How do we make cycling safer? It will never be perfectly safe – nothing is. And despite all the cultural anxiety about the riskiness of bicycling, there is a lot of evidence that it’s much less dangerous than people think. In any case, the overall health (and environmental) benefits of bicycling so totally outweigh the likely problems that it should be a no brainer choice. Still, safety is always job one. We need to do what we can to make bicycling as safe as reasonably possible. But it turns out that deciding what to do depends on knowing what we want to accomplish – and it turns out that there are several different kinds of safety. The first part of this post explores the different kinds of safety and the types of actions needed to address them. The second explores the open question of the relative safety of riding alone or in a group.
The Three Types of Safety: Actual, Subjective, and Social
It seems simple enough: safety means not having – or causing others to have – an accident. But Dutch bicycle blogger David Hembrow points out that “actual safety” is just one of three types of safety, which (building on his work) I’d describe as:
- Actual safety – The odds of actually being involved in an accident as a proportion of number of trips, or miles traveled, or where you typically bike, etc. And the odds of being seriously injured if you are involved in an accident.
- Subjective safety – How safe do you feel as influenced by your proximity to cars and how fast they are moving. How comfortable you feel navigating intersections on your route. How protected you feel by the level of bicycle accommodations. How vulnerable do you feel by not being in top athletic form. And how “ordinary” or “weird” does it feel to get places by bike.
- Social safety – The degree of anxiety about being the victim of violence while on the street caused by a mugger, an act of road rage, or even a random act. The level of insecurity about how you will be treated by drivers, or police, as a result of your appearance, gender, race, language, immigration status, poverty, or other attribute.
By providing words for something that most of us already instinctively understand but often leave unexpressed, this is a powerful reframing of the issue.
There is no question that we have to do what we can to improve “actual safety” both by reducing the likelihood of accidents and the likely severity of injuries in those accidents. The first step is riding well – with skill and respect for the rules of the road. Research also shows that expanding our networks of bike lanes, cycle tracks, and off-road paths, as well as reducing car speed helps as well. (See the paper by William Moritz that concludes: “Streets with bike lanes have a significantly lower crash rate then either major or minor streets without any bicycle facilities, 38 and 56% respectively.” Or the more recent piece in BicyclingInfo.org.)
I believe that while these kinds of structural changes in the transportation system are the biggest contributors to improved safety, it is also worthwhile to take reasonable individual steps such as wearing bright clothes, having lights at night (the lack of which might be the cause of nearly half of all bike-car fatalities!), or using a helmet, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. (Hembrow disagrees: he thinks individual accommodations such as yellow jackets and helmets are counter-productive.)
But if it is true that, even more than structural changes, the greatest increase in cycling safety comes from increasing the number of cyclists so that car drivers become used to their presence, it is the last two types of safety that are the most important. I totally agree with Hembrow’s comment that “when people make the decision about whether it is ‘safe to cycle’, they generally mean the second and third of our three different types of safety: Subjective Safety and Social Safety. If they’re making a decision for someone else – perhaps their child or their partner – these issues become even more important.”
I think that “subjective safety” increases when our cities and suburbs become bike friendly through expansion of the same kind of infrastructure that reduces the likelihood of accidents: bike lanes, cycle tracks, and off-road paths. It also happens when municipalities and states go beyond Engineering to implement the rest of the “Es” –Encouragement, Education, Enforcement, Evaluation, and Equity.
Still, for me, the most powerful benefit of this expanded definition of safety comes from addressing the third type: “social safety.” Again, if our goal is to increase safety by increasing the number of cyclists (not to mention all the other environmental, economic, and health benefits of increased cycling), then we have to fully address the implications of improving the social safety of cycling. If cycling is to become mainstream, ordinary, ubiquitous, then we have to find ways to include every potential rider. (Notice that I didn’t say “everyone” – we’ll never get a majority and we shouldn’t try. But we can get a large minority of people, of adults, to at least occasionally get on a bike.)
