Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Illusion of Safety

Wolfeboro is like a micro-city. Especially in the summer its downtown area is a churning mass of impatient drivers, determined cyclists and a whole spectrum of pedestrians. Any route along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee from the downtown area is likely to be crowded with business and pleasure traffic including tractor-trailers, contractors in various size trucks, more landscapers and property care crews than you can believe, boat trailers and cars.

Out in the countryside, some people drive in a more relaxed way, happy to be clear of either the bustle of the lake shore towns or the worse bustle of the places they normally live in the sprawl of Megalopolis. Others race around in the clear running room of uncrowded country roads. Many of those drivers are locals with schedules to keep and no great love of the seasonal hordes, in spite of the money the seasonal business brings to keep them alive here. Keep us alive, I should say, because I depend on it as well.

Many people tell me they wish they could drive less and ride more. When they tell me why they don't, safety may not head every list, but it's in the top five concerns, if not the top two.

Factions of cyclists disagree vigorously about what factors really enhance safety. Believers in separate but equal systems of cycling-only or mixed-use pathways hold that isolation from motor vehicles is the key. Vehicularists represent the opposite view, that cyclists need to be allowed, encouraged and perhaps left no alternative but to take a place in the traffic flow as it exists, asserting their right to pedal in a motor-dominated world. In between lie all shades and gradations mixing pure vehicularism and some level of faith in infrastructure. Lying outside the continuum of law-acknowledging pedalers are the anarchists who ride the shortest route or the most fun whether it's with traffic, against traffic, through red lights and stop signs, up and down sidewalks (and occasionally stairways), through parking lots, parks, alleys -- in short, anywhere they will fit. The anarchists believe that the bike has a natural right to go anywhere the rider can take it.

I can tell you why I had every bike accident I've had. Each has its own story and involves some level of error on my part. That's not to say that stuff doesn't just happen. A prime example is this video of a transportation cyclist being rear-ended on a multi-lane street in Pennsylvania, which I picked up from DFW Point-to-Point. It has a relatively happy ending because a bus driver and another motorist blocked the fleeing driver yards from the scene of the crime so that police could make the arrest. Someone commenting on the video mentioned the dangers of distracted driving, but it looks more like an intentional tag to me. The car that struck the cyclist passed the silver car that later blocked him behind the bus and then pulled into the lane behind the cyclist, made the hit and pulled out. How distracted do you have to be to overlook a massive city bus pulling around a cyclist ahead of you, even with a car between you? Thus, as the author of DFW Point-to-Point states, you can do everything right and still have a collision. This is true in a car or truck as well as on a bike. Driving home a couple of weeks ago I nearly got torpedoed by an idiot who blew through a stop sign without the slightest hesitation where Route 171 crosses Route 28 in Ossipee. If I had been winging through the intersection the way many people seem to consider acceptable, there would have been bloodshed.

People are completely willing to live with the illusion of safety as they drive, but sense massive danger all around when they think about riding a bike. Just as they think more lanes of asphalt will improve traffic flow or that airbags are an adequate substitute for avoiding a collision in the first place, many will believe that a bike lane or a separate path will provide the necessary margin to allow a cyclist a chance to survive in the maelstrom of vehicular flow. So why not give them as many of those illusions as possible, as long as the myths don't impede reality? We're talking about faith here: a belief in things unproven but comforting. People undertake massively dangerous and ill-advised campaigns when bolstered by faith, as well as some very nice and commendable efforts on behalf of fellow humans.

The trap is in the fine print. Any of these talismans must be funded. With that funding comes obligation. Legal guardians of cyclists' rights have to make sure that those obligations don't include coercion of non-believers. Cycling choice falls under the heading of free speech and expression of religion because belief is what ultimately gets a person to push off from the curb and wobble away.

Anything that encourages more people to ride bikes helps cycling. If a law discourages people who would have ridden vehicularly while emboldening a few sidepath and bike lane believers, it has not helped because it has not broadened participation. If people want to believe that paint on the road makes them safer and that belief gets them out on a bike, their presence puts more cyclists out in the public eye. As long as the free-range cyclist has the option to ignore the paint and do what really works, the bike-lane believer can have the painted refuge from which to observe and perhaps venture out as experience proves that the rider, not the paint, is what makes the difference. Meanwhile, some sort of tokens among the many traffic directives plastered on and around the roads put the concept that cycling is a legitimate activity right in front of drivers, lane mile after lane mile.

As a last resort we can just send them all a reverse-911 text message to remind them to glance through the windshield once in a while to be sure that no cyclists are harmed.


Steve A said...

Even "free-range" cyclists and motorists have articles of faith that are not supported by the data. Before long, I plan a post about "cycling myths for people like me." Not before tax day, of course...

greatpumpkin said...

Somewhere or other I read of a UK study that indicated cyclists were less safe in bike lanes than on streets without them. But many I meet here feel that the only place they can ride is in a designated bike route.

cafiend said...

I've seen that assertion, that bike lanes are less safe than riding properly in traffic, from many other sources. I've never tried to review the data to see if the studies accounted for possible contributing factors such as higher volume of use. Bike routes are notoriously carelessly designed, hugging door zones, entering intersections haphazardly or ending abruptly. But, as you say, many bike riders have a peculiar attachment to them. If it increases ridership it has helped. If the resulting increase in accident statistics makes other riders unwilling to try it at all, it has hurt. But the perception of safety and its companion, the denial of danger ("Hold my beer and watch this!") have enabled humans to accomplish amazing things. Only later might a survivor look back and shudder. And of course there are the inevitable "oh shi-SPLAT!" reactions when something actually goes wrong.