Bike Deaths and Fixie Fashion

This has been a sobering ending to what passes for summer in Seattle, with three recent cycling deaths on and around Capitol Hill. I was down in South Lake Union today for lunch and saw the sobering “ghost bike” at the corner where Mike Wang was killed in a hit and run accident; Cafe Vivace manager Brian Fairbrother suffered fatal injuries in a crash only blocks away; and this last weekend brought news of a Jimmy Johns delivery rider, Robert Townsend, dying after a crash in the U-District.

I’m sure to a certain extent this is just tragic coincidence. Cycling in Seattle doesn’t feel any less safe to me. But it’s distressing all the same. And in the case of Townsend, the investigation may well reveal that his choice of fixed gear fashion (he was apparently riding a fixed gear bike with no brakes) contributed to the result.

Folks, if you’re going to ride fixed-gear in Seattle, either get some brakes or stick to the bike polo courts. Stripping off the safety gear for fashions’ sake is as pathetic as being the latest hipster sporting a full beard and porkpie hat – and a hell of a lot more dangerous.

15 thoughts on “Bike Deaths and Fixie Fashion”

  1. fuck you Josh, can’t believe you would turn out this accusatory garbage without having any knowledge of the facts.
    I guess if you can sensationalize enough it gets more blog hits, but get off your fucking high horse for once and don’t post unsubstantiated inferences about who was at fault when you have no idea.

    You make me sick

    1. I know these facts – he was riding without brakes and it’s harder and slower to stop that way. While it’s possible that this didn’t contribute to the accident and his death, more than likely it did. We should follow the investigation to see whether and to what extent. And be clear-eyed about the dangers of riding track bikes on Seattle’s streets.

      1. Your line of reasoning here does not hold…if riding a fixed-gear was as hazardous as your post claims, and as wildly fashionable, the body count should be much higher and the causality, not mere association, readily apparent. Conversely, it also assumes that anyone operating rim-brakes and/or disc-brakes maintains them to at least nominal functionality. And this does not even address the coaster-brake that is, essentially, not that different then back-pedaling on a fixed gear and subject to the same catastrophic failure should the chain break or derail; also, most coaster brake equipped bikes do not have a front break.

        I know when I was hit in a similar situation (left -turn across my lane, my right-of-way, driver sited, my pelvis broken, lawyer hired) I had well-tuned brakes, front and rear, pulled tight in sheer terror, but they made no difference, nothing would have…

        While I will always advocate for redundancy in almost any system, most especially braking systems, your wording plays into an argument that the deceased was somehow complicit in his death (as the initial reply rudely reminds, we do not know yet) and comes very close to parroting the arguments so common in the Seattle Times editorial/comment- section, i.e. any bicyclist that suffers such harm got what they were asking for. Why no speculation regarding the driver and car that killed the cyclist? How do you know her brakes, tires, turn indicators, etc…were working at optimal levels?

        This is the trap these discussions fall into all time…Remember when Kevin Black was killed in Ballard? He was initially faulted by the trolls and their ilk, but his family won a $1.5 million law suit as the investigation proved the opposite.

  2. @notgniffubqp: while I admit my remarks were crudely and forcefully represented, as someone who knew the deceased personally and been on the receiving end of driver negligence, it is sometimes frustrating to see others imply a causal relationship between his bicycle equipment and his untimely death.
    I have been in a collision where the driver was at fault, and the incident happened before I had a chance to react in time, and I had a “proper” braking system. There are circumstances where even a full braking system will not be able to slow you down in time to prevent a collision, especially when the other driver is traveling in the opposite direction.

    I understand my prior experiences bias my opinion, though I am willing to suspend judgement on the driver until (if) the details of the incident emerge. What disappoints me is how many people (who most likely cycle these same streets themselves, maybe not on a fixed gear) have reacted so callously to a fellow cyclists’ death on the basis of his perceived image or preferences of riding.

    It is discouraging to see posters like Josh King opting to leverage his death to speculate on the safety of other’s choices instead of using the incident as a warning to BOTH drivers and cyclists to be more aware on the road, and to recognize the loss of a fellow Seattleite, cyclist, and human being to the victim’s friends and family.

  3. Of course it’s possible that his choice of braking system had nothing to do with the crash. Some collisions are unavoidable. But I do know that riding without brakes makes it harder to avoid accidents.

