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.



78 responses

24 03 2011
Rob Thomson

Interesting…I was just watching this video about bicycle helmets…Mikael Colville-Andersen talking about cycle-advocacy on TED:

24 03 2011
Todd S.

I heartily approve of this. Safety in this context is also used to justify all the crap at airports, too. Security Theater.

24 03 2011

@Todd – do you remember the underwear bomber? I got some strange looks at the airport right after that when I dropped my pants and put my boxers in a tray to be scanned with my shoes and my toothpaste. I mean if shoes, toothpaste or a bottle of water can be used to hijack a plane I assumed airport security would want to ensure I didn’t have dangerous underwear on!

@Rob – I saw that video. I think he makes a lot of great points. Soon no child will be allowed out without bubble wrap on! I tell my friends with kids that I won’t be overly protective of their kids when they are in my custody. I’ll make sure they don’t die, but if they get a boo boo I’ll give them a hug and tell them to harden the F**K up…=-)

24 03 2011
Casey C

I think someone has been spending a little too much time in the swamp thinking! LOL! But you raise some valid points, and though I consider myself quite logical, it seems I too have bought into the most-safer-ism.

The one thing I can say, at least in Chicago’s burbs is the more lit up like a Christmas tree you are, the more automobile traffic seems willing to treat you as traffic. Now if we can just get some warmer weather…

24 03 2011

Thx Vik – great read and so true.

I cannot remember who said this “the only thing to fear is fear itself” – seems to make sense that this saying is indeed transport cyclings biggest hurdle.

24 03 2011
gary sherck

I think Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) said this during WW2 about fear. Maybe, in one of his fireside chats.

However, and esp. since 9/11 in the US, the Government has used fear to make us paranoid, and allowed the Government to do pretty much what it want to, in the name of our “security.”

24 03 2011

bravo! you appear to be well on your way to a most happiest-er cyclist!


24 03 2011

Fear is good. You don’t want to eliminate it. Fear is what keeps any animal alive. Without fear we’d walk into fire, fail to avoid predators and jump off of buildings without thinking twice. Fear is required for self-preservation of species. But there are other emotions as well, such as caution, curiosity, need for exploration, love, friendship, etc., and they should normally be balanced based on the environment.

You learn to fear things by being exposed to dangers so you know what to be fearful off, what to run away from and what not. Fear reinforces the self-preservation instincts. People who are never exposed to normal life dangers will either learn to fear everything or become totally reckless, aggressive, and/or devoid of common sense and self preservation instincts. If I understood correctly, that’s what Vik is saying: you need to do unsafe things and learn to deal with them, not learn to run away at any slightest sign of them. Isolating people, children in particular, from life dangers will cause more harm to them in their lives than those dangers. A kid needs to get hurt a few times, experience fear and pain to learn what to fear and how to deal with dangers.

The problem with our society is that misdirected, irrational fear has has become the dominating emotion for most people, and it’s exploited by politicians to control people.

Even if there is nothing around us that presents danger to us we would always find something to fear and that is constantly reinforced by the media and the govt. Just take a ride on NYC Subway and listen to the propaganda spewing from speakers. Fear has replaced caution in our lives. And fear leads to hatred and aggression. Instead of being cautious and analytic we’re being scared of anything we don’t understand and we hate it. Even animals don’t do that. Animal fear is based on experience. In places where animals have no predators, like Galapagos, you can roam freely among penguins and sea lions and they won’t be scared of you, nor aggressive towards you. Only when you get too close they will cautiously move away until they reach safe distance. Modern humans are not like that. Caution and common sense are gone. People either do stupid reckless things or are scared.

24 03 2011

@Adam – fear is always irrational and damaging. Don’t mistake being prudent or cautious about something with fear. If you are afraid you aren’t thinking any longer.

If you have a broken wrist watch it’s “right” twice a day and if you aren’t picky you could say it’s close to being right 1hr of the day. But, it would be foolish to use the fact that it’s right occasionally to justify using the watch for being on time for an important meeting.

Fear, like a broken watch, occasionally sends us scurrying into a useful direction, but that’s not a good reason to accept it into your life.

I would argue that eliminating fear from your mind is one of the most important goals anyone should have.

24 03 2011

Hiking unexpectedly between a mother Grizzly and her cub creates perfectly rational fear!

Seriously though, I agree that for most of us we have no reason to have any fear in our day-to-day experiences. Sometimes that is easier said than done. We are after all human rather than Vulcan.

24 03 2011

@Foraker – there is nothing rationale or useful about fear of a bear. If you freak out and run they’ll chase you and hurt/kill you so that’s not rationale at all. If you are calm and do what you know you need to do – back away slowly and/or fire off a banger/shoot your pepper spray you might get out unhurt, but that’s not because of fear – that’s in spite of fear.

Isn’t the point of being human to consider ourselves and how we think/react in order to understand ourselves better and find ways to evolve?

24 03 2011

I like how you poke fun at yourself by showing the irony of you being a most-saferist-cyclist in the mountain bike photo. The knee/shin guards, elbow/forearm guards, and gloves are nice overkill examples.

My choice would be just jeans, Chuck Taylors, flannel shirt, and a boonie hat.

24 03 2011

Context is important.

24 03 2011

@Mark – LOL – I wasn’t making fun of myself in the MTB photo. In Moab I fall off my bike a lot and hit the rocks hard. My elbows and knees would be destroyed if I didn’t wear pads. A better mountain biker might not fall as much, but I don’t claim to be good – just enthusiastic…=-) OTOH – I can’t recall the last time I fell off my bike riding around town doing errands so I don’t feel particularly at risk in that activity.

24 03 2011
Miss Sarah

Well done! I find the people who are the most fear-monger-y are the people who haven’t even really experienced riding in every day situations. So when I get a hard time about riding when I am pregnant, I just look at the other person and wonder if their BMI is in an appropriate range. It’s pretty easy to get all soft and weak when you’re sitting around (work, home, car) all the time.

I prefer to ride! Common sense, y’all.


