“Hello beautiful. You be careful. People don’t care about bikes and it’s dangerous out there so you just be careful.”
Those words were directed at me the other day as I tootled home for lunch on my bike. I was able to clearly hear the whole rambling comment because I was riding at low speed on a nearly empty street in the middle of a sunny, quiet day. I was wearing a helmet, riding an upright cruiser bike, moving predictably and signaling my turns to the nonexistent traffic around me. I guess I could have swaddled myself in thick layers of cotton gauze, but other than that I can’t think of a way I could have been much safer at that moment.
And yet, “biking is dangerous, you be careful”.
Obviously, there’s only so much mental space to be spared for the opinion of a disheveled dude lobbing leery and unsolicited comments at lady bikers in the middle of a Tuesday. The reason I’ve fixated on it is that I hear some version of this statement, minus the beautiful bit, on a very regular basis. I hear it yelled at me from strangers on the street at least once a week. I hear it from my well-meaning coworkers anytime I bike in the most minorly inclement weather. I’m lucky that I have parents who basically share my views on biking and who have firm grasps of statistics and human health, so I don’t hear it from them, but I’m sure plenty of other parents dish out their fears about urban biking to their kids. The knee-jerk reaction against biking is pervasive: “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”
It’s really hard to pin down accurate statistics on just how much safety you gain or lose by riding a bike every day. I was able to find studies and articles across the internet to support any position I wanted to argue on the subject. That said, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, has a great collection of numbers and analysis of ped/bike injuries and fatalities. According to that analysis, “Bicycle fatalities represent less than two percent of all traffic fatalities, and yet bicycle trips account for only one percent of all trips in the United States.” This generally agrees with the sentiment that I was finding across the board: trip for trip, cycling is probably a little riskier than driving, strictly in terms of traffic fatalities.
So we should all hop in our cars, right? Absolutely, unequivocally not. Here’s why:
The safest thing you can do in terms of reducing your risk of dying or getting injured in traffic is to stay home. If you absolutely must leave the house, you daredevil, then obviously you’ll take transit, since public transit is routinely shown to be much safer than travelling by private passenger vehicle and therefore is safer than biking and walking per the FHA link above. And yet, I don’t see that many of you lined up at the bus stop dressed head-to-toe in bubble wrap these days. That’s because we’ve all decided that there are risks worth taking in order to enjoy our lives and participate in modern society. Your risk of dying on the way to work today is very, very small, no matter what mode of transportation you choose. Even if cycling were 10 times more dangerous than driving, which it isn’t, it would still be a very statistically safe activity.
Guess what is statistically likely to kill you? Heart disease! Stroke! Diabetes! Biking doesn’t guarantee your freedom from these ailments, but it is well established that regular biking will reduce your potential risk. My personal hero, Mr. Money Mustache, has written a fantastic if slightly insane post showing that when you take into account all risk, from the risk of getting right hooked to death by an SUV to the risk of early death due to decades of inactivity, biking is demonstrably the safest way you can get yourself from A to B.
Most importantly, there is biking and then there is biking. The way you choose to bike has a tremendous effect on your safety as a cyclist, just as the way you choose to drive has a tremendous effect on your safety and that of others when you’re in a car. If you choose to weave unpredictably in and out of traffic, salmon, ride with headphones in, ride without lights, ride drunk or participate in any number of other stupid cycling behaviors, then I fully support people on the side of the street who yell out at you to be careful. What pisses me off about getting heckled about my safety is that I very visibly take safety precautions every time I get on a bike. I bike defensively, assuming that drivers don’t see me and prioritizing my safety over my right of way. I don’t ride with headphones in so that I can use all of my senses to assess what’s around me. I ride as slowly as the situation merits, and I move predictably, signaling my lefts, rights and stops. I take the lane when I need to and, thanks to a recent public shame campaign, I wear my goddamn helmet. The way I ride, I feel as safe as I do walking down the block, driving to the store or sitting at my desk eating a doughnut.
As I left my office on the same day that anonymous weirdo told me to be careful, one of my favorite coworkers saw me wheeling my bike out.
“Riding home?” she asked.
“Every day,” I said.
“Awesome!” she replied, “Ride on, girl.”
That’s the spirit. Biking is awesome, and as long as you’re not a fool, biking is safe. Ride on.