Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?

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46 Comments

  1. I’ve lived in New York City most of my life, but for four years I lived in Cambridge, England. In Cambridge, I cycled everywhere. There was a real bicycle culture there. Cars respected the cyclists, and cyclists obeyed the traffic laws. As a result, even when there was no dedicated bike lane, a cyclist could share the street with cars. The local authorities also enforced rules like having lights on bikes at night.

    In New York, I don’t cycle—motorists simply make no allowance for bikes. And many cyclists flout every rule, riding against the flow traffic, running red lights at full speed, and biking on the sidewalks.

    I admire the intrepid bikers who are pushing to make this a more bike-friendly city. But I have to say, until motorists and cyclists get used to sharing the road and obeying the basic traffic rules, our streets too dangerous for me to want to use a bike.

  2. We have extensive bike paths in the city where I work. I compared the time between a morning drive (25 minutes) and driving to the nearest bike path opening (I live in a different town). To drive to the bike path (less than 10 minutes), unload my bike, bike to work, carry it up the stairs and stow it in the supply room takes the same amount of time as driving and it was more pleasant. However, the paths are unpatrolled and as I rode, I passed under car bridges where I saw people doing drugs (yes, plural–twice). There are several dark places on the path where I didn’t feel safe because of the previously seen drug issue and I do know someone who did encounter a person who attempted to knock her off her bike in an effort to…do something that probably wasn’t good. He was unsuccessful and she got away. The alternative is the city streets and I have also seen motor vehicle/bike accidents on them. The gas guzzler seems like the lesser evil. At least until I find someone else to ride with.

  3. Living out in the country can be a challenging place to ride as well, just different challenges. No one expects to see a bike at the time of day and area I ride so I have made myself as obnoxiously visible as possible. My nemesis are huge gravel trucks who own the narrow roads around my home and unrestrained “guard” dogs. Although I use guard dog loosely–the most frightening dogs are the pack of 6 weiner dogs who live on a blind gravely corner. Thankfully I’ve never encountered two legged predators.

  4. I’m scared to bike in my town. Every time I go anywhere, I have to pass the wreath where a bicyclist was struck and killed (the road even has a generous bike lane). My friend was hit by a car and his ex boyfriend was seriously injured in a different hit and run.

    Also, I don’t have health insurance, so I am worried that even if I was hit and it was something I recovered from, the hospital visit would bankrupt me.
    So, I don’t bike anymore.

    • I have biked all my life, even riding from San Francisco to San Diego at the age of 12. I have had MANY close calls with vehicles of all sizes. My brother owns a bicycle shop in Castro Valley in the Bay Area. I currently live in the Seattle area and I have sold my rode bike(s) in favor of off-rode riding exclusively. I am 48 years old now and I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament due to our crowded streets and unconscious drivers. It seems odd to ride a bike for health reasons then to turn on the news to read of another dead local cyclist.

  5. There’s another unhealthful dimension to urban cycling, pollution. Inhaling particulates has been proven to be damaging to the heart and, in some recent studies, may increase the chances of contracting dementia.

  6. In those cities where biking is scarier, like Houston (where I live) and L.A., traffic is scarier too. Either way you are getting on the road and taking your life into your own hands.
    What you can do is really try to minimize risks. Take side roads where you’ve seen cyclists. Wear a helmet, and for God’s sake, make sure you have flashing lights on the front AND back of your bike if you’re cycling at night!

    I don’t think inhaling particulates should stop you from biking. If you are inactive, you also have health problems. I think the benefits of running and biking everyday outweigh the risks associated with particulate inhalation. If you are concerned about that, you should look at maps of where particulates are bad and try not to live there.

  7. Unfortunately, the American car culture doesn’t recognize anything or anybody that is not in a car. pedestrians, bicycles, and even motorcylists are non-existant in their mind. We have to make our own decisions about whether or not biking is a choice

  8. Wow, what a bunch of downer comments. If you are driving because it is safer than biking, you are probably seriously misguided. Cycling is not for everyone, but the fear culture is kind of appalling here. Getting in a car by yourself and driving to work or an errand is the easiest thing in the world. It is also probably the most damaging thing that people do to themselves or the earth. You get none of the benefit of cycling or walking, but you still suck down pollution.

    Big kudos to everyone who makes another choice, whether it is carpooling, riding a bus, walking or cycling. These are not the easy path, but they are better for everyone in general.

