Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cycling, safety, and the NY Times

Mayor Lee, Streetsblog

The head on Tuesday's NY Times story was How Safe is Cycling? It's Hard to Say:

It’s not that there is a lack of data. Instead, it is that the data are inadequate to answer the questions. No one has good statistics, for example, on crashes per mile ridden. Nor do the data distinguish road cycling on a fast, light, bike with thin tires from mountain biking down dirt paths filled with obstacles or recreational cycling on what the industry calls a comfort bike. Yet they are very different sports.

Okay, but whether you call riding a bike a "sport" or a "transportation mode," the hazards are well-known. The writer herself had a bad spill---not mentioned in Tuesday's story---while riding a bike several years ago, which she wrote about in the Times (Fell Off My Bike, and Vowed Never to Get Back On):

I remembered what Michael Berry, an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University, once told me. With cycling, he said, it’s not if you crash, it’s when. He should know. He’s a competitive cyclist whose first serious injury---a broken hip---happened when he crashed taking a sharp turn riding down a mountain road. Then, last June, he was warming up for a race when he hit a squirrel, crashed into a telephone pole and broke his arm so badly he needed surgery. His reaction to each crash was a variant of mine. He’d taken up cycling about five years ago because he’d injured his hamstring running. “With each wreck I thought, ‘Maybe I should try running again,’ ” he said.

I posted an excerpt from the 2010 story at the time and got some scornful comments from some macho city cyclists, who, as is their custom, tried to change the subject to the dangers of cars. My response to their comments is still valid:

I'm willing to stipulate that cars can be a dangerous means of transportation, but you aren't willing to do the same when discussing cycling. The city and the SFBC are pushing the Safe Routes to School program encouraging children to ride bikes to school, even though children's advocates warn parents about the dangers involved, especially the danger of head injuries.

Speaking of head injuries, the NY Times reported earlier this year that it wasn't too "hard to say" which activity results in the most head injuries (Cycling Is the Top Sport for Head Injuries):

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cycling accidents played a role in about 86,000 of the 447,000 sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009. Football accounted for 47,000 of those head injuries, and baseball played a role in 38,394. Cycling was also the leading cause of sports-related head injuries in children under 14, causing 40,272 injuries, roughly double the number related to football (21,878).

So is Bike to School Day and encouraging the city's children to ride bikes on city streets, pushed by City Hall and the SFBC, such a good idea?

Seems like the NY Times is ambivalent about the bike revolution: It wants to be both with-it and report on what's actually happening. Last year it even published a story questioning the utility of bike helmets!

The NY Times has the same problem with the high-speed rail issue. It supports it editorially while its news stories report the problems the project has.

Funny but Streetsblog didn't include the NY Times story on safety and cycling in Tuesday's Today's Headlines feature.[Later: Streetsblog finally listed the story on Friday.]

Below are a few of the hundreds of comments to Tuesday's New York Times story on safety and cycling:

I ride with a seniors group, twice a week, 75 or 80 km. Not yet 70, I'm one of the younger riders. A couple are over 80. They also hike and paddle. The subject of cycling safety came up. The conclusion; cycling's not dangerous, inactivity is.[Rob's comment: This is a half-truth and a rationalization for continuing to do what he wants to do. There are other, safer ways to be active and stay fit.]

Where are you riding? What are you riding? How are you riding? When are you riding? These are variables that clearly apply directly to the probability of sustaining injury while San Francisco, in the late morning on weekdays, I would ride from North Beach down Columbus to the Wharf, along Ft. Mason & Crissy Field, across the Golden Gate and up Conzelman before riding home. Again, few obstacles and nearly flat out the whole way on my Fat City, except for the big Conzelman climb. These days it's a Cannondale touring bike I ride, but I don't get out very often---it's just plain too dangerous around my town. While there are bike lanes in Las Vegas, they're often used by cars for passing on the right, and there are a surprising number of cycling fatalities here, at all hours of the day and night. Those who ride in big packs seem to be safer, but that's not my thing. I miss my solo rides, and they would do me some good as well, but I just can't accept that degree of risk anymore.

Over 40 years, I have been a passionate daily bike commuter in NYC, an every-weekend club biker on Long Island, and a summer bike tourer across many countries. Nowadays, I will only bike on rare occasions, on roads with few cars: this means out of the tri-state area completely. My "aha" moment came a year ago after a 12 month period when a biking friend was hit by a car and killed, I had a nasty crash and had to have a year of PT and have a permanently disabled hand, and I witnessed a biker fall who remains quadriplegic. There are other, less exciting but safer ways to exercise. I believe the statistic of 1 accident for every 5,000 miles, and I'm not willing to pay the price.

