Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cycling, safety, and common sense

After the two cyclists were killed in Cupertino, the SF Bicycle Coalition rushed to reassure its membership and the public that riding a bike is not dangerous:

SFBC Warns Against "Dangerous" Depiction of Cycling
We also urge people not to be mislead[sic] by the media's alarmist portrayal of the safety of bicycling. In fact, studies show that bicycling is far safer than many think. According to a British report, the casualty rate for bicyclists is relatively small, about one death per 33 million kilometers of cycling. A Dutch study found that, setting aside highway travel, there are nearly twice as many motorists killed as bicyclists per mile traveled. According to a British Medical Association report, the health benefits of bicycling outweigh the risk of bicycling fatalities by 20-to-1. And people who bicycle to work have a 39% lower rate of mortality than those who do not, even after adjusting for other risk factors. Is bicycling as safe as it should be? Not yet. As groups like ours work to improve bicycling conditions, the number of bicyclists in the Bay Area is growing steadily. That's good news for all of us because, in truth, not bicycling is far more dangerous than bicycling.

News stories about two people killed while cycling are "alarmist"? There's been nothing in the stories that depicts cycling as inherently dangerous. The SFBC apparently fears that readers will draw their own reality-based conclusions: getting hit by a driver who dozes off behind the wheel of a car is the sort of thing that can happen to you while riding a bike.

The SFBC would have more credibility if it provided the public with a more realistic sense of the dangers of cycling. A sympathetic article in the SF Chronicle three years ago took a more realistic approach to preparing potential cyclists for the dangers involved:

Sooner or later, an urban cyclist will be bumped or dumped, either by his or her own action (Hill says 45 percent of all crashes are solo falls, only 18 percent involve a vehicle), or by something done unto him or her. That's why you always, always ride wearing a quality helmet and gloves. Abrasion-resistant clothing is a plus. When you start to go over, get your arms out, but don't make them stiff. Use them to absorb initial impact, yes, but even more to steer your fall into a body roll. Want to practice falls? Take a class in judo or aikido...("Mission: Not Impossible," Paul McHugh, SF Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2005).

More testimony on the dangers of cycling is provided by neurologists, the doctors who deal with head injuries every day. From the website of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tracks product-related injuries through its National Injury Information Clearinghouse. According to the CPSC, there were an estimated 319,339 sports-related head injuries treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006. The actual incidence of head injuries is potentially much higher, as many of these injuries are treated at physician’s offices, immediate care centers, or self-treated...The following 20 sports/recreational activities represent the categories contributing to the highest number of estimated head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006

Cycling: 65,319
Powered Recreational Vehicles (ATVs, Dune Buggies, Go-Carts, Mini bikes): 28,585
Football: 34,658
Basketball: 25,788
Baseball and Softball: 23,125
Water Sports : 16,060
Skateboards/Scooters: 15,978
Soccer: 15,208
Winter Sports (Skiing, Sledding, Snowboarding, Snowmobiling): 13,944
Horseback Riding: 9,260
Health Club (Exercise, Weightlifting): 11,895
Golf: 7,956
Trampolines: 7,435
Gymnastics/Dance/Cheerleading: 5,694
Hockey: 5,253
Ball Sports (unspecified): 3,871
Skating (In line, roller, roller hockey): 3,441
Wrestling: 3,225
Fishing: 3,046
Ice Skating: 2,924

But the evidently overwhelming desire to believe in cycling in general---cycling as an idea or ideal---clouds the judgment of some cyclists. The story in today's Chronicle has some shocking examples of adult irresponsibility:

"It could have been any of us, said Penny Hutchinson of Sunnyvale, who was riding with her 10-month-old daughter, Louisa, in a bike trailer..."It's scary," said J.J. Kammeyer, the 11-year-old occupant of the rear seat of a tandem piloted by his father, John. "You really don't want to die when you go bike riding. But anything can happen." ("Dangerous roads for bicyclists," SF Chronicle, March 16, 2008)

Young J.J. apparently has a more realistic sense of the dangers than his dad, not to mention Ms. Hutchinson, who was hauling her 10-month-old daughter in one of those canvas trailers you see clueless parents attach to their bikes (the law sensibly requires drivers to put children in safety seats, but these bike trailers are legal!). Why would responsible parents take their children cycling on a road where two people on bikes were recently killed by a car? Only a powerful belief system---something akin to religion---can do that.

The Chronicle article is accompanied by a chart of the injuries to cyclists on Bay Area roads, but the chart is based on California Highway Patrol data, which doesn't necessarily cover accidents in incorporated towns and cities in the state. 

The Bicycle Plan itself, for example, notes that there's no reliable system of recording/reporting cycling accidents in San Francisco, which means that we really don't know how many people are hurt in the city while cycling (Framework Document, SF Bicycle Plan, pages 6-12, 6-13). One wonders if the city's bike people---especially the SF Bicycle Coalition---really want that information, since it would show with some precision how dangerous cycling in SF really is.

But I feel comfortable in accusing the city of being irresponsible when it encourages teaching children as young as nine-years-old about the "positive lifestyle, health, and environmental benefits" of riding a bike in SF (Framework Document, Bicycle Plan, page 5-8).

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