PeopleForBikes Guest Post: The Gorilla In The Room

People for Bikes Ghost Bike

In the pre-digital age, I would have been described as a broken record. That’s because every day, at least a half dozen times, I repeat the phrase, “When people ride bikes, great things happen.” I say it in media interviews, sponsor pitches, and in pep talks during staff meetings here at PeopleForBikes headquarters.

This simple sentence neatly summarizes all the health, air quality, road congestion, business, and money-saving benefits of riding bikes. It helps explain why our organization exists. It’s a pure reflection of the smile in our red, white and blue logo.

But the truth is, not all outcomes of bicycling are positive. Far too many bike riders get injured (or worse) worldwide. Just this morning (written yesterday), we received gut-wrenching news from Belgium that professional cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski had been killed in a collision with a truck. Amy was a nationally respected and revered member of the competitive cycling community, and her death hits particularly close to home for us, as we would often see her smiling face while riding our local bike paths.

Untitled
Professional cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski’s recent death is tragic news, as are the fatalities of the 600+ Americans killed every year in bike accidents.

The problem is particularly glaring here in the United States, where bike injury and fatality rates are roughly 20 times those of the cycling-friendly countries of western Europe. In 2011, 672 Americans died in bicycle accidents—most of them in collisions with motor vehicles. Yes, this number is less than one ten-thousandth of one percent of the number of U.S. bike rides this year (more than four billion in sum). But I think we can all agree that not even one bicycling fatality is acceptable.

Despite all of its wonders, bicycling in America has a serious problem: safety. We don’t like to talk about it, and we struggle to improve it.

Our counterparts in the Netherlands and Denmark—arguably the two best bicycling nations in the world—advise us to work on making bicycling safer, but not talk about it publicly.

Talking directly and explicitly about safety, they say, is problematic because it reminds people that bicycling can be dangerous and it actually discourages some from riding. And where fewer people ride, motorists don’t expect to encounter people on bikes. The result is more dangerous riding conditions. It’s a vicious circle.

PeopleForBikes’ Approach

At PeopleForBikes, we’ve been working on bike safety since we launched 14 years ago. The process is daunting, solutions are elusive, and progress is very slow.

From our beginning, we’ve focused on improving infrastructure. We’ve invested close to $10 million in grants, lobbying, and support of national organizations and events that help build and improve better bike lanes, paths, trails, and parks. We pay close attention to creating seamless networks that are easy to follow from where you live and work to where you want to go. We have played a central role in increasing the federal investment in bike facilities, which totals $9 billion for 27,000 projects in the last 20 years.

Our outlook on infrastructure is a key reason we’ve prioritized our Green Lane Project for the last two years (and we will continue to do so in 2014 and 2015). It’s an effort to build and promote better bike lanes in cities. It emphasizes lanes that are separated and protected from motor vehicle traffic. While the number of these lanes has doubled nationwide in each of the last two years, there aren’t enough of them—yet.

For National Bike Month 2013, we produced a video called “Standoff.” Our goal was to spin the stereotypical story of anger and confrontation between drivers and riders to get everyone to recognize that we all share responsibilities on the road. We preached (badly needed) mutual respect and civility, and tried to do it with a touch of humor.

We’ve awarded bike safety educational grants that teach kids and adults to be skilled, predictable riders. We’ve supported the development of bike boulevards—lightly traveled city streets where speed limits are low and bike riding is promoted. We backed a rider/driver communication/cooperation effort organized by Stanford University.

During the last seven years, we’ve invested more than $1 million in the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. The improvements to safety that have been engineered by this very capable organization aren’t limited to school hours: they benefit everyone on bike and foot, all day, every day.

No matter what we (and our partners) do, the simple fact is that bike riding remains dangerous in too many places. Many factors seem nearly beyond our control.

  • Americans drive faster than the speed limit but rarely get ticketed.
  • Bike riders often fail to follow the rules of the road and sometimes ride unpredictably. This is more than a practical challenge to safe interaction with cars; it breeds mistrust and anger.
  • American drivers are often distracted. Hands-on cellphone use while driving remains legal in three dozen states. Texting while driving remains okay in 11 states. Again, violations in both categories are rarely enforced.
  • Some bike riders are holier-than-thou. Others react violently to every minor encounter on the road (as do many drivers. If you can tolerate salty language, take a look at this Louis C.K. video. You may laugh knowingly.)
  • When a moving 4,000-pound car hits a moving 25-pound bike, the outcome is always ugly. When a 180-pound bike rider slaps the hood of a nearby car in frustration, the outcome is always ugly, too.