The key issue – one that emerged from the movements against racism, sexism, and ageism – is that progress depends on doing more than avoiding negative stereotypes or prejudicial attitudes. As we learned from Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated earlier this year, it requires serious (dare I say “affirmative”) engagement with the reality and needs of the under-represented populations. The priority issues for young professionals are probably not the same as for low-income families. Maybe creating more opportunities for kids to spend time playing outdoors without fear of violence is a bigger issue for low-income neighborhoods than bike racks – and, if so, the cycling movement needs to find appropriate ways to respond.
Addressing social safety issues are complicated, require engagement with larger social movements and forces, and are seldom clear-cut. But it is what we must do.
Is It Safer To Ride Alone or In a Group
Riding in a group is often more fun than riding alone and groups can be more visible to passing drivers than individuals. But is it safer? I was recently asked what I thought about this* and while I don’t know of any good research that specifically addresses this question, here are my thoughts:
The majority of bike accidents are “solo events” caused by hitting a pothole or other obstruction, going too fast for road conditions, simply falling off, etc. – falls account for 59% of all crashes, running into a fixed object 14%, moving motor vehicles were involved in 11%, and another bicycle in 9%.+ It’s true that if you are riding with others there are more eyes on the road to notice and alert you to hazards. But you’re also more likely to be talking to someone with neither of you paying total attention to the street. So, overall, I suspect that the biggest factor in “actual safety” is the skill and experience and behavior of the rider regardless of how many people are in the group.
In contrast to total number of accidents, the majority of incidents causing serious injuries to cyclists come from getting hit by a car. In 2008, 52,000 bicyclists were injured and 716 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents, of which about 90% died in crashes with motor vehicles. The most common bike-car collision is when a driver fails to yield at a stop sign. But the highest number of fatalities occurs on major roads near but not within intersections. Being with others makes it more likely that someone will see and announce an approaching car, and that the car will see the group. And groups are less likely than individuals to ride the wrong way (against traffic) than individuals – which multiplies accident risk by three to seven hundred percent. Still, I suspect that if there are good bike facilities (wide bike lanes, cycle tracks, off-road paths) that keep the modes appropriately separated AND if the cyclists are well-behaved both towards each other and when interacting with motorists, I don’t think it matters much if a person is cycling alone or in a group. As one research paper concluded: “Streets with bike lanes have a significantly lower crash rate then either major or minor streets without any bicycle facilities (38 and 56% respectively).”
But what about “subjective safety” – the feeling that one is safe? When I’m by myself I know that I am responsible for my interactions with the world around me. I trust my own skills and judgment (and have, so far, been lucky enough not to pay the consequences of my lapses). Still, when I’m with a group the pleasurable camaraderie and the feeling of visibility does translate into a feeling of safety. Usually. There are exceptions. Mid-size groups (greater than 7 or so) are hard to keep together in urban areas because they get separated by intersections, and large groups (greater than 30 or so) are hard to keep together even in suburban or rural areas, particularly if there is great variation in strength and speed among the group members. Unfortunately, this separation often tempts some group members to try to catch up in risky ways, which endangers the actual safety of themselves and everyone else while raising everyone’s subjective anxiety level.
Finally, what about when bike accommodations are poor in relation to the amount and speed of traffic or the size of the road? When riding in a “naked” road, in most circumstances I think that a careful and experienced rider is generally safer alone or with a couple others than in a larger group. The larger the group the more disruption it causes to traffic flows and the greater the likelihood that people will be riding two (or even three) abreast or that one or more riders will do stupid things. (A tight and disciplined “pace line” may be an exception to this.) On the other hand, it is also possible that the very disruptiveness of a large group – especially in suburban and rural areas where the group isn’t split up by intersections – may make some car drivers more cautious. (Traffic engineer Hans Monderman’s insight that uncertainty and confusion lead to caution and safety is the basis for the move to create “shared space” streets.) However, given this country’s car-driving culture, I suspect that this positive outcome is most likely to occur if the group isn’t too large or if road conditions aren’t too restrictive.
In sum: enjoy your group rides, but except for the increased skills you develop as a result of being more motivated to cycle, don’t expect a huge increase in safety as a result of being together.
* Thanks to Jonathan Simmons for asking the question.
+ The statistics I quote in both parts of this post, and many other safety-related links, can be found on Michael Bluejay’s Bicycle Universe web site.