I started cycling in the 1980's. I was a pretty avid cyclist (and a triathlete) through the 1980's and early 1990's. Started cycling again in the late 90's. In fact I dropped the swimming and running and increased my cycling to the point that I was riding 5-6 times a week at least 20 miles per ride. Until 2008 I had NO injuries or accidents. But in November 2008, while I was standing still in a median, waiting for traffic, an uninsured motorist did a U-turn straight into me. My neck was broken and bones in my left leg were shattered. I recovered from the broken neck within 6 months, but the problems with my leg continued to the point that it was amputated above the knee in Oct 2011. So, was it worth it? Not so much.

I hope you take a helmet with you---as I watch "Citibikers" (in particular) dash around the city with no head gear, I fear that it is a foolish choice. Last Winter my kids witnessed a biker flip over the handle bars and land smack on his head---thankfully he had a helmet. As I helped him gather his bag and bike from the street beside us, he looked at us and said, "good thing I have a helmet!" Cause of that accident---a scarf jammed in the front wheel. Seems like the craziest things can happen on a bike. “Not so safe” would be my vote.[Rob's comment: Wearing a helmet while riding a bike is controversial in San Francisco.]

In 2008 in California there were 131 fatal bike crashes. Of these the police determined that the biker was at fault 67% of the time. The most frequent explanation was the biker was on the wrong side of the road, followed by alcohol involvement. 10 percent of all fatalities the biker was drunk. 43% of bikers killed were over 51 years of age. 67% of the deaths occurred in cities. This distribution is very different than one would expect for the population Kolata identified as the bike population in her article as it is limited to ‘sport’ riders. Injuries are under reported for traffic crashes as well bike crashes and are generally not considered reliable.

While I have no knowledge of the statistical likelihood of cycling injuries or accidents vs other sports, and while it is true that being active improves one's health in many ways, it is also undeniably true that a cyclist is basically naked on the road. If you fall, for whatever reason, there's a good chance of serious injury. A road bike has narrow tires which cause a fall after hitting potholes, ruts, rocks, train tracks, or other non-vehicular road hazards. At higher speeds like 20 mph, it may be hard to recognize these on time even if you're paying attention---and realistically it's hard to pay attention all the time. In our club this year there have been a fair number of serious crashes by experienced riders---the margin for error is not great. Most of these crashes did not involve cars. Maneuverability and braking are limited. As to the conflict between cars and bikes, there are rude drivers and rude cyclists, but cyclists need to realize that they will be the losers in any accident. The League of American Bicyclists offers skills courses on bike handling to help riders avoid accidents regardless of fault. Riders need to recognize typical risky situations and be ready to anticipate them.

Here is my take on things:

1. NYC is a dangerous place for bikers. Cars ignore red lights treating them like suggestions and not the law. Not a place to drive a bike on the street in most areas.

2. A lot of bikers drive like nut-jobs. I drive on the loop in Prospect Park and am routinely passed by people speeding down the hill going probably close to 40 MPH with joggers and strollers all over the place crossing in front of them; all they need is a little slip and there go many bones in their bodies and the helmet will not help them much.

Bicycling is not inherently dangerous if practiced in a safe environment and safe manner, but in a city like New York and in the manner in which many drive like they are made of titanium and not out of flesh and bone it is a dangerous sport.

I will never understand parents who put their little children on the bike or in that trailer behind the bike and drive on streets in NYC. That's suicidal.[Rob's comment: And homicidal when you consider that it's the child who's the likeliest fatality in an accident.] Yes, a lot can go wrong in a flash, but we love the sport and keep at it even after crashes.

After having biked 5,000 miles on a road bike accident-free, I recently had a serious bike accident. After going over a small pothole that I couldn't even see, something happened to my bike, causing it to lock up. I was going 8-10 mph at the time, not hot-dogging or doing anything risky. I had no warning, no time to save myself. Next thing I knew I flew over the handlebars and was hitting my face hard on the pavement. I incurred a Le Fort III facial fracture and had extensive reconstructive surgery, with expected revisions in the future. I now have a face full of screws and plates. I can barely look at my bike sitting forlornly on the trainer (or in the mirror) now, let alone think about riding again. Short of not biking, there was nothing I could have done to be safer on my bike in this incident.

