Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Emphasis on Safety?

There’s a lot of focus this month on getting more people out and about on their bikes. We posted last week about the effort to normalize bike commuting,
a topic that as usual sparked a lot of discussion about sweat,
appropriate clothing, secure bike parking and, of course, safety.

holland_300x298.jpgHow they promote cycling in Holland.

Today we’d like to talk more about the safety issue — or, more precisely, the perception-of-safety issue. M-bike.org, a Streetsblog Network member in Detroit, has a post comparing the Dutch approach to promoting cycling with events like the "Ride of Silence,"
an international annual event — begun in America — that honors
bicyclists who have been killed by traffic while riding (2009’s ride
will be held tomorrow):

Last month Copenhagenize noted the Dutch Bicycle Council’s
collection of positive cycling promotions. Those photos certainly make
cycling look safe, accessible, convenient and fun. There’s no Lycra and
almost no helmets.

Contrast that with the Ride of Silence events that mourn cyclists killed or injured while biking — putting the focus on how unsafe cycling can be.

Does this message encourage more people to ride a bicycle?

Does this message make it more or less likely that parents will let their kids bike to school?

The Copenhagenize site — which posted a parody of the widely circulated Danish video of cops giving cyclists helmets — has taken a strong stand against helmet promotion, precisely because of the effect it has on perceptions of cycling as a safe activity.

Of
course, Denmark and the Netherlands are countries that have
well-established cycling cultures. Here in the U.S., we are just at the
beginning (we hope) of establishing such a culture. The question is how
to do it.

So what do you think? Is it possible to
emphasize safety too much when it comes to cycling, thereby scaring off
a significant number of people, especially when research shows that more cyclists means safer cyclists? Is it counterproductive to emphasize the dangers to cyclists with things like ghost bikes and memorial rides? Or — here in America, land of the automobile — do we need to emphasize safety over all other concerns?

Full disclosure: I always wear a helmet when I ride.

  • marcos

    If vehicle code enforcement were driven with an eye towards citing those modes most likely to cause serious injury or death, which would mean mostly autos, then we’d see safer streets in short order. But at least in San Francisco, our commuter cop force is so suburbanized that driving is normative to most of them, and unless we see legislation coercing the cops to enforce according to transit first, the streets will remain unsafe and that will act as a barrier to more folks cycling.

    Of course, Amsterdam is as flat as a pancake, and I’d assume never having been there that Copenhagen is likewise glacially planar, so the barrier to riding uphill and into the wind is not there.

    But getting down to basics, the condition of the pavement is critical. When cyclists must keep an eye on the road to ensure that we don’t go flying upon hitting a pothole, crack or the like, we can’t keep that eye on pedestrians or autos, and that makes cycling more dangerous.

    -marc

  • Matt H

    I think the key to establishing a bike culture is getting women and children on bikes, not just 20- or 30-something white males.

    What parent in their right mind would send their kid to school on a bike if it’s not safe? Asking a 10-year old to go out and mix with cars on the same ribbon of asphalt is insane. Separated bike lanes are the only way to go to connect residential areas and schools.

  • Matt, I agree with you completely. Copenhagen is so safe because of the great bicycle infrastructure that includes a great deal of physically separated bike lanes. I don’t let my teenager ride on the streets in San Francisco and wouldn’t begin to let my middle-schooler (though I do take her places on the back of my bike.) If there were a network of physically separated bike lanes, I think you’d see a lot more teens on bikes in the city. We will certainly have turned a page in American history when it’s safe enough for 10-year-olds to bike the streets of San Francisco.

    As to the helmet controversy–while I always wear a helmet, I am sympathetic to the Copenhagenize argument that legislating helmet-wear does reduce the riding population. (Silly as it may sound, a sizable % of women really do reject bicycling because of resulting “helmet hair.”) Mandatory helmets also make bikeshare programs difficult and let governments off the hook for create true bicycle safety through good infrastructure (including smooth pavement!) by implying wearing helmets somehow is the answer to make bicycling safe. Let’s face it: riding in a car would also be safer if everyone in the vehicle wore a helmet. But even though car accidents are the leading cause of death for children and teens, there’s no talk of how unsafe unhelmeted car driving is. In Denmark, land of the unhelmeted, bicycling injuries and deaths are a fraction of ours. Helmets do not create safety, and the absence of helmets does not necessarily create danger.

  • the greasy bear

    We want cyclists to be safe, and safety comes in numbers, so current riders should risk severe head injury to trick the safety-sensitive out onto our cratered, autocentric roadways full of angry SUV-wielding maniacs? Is that the argument?

  • CBrinkman

    I see the situation, not argument, as this: wear a helmet if you want. Don’t if you don’t. Do you feel safe enough without one? I do in the City and go helmetless expect for friday/sat nights when our streets get more driving yahoos who’ve been drinking. I don’t feel safe in the suburbs and always wear a helmet.

    Of course, I ride fairly slowly, not in a hurry, and I’m female which means drivers treat me better for the most part – beause I look vulnerable with my little helmet-less noggin exposed to the wind.

  • The comments in this post show that Streetsblog readers, at least, believe cycling is riskier than it really is (i.e. “insane” people like me who send my kids to ride in traffic, the apparent belief that unhelmeted riding will inevitably result in serious injury or death, etc).

    Cycling can certainly be made safer and we should draw attention to safety problems, but the reality is that cycling is approximately as safe as driving, walking, or any other everyday activity.

    We can’t predict the errant movements of some motorists, but a lot of the risk is controllable beyond just “wear a helmet.”

  • I want my fellow cyclists to be safe. Toward this purpose I have developed two initiatives. First, the “3 Feet Please” campaign to build public awareness that motorists need to give cyclists at least three feet clearance when passing from behind. Second, and launching as I write, http://www.RoadGuardian.com: a tool for cyclists can report, mark and share geo-locations of cycling incidents and trouble spots so other cyclists can plan safe routes to ride.

    Look, it’s rather simple, if we can make cycling safer, then more non-cyclists will become cyclists. By adding more cyclists to our roads we make cycling even safer. We should be doing everything we can to make cycling safer for everyone.

    Thank you,
    Joe Mizereck
    http://www.3feetplease.com
    http://www.RoadGuardian.com

  • Pat

    ghost bikes and memorial rides have little to do with promoting cycling so they have no place in this argument. They are to honor and remember the dead for the sake of honoring and remembering the dead.

    As to the safety of cycling and requiring helmets, cyclists probably fall onto their heads about as often as pedestrians do.

  • MJ

    When we pave our streets to Dutch or Danish standards, stop granting driving privileges to any drooling idiot who can pass a multiple-choice test, start enforcing violations against cyclists, and upgrade to a nationalized health care system which will provide complete rehab for head injuries without bankrupting the injured, then I will discard my helmet when I ride anywhere in the USA.

  • It’s important to note that the Netherlands and Denmark have very good bicycle training for everyone but especially for kids in school as well as the elderly. The road conditions are much different (as noted several times above) and drivers are also trained and laws are in place to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

    I wear a helmet, I don’t like to but do because of the risk of head injury resulting from hitting pot holes or slipping on tracks. I’ve heard arguments that they won’t help much in the event of a collision with a car but it might help so I wear my helmet most of the time, but I prefer a cap.

    It would be nice if there was more training made available to bike riders but I really wonder why they took driver’s ed away from the high school curriculum. At least they did from the school I went to after prop 13 passed. I was one of the last classes to get actual driving training.

    Finally, have a look at the latest copy of Momentum. Interesting advice and comments from parents who ride and how they train their kids.

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