Helmets and Risk Compensation

An add-on to my recent Commute By Bike post regarding “4 Myths About Helmets and Safety:”  I pointed out that the theory of “risk compensation” – that adding riskier elements to one’s ride because one is wearing a helmet would offset the helmet’s safety benefits – didn’t ring true to me.  Sure, I’m worried about my head, but I’ve got knees, elbows, shoulders, hands and other body parts to worry about, too.

(As an aside, my most painful bike injury occurred when I was 13, and involved a night ride, no end caps on my handlebars, loose-fitting pants and a collision with a large dog.  That memory still smarts.)

But – if I had one of these on my helmet, all bets are off.  This video is reminiscent of the beginning of my commute up Pike Street every evening:

London to Ban Trucks?

I’ve mentioned before the UK study regarding cycling deaths in London, including in my “10 Rules for Urban Bike Commuting” post.  One finding of the study was the women were over-represented in traffic deaths, and that many of these deaths were caused by left-turning (the UK equivalent of a US right turn) trucks.  The study’s conclusions reinforce the need for all riders to be assertive when riding in the city, but also point to some of the inherent visibility problems with large vehicles on crowded city streets.

Now, a new study has found that trucks (“lorries”, or “HGVs” in the UK vernacular) have been involved in 43% of London cycling deaths – a rate 10x higher than other vehicles on a per-trip basis.  You often hear cyclists refer to the fact that someone on a bike never wins a collision with a motor vehicle, but what this study points out is fairly obvious – that being hit by a big vehicle likely means not just “losing,” but dying.

London Mayor Boris Johnson (himself a sometimes bicycle commuter), has proposed a ban on HGVs in central London to cut down on pollution and congestion, and this latest study has brought forth calls for a more extensive ban.  Whatever the outcome, we’re a long way away from anything like this happening in the US.  What we can do is take it as reminder of the need to be very, very careful around buses, trucks and other big vehicles – especially when it comes to passing on the right.

San Francisco/Berkeley

I made a quick trip to the Bay Area with some college buddies over the weekend to watch Oregon eke out a win over Cal.  The weather was absolutely perfect in the city on Sunday, so we walked all over town.  It seemed like every other bike I saw was fixed gear, many without brakes.  I guess that makes a little more sense in San Francisco than Seattle, because as long as you avoid Nob and Russian Hill the city offers a surprisingly flat ride.  Still – maybe it’s advancing age, but I’d feel a whole lot better with a pair of brakes.

Confession time:  I drank from a water bottle while riding BART.  I realize it’s important to model compliance with subway rules at all times, to avoid glares and nasty looks from non-water bottle drinkers.  And maybe with enough good behavior they’ll eventually let us drink from water bottles on the platform or something.  But I was thirsty.

More Commentary on my “10 Rules for Urban Commuting”

My “10 Rules” post at Commute by Bike continues to elicit strong reactions – this one, by Dottie at Let’s Go Ride a Bike, takes issue with my “macho” tone and the potential it has to turn people off from taking up bike commuting.  The numerous comments to the post largely agree that I’m not very nice.

However, other than anti-helmet rationalizers or those reacting to a strawman version of my “10 Rules” (“he says always break the law, and never signal!!”), most of the comments are simply taking issue with my “tone.”  I’ve never thought of my tone as “macho” – more like “direct.”  I’ll plead guilty to not being one for sugarcoating.

But I wanted to address and clarify a few specific points raised by Dottie and the commentators:

Encouraging more riders. I’m all for more people riding, but the genesis of my 10 Rules post was the number of riders I see who fail to adapt to riding in the city.  You need to ride differently than on a path or in the ‘burbs, for your own safety.  Every day I see riders who scrupulously honor the traffic rules while doing dangerous things.  I don’t want to see more riders like that.

Rules for Enjoyable City Riding. Some commentators proposed writing these.  Not a bad idea, but they’re going to be very different for US cities than, say, Copenhagen (where most of my 10 Rules would not apply).  But if they don’t incorporate the safety basics of I’m harping on, it’s not going to be very enjoyable.