24 03 2011

“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…”

Not if you immediately put your lips down on the bar and slurp it up! Come on–you’ve never been there? I have to admit that sometimes it’s a little difficult to remember…

24 03 2011
Liveblogging my workday « JD

[…] – loving this article (via schvin). reminds me of this blog. 9:44 – responding to e-mail and twitter about this […]

24 03 2011

I visited India last summer. I feel much safer on my bicycle than crossing the street in Pune. (I’m sorry, but this is a bit of a digression from your topic). Before we went, we toyed with the notion of flying into Mumbai with our Bike Fridays and biking away from the airport to our destination. Luckily, we didn’t do that. I found the traffic in India completely mind-boggling, though there were plenty of people on bicycles, without helmets, and in some cases biking along on the highways at night without lights. We saw no traffic accidents, though there did seem to be a high fatality rate among canines.

24 03 2011

@JQF – yup I’ve been there, but I can’t recommend it…=-)

24 03 2011

There’s an interesting phenomenon here in San Francisco, especially in the Mission District: cyclists wearing all black, riding at night, no lights, wearing a bicycle helmet.

Seems to me that doing something to be visible would be a better risk reduction strategy than wearing a helmet. (These people make me think of someone jumping off tall buildings with cardboard wings saying “hey, I’ve got medical insurance”!)

24 03 2011

@Thor – around here the cops are more likely to enforce our lame mandatory helmet law than the law about running lights at night…it boggles the mind! Personally whether you choose to wear a helmet or not it seems best to not be under the city bus in the first place! Some lights at night are helpful in that regard.

24 03 2011

tl;dr but I’m pretty sure I’ll like it!

f=Facts and freedom trump fear and restriction almost everytime.

24 03 2011

Hey Vik,

I may have misunderstood you, but you wrote that those you call logical cyclists wouldn’t “use any lights because they only commute in the day”. Why wouldn’t logical cyclists commute in the dark?

All the best,

24 03 2011

@Trip – where I live if you work a 9 to 5 job for most of the year you don’t commute in the dark which is why I noted that in my post. If you work the night shift or if we are talking the dead of winter a logical cyclist would want to use some lights to be seen by at night and possibly to see the road with.

24 03 2011
doug in seattle

“Fear is the mind-killer”

This is a great post. I say that because I agree with almost everything you say! Have you read “The Art of (Urban) Cycling” by Robert Hurst? It’s a book that transformed me. In the book he disregards the idea of “Visible is Safe” or that “Abiding by the law is safe.” He argues that these two ideas make us LESS safe because they engender a sense of complacency, which is another way of saying “You stop paying attention!” Most people get hurt when they stop paying attention. Instead, he suggests cyclists focus on being safe themselves. Watch traffic, understand traffic, always be ready for anything. Don’t get caught up wondering, “Did he see me,” and instead think, “I’ll go THIS way because he is obviously going to go THAT way.” This philosophy has saved my butt countless times. I’ve also seen complacent cyclists come close to disaster because they ignored some pretty obvious danger signs.

ANYWAYS, be vigilant always!

24 03 2011

Hey first off I do agree with your conclusions. But, I think your tone is a bit condescending to your fellow cyclists. Here is the deal:

– We are animals. Fear of cars is a primal thing, becuase they sure seem like larger animals to our amygdala. Vulnerability and safety (likelihood of not having an injury) are separate issues here.
– All the more reason we need to address things rationally. You can’t really be safe on a bicycle when you are afraid, because you can’t act rationally. Hard to assert yourself with cars when you are responding to them as if they are tyrannosaurs.
– But… this is a hard, hard lesson to learn. I think your ideas here are about right but your tone seems to suggest that cyclist being “the most safer-er-er” are somehow unintelligent. In fact I would argue that they may lack experience, confidence or may be acting too much out of primal fear. Perhaps some of us are genetically better inclined to operate in the context of this kind of fear?

FInally, hi-vis is very useful. It’s true, it wont help you if you ride in the door zone but (at least here in Calgary) it can really improve relations with your fellow humans when you need to control the lane. As well, and this is also anecdotal, I believe it increases your effective size to drivers so they are naturally inclined to give you more space. Brighter, and you look larger.

I can’t help but think certain (otherwise experienced) cyclists won’t wear hi-vis because they are not confident enough socially, which I find a bit ironic. Just saying.

24 03 2011

@Sal – I took that tone intentionally to challenge a damaging mindset I see all around me in cycling and beyond. Reacting irrationally is not intelligent nor useful. Now I’ve been there myself so it’s not as if I’m above my own criticism, but I think we need to be clear you can be very critical about a particular behaviour or process without damning the person. You or I may do something idiotic without that meaning we are complete idiots that should be the object of disdain forever!

“I can’t help but think certain (otherwise experienced) cyclists won’t wear hi-vis because they are not confident enough socially, which I find a bit ironic. Just saying.”

– do we intentionally dress inappropriately for the social situations we take part in? If everyone else is wearing casual clothes at a BBQ do we wear a clown suit to standout? Are we so desperate for attention that we need everyone to notice we’re different? Personally I don’t feel that way. I own hi vis-clothing. I have no issue wearing it when I feel there is some benefit [ie a foggy dawn commute], but for day to day riding I don’t see the point. I don’t feel like anyone is having issues seeing me even if I wear a black jacket during the day. At night I’ll pull on some reflective gear [ankle bands and possibly a sash] over my street clothes and use my lights. For normal night riding I don’t see the need for special hi-vis clothing beyond that. I lived and rode bikes in Calgary for 15yrs. I didn’t find hi-vis gear needed at all [except during snowstorms] and I lived downtown with lots of traffic.

– your comment suggests a lack of social confidence is the reason experienced cyclists don’t wear hi-vis gear. Isn’t just as reasonable to suggest they don’t see a point in wearing it because they are confident in the fact riding bikes the way they do is already an extremely low risk activity that doesn’t require any additional safety gear? Couldn’t we suggest the cyclists who wear the hi-vis gear are the ones who lack confidence? I think it’s ironic that some of the cyclists sporting the most safety gear humanly possible to deploy look the most scared when riding. I mean with enough lights, helmets, gloves, hi-vis clothing etc… what could they possibly do now to be even more safest-erer? I’m sure they’re asking that very question and ordering the next bit of “essential safety” gear when they get home.

“You can’t really be safe on a bicycle when you are afraid, because you can’t act rationally.”

– in this we are in 100% agreement!…thanks for your comments.