The Need for Solutions and Personal Responsibility

Lots of programs and informal efforts focus on cycling safety and cooperation on the road. The Ride of Silence works to build shared respect among motorists and bike riders by honoring the fallen with slow-paced, silent bike rides. White ghost bikes are often posted at locations of fatal bike accidents. Every time I see a ghost bike, it pierces my soul and gets me thinking about making bicycling safer.

The League of American Bicyclists directs an evolving Ride Smart program that trains and certifies riding instructors and provides advice on safe riding.

In the Netherlands, all school children receive bicycling instruction in elementary school, and all receive broader traffic safety instruction in sixth grade. A few U.S. schools and after-school programs now conduct similar programs.

No doubt: more needs to be done. Just about all of us know someone who has been seriously injured or killed in a cycling collision. What more can we do about it?

Beyond the work we do here at PeopleForBikes, I believe it starts with personal responsibility. I go out of my way to ride predictably, stop at lights and stop signs, and let drivers turn right on red ahead of me when I’m going straight.  I work with drivers to earn their respect and compassion and I hope the positive feelings carry over to all of their interactions on the road. This may sound corny and idealistic to some. I don’t care.

When people ride bikes, great things happen. This is the overriding truth. At the same time, we’ve got so much more work to do to tame the gorilla in the room: safety.

PeopleForBikes is open to your ideas. Post them here. Thanks.

-Used with permission from Tim Blumenthal, President, PeopleForBikes

Join the movement for better biking at PeopleForBikes.

 

 

Comments

Rain - 10/04/13 - 6:29pm

First step:

If the US road cycling experience is going to resemble that of Denmark and Netherlands the first and most obvious change is to lose the silly emphasis on helmets as a safety panacea. Might not be PC popular but it sure is a glaringly obvious difference.

Robo - 10/04/13 - 8:32pm

face/palm

Psi Squared - 10/05/13 - 12:00am

Safety panacea?

chasejj - 10/05/13 - 1:03am

I know people who have lost legs, been crippled and run into and died in the windshield of a Catering truck all on California roads.
You know what I never see? Is any of that on MTB trails. I gave up road cycling years ago. None of my kids do it either. We MTB offroad only. More fun, less danger.
On our frequent drives to our fav staging area is an endless supply of roadies rollin on $10K TdF quality road bikes and many of them feel a need to force cars over the center lane, even when unecessary. Even I, the former road racer and current MTB rider become very angry with them. This is the reality of US cycling.BTW, I don’t live in rural south I live in the very PC SF bay area. Bike capital of the US.
Rude, entitled roadies and pissed off steel cage drivers. Guess who wins that argument every time?
The way the US road system is constructed and funded, I am not sure you will see any change in this reality in our lifetime.

rp90 - 10/05/13 - 7:59am

chasejj — you said it perfectly. I too live in an area known as a bike capital (near Boulder, Colorado), but I’ve seen everything you mentioned. This is how I try to minimize my chances of being in an accident: for recreational riding, I choose sparsely traveled dirt roads, fire roads and trails. For travel within the city, I use off-street bike paths and less-traveled neighborhood streets, which take longer but are more enjoyable. And if I want to ride recreationally on a route which has more traffic, I’m out there at dawn on the weekend and am done before most people are awake. I’m sure a lot of folks disagree, but for me it’s all about avoiding interacting with vehicles.

Rain - 10/05/13 - 12:45pm

Enuf facepalm jokes. Consult a dictionary and watch any youtube video of urban cycling in Copenhagen or Netherlands. Scaring the life out of murican babies by pushing overpriced foam industry nonsense isn’t helping. Seems like it just slides down and further blocks their vision. Loading babies and overpriced mountain bicycle toys onto/into a motorized conveyance to “safely” teleport them to playland nirvana teaches said babies what?

Psi Squared - 10/05/13 - 1:35pm

Face/palm, again.

