Friday, March 20, 2015

Cars, Bikes, and Distorted Risk Assessment

If you spend much time riding the roads, you'll hear it a lot -- from friends, family, co-workers, and often from complete strangers.

"You ride on the road? Aren't you afraid of the cars?"

"I'd ride my bike more, but it's just too dangerous out there."

"I knew this guy once whose sister's boyfriend's cousin got killed on a bike. So you'll never see me riding one."

We've all been there.
My personal favorite was when I was flying down a long steep hill, going about 40 mph (speed limit was 35) when a guy in an SUV approached from a side street on the left. He had a stop sign, but he looked up the hill, saw me coming (no mistaking it), and instead of stopping, he hit the gas and pulled out directly in front of me. I hit the brakes hard and just barely kept myself from slamming into the back of him. I was close behind him all the way to the bottom of the hill where we both had to stop and wait for a red light. The guy rolled down his window, stuck his head out and said to me, "You really should be more careful. You're going to get hurt riding your bike like that."  Yeah, buddy. And if I do, it's going to be at the hands of some impatient boneheaded pr*&k like you.

The thing is, people talk a lot about the dangers of being on a bike. Maybe they think they're being helpful, or showing concern. Little do they realize (or care?) that one of the most dangerous things they do, day after day, is to get behind the wheel of a car. Dangerous to themselves, and dangerous to those around them. 

Think about those comments mentioned earlier, particularly comments like "Somebody knew somebody who got killed on a bike." Notice that it's rarely anybody they knew closely, but even if it was, it doesn't make much difference. That one story, regardless of how personally close or distant, convinces them that cycling is dangerous. They'll be committed to telling the story to every cyclist they meet. Yet these same people probably know a lot more people who were killed or permanently disabled in car accidents, but they don't give that a second thought. It certainly doesn't give them pause before getting into a car.

I'll talk personally here for a moment, because I don't think my own experience on this is likely very different from most peoples'.

We've all read about fatal cycling accidents. It's actually still rare enough that it usually makes the papers. And I can name several people who were killed while cycling. I wrote here in this blog back in December about Tom Palermo, the framebuilder from Baltimore. Tom's death was tragic, and even became national news (though that probably had as much to do with the identity and position of the driver as it did with the circumstances of his death). I know of one or two other cyclists through the Classic Rendezvous group. It's worth noting, however, that I didn't know any of them personally -- I knew of Tom because of his work, but we'd never actually met. Same goes for those I knew through the CR group.

Now, how many people have I known who've been killed or disabled in car crashes? It's difficult for me to give an accurate number. Every time I try to count, more names come back to me. And I'm not talking about casual acquaintances, or "friends of friends." I mean family and close friends, and especially students. Some are dead. Others will never be the same. Teaching for over twenty years, I've probably lost at least a dozen students to car crashes, which are one of the leading causes of death for teens.

Like I said -- most people out there probably have similar experiences. We probably all know far more people killed in cars than on bikes, but the assessment of the risk is completely disproportional. People think of cars as "safe." Bicycles are "dangerous."

Somewhere around 700 cyclists are killed each year in the U.S. The number of people killed each year in car crashes is around 34,000, although that number is falling from year to year as cars become safer for their occupants. Yes, there are many more people who travel by car regularly than by bike, but keep in mind that a large percentage of those killed on bikes are also going about things wrong. They are riding the wrong way on the road, riding in the dark without lights, riding on sidewalks -- the list goes on and on. Knowledge, experience, and defensive riding go a long way towards protecting cyclists.

On the other hand, well over 4000 pedestrians are killed each year by cars, and those numbers are actually increasing. So as airbags and crumple zones are making people feel safer inside their cars, they seem to be wreaking more havoc on the people around them. And again, many drivers seem blissfully unaware of the danger they pose. (all those figures, though rounded, come from NHTSA).

By the way, as long as I'm on statistics, I should mention that household accidents kill nearly 20,000 people annually -- with falls, poisoning, fires, suffocation, and drowning being the top causes -- but nobody I know is afraid of taking a bath.

People seem to have the uncanny ability to diminish the significance of something they're very familiar with, while overemphasizing that which they are not. Most people either drive or travel by car on a daily basis. Most do not cycle. As a result, they identify with other drivers, but not the cyclists. That leads to a lot of distorted perceptions.

For example, drivers see cars blow through traffic lights every day (and sometimes do it themselves), but they remain blind to it. They see a cyclist run through a stop sign, and suddenly all cyclists are scofflaws. They see or hear about a fatal car crash, and it's as though it never happened. They hear about a cyclist killed, and it reinforces their distorted perception. Thousands of pedestrians are killed by cars, compared to a handful killed by cyclists (it's pretty hard to find accurate numbers for that), but you can guess which one people get more shrill about.

That distorted perception is also part of what leads many non-cyclists to push for helmet laws. I usually wear a helmet when I ride. I know few experienced cyclists who don't. But I also recognize the flaws in helmet testing and design enough that I would never over-estimate a helmet's effectiveness. But to non-cyclists, wearing a helmet is everything. And any time a cyclist gets killed, the press are sure to remark whether or not the rider was wearing one. (I'm still expecting to see this one at some point: "The rider's head was found in the bushes, but he was not wearing a helmet.")

It's easy to get overly caught up in frightening statistics, but it's important to remember that statistics never tell the whole story. When people tell you that you're crazy for riding, it's good to put things into perspective. 


  1. "The number of people killed each year in car crashes is nearly 3000, although that number is falling from year to year as cars become safer for their occupants."

    Is this an accurate number? This wikipedia article indicates the number for 2013 was close to 34,000.

    1. Thanks -- my mistake was looking at fatalities per month - not year.

  2. A well written piece Brooks. It's given me a lot to think about as I contemplate commuting to work once my fitness returns. Great blog by the way. I have enjoyed reading it immensely.