Thursday, May 5, 2016

Bike Safety 101: Only One Road

In the Bike Safety 101 series, I've looked at a lot of bicycle safety films and other educational materials from the 1940s through the '80s: some were mind-numbingly dull, while others were scolding, sensationalistic, and sometimes flat-out anti-bicycle propaganda fests. One thing that many -- maybe most -- safety films had in common, though, was that they overwhelmingly propagated the notion that bicycles are for children, while adults drive cars. For example, consider the film I Like Bikes . . . But produced by General Motors, which seems to grudgingly accept bicycle use on the streets while simultaneously encouraging young people to move on to cars as soon as possible.

For a while now I've been aware of one film that took a different tone than many, but until very recently, I couldn't find a copy of it anywhere. That film is Only One Road: The Bike-Car Traffic Mix, which was produced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 1975. Coming from the American Automobile Association, one would probably expect the film to be more of the same -- promoting bicycle "safety" while simultaneously marginalizing cycling, and/or projecting the image of cyclists as a problem for motorists. On the contrary, while there are certainly moments in the film that may seem like the producers are implying cyclists are a bit of a nuisance to drivers, on the whole, the message is more often one of being aware of one another and understanding how to interact. More importantly, Only One Road is one of the few bicycle safety films I've seen that puts the focus on adults riding bicycles - as a legitimate transportation option.

Like a lot of other old educational films, Only One Road is another film that is a product of its time, following right on the heels of the Great American Bike Boom, in which adults took to cycling in a way that they hadn't in decades.
"There's a complex mix of vehicles on the road today: cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, pedestrians, and more than ever . . .
. . . Bicycles. The characteristics of the new bicycle, its lighter weight and gear selection, make it much easier to pedal, therefore a realistic choice for serious transportation."
The film then shows a number of different adults riding their bicycles for various "legitimate" reasons (as opposed to "illegitimate" reasons?).
An older woman uses her tricycle for shopping and errands, saying "even if I had a car, I would still do this. I enjoy it thoroughly." A businessman explains how his bike is more convenient for getting to the commuter train station than his car would be. A couple on a tandem talk about the thrill of accomplishment in getting places under their own power. Another working commuter (the only one in the whole film wearing any kind of a helmet!) says his morning ride to work wakes him up, while his ride home helps get rid of his frustrations.
The narrator says they are all "reasonable people" who are just trying to get somewhere safely and conveniently.

You mean they're not insane? Anti-American? Socialist? Right there, you know the tone of the film will be different.
"Someday there may be separate facilities for bicycles, but for now, we're confronted with the reality of a mixed traffic system . . . in which vehicles of vastly different sizes and characteristics are sharing the same roadway."
Well, it's 40 years later, and nothing's changed as far as that goes.

Something else that hasn't changed in 40 years is that when it comes to bikes in the traffic mix, "People are confused, and not sure what to expect." We then hear from two cyclists and two drivers admitting their confusion.
One cyclist admits, "When I'm on my bicycle, and making a left-hand turn, I'm not sure if I should move to the center of the road, or stay over towards the curb." A young, new driver, says she's confused about which side of the road bicycles should ride on. A cycling commuter tells of being run off the road by people who "don't mean to - they just don't see you." Another driver says he looks out for cyclists, but admits to being "a bit leery of them. You never know if they're going to go straight, or maybe turn in front of you."
The only difference between 1975 and 2016 is that today you'd have a hard time finding anybody willing to admit they don't know everything there is to know about driving, or most any other subject for that matter.

About 5 minutes into the film we get to this guy:

He likes to play with his model cars and bikes. And thus begins the "educational" part of the program. "Over the past three years, one of of every four people bought a new bicycle - and more and more of them are getting into the traffic flow without any real training." Hmmm. . . anti-cyclist? or realistic?
After telling us how accidents among adult cyclists are increasing, he points out the "trouble areas" in the bike-car mix.
Regarding the "obstacles to the flow" the film first looks at the situation from a motorist's point of view. For instance, in one scene, we see a long line of traffic behind a bicyclist - with drivers who are overly-hesitant to pass.
"Motorists should leave themselves an out - and choose a gap in oncoming traffic to pass. A bike rider does need a reasonable corridor along the edge of the road that he can count on - but he doesn't need as much leeway as an over-cautious driver allows. Motorists often hold back because they're afraid that any bike is an obstacle to the flow."
From the motorist's point of view, "Bikes seem to swerve without reason."
An experienced bicyclist then explains to drivers that "There's usually a good reason. Could be broken glass, or a pothole, or wet leaves, loose gravel, a grate, or even an old muffler . . . things that a lot of the time, a motorist probably doesn't ever see." Damn straight.

"The most drastic roadside obstacle for the bicyclist is the open car door." The cyclist then demonstrates how to perform a panic stop. They do NOT, however, warn drivers to look before opening that door in traffic (not yet, at least).  
For "left turns" the film re-creates a couple of reportedly actual collisions between cyclists and drivers - interviewing both of the parties involved.

