Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bicycling Safety

Last week, someone who works on my floor at work, who commuted to work by bicycle nearly every day to and from (10-15 miles each way), had a bicycling accident on his way to work. Tragically, he lost his life as a result of his injuries.

It hit me a little harder than most, because I rode my bike to work that same morning. It could have been me, right?

This has always been an issue with my decision to become a (somewhat) avid bicyclist. Yes, it's great exercise, it's fun, and it's helped me get in the best shape I've ever been in. But, it could also kill me. Running, on the other hand, probably won't kill you. Neither will swimming, as long as you're a capable swimmer. Neither will working out in the safe confines of a public gym. There are lots of safe ways one could exercise. Instead, I chose the one that puts me out on narrow public roads with my only protection being a helmet, but even that won't do me much good if a car hits me, or if I hit a pothole and crash at high speed.

So...is bicycling safe? Should I find a new hobby? Especially given that I'm the father of one, soon to be two, young children?

Any time I see a tweet or something about a fatal bicycling accident, I read up on it, in order to help me stay as safe as possible when I'm on my bike. It seems there are two main types of bicycling crashes.

First, there are car collisions. Most of the time around here, these are actually the bicyclist's fault, either by swerving out into traffic, or doing something else irresponsible, such as riding your bike at night with no lights or reflective clothing. But other times, they're the fault of an impatient driver who doesn't give the cyclist enough room when passing. That last one is what worries me the most, but I now have a helmet-mounted mirror that helps me see traffic coming from behind me. On one hand, the vast, vast majority of drivers who pass me on public roads do so patiently and with courtesy. On the other hand, it only takes one.

Some cyclists feel safer riding in a large pack than riding alone. That helps in terms of the "buddy system", but in some ways, I actually think I'm safer riding alone than in a group, especially a large group. I've ridden in a few large charity bike rides, and I've noticed that drivers are much more impatient with large groups of cyclists than they are with a single rider. Maybe that's because with just one cyclist, a driver will take their time and pass when it's appropriate. But when there are lots of riders to deal with, who may or may not be taking up most of the lane, drivers' patience is more likely to run out, especially when they have to pass their 5th or 6th group of cyclists. The other day, I was riding by myself, when a pack of 12-15 fast-moving cyclists all passed me at once. A minute or two later, after the pack had gotten well ahead of me, a car came up behind us. The car passed me, no problem. But when coming up on the group farther ahead - who were taking up the entire lane, I should mention - the car got impatient, beeped, and made a little more aggressive of a move when passing.

(By the way: sometimes, a car will beep at me when about to pass. I don't know if it's a courtesy - "Hi there, a car is about to pass you, have a nice day!" or something more like "Hey jerk, get out of the way, idiot" - but, to all the drivers out there, please do not beep your horn when coming up behind a bicyclist. All it does is startle us. We can hear you coming already.)

Another thing I've learned to do: Unless there's a bike lane or wide shoulder, I don't ride all the way to the right when I ride; instead, I leave a little room. When a car passes me, then I move all the way to the right, and that way I get more clearance on the left.

I'd like to think I'm among the more careful bicyclists out there when it comes to negotiating traffic. (Don't we all, though?) I now have over 10,000 miles under my belt in five years of regular bicycling, and I haven't had any car incidents yet. Commuting to work may also be the most dangerous type of bicycling, because of traffic, and the types of roads you normally have to take to get to your job, but I don't feel that my work commute is particularly dangerous, no more so than a normal bike ride out of my neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon is.

But besides car collisions, there are also single bike accidents: hitting a pothole at high speed, losing balance on a tight corner, coming too close to a pole, having a flat tire and losing control, that sort of thing. So far, the worst I've done is lose my balance in my driveway at home and scrape up my knees. That was a very (very) low speed crash, and it hurt! I can only imagine what it's like to crash at even 10 mph, let alone 15, 20, or higher. The fastest speed I've ever gone on my bike is 38 mph, and it was kind of scary. If you get a flat tire at the wrong time - right before a long or steep downhill - then it may not end well.

The temptation to take downhills at high speed is always high around here, because downhills are often immediately followed by uphills. (Many of the steeper hills in this area are in the vicinity of creeks or rivers - a long downhill to the creek or river, immediately followed by an equally long uphill.) So, the idea is, let's get as much speed as I can on the downhill so that I don't have to pedal as hard going up! Well, truth be told, that's a bit dangerous if the road is bumpy or in disrepair, as is sometimes the case on the country roads I tend to enjoy the most. But fortunately for me, I don't go as fast as a lot of cyclists do. I'm pretty slow compared to most of the cyclists you see out on public roads on weekends. So, I'd like to think I'm in less danger than most, although maybe only slightly. I have also had plenty of experience with flat tires, so I know what they feel like as soon as they happen.

There is always going to be risk with bicycling. Some of the risk I can control, some I can only try to minimize as best I can and hope for the best. Even in light of recent events, I think the physical benefits of bicycling outweigh the risk of injury or death. And as nervous as both Amber and I might be in the short term about it, most likely, everything will turn out fine.

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