Tuesday, March 11

The bike safety dilemma

Advocates for bicycle transportation face an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, there is the temptation to overstate the dangers posed to cyclists, whether through grizzly stories of crashes or citing high-end estimates of fatality statistics, in order to raise public awareness for safety and get things like designated bike lanes put on roads. On the other hand, cycling needs to be seen as a safe enough form of alternative transportation. There are plenty of thrill-seekers out there, but the more reasonable commuters among us would rather take the car than risk our own lives each day.

Bike safety has been in the Missoula spotlight this week, as transportation engineers are considering the removal of a bike lane in the intersection between Mullan and Reserve streets. Right there on the front page of the newspaper several folks, all in support of bicycle use, were wrestling with this dilemma. Is Reserve street a scary place to ride (improve infrastructure) or is it not (encourage cyclists)?

Spinning aside, what are the facts? Is cycling really more dangerous than driving in general? After searching for an answer to this simple question, I'm growing more and more convinced that nobody has a good answer, at least not within a reasonable margin of error. The problem is not the crash statistics themselves. The national FARS database keeps meticulous records for accidental fatalities, and the NHTSA publishes a handy traffic safety fact sheet for pedalcyclists with more details. 784 cyclists were killed in 2005, compared to 4881 pedestrians. The trouble is finding a context for these numbers. Simply plugging in the population to get a per capita figure is no help at all. The per capita rate for dying in a bike crash in only slightly higher than being struck by lightening, 2.5 per million to 2.0 per million. So what? The question is whether the action of riding a bicycle is less safe than not riding a bicycle.

To get a helpful answer you need good data on either total miles traveled by bicycle or hours spent traveling by bicycle, and these estimates are all across the map. Depending on which data set you use, you could claim that cycling has either a much lower incident rate than driving or a much higher rate. I just gave up trying to sort this out.

One thing we do know is that the behavior of the cyclist makes a huge difference to safety. The best practice is to not break out the bottle of Jim Beam before riding, which I assume anyone rationally weighing the safety pros and cons is not going to do anyway. Drunken cycling accounts for a full quarter of all reported cycling crashes. Then there are the obvious precautions of using lights in the evening and night, obeying traffic laws, and (maybe) wearing a helmet. A significant number of crashes, especially when children are involved, have these issues as a primary factor. This means that our tentative cyclist can rest assured that there are ways to personally minimize the danger imposed by cycling. In Missoula, Bob Giordano's Free Cycles offers a "Bike Well" class.

Really, when all of this is taken into account cycling is probably not as dangerous as we fear it is, and there are plenty of ways to make it less so. And if you happen to be as concerned about hurting other people as you are being hurt, then it's definitely the way to go.


J.W. said...

Hey, have you taken a look at Philip Bess's Til We Have Built Jerusalem? Wonderful theological reflections on traditional urbanism from a Catholic/natural law perspective.

Zed said...

It really is a shame that our transportation planners don't have an answer to this question.

As we allocate $$ to various forms of transportation infrastructure, sure we should be improving the safety of the infrastructure that is the most in need of improvement.

That is, per capita, don't we deserve the same level of health and safety, regardless of the transportation options available to us? To do otherwise, would beg the question of why we are subsidizing a more dangerous form of transportation.

Since TTAC, Planning Board, and the elected officials all endorse the transporation plans, this would seem essential information.