Tag: Bike Safety

Most of the time I ride a bike, I wear a helmet. But not always. Here’s why.

On my most memorable ride this year, a 70 km highway ride up the highest paved mountain pass in Canada, I wore a helmet. On my recent mountain bike trip into the Rockies of southern B.C. , I wore a helmet.  But in my last video, in which I rolled through the streets of Calgary’s new protected bike lanes, I did not.

That raised a few eyebrows, at least in the comments of the video on Facebook and YouTube, some of which you can see below.

There was enough of a conversation about the issue that I feel the need to offer some explanation.  As someone who rides a lot, I’ve put much thought into the helmet question.

I’m not going to rehash the helmet debate. It’s an endless, and at this point rather fruitless, conversation. If you want to understand the reasons against wearing a helmet, I recommend reading this piece by Peter Walker and watching this Ted Talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.

That means if I’m winter commuting on busy thoroughfares, I wear one. If I’m highway riding, or mountain biking, I wear one. Because I live in a city that is just getting started in building safe bike infrastructure, that means I often wear a helmet in the city.

But, most importantly to the video that sparked this post: if I’m riding on safe bike lanes that have a physical barrier between myself and vehicles, I don’t feel the need for a helmet.

This, I understand, can be difficult for people. “But you can fall off your bike anwhere, anytime,” I hear. “You can’t predict when you might crash.” This, to me, speaks to our irrational assessment of risk. There’s good science that says your chances of being killed on the roads are about equal for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists (Clarification: The rates vary depending on how the rates are measured, but in a nutshell, motorists have slightly lower fatality rates, cyclists and pedestrians are about equal, and all of them are far lower than motorcyclists. Check it out). In my city, for example, one pedestrian is struck by a car every day, on average. In the last decade, there were 3,834 pedestrian-involved collisions, resulting in 3,317 injuries and 95 fatalities. For comparison’s sake, between 2004-2008, of the 2,174 people who died in traffic collisions in Calgary: 1.4 per cent were bicyclists, 6.9 per cent were motorcyclists, 10.4 per cent were pedestrians, and 76.2 per cent were drivers or passengers.

In other words, you are hella more likely to be struck by a car by simply walking the streets than riding a bike on them*. Yet only cycling is perceived as dangerous enough to require a helmet. It makes no sense, yet helmet use has gone from the fringes to orthodoxy in a generation. It’s now so ingrained in many people that it’s unfathomable that someone would choose to ride without a helmet. Yet the idea of wearing a helmet as a pedestrian is so absurd as to be laughable. The most dangerous thing you will do in your day, statistically speaking, is drive a car, yet where is the helmet debate there? Such a suggestion would get you laughed out of the room. Yet, if we were to require helmets while driving, we would almost assuredly save more lives than if we require them on bikes.

This illogical helmet fundamentalism creates a false perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which discourages people from riding. That discouragement is harmful. It means my city is not enjoying all of the benefits of a more robust bike culture, including the increased safety and health benefits that come when more people ride. Part of the reason that I chose not to wear a helmet in that video (other than the fact that I felt completely safe while riding the city’s separated bike lanes): I’m trying to combat that unnecessary culture of fear around cycling.

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That’s me on a lazy roll through my city’s bike paths.

 

The other thing that bothers me about this whole debate is the way it distracts from the real issues around bicycle safety. While the data about the macro safety implications of bike helmets remain sketchy (and I’m lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that hasn’t fallen for the false promise of a mandatory helmet law), it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes. If you really care about bike safety, this is where you should focus your efforts.

So if you choose to wear a helmet, I completely understand and support that decision. If it gets you on a bike, it’s a wonderful thing. I will continue to wear one for many of my rides. But if you spot me, or anybody else, riding without one, all I ask is that you stop before trying to shame them and give some thought to the real issues around bike safety that impact all of us.

* I just want to clarify this. The likelihood of death is about the same for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, according to a study by UBC. In my city, more people are struck walking than cycling in raw numbers, but that doesn’t mean the proportional rate of collisions is the same. 


Upate: A nice reaction to this piece came from Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter, including some fascinating information about perceptions that was new to me. It’s worth a look.

Here’s why all the reasons for licensing bikes fail

It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.

For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.

So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:

Murky motivations

According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?

With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.

If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.

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Registration is unruly

Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.

An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.

In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.

There are better ways to control cyclists

Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.

Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.

But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.

It rarely makes money

The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.

On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.

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It doesn’t prevent theft

In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.

Because it’s stupid

Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.

The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.

Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.

To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.

Update

Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.

Why are we so afraid of letting kids ride bikes when statistics prove their safety?

Is riding a bike too risky for kids?

The question nags many parents beyond the typical helicopter-parent anxiety that permeates modern childhood. Cycling has gone from a bedrock part of childhood a few generations ago to something akin to BASE jumping in the eyes of some grownups.

