The Safety Myth…

24 03 2011

Who is the most safer-est cyclist?

Let me start with these three statements:

  1. Safety doesn’t exist. It’s an abstract concept that’s incorrectly utilized by cyclists to justify fear based reactions to the world around them.
  2. Fear is a reactionary emotional state that results in impulsive decisions that are not arrived at using rationale thought processes.
  3. The number one threat to cycling in North America is fear – nothing else comes close to doing the same damage.

Safety, as the term is used colloquially, is trying to express the lack of a significant negative outcome. So you rode your bicycle home from a friend’s place and you might text them when you get home..”Made it back safely.” As social shorthand for “I didn’t have an incident on the way home” I have no problem with word “safety”.

Where “safety” has started to hurt cyclists is when people disconnect the term from its meaning “lack of significant negative outcome” and start to re-conceptualize it as a positive thing that is additive. I call this Most-Saferism. To a Most-Safer-est cyclist “safety” is like a change jar that you fill towards a goal. If you keep adding enough “safety coins” you can eventually “buy a safety pizza” with it…=-) When in fact safety is not an additive quantity. You can’t accrue more and more safety.

As a simple example let’s look at safety gear/techniques for what it is – risk mitigation or the reduction of risk of a significant negative outcome. Imagine a shot glass on a bar and the bartender is a friend who starts pouring you a free shot of tequila. The liquid represents risk reduction in a specific situation, say riding home from a friend’s place at night on a quiet suburban road. Once the shot glass is full you can keep pouring tequila into the glass, but it just flows over the top and spills onto the bar. It’s wasted because once a risk or set of risks is mitigated doing additional things to reduce the risk is a waste of time and resources. I don’t know about you, but I hate to waste tequila!..=-)

What fuels this process is fear and anxiety. It’s shocking to me that one of the safest things I do everyday, cycling, is enmeshed in such an unhealthy culture of fear. People who don’t ride think cycling is dangerous, too physically taxing and painful. I can almost accept their misguided concerns since they don’t bike. What blows my mind is that there are lots of regular cyclists – heck I’ll go as far as saying most regular cyclists who are living in a world of fear verging on paranoia about riding bicycles. They’re worried about getting hurt, worried about getting flat tires, other mechanical failures, they’re worried about other cyclists getting hurt, they’re worried about getting their bikes stolen or damaged when locking them up, drivers not treating them with the respect they deserve, worried about other cyclists not riding the same bikes or viewing them with disdain because they belong to a different bike tribe [roadies vs. commuters, recumbents vs. upright bikes, fixed gear vs. everyone!], etc… Just read any online cycling forum for as much fearful content as you can handle.

The trouble with fear is that it’s an unlimited resource. You can have as much as you want and when you need even more you can have it! So in that tequila shot glass example it takes the fatal flaw with Most-Saferism and solves the problem by giving you an endless supply of fear to spill on the bar. I mean if one light is safe and two lights is safer than 5 lights aimed all over has to be the  Most-Safer-est right? No wait 6 lights has to be even Most-Safer-est-er…damn no it’s 7, etc…You can’t argue with a Most-Safer-est cyclist for the same reason you can’t argue with someone who is paranoid – their worldview is not based in reality and they are using fear to justify whatever emotional response they are feeling at that moment. They’ll use some irrational logic like “…it can’t hurt…” or quote a statistically invalid anecdote to support their un-logic.

Since these reactions happen so frequently it’s worth taking a moment to expose their flaws…


It can’t hurt!

I cry inside a little every time someone says this to me…it’s so sad…=-(  It actually is hurting them a lot and in that very moment. Here’s why.

Your brain is a computer. It’s got a bunch of programs running, but the most important and challenging one is called Your Reality. Note I wrote “your” reality…not reality or “our” reality. You do not live in the world. The world lives in you…or at least a model of the world does. Consider for a moment what you think of as “The World” and how you gained the information about it you used to populate the model in your head. “The World” is a big complex place and you’ve only interacted with a small part of it. So how can you have this feeling like it’s a real thing when it’s built from such a limited data set? Your brain uses a sub-routine called MSU to fill in the blanks. MSU stands for “making shit up” or for the math geeks interpolation. If you’ve biked on one side of an apple orchard and seen rows of apple trees and you’ve biked on the other side and seen more rows of similar apple trees your brain fills in the gap between the roads with apple trees. Even though that farmer may have only planted apple trees along the roads and there are in fact pear trees all over the middle bit of his property. The more data you have about something, say your neighbourhood, the more finely resolved your model for reality in that area of “The World” is.