    Things will not get better in your town or area without people out there riding and walking and agitating for options for car alternatives. Find some local like minded people and see how you can improve your personal transport and work to improve the area around you. And remember if you are buying a house or renting a new place you can make choices to improve your personal transport portfolio. Make a good choice.

    • Well said. This is an issue that people can take on at the local level and make a difference.

    • One of the best things you can do for the earth is to get on a bike to leave your polluting car behind, ride in heavy traffic, get killed by one of the millions of inattentive drivers, and be one less person using the planet’s resources. If this sounds silly and cruel to you, that’s just how you sounded when you put down those of us life-long cyclists who have had to make the painful decision to stop riding on our dangerous roads. I’m tired of seeing the dead cyclist bodycount on our local news here in Seattle and riding by makeshift memorials.

    • Indeed. At heart, like a lot of other conundrums in modern life, this is an ethical/spiritual problem. More a matter for philosophers than engineers.

  9. “Public Health Experts” have little understanding of traffic dynamics. I can cite what educated cyclists deride as “the Lusk Study,” or any of several others that claim to support the notion of separate infrastructure as the answer to the problem you want to solve. However, many of those studies have glaring failures in their methodology, and seem all but designed to reach their conclusions.

    Painted bike lanes often do more harm than good. They teach riders to hug too close to the curb or to parked cars. If buffered from the main traffic lanes by, say, parked cars, they blind road users to potential conflict at intersections until it’s too late to take corrective action.

    We find it far safer to drive one’s bicycle as one would (ideally) drive one’s car: Take the lane, obey traffic laws, maintain situational awareness (a semi in the left lane may be preparing to make a turn into a narrow street to your right, and the driver may not be able to see you in the huge blind spots such a vehicle has).

    Dedicated infrastructure, like bike lanes and bike boxes, add unneeded complexity to the driving environment for all road users. It is far simpler, and in reality, safer, for all road users to follow the same road rules.

  10. Very interesting thread. I live down in the South Bay of Los Angeles in Redondo Beach which I have found to be very bike friendly. Biking/walking/taking public transit is never going to be the easiest way to go, but the factor I always see overlooked in discussions such as these is the fun factor. I bike instead of drive because it’s just plain fun!

    The main reason for this? I commute on an electric bike. I have found that this is not only feels far safer as I can ride more easily with the flow of traffic, get out of the way more quickly, etc.

    Yes, electric bikes are more expensive than regular bikes, yes you’re not getting as much exercise, but it is also possible to arrive to work (or the grocery store, the movies) completely sweat free AND have the time of your life. And you may find you no longer need to own a car (I don’t – neither does my husband who also commutes this way.) E-bikes are popular throughout Europe, China, and in the US in SF and Portland but less so throughout the rest of the US. I see this changing in the years ahead as there are more practical E-bikes people can buy and with the continuous improvements in battery technology. I can go about 25 miles on a charge, depending on how fast I go and how much I pedal, and each charge costs only pennies and no special equipment other than a charger and a regular electrical outlet.

    It’s hard to give justice to the experience, but as long as I have my bike I won’t be owning a car.

  11. If you stop cycling because people are operating their vehicles in an unsafe manner you are accepting the status-quo victim blaming. People don’t get raped because they were wearing the wrong clothes & were asking for it, it’s because someone committed rape. We need to completely reframe the issue and stop seeing cycling as dangerous when it’s the vehicles and how they are being operated that are dangerous. How on earth can we do this? Families on bikes.

    Currently when most people hear the word “cyclist” they think Lycra-wearing young man without a helmet who completely ignores traffic laws (see above comments). Instead we need to reinforce the truth that RIGHT NOW there are tons of families biking around to get the things done that they need to. This means commutes, school drop-off & pick-up, errands, everything. Want proof? Come look at our Flickr group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/extremelynormal/

    This group was started on 6 Dec 2012 (a week ago) and has 53 members and 433 posts already. There are a lot of us carrying goods and people by bike. Things are only going to get better! This is not extreme, dangerous behavior. This is the future. This is connecting to your community. This is fun! Come bike with us.

  12. My brother was very recently hit by a truck while riding his bike, he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he had a subdural hematoma and had to have brain surgery. It’s dangerous, but we have to take the proper safety precautions and try to improve safety on the road.

    • The bicyclist who was killed in my neighborhood took all sorts of safety precautions. He had a helmet and high visibility clothes and he was in a medium traffic residential area with a dedicated bike lane and some asshole still hit him and killed him.

