Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robert Hurst: "Is cycling dangerous? Yes."

Below are excerpts from "The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America," by Robert Hurst:

Is cycling dangerous? Yes. Yes, it is. Deadly, no, but definitely dangerous. This is actually a controversial thing to say. There are those who bristle at any suggestion that cycling is dangerous, because they fear it will scare noncyclists away from ever ditching their cars and trying a more healthy form of transport. This is a good point, but it doesn’t change the fact that cycling is dangerous. This is not some urban legend that needs to be debunked. It is reality, and we need to embrace it (page 69).

Statistics fail to paint an accurate picture of the overall risk of cycling. The biggest reason for this failure is simple: The vast majority of bicycle accidents never get reported, written down, or noticed in any official way. Researchers can’t count the numbers if the numbers aren’t there. You see, when a cyclist gets smashed by a car, there is usually a police report saying so; when a cyclist visits an emergency room, there may be some record of the visit with a general description of the accident. But when a cyclist wipes out in a dime-a-dozen solo wreck---the most frequent sort of bike wreck by far---even though that cyclist may be hurt, she or he will usually not seek medical attention or file any kind of report, and therefore leaves no paper trail. Cyclists do the bulk of their suffering in silence. They tend to limp home, tough it out, and chalk it up to experience---all without notifying the Department of Transportation (page 158).

The most important lesson to be learned here is a bitter pill to swallow: There is no greater danger to the cyclist than the cyclist’s own incompetence. As a whole, it turns out, cyclists are not an entirely smooth and skillful lot. The majority of cycling accidents are embarrassing solo incidents, with the cyclist sliding out on turns, stacking it up after ramming potholes, curbs, and other obstacles, or just generally losing control (page 161, emphasis in original).

Collisions with motor vehicles are potentially more damaging but account for no more than about 15 percent of all cycling accidents. About half of car-bike accidents are instigated by cyclists who ride into traffic without looking, ride on the wrong side of the street, blow lights and stop signs, or otherwise ride in an unpredictable and lawless manner. This means that about half of car-bike collisions could be prevented if cyclists would simply follow traditional traffic-law principles. Most of the rest could likely be prevented with a little experience, preparedness, and respect for the perils of the road. Admitting it is the first step toward moving beyond it. That surly looking character in your bathroom mirror is often your worst enemy out on the street (page 161).

Realistically, it is not the prospect of dying in an accident, but that of being sent to the hospital with a serious injury, that hangs over the vulnerable heads of cyclists. The cyclist’s primary goal should be, first and foremost, to avoid serious injury. This is the cyclist’s bottom line. We must do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, short of staying at home (page 70).

Instead of just hopping on the bike and pedaling, we should take a moment before any ride to soberly consider the dangers we are about to face and how we will avoid them. We will need to carry this underlying seriousness into the ride and maintain it throughout, despite all the distractions of everyday life that compete for bandwidth in our skulls. It is absolutely true that accidents happen when they are least expected. The old warhorses of cycling---and there is not a single one of them who hasn’t been hit at some point or another---will always say their worst wrecks came at a time when their minds were wandering. They had momentarily forgotten the danger. They let themselves slip, just a little. Just enough (page 70).

While [John]Forester claimed that even children could ride safely on busy streets using the vehicular-cycling principle, our way is unquestionably for adults…The streets demand from us an awareness and maturity that would be very rare in a child (page 66).

The most effective way for a cyclist to stay out of trouble on city streets is to forget entirely about the possibility of blaming others, and to take on full responsibility for his or her own safety. This attitude will be fundamentally different from the prima donna mind-set displayed by many humans, drivers and cyclists among them, who put their safety in the hands of others, count on everything working out just right, and have a royal freak-out at the first sign of trouble. The successful cyclist counts on nothing but chaos and stupidity (page 67).

Go ahead and take measures to enhance your visibility---the orange vest, the flashers, et cetera---just don’t fool yourself into believing these measures will always work. It’s better to stubbornly assume that you are unseen until it is made absolutely obvious that you are seen (page 80).

Cyclists are often overlooked, no matter how or where they ride. We should accept this as reality, and proceed from there. We should deal with reality as it is, not how we hope or wish it to be (page 80).

Next time you are in the driver’s seat of a car, look to your right, past your wildly gesturing passenger with his gigantic head and comically large sombrero, fight through the glare of the sun on the dirty windshield, you know, that little triangle of mud-splattered glass where the wiper doesn’t reach, and imagine how hard it might be to see a fast-moving cyclist out there. And notice how the doorposts on new cars have grown plenty large enough to completely block the view of an approaching cyclist---total eclipse of the cyclist---potentially for several seconds at a time if the driver is inching the car forward (page 87).

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