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November 11, 2011

The Bike Safety Paradox, Ghost Bikes, and Perceived Risk

Bicycle safety has a curious paradox. If you want to make bike riding safer for yourself as an individual, wear a helmet, run blinky lights fore and aft, and wear high visibility clothing.

If you want to make bicycle riding safer for a city's population, you need to get more people to ride bikes. When more people ride bikes, the car drivers get used to seeing bikes; they perceive them as traffic, they identify them visually, they take pains to not hit them.

Here's the rub: if you require helmets (let alone lights), fewer people will ride bikes because requiring helmets communicates that the activity is dangerous.

We require helmets for people we expect will get hurt: football players, soldiers, bungee jumpers, parachuting, construction sites, astronauts. We don't require helmets for: golf, soccer, jogging, swimming. Helmets are for dangerous activities. If the law says you've got to wear a helmet to be on a bicycle, it must be dangerous and un-smart to ride a bike.

Why do we wear helmets? To protect our brains.
What's a rational safety position? Avoid activities that require helmets.
There's another perspective that suggests that helmets induce the Volvo Syndrome: I must be protected, I'm in a Volvo / wearing a helmet, so I can push the envelope.

Public (macro) health is different than individual (micro) health. Sometimes public health policies must be cynical to be effective. If you want to make riding a bike in the city safer, if you want to reduce bicycle injuries/fatalities, get a lot more people to ride; the macro-results are well documented. The micro-results are - gosh, it sucks to be you if you're the one person who lands on their head and ends up dribbling oatmeal on your hospital gown for the rest of your life.

So to make bicycling safer, we celebrate Bike To Work Day, and we install bike racks around town. We talk about carbon footprint, improved health, faster commutes, improved parking. Bicycling has a cachet; it's a community you can join, there's special clothes and vocabulary; even hipsters aspire to be bicyclists.

And then, regrettably but predictably, somebody gets killed riding a bike. We say: It's just an accident — killed by a car, and (as the press feels obliged to report) not wearing a helmet.

So the caring community places a memorial at the scene, to commemorate the life, to mark the danger spot, to raise consciousness, and to do something in response to an event you really can't do anything about. There but for the grace of God... Increasingly, the memorial is a "ghost bike", an disused bike painted white to mark a location where a cyclist was killed.

Today teh interweb brings us an article from The Guardian challenging the wisdom of ghost bikes from a public safety perspective. The syllogism goes: more bicyclists means more safety; artifacts on the road shouting A BICYCLIST DIED HERE tend to discourage bicycling; anything that discourages bicycling diminishes safety. Therefore, the effect of ghost bikes diminishes bicycle safety.

"While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they make give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is," said Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator for the CTC, the UK's main national cycling organisation. "Cyclists in general live two years longer than non-cyclists and are in general healthier – even in heavy traffic, a three-mile ride to work is healthier than driving to work every day and failing to get any exercise."

It's a conundrum. To me, we should encourage bicycling within the truth. There can't be any justification for silencing public discussion of death and risk.

The answer isn't suppressing memorials, the answer is educating the public, penalizing drivers who kill cyclists, and making inattentive driving a shameful offense.


Anonymous said...

What to do about bicycle operators who, strictly speaking, play by the rules but in absence of bike lanes, shoulders, etc clog a lane of auto traffic because lets face it bikes don't accelerate as fast as cars or generally go as fast. I'm all for safety and health (micro and macro) but this assertion of rights (and legally the rights are there) that gums up the works for everybody is a little much. It is possible for the bicyclist to be totally legal and totally in the right and totally dead. When I am in either situation (bicycle or car) I keep very much in mind that regardless of who is right the car always wins in any collision.

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