      It doesn’t matter if you are in the right if you are dead or maimed. Sometimes it is just not safe and wishing it different is not enough to change that.

    • Statistically driving is twice as dangerous as cycling.

      See here:

      http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1026.html

      Not to mention driving is guaranteed to adversely affect your health over time, while cycling is not.

      Just because something is the dominant paradigm (driving) doesn’t mean it is the best, or safest way to get around. It just means the majority of people do it.

      As Ray Bradbury (RIP) so beautifully wrote in Fahrenheit 451,

      “The most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom…[is] the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.”

  13. The cycling deaths get all the attention because they are so rare. If we put up wreaths for all the car fatalities there are, we wouldn’t be able to move for all the wreaths. Car travel feels safer because of the perception of being protected, but it’s actually much more dangerous than cycling.

    One big thing that makes cycling safer is people getting out there and cycling. When drivers are used to seeing cyclists and know to look for them, they are more cautious.

  14. I’m more likely to die in a car than on my bike. I’m also more likely to die from sitting on my butt than getting exercise. Most of us don’t get to choose when or how we die, so obsessing over it won’t do any good. Just a waste of time.

    I’ll take my risk and keep biking.

  15. I think anything can be dangerous. You are never completely safe from anything! But I don’t think you should live your life in fear of anything. Learn to ride properly and drive properly when it is the concern of pedestrians and bikes. Teach your children and friends how to be a proper rider and driver. Don’t just sit in a corner of fear. I personally think driving is a lot more dangerous in so many ways. We are soon to be a car free family and agree with Kathleen and are in the group she mentioned. We are teaching others and our children how to live in a bike friendly world. Not easy to do, but it’s a start. It all starts with your mindset and perspective. Change that and change the world! Start riding and don’t be afraid to do so! The more that ride, the more we will be seen and heard!

  16. Sara A., You can carry mace and take self-defense classes and still get raped and it’s STILL not the victim’s fault. If the roads aren’t safe it’s because drivers are not operating their vehicles carefully, especially around vulnerable road users. its not about being in the right and still being dead, it’s about pointing the finger in the right direction so that change happens in the right place. As you said, all the safety & visibility gear didn’t change the outcome. A change in drivers’ thinking that being behind the wheel of a personal vehicle is a right and a necessity for every trip will. Drivers need to take the responsibility of moving their vehicle down the road seriously.

    There are laws against distracted driving; I’d like to see them enforced better. I’d also like to see PSA’s that show teens that the consequences for distracted driving are not just their own, but they could kill or injure people that are walking or riding bikes, too. I want more educational and media articles that refer to people as people, regardless of their travel mode. We need to stop seeing articles that say, “There was an accident where a car ran into bicyclist.” It wasn’t an unavoidable accident, it was a collision or crash. It wasn’t the car, it was the person driving. It wasn’t a bicyclist, it was a person on a bicycle. Things will only get better when we realize that roads are for moving people, regardless of mode, not by surrendering to cars and hiding.

  17. I cycle in Melbourne, Australia, one of the best cities for cycling in this country. I have quite a few ‘near misses’ (2 this week) but have not had any accidents (touch wood). As everyone has said, drivers need to be more aware of cyclists, but – do drivers know what we need? I’m in the process of putting together a vulnerable road users charter which should be available for Melbournian’s by mid next year. Hopefully through education we can build respect.

  18. I live in Illinois near the Mississippi – cyclists come over from St. Louis and bike the lovely road that runs at the bottom of the bluffs that line the river. Unfortunately some cyclists do not move to the side when a car is coming, and this has angered the country people in that area to the extent that cyclists are often harrassed.

    I do still bike the country lanes, despite the cars buzzing by at an alarming rate of speed. How fortunate those of you are who live in bike friendly cities! Sounds like a great way to start the day. and I agree with the comment that until we attempt to raise awareness about alternative travel we won’t get anywhere.

  19. Well, here’s my little bit. I moved to NOLA partially because I was tired of cars and focus on business in Atlanta. I was hit by cars around 6 times, either walking, biking, or running. The last time I was ten feet from the street, on a sidewalk, walking, and I lived, though I have only one foot now. I was an aggressive bicyclist but I also followed the law. I had doors opened on me, I was spit on, and was chased a few times. Here it’s much mellower, but I still think anyone who rides on roads in the U.S. better wear a helmet and be conscious always of everything around them. That degree of consciousness is the reason I lost only my foot and not my life (barely). Be safe.

