Sunday, January 15, 2023

"Road Biking is so dangerous!"

The road is the least popular place to ride a bicycle. We don't bother to stock road bikes anymore. I am the last person associated with our shop who does ride on the road. This may include former employees as well as the current staff. Among our clientele, road riders are a minority. Some converted to gravel. Some shifted their concentration to mountain biking. Many only ever mountain biked. And we have lots of path riders. Some of the path riders used to ride the road and gave it up because of age-related deterioration, or traffic fear.

I've said before that Wolfeboro is not a nice place to ride a road bike. When the summer people aren't here, some of the local drivers like to be reckless with the clear running room. The major arteries of the town are state highways, so there's some amount of through traffic all year. Lake season adds thousands of seasonal residents and visitors, some of whom arrive already hostile to cyclists. You can sneak past some of this to escape to the north and west, but you have to go farther and farther to get to a bit of peace before you head back into it. I'm sure that lots of towns have their own discouraging aspects.

Road riding is somewhat dangerous, though not as dangerous as it seems. We are "vulnerable road users," at the mercy of the drivers around us. But those drivers present a far more gruesome hazard to each other.

Last week, a northbound driver on Route 16 over in Wakefield crossed the center line and hit a southbound vehicle, killing the driver and sending the passenger to the hospital. The offending driver also ended up in the hospital, but has not died. The accident is under investigation. State police have asked for witnesses and any dashcam footage that someone might have caught. It sounds pretty forlorn. Did anyone see? Did anyone happen to capture the grim event on camera? What could any of that tell us about why some numbnut crossed the centerline at highway speed and smashed into some poor idiot just driving along? Route 16 is notorious for this type of crash. One back in the 1980s was attributed to a yellowjacket that flew in through the driver's open window and stung him in the crotch. That grim bit of slapstick cost several lives.

Crumple zones, air bags, passenger compartment reinforcement and restraints all improve the survivability of a motorist blunder, but the death toll is still in the tens of thousands every year. It's really easy to hit combined impact speeds of 80, 100, 120 mph when vehicles collide on two-lane roads, or someone ploughs through the median on a divided highway to visit the opposite lanes. In the course of a normal day of driving you pass thousands of people. Any one of them could be The One.

Then there are motorcycles. I thought about getting one back in the late 1990s, when a friend was selling a nice vintage BMW. It might be nice for those days when I was too tired to pedal, but I didn't want to be stuck in a car and have to take up a full parking space at work. But that got me thinking about what I was really gaining. Not much, actually. On a motor vehicle I would be obligated to keep up with the other traffic, without the easy option to pull off and get out of the way, the way a bicyclist can. It seemed like all of the vulnerability with none of the best advantages.

Lots of people love riding motorcycles. Everyone acknowledges the danger compared to being in a car, but I'll bet that most people think that a motorcycle conscientiously operated by a properly dressed and helmeted rider is safer than a bicycle in traffic. Maybe yes, maybe no. In stop and go traffic where the vehicles can accelerate to 30 mph or more between slowdowns or stops, the motorized cycle will be able to keep up, while the bicyclist will have to deal with motorists who are probably already impatient squeezing past in the faster sections. But just in the general run of things, the motorcyclist is exposed to impacts at higher speeds, and is in danger not only from the mass of other vehicles, but from the mass of the motorcycle itself.

A lot of road bike safety depends on traffic volume and speed, topography, and the design of the road itself. I don't think that heavily urban areas offer road biking as such. Streets call for different strategy and tactics. It's the difference between a road race and a criterium, only with a full-on tank battle superimposed on it. There are definitely places I would avoid on my bike, but I would also look for ways to circumvent them so that I could continue riding.

If nothing else, when I'm pedaling along the highway on my way to work, if someone wants to come across the centerline and peen me, they're going to have to come a lot further to reach me than if they come at me when I'm trapped in the lane in my car, winging along at 60.


Orang Basikal said...

Today a friend mentioned to me an accident -- I think a recent one -- in NH when a driver lost control of his trailer and wiped out a bunch of motorcyclists in the oncoming lane, killing several.

I never felt safe riding a motorcycle, though I enjoyed aspects of it. It was just too clear how easily it could become deadly, even if I did everything right.

Now I think about how much more I will want to drive antique cars on the public roads. It seems that the safety advantages of more modern vehicles have all been used up in more dangerous driving. The drop in fatalities noticed when air bags and ABS firse became common has disappeared.

I am very choosy about where I will ride a bicycle, though I've not given up on it.

cafiend said...

I believe it turned out in that accident that the truck driver was not at fault. The first contact was with a motorcyclist crowding the centerline, who hit the truck first and was knocked into the other riders.

Idiot-proofing always leads to more highly evolved idiots who use up the margin and impose their idiocy on everyone else. Just as adding lanes increases traffic, so does adding safety lead to more casual obliviousness to risk.

I avoid certain pieces of road, and ride some others under considerable stress and anxiety. But if cycling is going to remain a transportation option, someone has to keep claiming space on the road.