24 03 2011

@Doug – I haven’t read that book, but I’ll give it a read when it crosses my path. I agree with the ideas you express in terms of riding using your brain. One of the things that disturbs me is that cyclists focus so heavily on safety gear like helmets rather than on stuff like cycling skills, route selection, etc.. My area has a mandatory helmet law, but no mandatory cycling skills training or testing. If I had a kid I’d teach them not to ride in ways that are likely to put them underneath a car vs. nagging them about wearing a bike helmet as if somehow it was the sign that they were safe.

25 03 2011
Geof Gee

I’m not convinced with the construction of the argument; but I concur with the conclusion nonetheless. I think people are terrible at comprehending teeny tiny — and really huge — numbers. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re likely designed to make inferences based on the experiences of small networks. By being so connected now in huge networks, we still have not learned how to process anecdotes in a realistic manner to form good estimates of risk. Since horror stories are much more interesting than a story of a great ride where no one got hurt, we hear those stories and give them more weight than they deserve.

Anyway, I’m not sure how to convince people to face their fears with their intellect. Try to convince people that inoculations are overwhelmingly good and you’ll run into incredible resistance despite really good scientific data. In cycling the data is not so good; consequently, it requires the person to put a lot more personal effort into thinking about the issue and face their fears.

25 03 2011
Kent Rebutts Vik : Beezodog's Place

[…] blog pal Vik posted some interesting thoughts on safety over at his blog and I strongly suggest you read through his post. Now you may or may not agree […]

25 03 2011
Cycle Jerk

I wear a helmet because I’m cautious and it does me no harm to do so and doesn’t make my ride any less enjoyable, not because I’m living in constant fear and anxiety. I’m not calling for laws that force everyone to make the same choice I do and I’m not covering myself in bubblewrap, it’s just a helmet, and wearing it makes me no less intellectual.

I agree with you that our society is far too fearful, as a parent I see it every day in other parents who figuratively cover their children in bubblewrap but I also think you are making too many generalizations and assumptions about fellow cyclists choices and intellect based on something as simple as whether their wearing bright yellow or black.

Love the blog, keep it up 😉

25 03 2011

Marriage and parenthood has moderated my agreement with your sentiments somewhat. I wear a helmet because loved ones give me sh#t if I don’t, and it’s just easier to concede. I occasionally wear a bright color and routinely use flashing lights in traffic to try to train a complacent motoring public into seeing and accepting bikes as co-travellers instead of annoying obstacles. But the sentiments you describe are not unique to cycling. Any parent of a young child, if not hypervigilant, is trained to sustain the wrath of peer disapproval, which short of living somewhere obscure is hard to get away from. A defensive posture is a drag of a way to go through life, but enough people have a dearth of proactivity that priorities have flipped and vigilance is somehow a virtue even when it’s beside the point. I t ry to get away from such oppression by, say, riding my bike.

25 03 2011

By the way, one aspect of your criticism is spot on: unwarranted generalizations are killing us. Be specific, people! The beauty of life is its specificity!

25 03 2011

@Don – a while back someone commented on a post on this blog and said it made him so sad to see his sister bundle up her son in body armour so he could ride his bike around the block. Sad for the fact he’ll never feel the wind in his hair and associate biking with a safe carefree part of summer like it was for many of us growing up. My dad bought me one of those fake motorcycle FS bikes way back when. Nobody put a helmet on my head as a kid. I was encouraged not to ride under a car and I was sent on a bicycle skills course.

25 03 2011

That sadness is the flip side of the irrationality you describe, seems to me. Lost innocence, lost freedom, predators real and imagined, potential peril at every turn. I want my boys to ride in the neighborhood because that’s what you do when you’re a kid, and clearly they get a kick out of it, but cars are so responsive now and people so keyed up that some jerk can cut through a residential street like a bat out of hell, and all I keep trying to teach the boys is to be mindful of when somebody’s coming and ride straight and predictably as they pass, but hold your ground. I worry, sure, but freedom is won one wheelie off a curb at a time. My five-year-old will wipe out, pick himself up, say something like “I meant to do that,” and my faith is restored. And, I think, so is his.

25 03 2011

Not sure, but did you say safety concern is the reason most people are not comfortable biking?

In my experience, comfort (or lack of) seems to the the #1 deterrent. Cars are far more comfortable (efficient, timely, climate controlled, etc.). “it’s goofy to ride a bicycle”.

Still, if someone (like myself) is far more inclined to ride a bike than a car, the next concern I have is doing it safely in a world that is EXTREMELY CAR-CENTRIC. Simply put; cars own the road. Bicycles need to do whatever they can to act safely. Keep to the right, be predictable, be noticed. So yes, act safely. Please.

25 03 2011

@Trailz – I’d lump fear of discomfort, fear of exertion and fear of injury into the same pool of freak out that keeps most people from riding bikes. It’s an all you can eat buffet of badness!

25 03 2011
Chris Sorlie

I rode a motorcycle for over ten years. Had a good accident that wasn’t my fault and got a first hand experience of life after an accident. I didn’t believe the stats prior to the accident. Now I choose not to ride. It’s not worth the risk.
Statistically, bicycles are great. I choose to ride with lights and bright clothes and why not? I don’t think about them when I ride and they don’t diminish the experience but, with the stats as they are, I can understand some not feeling the need. The brain and the associated nervous system are a different issue. Any damage here and the words “quality of life” will take on a whole new meaning. To not wear a helmet on a bike just isn’t wise. It’s poor risk management.

26 03 2011

@Chris as a long time motorcycle guy I hear you about the risks of riding a motorcycle although I’m likely to get one again at some point. I also don’t have any argument about the idea that a brain injury would be a bad thing, but what I don’t understand is why anyone who would go to the trouble of wearing a helmet for a bike ride through town would then jump into a car/truck without a helmet when the motor vehicle is at least as risky in terms of brain injury and likely more risky?

It’s not that I want a brain injury, but if a person feel head protection is so important they make a point of wearing a safety helmet on a bicycle for around town use shouldn’t they wear a helmet for any other activity they do the same day that is as risky for a brain injury?