I am now almost exactly 2 months out from a bad hip fracture suffered when my road bike blew a front tube with no warning. Within 1/2 second I went from everything is fine to the worst pain I ever hope to suffer. My x-ray looks like they put two railroad spikes in the head of my femur. Makes me sore just to look at it. I always thought if I did everything right and was careful I would be OK. Obviously I was incorrect. I find myself craving a ride on my mountain bike every day but I don't know if I will ride a road bike again. My surgeon (a triathlete ) tells me I am ready to get back on the bike. My wife disagrees.

What completely reinforced my decision to no longer ride was a ten-minute wait at a nearby bus stop a couple of months ago. In those minutes I watched hundreds of cars pull up to the light or go through it. EVERY solo driver was on a cell phone, and most were texting. Texting brings your reaction times into the "extremely drunk" zone, and I don't feel like being anywhere near someone doing that. Santa Monica has numerous bike lanes, but they're just a line of paint, they don't actually prevent a car from drifting into you. I once got knocked off my bike in a bike lane. I miss it sometimes, but I'm mostly happy with my switch to Nordic walking. It's injury-free and you can still be outdoors, although it's hard to conceive of a less-sexy pursuit (curling?). I'm glad I got to do so much biking and that I got to walk away from it---and not get wheeled away strapped to a gurney.

As a cyclist---road bike ---I had my share of accidents, what with a broken rotor cuff, with a few abrasion's and near misses. If it weren't for the head gear---helmet---there might have been head injuries as well. To me the main reason for these injuries concerns the cyclist's affinity for speed and thin tires. When I went over to off-road bikes the accidents dropped to zero, but then so did the fast speeds. If it weren't for vertigo and old age I would probably still be riding one. Fat tires are the best.

I usually ride a motorcycle, and I was in a fairly serious accident in 2010, where I broke a collarbone. But I was saved from more serious injury in that accident because I was wearing Kevlar-armored protective clothing and a full-face helmet. This is why I'm comfortable riding motorcycles but hesitant to do serious riding on a bicycle---you're just too vulnerable in an accident. On a motorcycle you can protect yourself with clothing, but you can't carry much weight on a bicycle and you're also exercising hard. Cyclists wear such lightweight clothing that in terms of accident protection they might as well be riding naked, although their speed down a hill may not differ much from the speed of a motorcycle or car. As this article says, there are no reliable statistics, but I strongly suspect that the accidents per mile are much higher for bicycles than for motorcycles and cars.

The most vulnerable part of your body is your head, so I was shocked that Mayor Bloomberg's rental bike program does not include any way to provide helmets with the bikes. That was a big mistake. People who rent bicycles are probably not as skillful as regular bikers on their own bikes and need more protection, not less. Sooner or later, someone on a rental bike is going to wind up with severe brain damage that could have been prevented by a helmet. Then the lawsuits and recriminations will start, and it won't be pretty.[Rob's comment: Actually, I bet the city passed an ordinance protecting itself from liability.]

I'm of two minds. Militant cyclists have made great and difficult strides in making San Francisco bike-friendly. That's probably the right direction. But my daily interaction with them is odious. As an occasional rider, I'm partial to bicycles, and I am vigilant around them. I'm sure the commuting time brings out the worst in the committed cyclists, but I see more bad behavior (in absolute numbers) from cyclists than car drivers. It's very lopsided. Commuting/lifestyle-committed cyclists (for a lack of better term) rarely obey traffic laws. They frighten pedestrians. They seek daylight like little missiles, swerving around drivers with little predictability. They take the lane riding 20 mph in a 35 mph zone during rush hour. They thump with their hands or spit on cars, not just when they feel threatened, but because when they see poor drivers. They ride without lights on dark streets at night, which scares drivers who notice them only belatedly. In short, too many are bad citizens. I'm sure "most" cyclists are just fine, but one can't help but notice their collective boorish behavior and self-righteousness. Once they drop their sanctimonious attitude and behave civilly, cyclists will get broader buy-in from their fellow citizens. Then they can achieve that next level of accommodation.

Mark Twain: "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live." Two recreational hobbies I enjoy are bicycling and skydiving and I consider riding down a steep hill---even relatively cautiously---the more dangerous. But it sure is fun![Rob's comment: The SFBC and City Hall promote cycling as a serious means of transportation, but the sheer, childlike, wind-in-your-face thrill of riding a bike is a little-discussed motivation for a lot of cyclists in SF, like those I see speeding down Haight, Hayes, Fulton, and McAllister Streets in my neighborhood. Mountain bikers are more honest about the speed/thrill part of their cycling.]