Riding on Side Streets Rather than Arterials. A good idea; I do it for the first mile or so of my commute, but after that I have no choice but to take the main roads.  But – riding on side streets has its own issues.  In my neighborhood, as in urban areas across the US, the side streets are narrow, lined with cars and have uncontrolled intersections, many with poor visibility.  Taking the lane on these streets is imperative for safety, but I’ve been honked at more than once for so doing.

On Bike Infrastructure. I love bike infrastructure.  If I could ride on a car-free path to work, I’d do so in heartbeat.  But that’s not going to happen any time soon.  What I don’t love is DUMB bike infrastructure, like downhill bike lanes.  They’re unsafe to ride in, but when you take the lane drivers get frustrated that you’re not in “your” lane.  Seattle is starting to see the light on this – some recent repaving at the top of Capitol hill resulted to a two-block stretch of Pine Street having bike lanes uphill and sharrows downhill.  That’s some well-thought-out bike infrastructure.

Riding aggressively. Maybe I should have said “assertively.”  The UK study I cited (“Are Women Cyclists in More Danger than Men?“) – and my own observations from years of daily riding and driving amidst bicycles – is that being too meek is dangerous.  But I see it all too often.  This is the message that all of the “Rules” are trying to reinforce: riding in the city requires thinking about your own safety first.  That doesn’t have to be scary or offputting, but it does mean being willing to take the lane and be critical of traffic rules that aren’t optimized for your safety.

Helmets. There’s no “heated debate” about whether it’s a good idea to wear a helmet.  Anyone who chooses not to wear one should fess up that they are making a conscious choice to add to the risk they take.  And that’s fine; I’m no advocate of laws requiring helmet usage.  But it’s disingenuous for those already riding to argue that wearing a helmet does NOT increase their safety.

Spandex in the City. Good lord, no.


Make Your Own Bike Box

Sure, Seattle has now added a few bike boxes, but until we get more, you’ve got to be ready to make your own.  How?  Ride through traffic to the front of the line and plop in front of the lead car at the front end of the crosswalk. Presto – instant bike box!

Not recommended for every intersection, but it’s great on one-way streets like WB Pine, where three lanes of cars are constantly switching lanes and diving into right or left turns.  Far better to be in front of that traffic than trying to navigate from behind or in the midst of it.

Contending with Buses

Love this interview with @velobusdriver, a Metro bus guy who is also a bike commuter.  Terrific view into the issues faced by bus drivers in dealing with cyclists, and strategies for dealing with buses when riding.

His comment about always passing on the left is key.  I see a lot of people pass on the right – in the bike lane – even when a bus is starting to move over to meet a stop.

One thing he didn’t mention, that surprised me when I first starting riding downtown, is how fast Metro buses accelerate.  It’s really quite shocking given how big they are.  I’ve learned to give a wider berth when moving back into the right lane after passing a bus at a stop.

Obeying Traffic Rules ≠ Safety

Expanding on my last post:  I see drivers and pedestrians make stupid maneuvers every day.  So far, I have succeeded in not generalizing these instances of untoward behavior into categorical thinking about drivers or pedestrians (but lord knows the pedestrians on Third Avenue downtown are testing me so . . .).

So why do so many cyclists act as if any less-than-exemplary behavior on their part will just feed the beast of anti-cycling hate?  Some people aren’t going to like people on bikes, regardless of how you behave.  Others may not like YOU, because you ride like a jerk.

I’m always going to put myself first when I ride.  Sure, I often comply with traffic rules, often signal, sometimes even give a polite wave to drivers.  But not always.  Because many times, the safest way to ride is to ignore the rule – and I’m always asking “what’s safest,” not “what’s the rule?”  If you’re not putting yourself first, if you’re thinking primarily about the impression you’re leaving, you’re not riding safe.

Bottom line: slavishly adhering to traffic rules does not equal safe riding.  Riding visibly, predictably and critically (of traffic rules) does.