26 03 2011
Rob Thomson

Here here! I agree. The nature of our news mediums unfortunately require that extremely rare events (such as a cyclist being hit and killed or injured) are deemed more newsworthy than terrible things that happen every day (people dying in cars). It seems amazing that on the TV news we are told, in passing-mention-fashion that “the holiday weekend road death toll was 23 people” (nothing more than a 10 second info-graphic or list of stats), and yet when a cyclist is killed, it makes big news. It makes sense though, I suppose. The way I see it, we have accepted that driving a car is a dangerous activity, and accept that people die in cars. We have also, perhaps, accepted that cycling is an inherently safe activity, and when someone does get killed on a bike, it makes for big news, because such an accident, by it’s nature, is so very rare. Yet, of course, since the car-kills-cyclist drama is so much more interesting and sensational than a car-hits-car drama, we are so much more emotionally impacted by it…

28 03 2011
khal spencer

Good essay. Thanks very much.

29 03 2011

Except that the quiet street two blocks over has long waits at lights because the loop detectors don’t pick up cyclists, and several intersections with major roads have no lights at all and must be crossed as traffic allows. The less quiet street has priority over cross traffic and all major intersections are signalized with favorable timing and left turn on green arrow only phases. The rational cyclist, realizing that the hit from behind accidents are a small risk, while crossing a major road unprotected and oncoming left turn accidents are a larger risk, takes the major road, doesn’t worry, and gets to work 10 minutes quicker.

29 03 2011

I think people are more fearful of something they aren’t used to. As a very long-term bicyclist, bicycling just seems “normal” to me and I seldom think about danger while bicycling. However, if I have a close call I try to understand what went wrong, whether it is likely to happen again, and how to prevent it from happening again if it IS likely.

I’m all for making bicycling “safer”. Driving around in cars is one fo the more risky things we do and, if the stats are correct, bicycling is even riskier per mile even though the overall risk is still very small. You’re at a much higher risk of death, not to mention a lower quality of life, from being inactive.

The problem is that most fo the approaches taken to increase safety actually do little or nothing to actually increase safety, at least directly.

Most bicycle facilities are based primarily on the fear responses that arise from doing an unfamiliar activity and do very little to actually increase safety. But they address certain of these incorrect fears of newer bicyclists and so make bicycling feel safer to them. A lot of money spent for minimal results.

Meanwhile, dramtatic reductions in risk can be acheived by learning some basic bicycle “driving” skills, such as proper lane positioning. But these don’t address the irrational fears and so aren’t pushed.

BTW – safety isn’t additive, it’s multiplicative 🙂 , at least if you do it as probabilities. That’s why at a certain point, when they are a large number of small risk factors, reducing one by half has very little impact on the total risk.

29 03 2011
steve magas

Statistically, cycling deaths are shipwrecks and train wrecks, not the norm. Every day the ships and trains depart and arrive safely and on time, but when one crashes, it makes big news. The news never says “trains ran like clockwork today” or “millions of cyclists safely rode their bikes today.” But one “bad” story can impact the anecdotal evidence “people” take into their brains to develop these “fears” you discuss. I can’t find the link but there is a detailed study of media reporting of lawsuit results that covers the same type of ground – i.e., people’s “views” of the legal system are misshapen by highly reported “shipwrecks.”

Every day millions of cyclists ride tens of millions of miles … less than2 cyclists are killed in the U.S.each day Cycling is ‘safer’ today than ever…

If you are going to base your “fears” on “odds” then

a. Don’t drink and ride – 25%+ of all cycling deaths involve legally “drunk” cyclists and

b. Don’t cycle in CA, TX or FL as 40% of all US cycling deaths occur in those states…

I’m not sure how many DRUNK cyclists are killed in those states, but you can reduce your already incredibly VERY low risk of death/injury by almost half just by doing (a) & (b) [and I’m just slightly kidding about (b)!] Statistically, cycling deaths are DOWN 40% from the high of 1975, when 1000+ cyclists were killed.

One trend, though. In 1975, 2/3 of those killed on bikes were kids – folks less than 16 yrs old. Today, 85+% of those killed are adults. Of the 1003 cycling deaths in 1975, only 323 were adults and 680 were kids. Of the 630 cyclists killed in 2009, 545 [87%] were adults and only 85 were kids…

Folks who cite motorcycling “stats” don’t read far enough into them… almost half of all m/c deaths are SINGLE VEHICLE CRASHES… in other words PILOT ERROR.. that stat separates m/c’s and bicycles more than any other.

Piloting a motorcycle is more akin to piloting a plane than riding a bike. Stuff can go wrong FAST due to your bad skills, slightly tipsy demeanor or simply stupid miscalculations. If a car just ever so slightly eases off the side of the pavement, usually it’s no biggie… on a bike, it’s a death sentence. For most single vehicle crashes on a m/c the sequence is approach curve too fast, enter curve too fast, don’t make it out of curve alive…

Bottom line – you are right…”We have seen the enemy and he is us!” as Pogo might have said…

Steve Magas
The Bike Lawyer

29 03 2011
khal spencer

Steve Magas nails it. The Internet, next to fear, is probably the worst thing for bicyclists because every fatal or bad crash gets spun around the nation a dozen times, magnifying its effect. The statistics indeed say your chances of not making it home at night are miniscule, while your chances of meeting the Grim Reaper due to an inactive lifestyle are significant.

Scariest moments of mine? Falling asleep at the handlebars of my touring motorcycle at 60 mph on NY 17 in the Catskills and waking up as my wheels were rumbling on the paved shoulder. Other was hitting a rock on a fast descent on my Cannondale while waiving to an oncoming friend, and lurching far over the handlebars at 35 mph. Had to reach down and pull the bike back up under me while watching the road go by with my head in front of the front wheel. Both pilot error. Both cases of being very lucky to discuss it. But traffic is more or less a piece of cake compared to pilot error, in my opinion.

29 03 2011

I like to do things as safely as possible. I try to wear bright colors, i wear a helmet, gloves, lights at night, i follow traffic laws, ride predictably, use a mirror, and try to avoid major streets if possible. Doing all of these things seem logical.

To say wearing bright clothing doesnt help just isnt true. The next time you are driving on a highway during the day look at the oncoming traffic. Which cars and trucks do you notice first? The ones with headlights on in the day. Daytime running lights save lives. Period. Why do you think motorcycles have daytime running lights?

