26 July 2012

Cycling In Traffic: Perceptions Vs. Realities

If you ride your bike to work, someone--a co-worker, a friend or possibly a supervisor--will inevitably ask, "Isn't it dangerous to ride on the streets?"

The short answer I give is, "Well, everything is dangerous on the streets!"  That is true epistemologically and, I suspect, empirically.

The more accurate answer is that doing anything on the streets is dangerous if you're not careful.  Crossing some streets is probably even more dangerous than driving or cycling on them, if you don't pay attention to signals and other things in your surroundings.

Now I think I know why, after so many years, I hear the same question from non-cycling commuters.  An article someone sent me opened with this insight: "A bike accident, unlike a car wreck, tends to live on in the memory even if you didn't see it happen."

I can't count how many times the question about safety is followed by some anecdote about so-and-so's brother or friend who was maimed in a clash between bike and car.  On the other hand, I've never heard anybody tell a friend or co-worker a gruesome story about an auto accident when someone is about to drive somewhere.  

Part of the reason for the discrepancy between bike and car anecdotes, I believe, has something to do with the fact that in most places, we're vastly outnumbered by the number of people who drive their cars to wherever they're going.  Because there are fewer of us, there are fewer bike accidents overall, as well as per capita.  Thus, any story about one of our mishaps stands out and is thus easy to magnify.  And, as Ben Szobody, the writer of the article, points out, anecdotes stay in the mind longer than facts.

More than one study has shown that, statistically, you have less of a chance of getting into an accident, let alone incurring injury or meeting your demise, on two wheels than on four.  Such is even true in South Carolina, where Mr. Szobody reports and which has the second-highest (after Florida) bicycle fatality rate in the US.  

Still, people's fears and stereotypes trump realities.  (That is one reason why there are so many poorly-designed and -constructed bike lanes.)   I guess that is the condition of being a minority, albeit one that is growing.  The best we can hope is , if we can't get more people out of their cars and onto bikes, that we can at least have a motoring population that better understands the realities of being a cyclist.  


  1. It makes things worse that people who ought to know better ("advocates") try to stoke the fear to sell this or that piece of pet legislation,

  2. Steve-- I completely agree with you. Fear-mongers are usually ignorant about whatever they're using to stoke people's wariness, so I am not surprised that the same thing happens when it comes to bike lanes and related legislation.

  3. Great post Justine. I get so tired of that question. One co-worker said to me this week after I explained to him an encounter I had this past week with a truck driver: "you know Sue, you know... no matter what you lose.". No kidding Einstein - the point I was trying to make was that the truck driver did not follow the rules of the road. Why must every conversation turn into fear mongering.