Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Maybe cyclists are the audience...

Before I started riding, I was like many motorists in that I never really paid that much attention to bicycles. Sure, I was careful around them, and never went out of my way to cause them trouble even if they were slowing me down. It wasn't until I started cycling myself back a couple years ago that I started to open my eyes to the relationship between bikes and cars on the road and how commuter cycling seems to be viewed by the general public. You're either too poor for a car, an environmental nut, or a college student. And regardless of which of these you actually are, you are a hassle to motorists everywhere. 

When I first learned about national bike month, bike to work work, etc. I assumed the audience for these events wasn't actually cyclists. Here in Boston I see the daily battle between bikes and cars and while there are a lot of events aimed at cyclists this week, I always figured that the point of all this was to raise awareness of cycling to the folks in cars. If you can get people in cars onto bikes, or at least to have a healthy respect for the people they "Share the Road" with, it could reduce the amount of tension on the streets and make being on the road safer for everyone. 

Sadly, I'm beginning to think that it's often less the motorists who need an education, but rather the cyclists. This will be an unpopular point among my cycling brethren, but please hear me out. There are two key points that I think identify who actually needs the education:
  • Laws. There are laws that cover just about everything you can and can't do in a car, and those laws seem to get more stringent every day. Red light cameras, anti-texting laws, and insurance requirements; nearly anything you can do wrong in a car has some punishment attached to it. And in cases where you are at fault, you're required to be fiscally responsible for it. And yet, as we drove down Comm Ave yesterday, while Rach and I saw several people holding up traffic at green lights due to texting, we also saw a guy flying down the road on his bike doing the same thing. Yep, texting on a bike. Sure, probably not a widespread problem, but as younger folks consider texts a part of their daily life, where there's one there's bound to be more. While these same laws are set to govern cyclists, I see them disregarded by cyclists on  a daily basis. 
  • Safety. We have laws that you must wear your seatbelt in the front seat of a car. Even without the law most people do it because they know how well it works. Airbags became standard in the 90's and it's impossible (maybe even illegal at this point) to buy a car without at least front, and probably side airbags. All of these devices built into a vehicle (and mandated to use) strictly for your own protection. And while neither of these devices would be applicable to a bicycle, there are standard safety devices namely helmets and brakes, that are applicable. And yet I see someone nearly every day on a bike without either a helmet or brakes, and often times both. And somehow wearing a helmet on a bicycle is still not required by law. Brakes may be required in some states, but it's actually a growing movement not to have them, in order for your bike to be more aesthetically pleasing.
I'm not saying cars are inherently safer in general. I do believe in the current environment on city streets here in Boston, it is safer to operate a car than it is to operate a bike. And if cars were suddenly removed from the road, we'd see the number of road related fatalities plunge by a huge percentage. What I'm saying is that in this day and age when people are so preoccupied with their own life that they don't put much thought into the lives of those around them, you can be less cautious in a car and still survive because of the mandates and protections you are afforded. But the same can't be said for cyclists; Any additional risk, whether it be a lack of helmet, brakes, or just not paying full attention to the laws of the road can be fatal because of the presence of vehicles.

I hadn't planned to be so heavy handed about bike month/bike to work week, until yesterday when I learned that a cyclist was killed in Newton on Monday, very nearby to my own commute. Any time the report reads "cyclist was not wearing a helmet" it's meant to give off the immediate impression that it's the cyclists fault he's dead. While journalism is meant to be impartial, that kind of writing has a pretty obvious slant. Sadly, the cyclist in question chose to not only ignore a simple safety precaution, he took a stupid risk by driving into the intersection.

Maybe he made a mistake; maybe he thought the car would be clear in time. Maybe he had a mechanical problem and couldn't stop himself in time. Maybe he was just in a hurry and wanted to get somewhere in a hurry. In any case it shows that for every driver out there cutting off cyclists or laying on the horn when we're slow getting started at a green light; there's a cyclist out there with no helmet and/or no brakes, rolling through an intersection. 

This death is just an example that while educating motorists as a whole to "Share the Road" will provide the biggest net safety increase, a little caution and personal responsibility from cyclists is the surest way for each individual to stay safe out there.


- Great commute yesterday. I climbed the hill again on the way in and was several minutes faster getting into work. With the weather turning colder and rainier in the afternoon, I took the bike trail route home as it lets you only interact with vehicles at pedestrian crossings, reducing risk.

- My work schedule today made it basically impossible to ride to work. I need to visit our corporate headquarters and have to look my best while over there. If I were a skinny guy who sweated less, or didn't have to put as much effort into riding in, I could pull off a shower and maintain a professional appearance while walking back and forth the 10 minutes between offices. I'll be back on the bike tomorrow, and still looking forward to the big hill on Friday.

- Still quiet on the interview front. Frankly, I'm a bit bummed. Hoping yet to get this stuff up and flying. Have ideas for other folks to talk to, and will get that in motion this week.


  1. The helmet arguement is an interesting one... I personally always wear a helmet, but that is probably because I mostly ride off road, and am more likely to have a low-speed stack and bump my head.

    Unlike seatbelts, there is no evidence that "helmets save lives". Who can say that death from an impact without a helmet, would have been prevented if the person was wearing a helmet? There is simply not the statistical data to support the correlation (plus there could be other body injuries that could just as easily cause death if the impact is so severe).

    There are arguements that the introduction of mandatory wearing of helmets has a net-negative effect on the health of a community. If they make it law that you have to wear a helmet, then it must be dangerous, right? And if it is dangerous, I'm not going to let little Johnny ride his bike to school. I shall drive him instead...

    Anyway, as I said, I personally wear a helmet, but any politician that says "helmets save lives" is just trying to be seen "doing something". I'd rather see more people on bikes, which in turn raises awareness of cyclists, hence makes it safer.


  2. Grant,

    I appreciate your thoughts, and like you I certainly want to see as many people on bikes as possible.

    However, I think it's a bit of a false argument that a helmet law might cause people to evaluate cycling in a negative light. There are already laws that bikes have brakes on the books in most cities in the US; they just aren't enforced. Further, cars require seat belts and air bags, and people still use them with great regularity.

    I'm not for laws that govern everything, but protecting most of us from the few of us not smart enough to wear helmets things like the right thing to do.