And the most common car / bike accident is when the car turns left infront of the cyclist.

29 03 2011

@James – I think your logic is flawed. Let’s look at a common situation…a cyclist is riding along the side of a road at 1pm…a motorist is driving up behind him from 2kms away. Let’s say with a neon vest and a crazy bright 1000 lumen rear light the cyclist is visible from 2kms, with just the vest he’s visible from 800m and with no vest and a grey jacket on he’s visible from 400m. Is he safer with the light and vest vs. just a vest or no visibility gear at all? No – because the motorist sees him with plenty of time to take action.

Is that rider safer if he was wearing a big bird costume or had five 1000 lumen rear lights? No.

As for the most common bike accident being a left turn infront of the cyclist I bet a lot of them had bright clothing on and also lights. Cars turn left infront of other cars running daytime lights.

29 03 2011
steve magas

I do believe that clothing and lights and “conspicuity” aids help. One huge key to analyzing WHY crashes really happen is understanding perception/reaction time.

One “theory” I’ve developed is the Giant Predator theory… cagers are like giant predator dinosaurs… T Rex types… capable of destroying anything they want to… bicyclists are like small quick little dinosaurs living simultaneously but scurrying around underfoot… the TRex motorist looks around for stuff to eat at fast food places, stuff to buy at malls and stuff that is a DANGER to it … they “perceive” danger from large, box-like creatures which could intercept them, get in their way or hurt them, or beat them to a parking space… cyclists are never a danger to motorists… a cyclist will never hurt a T Rex motorist… so the tiny TRex brain is slower to “perceive” any danger when a cyclist is nearby … TRex will simply amble down its path, turning where it wants and then later claim it never “Saw” the oncoming cyclist.

If we were to hook up devices used by Human Factors experts to research this stuff we would know that the eyes of the TRex definitely scanned that stretch of land containing the cyclist but “danger” never registered… it was not “perceived” … so, to me, ANYTHING that increases the “perception” time of the tiny motorist brain is good for the cyclist…be it bright colors, flashing headlights during the daytime… whatever… it’s part of an over strategy that doesn’t involve “fear” but DOES involve an analysis of WHY some of these stupid crashes happen… since the cyclist loses EVERY battle with TRex, regardless of fault, any strategy that makes it more likely for a motorist to gain a second or two of perception time is AOK in my book…

Steve Magas

29 03 2011
steve magas

On my BMW r1150RT motorcycle, I’ve got 3 sets of lights… plus a modulating headlight… nothing gets more attention than that headlight…people stop me at red lights just to say, “you know your headlight’s flashing?” To which I reply, thankee very much… of course, the fact that a BMW r1150RT looks like a cop bike probably aids in “perception” …

29 03 2011

I wouldn’t say conspicuity is a bad thing, but … When you look at the common accidents that do occur, it is far down the list of things that would have made a difference.

In urban areas, dooring is a very common problem. People do not check their rear view for vehicles riding a foot away from their door. Unless you had a police siren and strobe light they aren’t going to see you. Solution? Ride outside of the door zone.

Another VERY common car/bicycle “interaction” is the “right hook”. Car drives by bike and bike is now in the driver’s blind spot. No matter what you are wearing they will not see you. Solution? Position yourself in the lane for the direction you are going to travel. if you are going straight, don’t be at the side of traffic.

Even in a left-hook, the driver is either not looking at all or the bike is behind another vehicle and can’t be seen by the left-hooking driver until too late.

Visibility helps primarily with drivers approaching you from the rear. This is a very rare accident in urban areas. If it does occur, the driver is likely to be either impaired or unattentive. Conspicuity will likely not help.

Sure, at night you don’t want to be invisible, so have a head light and a good rear reflector or light. But I think the added advantage of wearing dayglo colors during the day is fairly minimal in terms of the actual collisions that are likely to occur. Not zero, but small.

29 03 2011
khal spencer

Overtaking crashes are rare but here in the rural west, when they happen, they kill people or leave them next to dead. I don’t think its about wearing neon clothing. I helped pick up the pieces of bicycle of a colleague here who was wearing a neon vest when hit from behind by an inattentive motorist. I was wearing a neon vest the day a school bus driver “didn’t see me” and nearly t-boned me in an intersection after he stopped at a stop sign. The daytime overtaking crashes I’ve read about in New Mexico generally result from complete inattention, risky passing behavior, or drunken driving. We just lost a Las Cruces cyclist. He was hit from behind on a bike route by a 65 mph car. The State bike route, posted as 65 mph, has lip-paved shoulders so the cyclist was in the travel lane. Someone needs to sue these bastards.

I think part of the left hook problem is that cyclists are often far to the other side of the road along the curb or in an insignificant bike lane. Motorists are looking for other motorists–in the travel lane, not looking for something small riding on what is a glorified paved shoulder. Cyclists can reduce their risks of left cross (and right hook) crashes through proper lane position as well as being more visible. Here, visibility might help, but I wonder about Steve’s comment that motorists don’t see anything unless it is where they are expecting to see other MV traffic.

29 03 2011

It’s all just a matter of degree. George Carlin said, “Anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac; anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot.”

Everyone bikes within their comfort zone. Some people bike without helmets or lights; some look like flashing neon signs. To each their own. Seems a little judgmental to say that people who wear their helmet more often than you do, or chose to wear brighter colors than you when they bike are somehow emotionally damaged by irrational fear.

29 03 2011
Fear is the mind killer » Cyclelicious

[…] Vik the lazy Randonneur rants at length about “The Safety Myth” and the extent some cyclists go to achieve what he calls “Most-Safer” cycling. He begins provocatively with “The number one threat to cycling in North America is fear – nothing else comes close to doing the same damage” and moves on from there to evidence based risk mitigation. […]

29 03 2011

@Jon – I agree it’s very judgemental. If I am right though it’s a public service and if I am wrong I’m a jerk.

29 03 2011
khal spencer

Jon, seems to me that if someone is only “comfortable” when riding lit up like flashing neon signs, they are probably not all that comfortable. But to each his/her own. Cyclists who ride on sewups shouldn’t throw tacks.