I was born in India, left when I was 3 and I went back when I was 10 and when I was 36. Given the size and complexity of India that amounts to nearly no data. Yet India exists in my brain and I feel like I have a sense of what goes on there. My model is poorly resolved, but since I don’t actually need a real working knowledge of India to be successful at my day to day life it causes me no problems.

By now you are wondering where the heck this is going. I don’t blame you!  Hold on we are almost there.

So your world is a model and you don’t have a lot of data about a lot of things. Since we are talking about cycling and safety…or more precisely about cycling without getting hurt – consider that there are very few cyclists riding around who have been hit by cars 10 times and lived to tell the tale. Most of us don’t have much data to incorporate into our cycling models about the negative outcomes that are possible because 99.99999% of us don’t get run over by a bus and the 0.00001% that do don’t chat much about their experiences since they are dead. So you are left with building your cycling model largely based on feelings and a few unreliable anecdotes. You can feel fearful and fill in all the blanks between stuff you actually know about cycling with negativity or you can be optimistic about cycling and view it as a very low risk activity with many benefits which fills the blanks with happy thoughts.

So fear and irrational anxiety doesn’t just hurt you down the road it hurts you the moment you accept it into your life. It’s the ultimate karmic kick in the butt.

What’s worse is the risk mitigation actions fearful cyclists take often are ineffective against the most likely risks they face so not only does the fear poison your reality all the time, but you still may end up under that bus. So sad…=-(

Photo: Anthony DeLorenzo

“One time at bike camp…”

The fact that someone you know got hurt on a bike is sad, but it doesn’t mean that cycling isn’t safe or that you need to be afraid of your bike. Cyclists love to talk about other cyclists getting hurt or killed. It’s like a morbid obsession that’s based in fear and feeds the vicious cycle of paranoia. People get hurt in the shower, in the basement, walking, driving, playing golf, etc… who cares? I do my very best to avoid reading online “cyclist got killed posts” because I just don’t give a shit. That’s not to say I don’t sympathize with the person who died or for their family, but the fact a cyclist died is of no more relevance to me than someone dying from a slip in the tub. It happens – that’s life – move along! Just so you don’t think I am a cold heartless bastard let’s be honest here – reading about an accident online or talking about it over coffee with your riding buddies is of no benefit to the person hurt/killed or their families any more than gawking at the scene of a car crash is useful to anyone involved. This behaviour isn’t about sympathy for the people involved it’s about feeding our own need for entertainment. Of course if your best friend was hit by a car around the block from where you live that’s a different situation and you have every right to talk about what happened and how you feel as you move through the grieving process.

As I noted above very few people live to be hit by cars again and again combine that with the fact that cycling is very safe so most cyclists have no real safety data to work with. When you made it home without incident last night was that because of your lime green safety vest or because you had the chicken vindaloo at dinner? You have no data to support either conclusion, but if you want to believe the vest is essential to your continued safety you’ll use that safe trip home as justification for wearing the vest. In fact it may have made no difference at all to your arriving safely home. You just don’t know so you have to MSU and why not err on the side of Most-Saferism? It can’t hurt!!


That looks dangerous!

You may be thinking that I’ve been super lucky and never had a close call before which is why I can look at things this way. Let me relate three quick anecdotes:

  1. my cousin’s wife decided to try sky diving. She jumped out of a plane one time and her chutes didn’t work so she hit the ground and died.
  2. I was nearly run over two summers ago when I was riding my MTB around town on an urban assault mission. The accident was my fault and I luckily bounced off the side of a truck when I fell into the road. Had the tuck been 10′ back I would have been dead.
  3. when I was a young officer in the army 14 of my friends and another 3 or 4 folks I didn’t know were killed in an explosive training accident. I completed the same training the following year.

It wouldn’t be hard to react emotionally to these types of incidents and decided the world was very dangerous and I better do whatever I could to stay as Most-Safer-est as I can. The trouble is I’d poison my everyday experiences with this irrational fear and I have no confidence that being negative or afraid would make me any less likely to have an accident.

Even in a very safe world sometimes bad stuff happens. There is nothing more to take from that…err….except maybe don’t ride your bike like a jackass in traffic!

Jedi Logic…

Fight fear with logic…

Assuming you don’t want to be Most-Safer-est how do you remain alive and unhurt without being afraid?