    We’re not going to know for sure until the investigation is complete, and maybe not even then, if brakes would have avoided or lessened the impact of this collision. And it’s likely that most if not all of the liability is going to fall on the driver in any case. But that doesn’t matter to Townsend any more. It’s a tragedy that this young man died, and no decent human being is going to say he got what he deserved from making a poor choice. But highlighting that poor choice is not the same as blaming the victim. My hope is that people would learn from it and not sacrifice safety for fashion.

  4. Josh,

    I still have to disagree (disclaimer: I ride single-speed-free-wheel, brakes front-and-rear) in that you could be make the same argument regarding coaster-brakes (you might have guessed, I hate them as I have had them fail horribly). In addition, to say a fixed-gear lacks a brake is not accurate in that it does have a braking device…true, not a rim or disc brake, but a brake.

    In the case of young Mr. Townsend, it may very well be true that he could have avoided the accident with the addition of a front brake, but I feel this will remain only speculation. Should one consider how practical the shoe of a pedestrian struck in a cross-walk?

    A problem with the fixed-gear red herring is that we have not seen the evidence to suggest that fixed-gears are as lethal as many claim, but even worse, it brings the question of technology into play in such a way that any bicycle accident may be challenged by questioning any technology choice, e.g. why did you not have disc brakes, they stop shorter? Why were you riding a recumbent, they are harder to see?

    I believe fixed-gears minus a front brake fall within the law…but from my experience in seeking compensation when injured (see my initial reply) I know that if I had the same accident and was riding a fixed-gear, the insurance company attorney would have used such a fact to reduce their client’s liability. Bicyclists and pedestrians already lack significant respect in the eyes of the law; if the question of technology type, however legal, is allowed to take hold equal representation will be that much harder to achieve.

    1. I’m comfortable that we can distinguish one piece of equipment without having to split hairs amongst all other types of equipment. Relying on a fixed gear for braking is a significant outlier from disc, rim, or even coaster brakes.

      The way the law is written in Seattle, fixed gear without a front brake is legal. But – like riding on the sidewalk in most instances – that doesn’t make it a good idea.

  5. I don’t think it’s splitting hairs – do you even understand the mechanism of braking action on a coaster hub versus a fixed gear?
    Have you ever ridden a fixed gear? Or do you just like to play armchair speculator?

  6. Can you please explain the difference between braking on a coaster hub versus braking on a fixed gear?
    I seem to be confused; they both involve slowing/stopping the rear tire, why is one necessarily “safer” than the other?

  7. Coaster brakes use leverage on the freewheel (via an internal hub) to stop. No different than the leverage you get from rim or disc brakes, just via a different motion. Fixed gear requires the rider to stop pedaling, without the benefit of any leverage. It’s orders of magnitude more difficult to stop than a coaster brake when going any faster than about 6-8 MPH. And if you’re going at speed, it requires an impressive amount of technique, strength and braking room to even have a chance of stopping. You’ve got to bunny hop your back wheel, stand on the brakes, skid and repeat. Nothing like any other braking system, and ill-suited for our hills, where you’ll routinely reach speeds of 25 MPH.

    However, as notgniffubqp points out, fixed gear and coaster brakes are similar in suffering from a lack of redundancy. If your chain breaks on either, you’re in big trouble.

  8. Hello again,
    I will have to just have to disagree that we (collectively, not just people who bicycle and/or care to discuss bicycle technology) can limit the arguments to one type of technology, in this case fixed-gear breaking. Our legal system does not seem to tether itself as such.

    That being said, I find discussions of traffic safety that concern cycling commonly get bogged down in the minutia of the anecdotal and fail to consider the lager question which might be summed up as how fast can we move ourselves without suffering catastrophe and/or enormous expense. I drive as well and know damn well I could have made that left turn that killed Mr. Townsend.

    We have to move beyond simply saying “be careful” or “you deserved it” type of rhetoric and the endless back-and-forth either reply tends to generate. I have no idea how to present such an argument as it seems obvious as well having been presented ad nauseam via any DoT statistical analysis.

    If this thread has any more legs, what does anyone think of bicycle insurance? Not necessarily mandated, as in auto, but as an add-on to auto-insurance and/or an insurance product available in itself? The notion being that if you brought insurance into the argument (not sure how you feel about insurance, or insurance companies, but it is a risk management tool, like brakes) it might lead to significant improvements in safety… this has in fact led to much safer cars.

    1. I don’t think insurance would make much difference. It’s had an impact on auto safety because of the third-party liability component and the massive size of the market. Neither factor comes into play with bikes.

Leave a Reply