Being visible with neon vests, an extra blinkey, etc., probably reduces one’s fraction of risk in some situations such as dawn or dusk and definitely when riding at night one needs a reasonable amount of lighting. But no one size fits all situations. Risk mitigation is just that–mitigation, in an activity that is far less dangerous than the fearful would lead us to believe. I think our best bet on mitigating risk is using our heads rather than depending on various sorts of talisman.

None of us gets outa this life alive to be sure. No one has figured out a way to ward off the Grim Reaper using a neon vest or a blinkey.

29 03 2011
steve magas

I harp on conspicuity a lot. Reason being it’s the NO. 1 factor at the very beginning of the chain of events that leads to a crash.

Neon shirted beer vendors can be plucked one by one out of a sea of 80,000 fans in a stadium.

Conspicuity MIGHT buy you a second or two of reaction time in a driver, or more. At 30mph, that means the motorist “perceives” you 88 feet farther back at 2 seconds… at 45 mph that distance is 132 feet farther back. Since a vehicle traveling 45 mph probably needs close to 200 feet to complete a stop allowing 1.5-2.0 seconds for “perception reaction time”, those extra seconds can save your life…


29 03 2011

@thelazyrando just jumping back in! Thanks for the reply, again I think we mostly are in agreement.

Re: hi-vis, I shouldn’t suppose to know why or why not other cyclists wear it. However with respect to social situations, generally I dress normally and take the vest off when I get to my destination.

My theory on hi-vis is this: the right kind of hi-vis serves actually three purposes. First it increases your true visibility, especially at a distance (such as on the highway) or when conditions are poor.

Second it increases your “apparent size” which is how large you appear to a driver. Another way to look at this is it helps you to broadcast danger signals– in the other direction, in the same way as a hornet’s stripes.

Third, it communicates to drivers “I’m not being an asshole, I’m being a vehicle” when you need to assert yourself in traffic. Many drivers will understand this without hi-vis, but many (particularly OUTSIDE downtown, where assertive cyclists are rarer) will not.

What is the right kind of hi-vis? The dorkier the better, because it serves the second two purposes (and especially the third) better. But remove it when you park your bike.

Anyhow it’s great to see this discussion bouncing across a few blogs! I do really agree with your main point. I do hear all the time people complaining that they won’t (or “can’t”) ride because they are afraid. The problem is the risks are misunderstood but the fear is real.

Take care!

30 03 2011

The reason I’m against the emphasis on stuff like high-vis wear for safety is that it distracts from the real safety issues. Sure, always wearing high-vis might reduce your probability of a serious collision by a couple of percent. But learning how to bicycle safely by following a few simple rules can reduce your probability of collision by 50%!

It seems that, if I may use the term, the “fear-based” community focuses on the need for separated infrastructure and high-vis clothing. But these solutions are only going to have a very minimal direct effect on safety. Various “bicycle advocacy” groups eat up all the bandwidth arguing for solutions like those and distract everyone away from methods that can dramatically enhance safety. It sometimes feels like a conspiracy.

30 03 2011
khal spencer

But Steve, one is actively looking for that beer vendor in a stadium. One is not always looking for a cyclist. The day I was nearly run over by a school bus, I was wearing a bright neon vest over a bright jersey. The school bus driver looked right past me, squinting while looking for MV traffic.

I do agree that high visibility will often help, but its a mitigation factor, not a sure thing. The driver has to be paying attention.

30 03 2011

@Khal – it’s quite a paradigm shift in the cycling safety mindset when you start to think after a certain point hi-viz is not any more effective than street clothes because in many cases the motorist isn’t looking at you.

If you accept that than you have to:

– put yourself someplace you can’t be hit or someplace they are looking
– be prepared to take evasive action

Both of which are not as easy as buying/wearing a safety vest and which isn’t as easy to point to in terms of safety. It really seems like anything more complex than wear X or use Y – fill with your choice of helmet, vest, high viz clothing, powerful lights, etc… Is simply beyond the ability of our collective cycling culture to discuss usefully.

Just like in car culture folks always talk about seat belts, but nobody talks about intelligent driving practices or the fact that the laptop they put in the back of their car will take their head off in a crash. It’s just too complicated so we pretend it doesn’t exist.

30 03 2011
steve magas

No, my point is that if you are at home watching a game on TV and the camera pans the crowd you can SEE that beer vendor instantly… he/she sticks out like a lime green sore thumb… b/c they are highly conspicuous even in a sea of brightly colored baseball fans…

Yes, a driver should be “paying attention” but grabbing that attention with a spark of color is a good thing in my little dinosaur brain…

I’m certainly not saying it works every time – there are no guarantees in life or cycling, but I suspect your odds of being “noticed” and conspicuous skyrocket compared to wearing, say, a a pavement colored jacket..there is no such thing as risk elimination – it’s all about risk reduction…


31 03 2011
khal spencer

Hi, Steve

I agree. Bright colors do stand out and are better at getting attention than subdued colors. But on the psy-ops side, I do wonder, as apparently others have when studying inattentional blindless and that other psychological stuff, what is going through the brain of a motorist as a motorist negotiates traffic.

I do think that cyclist and motorist behavior are the bottom line. Other things are tools to improve the bottom line. Certainly in the extremes, i.e. riding at night without lights, riding at dusk in plain clothing, etc., will increase your odds of not being seen. But I keep going back to the gorilla in the basketball skit–how many missed the gorilla? I wish someone would actually do a good lab study and quantify the effects of stuff like bright clothing or motorcycle strobe headlights. (If someone has done so, can someone find it?)

Back when I was an avid deer hunter, we all wore blaze orange. I could spot another hunter in blaze orange two miles away. I could even tell a hunter in camo because I was looking for the motion and then the shape.

But nothing is foolproof. One particularly cold day, when I was wearing my blaze orange jump suit and blaze orange knit cap and blaze orange mittens, I almost got my head blown off by my brother in law. A deer ran between our two stands and he opened fire. I was instantly on the ground taking cover as he blew a hole out of the side of the tree I was leaning against. He saw the deer and shot. Nothing else was on his radar, even a guy dressed head to toe in blaze orange. After it was over, I just told him “look and make sure what the f**k is downrange before you shoot, goddamn it.” Sure, I would wear blaze orange today. But it only works if the other guy is thinking in the moment. If nothing else is happening, a motorist might see my vest. If a motorist is keying in on oncoming traffic, I really wonder if he is seeing me at all. That is why I prefer to BE oncoming traffic rather than off by the gutter pan in a lousy bike lane, off of his radar.

