Monday, January 25, 2010

The myth of cycling "collisions"

Michael Helquist of Bike NOPA had the kind of cycling accident the other day that is a lot more common than being hit by a car: 

Last Saturday morning I hit a pothole and lost my grip while biking on Mississippi Street. (The hole was one of those smooth dips in the pavement, a not readily noticed depression). I fell and in the process fractured my right elbow.

Ironically, as he points out, the accident happened while he was riding with other cyclists looking for potholes on city streets that can be a serious threat to cyclists.

Bike messenger/writer Robert Hurst has written eloquently about the danger of potholes:

To cyclists, potholes are both an annoyance and a real danger. A really bad pothole can pinch a tube and put a flat spot on the rim. More seriously, potholes can finish off critical components that are on the verge of failure---faulty forks, cracked steer tubes, stem bolts. A surprise pothole might cause the rider to stack painfully against the stem, fumble the bars, and just plain wipe out hard (The Art of Cycling, Hurst, page 46).

A neighbor of mine, also a middleaged guy, had a similar accident recently, though his was caused by a streetcar track. Hurst also writes about rail tracks as a hazard to cyclists:

Ask around among any group of experienced cyclists, and you will find that more than a few have been felled by a railroad track. The most dangerous tracks are of two basic types: wet tracks and diagonal tracks. Railroad tracks that are both wet and diagonal to the cyclist's direction of travel are probably the most unforgiving of all possible forms of surface obstacles. Riders who wreck on such tracks report being slapped to the ground in a split second...Railroad tracks cause quite an ugly brand of fall. The rider doesn't have time to get the arms out or prepare in any way (Hurst, page 53).

In its cycling accident reports, the City of San Francisco lumps all cycling accidents together as "collisions," leaving the false implication that most cycling accidents involve other vehicles. Hurst writes about this falsehood, too:

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. Collisions with motor vehicles are potentially more damaging but account for no more than about 15 percent of all cycling accidents (Hurst, page 161, emphasis added).

The SFBC's favorite bike safety instructor, Bert Hill, tells us that 45% of all cycling accidents are "solo falls" and that only 18% involve another vehicle ("Mission: Not Impossible," Paul McHugh, Feb. 17, 2005, SF Chronicle).

John Forester has also written about cycling accidents: "When you mention cycling accidents, most people assume that you mean car-bike collisions, because this is the only kind they worry about. This is wrong, because car-bike collisions account for only about 12% of cycling accidents" (Effective Cycling, Sixth Edition, John Forester, page 262).

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At 11:34 AM, Anonymous kwk said...

Chronicle, Thursday, June 4, 2009
Bike Payment
"A supervisors' committee will consider a number of proposed legal settlements today, including whether to pay out $100,000 to a bicyclist who lost a testicle after he hit a pothole.
The bicyclist, Barry Louis Mangels, was riding on Hugo Avenue when he hit a 5-inch pothole and his testes were slammed against his bike seat, resulting in surgical removal of the right testicle. His suit argued that the city had had numerous complaints about potholes on that street and knew the area was dangerous."

So according to his lawsuit he knew about the potholes yet raced his bike along that street without paying attention. Sounds about right.

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So basically what you're saying is that if you ride a bicycle, you might fall down and hurt your arm?

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Your arm and every other part of your body. The point is that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles, that, as Robert Hurst put it, "There is no greater danger to the cyclist than the cyclist's own incompetence." Which means that all the self-righteous anti-car rhetoric is more or less irrelevant to the safety of cyclists.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Rob, let us leave aside the painfully obvious matter of consequences: most cyclists killed or seriously injured where I live died or got hurt in collisions with cars. And let's skip over the causes of potholes (hint: if you roll two-tonne weights across anything for an extended period, it'll wear out). Any skilled cyclist can avoid and compensate for potholes and other static road hazards. Pace your reading of Robert Hurst, which I believe he's corrected you on, not all cyclists crash. Period. I regularly ride across street railway tracks, and I've never fallen (though I once had to dismount when I had a wheel caught). As a competent cyclist, I haven't gone down on a pothole or a gravel patch in forty years of riding. Cycling presents a challenge, and cyclists do work to get steadily better at it. So while we work for better roads (if you like paved roads, Rob, thank the cyclists who got it done), we also train and develop our skills so we can deal with road hazards we can predict.

But no amount of skill will permit us to deal with drivers who run stop signs, drivers who operate vehicles drunk, or half asleep, or generally with the culture of excuses that dominates surface motoring. Cyclists can learn to look for and avoid potholes, gravel patches, and so on, but nobody can learn to read minds. So for many road users, not only cyclists, educating motorists and restraining those who will not learn has turned into a priority.

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Which means that all the self-righteous anti-car rhetoric is more or less irrelevant to the safety of cyclists."

I did not invoke any anti-car rhetoric.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The SFBC and many cyclists in SF are as much anti-car as they are pro-bike. That's the context of my pointing out that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Spragge: Of course collisions with motor vehicles can cause death and serious injury, but the point is that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles. Your experience isn't typical of long-time cyclists, as Hurst himself points out; if you ride a bike for a long time, sooner or later you're going to have a fall. It's hubris to think otherwise.

I did not misquote Hurst. He backtracked on the issue of children riding bikes in the city in an attempt to support the city's bike people. I quoted specific passages from his book, and there was no doubt about what he wrote.

At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you are equating fatality-producing car accidents to injury-producing bike accidents.

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the cyclists I know also drive, walk, and take muni.

At 12:13 AM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Without a comprehensive census of long term cyclists, nobody can tell how typical an experience I have had. In any case, while your argument about the inevitability of accidents has statistical validity, it also holds for cars: drive long enough and you will run over a kid. But just as prudent driving can reduce the chances of killing someone enough that most good drivers go a lifetime without getting blood on their hands, so prudent cyclists can ride for a lifetime without a serious wipeout.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Just for the record, have your estate notify us after that happens, John.


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