  • use your brain
  • look at the cycling you do and determine what are the most likely risks you face
  • be specific…consider being hit by a car isn’t as useful as considering being hit from behind when stopped at a traffic light
  • consider what you can do to mitigate the specific risk and the potential consequences
  • prioritize the options
  • select the ones that reduce the risk to an acceptable level
  • take action
  • stop thinking about it and ride your bike

This sounds like a lot of work, but in most situations there are only a few elements that result in the majority of the risk so by tackling a small number of things you are mitigating most of the risk. Additionally there are only a few situations you need to consider as a cyclist in any given area so once you’ve done this mental heavy lifting you only have to revise your plans to take into account changes on a specific occasion such as fog or the fact you are sick and don’t have the sharpest reflexes that day.

The real benefits of mitigating risk vs. increasing safety are that there is a finite amount you need to do to address a specific risk and since you are targeting a specific risk you can take action that most effectively addresses it. Trying to be Most-Safer-est is like trying to pack the right tools for an unspecified repair to your car vs. being told the fan belt is worn and may have to be replaced. In the first instance you have to either take every tool you own with you or guess what’s most likely to be used and then you’ll worry the whole time “…did I bring the right ones?…”…in the later instance you can bring along just the tools you need for the job and you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Let’s look at two common bike-car interactions and how a Most-Safer-est cyclist and how a logical cyclist addresses them.

  1. getting hit from behind while riding or while stopped at a light
  2. getting doored

First off the Most-Safer-est cyclist doesn’t even think about things this way. They are worried about cars in general and want to be safe on the road with them. So they’ll do the following:

  • wear bright colours including a safety vest
  • use extremely bright flashing lights
  • wear a helmet because if they do get hit it can’t hurt!
  • use a bike with disc brakes because they are the best for fast stopping
  • they won’t ride too far over into the traffic lane because that’s not safe with cars coming up from behind
  • ride slowly past parked cars so they have time to brake and peer into the rear windows for signs of life
  • at a red light they move right over to be out of the way in case they get rear ended

Since cycling is very safe the Most-Safer-est cyclist gets to where they are going without incident, breathes a sigh of relief at surviving the mean streets of their town and starts to think that maybe the new 10,000 lumen red LED from Dinotte might be a good idea for an even Most-Safer-ester commute.  It can’t hurt right?

The logical cyclist spends 60 minutes one evening over a cup of tea pondering these issues in terms of their commute to work and does the following:

  • decides taking a quieter route two streets over is the best way to avoid unpleasant interactions with cars
  • rides out of the door zone since you can’t get doored if you are not close to a parked car
  • isn’t worried about getting hit from the rear because they are on a quieter street with less traffic and because they put a rear view mirror on their bike so they can see if there is a car behind them and what they are doing
  • when in doubt they take the lane to be directly where a motorist is looking for another vehicle and they act like traffic
  • in the rare case of a car that doesn’t look like it’s slowing down when viewed in the rear view mirror evasive action is taken
  • since speeds are lower on a quieter street the cyclist can ride at nearly car speeds and blend in with traffic
  • doesn’t wear bright cycle specific clothing or use any lights because they only commute in the day
  • 3 times a year when it crazy foggy they take the bus to work

The logical cyclist arrives at the same office as the Most-Safer-est cyclist at about the same time after a similar commute – just a couple streets over from the main road the Most-Safer-est cyclist used. . The logical cyclist isn’t relieved when they arrive safely at work because they weren’t worried about their safety to begin with since they made smart choices about how to cycle and they know that statistically cycling is extremely low risk. The logical cyclist isn’t thinking about buying more safety gear or how they can be even more Most-Safer-ester!


Feeling plenty safe-esterer!

Taking things one last step – in my opinion the logical cyclist is likely to be at lower actual risk than the Most-Safer-est cyclist since they are making specific choices that address specific risks directly. Wearing a safety vest and using an ultra bright rear light assumes the driver who is about to hit you is actually looking at the road and will see you better because of your safety gear. In fact they might not be looking at you at all or they could be high and so fascinated by your brightness that they forget to brake and kill you despite your lovely $300 super safe helmet! OTOH riding on a quiet road with fewer cars while using a rear view mirror and staying out of the door zone makes no assumptions about what a driver will do and puts the cyclist firmly in control of the situation.

If you aren’t totally sick of my ramblings about fear this post I wrote a while back may provide some addition insight into cycling and fear.