31 03 2011
khal spencer

By the way, I used to wear that blaze orange jump suit when riding my motorcycle in the winter. Figured if it could get a hunter’s attention, hopefully it would get a motorist’s. And my first wife said she could spot me coming across the Stony Brook Univ. campus from the far end because I was the weirdo in the blaze orange knit cap. Sure, it works to some degree. But not foolproof, since fools always seem to be ahead of the game. And I think we would all agree that one cannot depend on talismen to take the place of high quality driving and bicycling. As The LazyRando seems to agree, a culture that depends on gadgets rather than personal involvement is on the wrong track.

31 03 2011

I bought a hi-vis jacket because I wanted a nice jacket to wear when I cycle on a cool day. I made a choice when I bought it that hi-vis was a good thing. It communicates “here I am and I’m not afraid to be here.” I don’t make a choice to say this every time I put it on, I just made the initial choice. I would hate to think that another cyclist would interpret this as fear.

However, this has made me think that maybe the reason I refuse to wear a helmet is because I want to communicate to other cyclists that I’m not afraid and therefore I am one of them. Realistically, I ride as an individual and I don’t really need to comunicate with other cyclists. I agree that I need to get over my fears, but I think that the fear of being judged might be the one I need to focus on. I think we can all learn from each other, but I don’t want to be concerned with justifying my actions. That will lead not to me cycling less, but to me cycling less with groups.

I fear that someday there will be a law that says anywhere I go I must wear hi-vis and a helmet to ride on a public street. I hope we can all agree that it should remain an individual choice. There are crazy people out there–let’s change them and not us.

31 03 2011
steve magas

One thing I LOVE about motorcyclists, they understand more than anyone that the ONLY person responsible for your safety is YOU. You have to develop the skills to handle your chosen ride – which can be a 450 beater or a 1300 crotch rocket. You have be alert and vigilant. You have to make sure you can handle the path you’ve chosen.

I preach conspicuity not because you’re “safe” if you do and “not safe” if you don’t. Rather, it’s all about raising the odds in your favor and not doing stuff that increases your chances of crashing. For example, blindfolded driving is a bad idea… yet, texters and map readers and those downloading faxes on their smartphones do it all the time. It increases your odds of crashing. Doing things to make your presence on the road more conspicuous simply increases the odds, perhaps ever so slightly, that folks will “see” you before they pass that PONR [point of no return] after which a crash is unavoidable… There are no guarantees for anyone, obviously. Life, like baseball, is a game of inches and seconds… or small little parts of inches and fractions of seconds…not using ANY tool that gives you a leg up on the “competition” [i.e., those who can end or shorten your life] is, to me, a mistake…


31 03 2011

I was an avid motorcyclist for more than a decade. I think there is limited point in comparing that activity to cycling and lots of opportunities to make erroneous comparisons.

If cyclists had 50HP and the ability to travel at car speeds this would be a totally different discussion.

31 03 2011

Cyclists and motorcyclists share a few common concerns. The main one is conspicuity. One of the top “excuses” for car/motorcycle crashes is “I Didn’t SEE the Bike” until it was too late… Making you and your motorcycle conspicuous again increases the odds of being seen. Conspicuity is even more important on a motorcycle due to the HP and speeds and HUGE acceleration. M/c’s arrive at the Point of Impact MUCH faster than bikes so if a motorist “doesn’t see” the 60 mph bike at 200 feet away, that bike is going to be there in less than 3 seconds… for the 15 mph cyclist, it’s more like 12…

Otherwise, you’re right, two different vehicles, two different sets of concerns. 4000-5000 Motorcyclists die each year compared to 600+ cyclists. But very different discussions… NOBODY challenges the motorcyclist’s right to even be ON the road.

In the Motorcycle world, 50% of all deadly crashes are SINGLE VEHICLE crashes – i.e., operator error issues. Most frequently this involves coming into a corner with too much speed and not making out alive.

Piloting a motorcycle is 100x more complicated than riding a bike, maybe 500, and the margin of error is more akin to piloting a plane than driving a car.

So, yea, different discussions on most issues, except risk avoidance, risk minimalization and risk detection. These “risk” issues are at the very heart of the MSF [Motorcycle Safety Foundation] new rider training program. Understanding risk, scanning ahead for risk, detecting risk and developing strategies at a point in time when they are easily implemented so as to avoid emergency exit strategies which can be painful, or fatal… Same stategies, to some degree, can be applied to cycling.

Steve Magas

Independent Fabrication Club Racer
2004 BMW r1150RT sport touring m/c

31 03 2011
khal spencer

Steve also has stated that bicycles vs. motorcycles are apples vs. oranges comparisons. Personally, I have never found such huge differences between the two that SOME comparisons are not possible. One thing that is in parallel is the notion that YOU are the person responsible for your safety. Also, far less PPE than having air bags and crumple zones. Sure, in terms of power, speed, center of mass, etc., they are quite different.

I don’t understand this notion that one “has” to wear a helmet or “never” wear a helmet in order to make some safety statement. I’ve seen very good riders without helmets and idiot riders with helmets. I’ll put my money on the good rider not getting hurt, but I would not want to be the good rider going down and hitting his head without protection. Concussions suck, as I recall from personal experience.

Pity the poor helmet, which has become an unwitting symbol of the Safety Mythology Wars. I wear a helmet on my bicycle rides most of the time. Not because I think it has some mysterious properties to keep me safe. The helmet simply and rationally cuts down on the probability that if I have a low to moderate speed fall (most of the time having nothing to do with a traffic incident) I’ll get up with a headache. Its cheap insurance and light weight. I don’t see a down side, but then I don’t equate helmets with a fear of riding. If someone else sees me ride wearing a helmet and that alone scares them out of riding, they probably shouldn’t be riding anyway. We don’t need more frightened, illogical bicyclists out there.

