There have been a lot of posts and articles coming across my feed lately about bicycle crashes and angry motorists and so on and so forth. Bicycling magazine has been among the worst offenders.  I’m not sure what’s going on over there but whatever it is has gotten so bad that I had to unlike their Facebook page.  It’s too Mad Max, and if it is impacting me in this manner  I wonder what it’s doing to the guy or gal who is thinking of getting on a bike for the first time in forever.  That’s what I want to talk about today.  I call it the bicycle safety paradox.

Protected bike lane, Pennsylvania Avenue, Indianapolis. Speeds are low , traffic is light, and the barrier is mostly paint and plastic,  so what’s gained here in terms of safety vs. cycling in the traffic lane?  Methinks nothing.

This is even worse.  Bicycle sidepaths and lanes are seldom cleared of snow and ice.  This bridge crossing on  the Ogden River Greenway in Utah is pretty typical.  The traffic lanes are clear and the better choice for most cyclists who are not adept at riding on ice.

I know that we all want to be safe when cycling and so those who feel the most strongly about cycling tend to advocate for things that we think will make us safer still.  But here’s the thing.  Cycling is already pretty safe.   While it’s true that cycling deaths are over represented in traffic mortality studies, they are not nearly as over represented as a lot of cyclists seem to think.    It would also be surprising if they weren’t over represented given the relatively small number of cyclists on US streets.   As more people cycle, those numbers will come down.

So how do we get more people to cycle?  Well, I think it starts by not scaring the bejesus out of them and telling them  just how dangerous it is to ride a bicycle.  I’m afraid that’s what a lot of advocates unintentionally do.  It’s not just Bicycling magazine.  Here are two other examples.

Protected Bike Lane Advocates

All things being equal, I like the idea of protected bike lanes but are they a must have?  No, absolutely not.  I’ve ridden over 30,000 miles since 2013.  Had I waited for protected bike lanes to come to me, I would have ridden no miles at all.  So when passionate cyclists go on and on and on and on about how dangerous it is to bicycle in the street with cars and trucks around and how we’re never going to get people on bikes without beautiful protected bike lanes, I can’t help but wonder how many people they’re unintentionally scaring off of bikes.  I suspect it’s more than a few.

Helmet Zealots

I thought long and hard before I used the word zealot but it fits.  These folks do incredible damage, mostly because they seem to be on a holy mission.  Why do I say this?  Mostly because they think it’s their place to lecture people like me whom they’ve never met whenever they see us on a bike without a helmet.   I’ve never met a group of people more over the top in terms of stating their case.  I’ve discovered that the only way to really get them to back off is to tell them their helmet is not properly fitted and a poorly fitted helmet provides no protection at all.  This is almost always true, by the way.

Some years back, Mikael Colville-Andersen  gave a remarkable TED talk on why we SHOULDN’T wear helmets when cycling.   Even though I didn’t agree with the underlying premise, I listened because (a) Colville-Andersen is one of the smartest minds in cycling and (b) I already knew that the Danes (and Dutch) generally don’t wear helmets while on the bike and they don’t collectively pay a price for it.   I wanted to better understand why this is.

Colville-Andersen’s talk was about more than bicycle helmets.   It was about a culture of fear that seems to be gripping the world.   It’s a heck of a thing.  We’ve never been safer and yet we’ve never been more afraid.    It has gotten so bad that some parents are now outfitting infants with helmets so that they can “safely” play on the living room floor.  I am not making this up.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be cautious.  Of course we should.  I generally wear a helmet on all rides longer than  a mile or two.  When I don’t, I mitigate risk in other ways.   I also love the idea of protected bike lanes, but as is often the case with great ideas, the truth disappoints.  The ones I’ve ridden (Ogden, Salt Lake City, Pueblo CO, Indianapolis) were all more trouble than they were worth.  They slowed me down while not making me any safer.   In general, they took me out of the motorists’ field of vision and that is problematic.  I typically avoid protected bike lanes nowadays.  You may be different in that regard.

One thing I think we all can agree on is that we should never let fear, especially the irrational variety, cloud our judgement.    Life has inherent risks and the easiest way to avoid them is not to live at all.  Bicycling is already as safe as just about anything else in life and all the accoutrements we believe will make us safer probably won’t.   Riding a bike isn’t that risky.  Living a sedentary lifestyle undoubtedly is.   So let’s not worry so much.   Let’s be careful not to scare people off when talking about safety.  We need them and they need us.  If we can get them on a bike, that’s a win-win, so let’s get out and ride…in traffic if that’s your thing.  Bring a non-cyclist or two along.   Wear a helmet, or not.   It’s all gonna be okay.   No.  Check that.  It’s gonna be better than okay.  It’s gonna be great.  It always is.






Stephanie Louise Dolan · October 14, 2017 at 5:34 am

Hey Bob,

Here’s a couple of tips from my personal experience.

1. New rider? Take them to the park and have them ride on the grass. Bring a helmet for new riders.

2. Don’t get obnoxious with your right to be in the road, unless you really have to and then take up the entire lane. “Wear a helmet”, please says Christopher Reeve’s soul. You are up against a giant, heavy machine and you could lose.

3. Riding in the road is rarely attempted by most recreational bicyclists. They will be better served riding carefully on sidewalks at slow speeds to respect walkers. Ride with but in front of them to keep the speed low enough.

4. Have a large recreational bike path in your area crossing the road perpendicularly? Slow down and look for riders. If you see one go ahead and stop even if the other direction of traffic does not stop. Eventually the line up of cars behind you will be noticed by a driver traveling in the opposite direction. A peaceful closed mouth wait for the opposite direction to wait will elevate bike safety conscious to everyone top of mind.

    pedalfree531291823 · October 14, 2017 at 6:20 am

    Hi Stephanie, Thank you for sharing. I like your perspective. One thing I would caution against is sidewalk riding. I know a lot of people do it, but it is illegal in many jurisdictions and it’s almost always more dangerous than cycling in the street. Bicyclsts are hard to spot on the sidewalk. When I took my Bike League training I learned that we should never ride on the sidewalk even though as you point out many do. Every time I see it I cringe, mostly because I understand people think they’re safer when in fact they’ve actually exposed themselves to more potential harm.

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