Luke Lazer - 10/05/13 - 7:20pm

chasejj – I live in the East bay area and grew up in the North bay. I share your sentiment as it seems like everyone in the area acts entitled to “their road”. The behavior I have seen is not about sharing in any way. Riding at the edge of a lane puts you in a different type of danger though with getting doored, bus/muni smooshed, riding over more road debris and re enforces car users feelings of entitlement. Its not us (bikes) versus us (cars), the real fight is us versus the people in government who aren’t looking out for the people.

While I agree with most of your comments, when we apathetically accept it as a byproduct of a broken gov’t we become part of the problem. This is just one of the many reasons we need to toss our current system of government out and break out of this stagnation. I know talking revolution is absurd but I’m at the point where I’m entirely ready to fight.

chasejj - 10/06/13 - 12:41am

@Luke Lazer- While your blame of disfunctional government may be how you see it. The reality is fixing it, is like 150th on the list of things that tax money which is now scarce and will be more scarce in the future will be allocated to solve.
There will be no rally cry by the masses to solve this with infrastructure money. It just won’t happen. It will only be solved by your own decision to either set an example and push the cycling community to change its behavior or abandon the roads. Either way the solution lies with you.
You already know how I handled it. I’m happy with that decision. Now don’t get me started on the bitter old entitled hikers……..and I am old.

Chainwhipped - 10/06/13 - 1:15pm

Thanks for posting this, Zach. It must be a little unnerving to depart from the usual fun you get to write about, but our lives are kind of important.

@Rain gets the award for getting priorities straight. Everybody who’s going to ride in a helmet is doing it, which is already proving to be quite futile. Helmets protect nobody from the impact of a motor vehicle. If you’ve ever been hit, you know that the only thing that saved your life was blind stinking luck. Amy Dombroski was wearing a helmet. Burry Stander was also wearing a helmet. The list of cyclists who die in their helmets is a long one, indeed.

Perhaps it’s time to focus on preventing the actual collisions! CRAZY, RIGHT?! Perhaps when a driver has proven to be lethal behind the wheel, we shouldn’t let them own or drive cars anymore. Maybe we should put our phones away when we leave the driveway.

Maybe telling people “Your life is worth the price of a helmet” when your own behavior says “Your life is worth less than my Text Message” is bu(($#!t.

Chainwhipped - 10/06/13 - 1:48pm

@Psi Squared:
pan·a·ce·a: noun; a solution or remedy for all difficulties.

You can’t look at a cyclist who’s been churned to death by the rear wheels of a right-turning truck and say “Helmet”, as if it would have saved a life.

@Rain is saying that we cling to a delusion that helmets will magically save us from any potential physical threat – and he’s right. We make that mistake all the time. It’s easy to say “helmet” and tell potential victims to protect themselves (futilely) from criminal negligence than it is to enact real solutions.

Psi Squared - 10/07/13 - 4:09pm

@Chainwhipped: You might be surprised to learn that there are riders like me who wear a helmet because it might reduce the energy imparted to skull and brain, not because there’s any guarantee associated with it. For the record, you have no evidence that a helmet won’t do just as I described in a bicycle vs. car accident as the dynamics are unique to each accident. You’ll also be interested to learn that cars aren’t always involved in bike accidents.

Perhaps you shouldn’t confuse your political view with objectivity or fact.

Eric - 10/08/13 - 11:04am

I had to re-skim this article to see if the author had actually mentioned helmets as a “safety panacea”; imagine my surprise to see 14 out of 15 CTRL+F hits in the comments only (and one lonely brain bucket in a cross-linked BR article). The general tone of this piece was that awareness and responsibility need to be raised on both sides of the bike lane solid line, and that groups like People for Bikes are lobbying for more safe corridors for cyclists. The thesis seems to be about increasing safety in general without ever mentioning apparel or accessories.

Are there even US States where helmets are mandatory for adults? I’m from Eastern PA so I don’t mind being educated. I would have thought that adult cyclists are capable of making the helmet choice on their own (where the state gives you the freedom) without soapboxing about it, however I still think helmets should be mandatory for kids.

Post a comment:

Comment sections can be a beautiful source of knowledge, conversation and comedy. They can also get pretty ugly, which is why we've updated our Comments Policy. If your comment isn't showing up or suddenly disappears, you might want to check it out.