I think the helmet wars are a waste of time and prove that many cyclists are missing the point on safety. Dan Guiterrez, Brian deSousa have pioneered the 5 layers of safety philosophy. The helmet is the last layer.

31 03 2011

@Khal – a car is far more dangerous for you at 60kph-100kph than a bike is at 15-30kph inspite of airbags and crumple zones etc…. all that mass and velocity is a huge amount of potential energy. A motorcycle as much of that potential energy, blistering fast acceleration and none of the safety elements of a car.

A motorcycle is riding at car speeds in traffic vs. a bike going at some fraction of car speeds on the side of traffic really makes the comparison of limited value. One interesting difference is that a motorcycle is dangerous to cars. A friend of mine was nearly killed in his car when a motorcycle t-boned him at an intersection the same crash with a bike would have been strictly a cosmetic damage incident.

I personally don’t judge people by whether they wear a helmet or not. I do judge them by how they discuss their helmet use vs. the other aspects of what they view as the important elements of the safety equation. Far too often the only elements are helmets, lights and hi-viz clothing which I think misses the mark badly.

1 04 2011
khal spencer

Except that a modern car is designed to deform and absorb that kinetic energy and protect the occupants from many likely crashes. Of course, some will say that is great for motorists but not much use for the occasional ped or two-wheeler a motorist plows into.

A cyclist has none of those protective engineering features. The motorcyclist seems to have the worst of all worlds, though. The kinetic energy of high speed without the crash protection of a modern car. Leathers are good for protecting against road rash, but that’s about it. Hence why good motorcyclists are thoughtful riders. I suspect the bad ones get scared or get hurt or get killed which at any rate, weeds them out. MSF courses are great, as are Bike Ed courses, when you can get people to take them.

I did overcook and go off a curve once–my sophomore year in college right after buying that Honda CB 450, i.e., “hey guys, watch this…”. I suppose you could say that was a sophomoric stunt. Fortunately, I slid down the side of an urban road in the grass. Biggest casualty of that, aside from my ego, was a set of left side turn signals. Never did that again.

In the long run, I probably transferred a lot of my motorcycle thinking-ahead and situational awareness skills (obviously developed in the long run, not that first year) to bicycling since I was riding moto a lot before I started riding bicycle a lot. But I suspect we motorcyclists are a rarity among today’s bicyclists.

1 04 2011

The MSF hammers on looking up to “12 seconds” ahead on the motorcycle and analyzing risk factors that you will interact with in the near future. This is a great advice for cyclists too … looking ahead for risks and developing strategies far enough ahead of time to avoid the risk safely.

The “SEE” acronym – Scan/Search Evaluate & Execute – is a good way to think through your riding. Scan ahead, evaluate risks & develop a plan, then take the steps you need to execute ahead of time so you aren’t on top of it with limited options.

Many motorcyclists tend to “think” more about riding, I think, than bicyclists. Rarely are you going to do something on a bicycle which will get you killed when no one else is around. It’s only when traffic density increases that folks get wary.

When I first got on the motorcycle, I was afraid the dang thing would FALL on me or I would lose it in some gravel, or hit the edge of the roadway… it took the MSF class, hours of “practice” riding and thousands of miles on the road before I became comfortable with my handling skills and my “SEEing” skills…. you don’t have that steep curve on a bicycle – or that steep gut level fear of goofing something up trying to keep a 600 pound bowling ball on the black stuff between the trees…

1 04 2011
khal spencer

My initial learning curve was a little more spread out. My dad gave me the key to a dirt bike when I turned 15, so I was used to being on a motorcycle, even if a small one, and riding it pretty hard.

When I got my first road motorcycle at 19, I was therefore less of a klutz (I’m still a klutz) than if it had been my first bike. My bigger problem was less with the bike than with my hormones, like those of most 19 year olds, being way ahead of the brain.

I think the big change came when a close friend overcooked a curve on his new Gold Wing. The rest of that little crew sat with him waiting for the ambulance. That put an end to whatever feelings of youthful invulnerability we all had.

Having survived those first few years intact, I understand to some degree how new riders get themselves into so much trouble, esp. now that it is so easy to buy a very powerful crotch rocket and overcook it while being young, stupid, and inexperienced. Saw a lot of that in Honolulu with all the young soldiers and sailors wrapping 1300 cc bikes around light posts. Tragic. to some degree the same naivete applies to bicycling–so many new riders, to quote Preston Tyree, think they learned all they need to know about bicycling by the 4th grade. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to a lot of bicycling, such as riding in traffic.

29 11 2011
Erik Sandblom

Great post!

I will add that some of the safer-est visibility measures are inflationary and can actually worsen safety. For example, daytime running lights help motorists see other motorists at great distance. They do not help motorists see cyclists or pedestrians. And why do motorists need to see each other at such distance? Because they are going so fast!

Nowadays we have cheap airfares and hi-speed trains which are much safer than driving. So the safest option for everyone is to forget daytime running lights, slow down road traffic, and make better use of trains and planes for longer journeys.

Maybe the airlines, bus and train companies should have their own safety campaign: “Be safe, leave your car at home!”

29 11 2011

@Erik – cyclists with uber bright lights are essentially doing the same thing with their high power lights which makes other less obnoxiously lit riders less visible.

16 04 2013
Safety Myth | CommuteLouisville

[…] The Safety Myth, by the Lazy Randonneur, has been an interesting read. As a bicycle safety instructor, I think about my own safety, the safety of my students and the example I set for folks a fair bit. As a bicycle commuter, I am compelled to deal with the idea that negative outcomes can be a reality, and I must do what I can to mitigate the risks so as to avoid those negative outcomes to the extent I can justify. […]

20 04 2013
Sedona Rest Day… | The Lazy Rando Blog...

[…] Although I am not a Safety Nazi when it comes to rolling around town I do fall off my MTB frequently so I wear a helmet, elbow/knee pads, gloves, sunglasses and burly shoes. That way I can charge the trail as hard as my modest skills and fitness allow. When I inevitably do end up in the dirt the consequences are [usually] minor. […]

29 03 2017
Bryan Bracy

Thanks Vik. You still got the Dummy? I miss Guicci-ing mine out.

29 03 2017

I sold the Dummy to a carefree friend with a kid. I still get to see it occasionally. Great bike. I miss it. 🙂

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