As an experienced cyclist myself, I have not crashed since 1994. Since then I have ridden about 50,000 miles. Part of the learning curve is knowing where and when NOT to cycle. Riding a bike in the city streets of Manhattan is likely well above the technical expertise of most cyclists who ride there. But I would say that cycling is an extremely dangerous sport overall. Other factors include speed, road conditions, group ride safety, defensive riding in traffic, etc. For example, riding in rain will dramatically increase your chance of a crash due to tire slide out. Riding with a pack of other cyclists will also increase your chance of crashing.

Anyone who rides a bicycle without a helmet is like a motorcycle rider without a helmet. A fool who is just asking for severe brain damage when the inevitable accident comes. I treat people who have had head injuries, many of them from bicycle and motorcycle accidents. The ones wearing helmets are pretty messed up. For life. Traumatic brain injuries are forever. The ones without helmets are not even worth bothering to rehabilitate. They are often vegetables, assuming they survive.

I gave up bike commuting after three attempts. My bike commute from SF to Oakland saved me about 8 minutes from walking because I still had to deal with the trains and in the end it was a lot more dangerous. Now I just ride in my garage on a trainer. Too many crazy bikers in the cities here have got the drivers all up in arms. I tried the bike share here when it began and found myself with a trail of angry drivers behind me honking non stop even though I was in a bike lane. The bike lanes make little sense when they are on the street used by people trying to get over the bridge in rush hour traffic.

As a daily runner on a multi-use pathway, the biggest hazard I face are from bicyclists. No matter that there are signs at every trailhead and road crossing instructing cyclists that they must alert pedestrians and equestrians when approaching them from behind, with a recommended distance of 50 feet. It's been my experience that over 85% of them ignore this rule, and a large number seem to feel outright glee in sneaking up and "buzzing" pedestrians as close as possible, scaring us out of our wits. I learned long ago that making any sort of comment to them will illicit a string of expletives directed back at me, and often the water bottle contents.[Crossing the path on the north side of the Panhandle in SF is risky for pedestrians, as cyclists routinely speed recklessly on that path.]

For the others reading this, I did file a complaint with the State Police in Rochester many years ago. Gave the troopers his description and car license # and they arrested the man at the house in front of his family. He went to trial. Had not hit us, but he came over into us on purpose and then got out of his car and threatened us for taking up too much room on the road. I will suggest to all of the readers to stay calm in that situation, but to capture the make, model of the car, and the license # and then promptly report it to the police. They have every incentive to prevent road rage. Make use of your public servants. They have always stood by long as we acted in a lawful manner.

For years while riding my ten speed road bike around the surrounding community, I have worn bright orange construction safety vests or a bright orange heavy sweatshirt to avoid being struck by cars. The drivers overwhelmingly slow down when approaching me and pass slowly. The vests work! Buy them for 5 to 20 dollars. The heavy sweatshirt was fifty dollars and very warm at speed, provided I wear neck covering fleece sweaters underneath.

I also wear a helmet while biking all the time now. In the past year I began forgoing the helmet, justified by the lonely back road pedaling I do and the inherent safety of the very few cars, but recently a very good doctor of mine who also rides a bike told me I would be an "organ donor" if I shunned the helmet. I thought about that between visits and decided he was quite right. Had I slipped on the pavement and fallen, even a six foot fall of my head combined with a speed over ten miles per hour would realize quite a damaging force on my head. Thanks to that doctor, I will always wear a helmet.

Outside of competitive cycling, crashes are also quite dangerous because the average recreational rider lacks sufficient bike handling skills to avoid most easily avoidable collisions, control the bike at all times without getting jittery, and the instinctive ability to "fall well" and loosen up at the onset of an inevitable crash. Instead, casual riders often build up more speed than they can handle and have no sense of what their bike and body will do when the unexpected occurs. One reason for the lack of skills among average riders is that most people grow up riding a bike and would hardly think it's an area that requires special training, whereas with most other dangerous sports it seems more self-evident that some instruction is required.

I've been doored commuting in Chicago, endo'd on singletrack in the woods, fallen on ice, slipped in the rain, wiped out in criteriums and cross races, broken my tailbone on the lakefront path, averted countless collisions with cabs, and scraped myself more times than I can count. I will never stop cycling.[I think this guy is foolish, but I respect his choice, since he seems to understand the risk he's taking.]

The article points out that bicyclists account for one-fortieth of all traffic fatalities, but no one can claim cyclists are anywhere close to one-fortieth of all traffic miles. Thus per mile ridden bicycling is certainly far riskier than driving. And the reason is simple: the margin for error is small but the outcome of error is often huge even when the speed of travel is not that high. Urban cycling requires a high level of concentration and awareness if one is to survive. But aside from that it's a great way to get around and to stay in shape. Just don't treat it like a walk in the park...

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