Wednesday, September 21, 2005

How dangerous is cycling?

I've been meaning to write up my latest fun use of bicycles: bikefishing! I'll get to that soon, including my 99 cent fly-rod carrier. Meanwhile, as I biked the 12 miles home, I found myself musing about the relative safety of my transportation. Much of my route home follows the major north-south highway, which is known to be the most dangerous (for cars) in the state. When I tell people where I usually ride to fish, they generally answer with some variation of, "You must be crazy. I'd never ride that stretch!"

I'll admit the first time or two I was a little tense, especially when wedged between a guard rail and 4 lanes of high speed commuter traffic. It has become one of my favorite rides. The scenery is absolutely beautiful, and the terrain is varied and fun to ride. The next bit sounds made up but is entirely true.

I was riding along happily, watching the sun set on another lazy evening of fishing on my favorite small stream. I was thinking that I felt perfectly safe on this shoulder and was hard pressed to think of any remotely probable event that would undo me here. At that very moment, two semi's pulling tall loads of hay passed me. Usually, truckers are especially courteous to me on this road. This time, though, one was passing the other, and this precluded the near one from giving me any extra room. The near truck was too close for comfort, and the combined air disruption (plus probably my own reaction of mild panic) really knocked the bike around.

I was fine and continued on, but it did start me thinking about just how safe a visible, competent a cycler is. Jeff P. of OYB fame has been musing lately about how things are foolishly flipped around bewtween motorists and cyclers. That is, people in cars are really the ones at great risk, but it's cyclers who are always getting the safety rundown (helmets, anyone?). My gut feeling is that he's right, that motorists ought to have the helmets and 4-point harnesses, and cyclers ought to ride and not worry so much. It's hard to directly compare, though, given the HUGE difference between bike hours and car hours on the road. Of course we hear of and actually witness many more car accidents.

Has anyone seen a study that directly addresses risks to bicycle riders per hour ridden on roads? What would a good survey look like? The late Ken K. did a preliminary survey of this type in 2001. In his (small) sample, riders went about 1600 hours between injuries, which acording to Ken's comments suggested a rider is at more risk of injury than a motorist. The caveat, of course, is that the severity of injuries might be much less, on average, on a bike. This seems especially plausible since few of the reported injuries in his survey were the result of a car/bike crash (most were falls).

I agree with Jeff P. that a larger component of perceived risk is just that--perception--and does not correlate directly with statistical reality. I feel at greater risk on my bike in situations like the trucks' passing closely because I sense my vulnerability. Part of it may also be social conditioning. While I'm often told that I'm cycling dangerous roads, I'm rarely told that I'm driving dangerous roads, etc. I'd welcome your comments on this.


Anonymous Michael Rasmussen said...

I feel at greater risk on my bike in situations like the trucks' passing closely because I sense my vulnerability.

That sense of vulnerability, in moderation, helps keep you safe.

I'm intrigued by the description of your favorite road. Four lanes and busy. Is it divided, does it have shoulders? How does the traffic noise affect its riding pleasure?

Out of my town, Portland, Ore., there are a handful of roads I like to ride to leave town. The downside isn't the safety of riding close to heavy traffic. It is the noise all those cars make.

Thoughtful commentary, thanks for writing.

6:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Australian data which gives cross-modal risk per km and per hr.

10:25 PM  
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1:13 PM  
Blogger adrian said...

When i think of the risks of driving versus the risks of cycling i would say the risks of cycling outweigh those of driving. However I've been in much more car accidents than bicycle accidents (knocked on wood) and I hope to keep it that way. It might be perception like you say, but after hearing my friend speak of her two acquaintances getting killed i am filled with fear and revile the attitude people have towards bikers i guess.

ive been commuting to school , (8 mile one way) every day and have had fun and wouldn't switch my bike for a car in any of those days. but to be dragged for 3 blocks by a landscaping company truck because they didn't see you? it sounds so fantastical and morbid, so gut-wrenching it churns my insides.

just makes me want to get out of my area and move to the mountains where there are fewer people and thus fewer cars. at least there i can ride for hours on days without as much worry about getting hit by a semi carrying hay.

maybe europe is the place for cyclists. who knows, but it seems that we need to stick together. i also had the idea that maybe riding as a group would present a much less of a risk because you are much more likely to avoid a solid mass of bikers approaching you.

anyway, im gonna wake up early and bike tommorow so i hope everyone keeps their helmets on and is safe. happy cycling!!!!!!!

5:44 PM  
Blogger Daniel Bigham said...

Interesting post. Probably the most dangerous stretch of highway I've ridden is the Trans Canada highway between Espanola and Sudbury... and it was unfortunately at around 5:30 PM, so traffic was heavier than usual. Four lanes I believe, undivided, but I can't completely remember. It would have been ok if there was a good shoulder, but in some cases the shoulder was only about 6 inches, and that's just not enough when there are semi's whizzing by in the lane next to you, with traffic on their left so that they can't really move over.

I love the idea of long bike trips but I find it challenging to understand how safe/risky they are, especially if you will be riding in another state or province and aren't familiar with the highways.

My personal sense is that if you are riding on busier roads, bikes are almost certainly more dangerous than cars... and likely multiple times more dangerous? 5x? 10x? But if you're riding on roads that don't have heavy traffic, and there is a decent shoulder, then it's harder to say.

7:17 AM  

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