 There's a bit of fault on the part of both people in the first scenario -- the cyclist admits to ducking in and out between parked cars, then making the left turn from the right side of the lane without signaling. The driver, who saw the girl looking back over her shoulder, didn't adequately prepare for her to possibly turn in front of him. 
The experienced cyclist then talks viewers through a better way to make a left turn in traffic, emphasizing both looking and listening for traffic coming from behind, make a clear signal, move over into the lane, or even change lanes if necessary ("Just like I would in a car," he says). It's a far cry from most of the other bike safety films I've discussed which tell cyclists to go to the intersection, dismount, and cross on foot like a pedestrian.
There's also a "left hook" scenario presented. The film doesn't get specific about how to avoid that type of collision, apart from both drivers and cyclists being more aware of one another - watching and anticipating what might happen.
How often have we heard "That cyclist came out of nowhere!"? The film shows some scenarios where visibility can be an issue.
Several scenes from the driver's point of view. See the cyclists?
Now you do. The sequence is designed to instruct drivers to look more carefully for bikes - that they don't "come out of nowhere" if you know how to look for them. But in some ways, the scene can be instructive to cyclists as well, in terms of good lane placement and avoiding blind spots when possible.
The film has more specific advice about visibility for cyclists, such as the old stand-bys of bright clothing, lights, reflectors, etc.
"There are some things a cyclist can do to make themselves more visible, and it's his responsibility to go out of his way to be seen," says the guy with the model cars. I'm all for visibility - but they kind of lose me with the dork flag.
The "right hook" situation is also presented. Again, the film re-creates an actual collision, and we hear from both the cyclist and driver who were involved.

Random observations: the old lady in the Cadillac totally seems like she has a stick up her @$$, while the guy on the bike has some outrageous mutton chops. 
Like the other re-creations, it seems there's some shared blame for the collision. The driver says the cyclist was in her blind spot, but she admits that she had seen him moments earlier -- in reality, like many drivers, she probably just put him out of her mind, forgetting he was there. It probably also never occurred to her how fast a cyclist can ride. 

For the cyclist's part, he describes how he was keeping up with traffic pretty well -- probably too well, as he apparently rode alongside the car in the blind spot for a while, unable to see her turn signal, and in a position where he had no "out" when she turned into him. 
"I guess there's a lesson to be learned in that," says the cyclist in retrospect. The rider considers that he could pace himself in a way that he isn't in the blind spot, whether that means speeding up, or slowing down. I'd also suggest that if he's able to keep up with traffic (as it seems he can) he should take more of the lane, and not let himself get trapped between a car and the curb, but the film doesn't really address "taking the lane." He also considers that he could choose alternate routes to avoid the situation altogether -- Yeah - I'm sure drivers would love that, but it isn't always the best or practical solution for transportation cyclists.
The driver in that scenario also describes how she's going to need to pay more attention to cyclists, look for and anticipate them, and be more aware of their speed and position in relation to her car. 

Regarding "rules of the road" the film says "The problem is that many people don't see bicycles as legitimate vehicles with full rights and responsibilities." That problem, as the film claims, can include both cyclists and drivers alike. They go on to describe some cyclists who seem unaware that the traffic laws apply to them. Likewise, a driver admits that she never considered the idea that a bicycle has the same right of way as an automobile (as we see a driver pull out in front of a cyclist, cutting him off).

The guy with the toy cars sets it straight: "A bicycle is a vehicle, not a pedestrian . . . the motorist knows the rules as they apply to cars, but he has to learn to apply the same rules to bicycles . . . in other words, grant the cyclist equal status." He also describes road users - cyclists and drivers - who know the rules, but choose to ignore them -- motorists who "still want first option to the road" and some cyclists who "want to be conveniently in and then out of the traffic system as they please." He concludes, "If this mixed traffic system is to function smoothly . . . these people will have to change their attitude."

The film wraps up on a fairly optimistic note that the number of bikes on the road is only going to increase, and through shared respect and good examples, cars and bikes should be able to share the road peacefully. Yes, and we'll all hold hands together, and sing, and buy the world a Coke, too. I wonder if the filmmakers had any idea that 40 years later, things would be almost exactly the same?

On the whole, I think Only One Road is a pretty even-handed look at the bike vs. car issues. Like the post-collision interviews that reveal avoidable mistakes made by both parties, the film mostly shows a shared responsibility for safety. As a cyclist, it would be easy to want to point more of the blame on drivers -- and yes, there are lots of times that drivers can be completely arrogant, or completely clueless when it comes to cyclists -- but realistically speaking, the best defenses a bicyclist can have on the road are knowledge and experience. Many of us recognize that the best cyclists are the ones who take a very active role in their own safety on the road. Yes I want drivers to look out for me when I'm riding -- but I'd be stupid to assume (and ride as if) they always will. Ultimately, better education for both drivers and cyclists is needed, and badly lacking even 40 year after this film came out.

Oh yeah - one last thought - I can't even say just what a relief it is to watch an entire bicycle safety film that doesn't mention helmets even once. Understand - I'm not bashing helmet use - but for most transportation and safety advocates out there today, it seems like it's all about the helmets, as if nothing else matters.

The full version of Only One Road (approx. 25 minutes) was just posted to YouTube earlier this week. Thanks to YouTube user Laxbikeguy.



  1. Great review. Yes, helmets make amateur riders feel TOO safe in my opinion. And motorists view them as too safe as well. I believe there was a study on this. A helmet-free rider alarms drivers enough that on average they drive more safely around them

  2. Your humorous comments crack me up! Not a bad film really. I feel old because I recognize all the makes of automobiles, and remember riding those fast "ten-speeds" helmet less in 1975.

  3. I crashed last weekend (too fast into a turn) and I think about the only thing that didn't hit the ground was my helmet. I guess I need to invest in wrist, elbow, shoulder, and knee pads.