motorists could learn a lot from some well-designed billboards, signs, or public service announcements, let alone from material that should be in driver’s tests!

Even our club rides could be better.  In the old days (like, the 1980s or 1990s) our club had a bunch of crusty old guys who would let a newbie know the minute they goofed up.  And if the goof was bad, the lesson came loud and fast!  I sometimes think we’ve gotten too kind that way, too diplomatic.  (“Um... Horace, it may be better to stay on the right side of the road, what with that blind curve coming up...”)

We can all be better, and it won’t come from buying a new gizmo, or waiting until some “innovative” facility is built.  Even OSW members can learn to ride better.  Perhaps we should each buy a copy of Cyclecraft by John Franklin, and spend this summer browsing through it instead of through a novel, or another “go fast” bike magazine. And perhaps if we see another cyclist doing something sketchy, we could find a way to correct them.

Above all, remember: Cycling is not very dangerous.  And it’s far safer when it’s done properly and with skill.

Ride well!

- Frank Krygowski, OSW Safety Chairman