Sometimes, even those trying to promote public health push the sentiment that cycling is inherently dangerous. Alberta Health Service recently removed information from its website after a mini furor over its anti-bike leanings. It warned parents about the potential dangers of cycling with kids, advised parents against using bike trailers or child seats until kids are four years old and to never take kids on streets, even if there is a bike lane. All of this struck some parents as overly cautious for something as simple as going for a bike ride.

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I don’t blame a health agency specifically for such advice. Rather it’s part of the bizarrely myopic lens in which we view kids’ cycling in North America, not as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but as a risky adventure sport.

So in wondering about the real risks of riding a bike, I put the question to Dr. Kay Teschke. She’s a prominent researcher at the University of British Columbia, and one of the most prominent researchers of bike safety on the continent. She had some illuminating insight.

First of all, she provided some statistics for context. Teschke recently served on a coroner’s panel that reviewed non-motorized road-related child deaths in British Columbia between 2005 to 2014. Over those 10 years, in the province of 4.5 million people, there were precisely zero toddlers killed while riding with their parents in a bike seat or a trailer.

Looking more broadly, during those 10 years, the review found that 17 children in B.C. were killed while riding a bike. Of those, four were under 10 years old. These are awful stories, but the details are important:

  • A two year old riding a tricycle in a back lane was killed by a speeding driver.
  • A three year old riding a ride-on toy on the sidewalk was killed by an errant driver.
  • An eight-year old at a blind T-junction was hit while riding on a rural road with no shoulders.
  • A 9-year old on a rural road with no shoulders was hit by a speeding driver with a suspended licence in a stolen car.

These are horrific stories, but compare the those numbers to those killed while riding in cars. In that same 10-year period, 280 children were killed in motor vehicles

Even walking was more dangerous: 55 kids were killed by drivers while they were on foot.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking statistic of them all: There were nine toddlers killed in a driveway when a driver backed over them. That’s more than twice as many as were killed while cycling.

Put in another way, here’s the average number of children under 19 killed every year in B.C.:

  • While riding a bike: 1.7.
  • While walking: 5.5.
  • While riding in cars: 28.

Despite those numbers, how often do do we hear warnings about children travelling in cars? It does happen, but rarely is the simple act of being in a car cited as something inherently dangerous (if statistics drove such warnings, we’d be smart to advise kids to never play in a driveway). In fact, when parents are worried about the dangers of children riding a bike or walking to school, they often choose to drive them, as if it is the safer option.

Teschke also mentioned a Quebec study that compared the risks of cycling to other activities, including sports. Only swimming had a lower injury rate than cycling. It sounds silly, but cycling even compares favourably to something as simple as walking down the street. Teschke’s B.C. study found that cycling and walking had similar fatality rates per trip, and bicycling had a lower fatality rate per distance travelled (the pattern was reversed for injury rates).

Yet cycling seems to be singled out as the risky activity. We don’t legislate drivers into wearing helmets, or shame them into wearing high-visibility clothing when walking down the street.

So what gives? Why is our perception of cycling so different than reality? Teschke thinks part of it is because most of us are smart enough to realize we don’t want to end up on the losing end of a collision with a car.

“We do see riding on city streets as risky, because we know that we are vulnerable if we are hit by a motor vehicle,” Teschke told me. “Why we see cycling as so much more dangerous than walking is interesting. Part of it is likely that walking is provided with sidewalk infrastructure along most urban streets. Some research shows that the emphasis on safety clothing, including high visibility gear and helmets, makes us perceive cycling as unsafe.”

I also think that human’s innate inability to properly assess risk plays into this problem. We tend to overestimate the risks of short-term dangers, while remaining indifferent to long-term ones. That’s why so many of us think it’s insane to undertake “risky” activities such as rock climbing or BASE jumping, yet we rarely think twice about more distant risks, even if they are much more likely to harm us, such as the dangers of poor diet or inactive lifestyles.

The latter is why it’s such a shame that cycling is seens as a dangerous activity for kids to participate in. As Teschke, herself a mother, points out, there are many studies that weigh the benefits and risks of cycling, and they “almost universally” find a net benefit from the physical activity of riding a bike, not only physically, but also mentally.

“(Riding a bike) helps children develop decision-making skills, executive function, co-ordination, and social relationships,” she said, citing the work of a colleague, Mariana Brussoni.  “Independent mobility helps children understand the world and their place in it.”

Given the risk-averse nature of our society, perhaps the only way to get over our fear of children riding a bike may be to do something radical: Build safe, separated bike lanes. Yes, they have been shown to reduce injuries, but perhaps just as important is that such bike routes make us feel safe.

“Being a parent does make people (including me) think differently about our roads and their safety,” Teschke said. “Parents worried about their children were the catalyst for building safer routes in Holland starting in the 1970s. Parents seem to be strong advocates of safer conditions for cycling in Canada too.”

Update: Some clarifications were made to ensure accuracy on Oct. 13, 2016.


Get some bike safety tips over at Folding Bike Zone. 

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