  20. I love riding my bicycle every day! I have been hit once on my bicycle in my life time. I have been in 3 car accidents in my life. As others have mentioned the stats show that driving is far more dangerous even when correcting for many fewer cyclists. There are also the financial, health related and environmental costs of driving. Bicyclists spend more money at local businesses than both drivers and walkers. Bicyclists are healthier. The more bicyclists the less traffic congestion and better air quality. Bottom line nothing else leaves me with a huge grin on my face and feeling like a kid again like riding my bicycle! Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.

  21. I’m the cyclist who took the pic above, after I’d been knocked off. Good job I did take the pic, too, because I was told by the police that they’d considered prosecuting me, even though the car pulled out on me from a side road… as it was, I finally got some redress, though it took three years!

    …any discussion risks being bogged down by people saying “Yes, but I saw a cyclist/driver/wotever behaving badly/selfishly/dangerously…” -I mention my own case only because I think that there is a perception that UK police are pro-car and anti-cyclist, a perception that can often seem highly justified.

    I also think things are changing for the better, and they are doing so because cyclists are getting out there and asserting their place on the road. It is noticeable that cycling feels a lot more scary in places where cars predominate; cycling in rural Wales recently, I was scared by vehicles blasting past me, their drivers evidently believing that the Car Always Gets Through.

    Still got a long way to go!

    • Hi Dru–I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but as cyclists we’re in a bad position when we get hit by cars. There’s no insurance company to go to bat for us. I was lucky that the driver’s insurance company sided with me and resolved the matter within a few months. I can see how it could take three years–there’s a lot of institutional bias against bikes.

  22. It shows how perverse a world we live in where something as safe as cycling is viewed as dangerous when the danger comes from badly designed infrastructure and a culture that is – largely – indifferent to the vulnerable road-user.

    If people who were able to cycle used bicycles for their shorter journeys then the benefits would be seen by all.

  23. I go back and forth on this, the roads are more crowded than ever, so we NEED to bike, but the carelessness and aggression of motorists scares me. We must keep riding though. Ride on!

  24. Both Denmark and the Netherlands take extraordinary measures to accommodate bicyclists, which I am not, and pedestrians, which I am enthusiastically. Walking anywhere in the cities of Denmark and the Netherlands is a joy. My one regret as a resident of a mountainous, rural location is that there isn’t really anywhere I can reasonably walk or cycle to. Sure, I take long walks every day, but they’re a leisure-time activity. I’d much rather be able to walk somewhere useful: the post office, the library, etc.

    • Very sad but typical. This is what has to change. If you are flying a plane and your negligence causes an accident you have your license taken away from you. Should be the same for driving a car.

  25. Someone who has obviously never ridden a bike laid out our bike lanes. I live on a corner. On one side of my corner, my retaining wall sits right up next to the curb, giving no one the ability the get away from a car. Plus, the retaining wall curves, presenting another obstacle to sight by car or pedestrian or cyclist. Then, the road turns in front of my house and continues down the block.

    The bike lane is narrow and a biker might end up in the uneven part of pavement between the asphalt and the concrete gutter. I park my car there sometimes, right in the bike lane. My nieghbors without a driveway must park their two cars in front of their house. The mailman must use the bike lane. Biking in our bike lanes is dangerous. All over the city there are crazy lanes that I would never use.

    I read an article that said the very ones who bike for their health were the most adversly affected by biking. They suck up all the noxious fumes because they are breathing deeply. They move more slowly, so they are in traffic fumes longer. They usually travel farther than people walking along. The article predicted that more deaths in the biker population from pollution might be seen in the future.

    You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  26. I have been riding in Boston for over 20 years. Lately my bicycling style has evolved to the point of making eye contact with drivers when possible, wear high visibility clothes and stopping and walking through intersections.

    I love bicycling too much to give it up, and it can be done safely.

  27. Cycling is not in itself a dangerous activity. If one is wearing a proper helmet and using good riding skills on a good quality, well-fitting bicycle, the risks are minimal. However, when you add 3000-90,000 pound vehicles moving at more than twice the speed of the cyclist, the danger mounts many times over. We all have to realize that cycling in motor vehicle traffic will never be safe and we have to make our lawmakers understand that a safe “bike path” isn’t simply a white line painted on the side of a busy road. The only safe bicycle paths are those that are physically detached from roadways and dedicated to non-motorized traffic. Anything else is simply risking your life, no matter how much safety equipment you have. We just lost a nationally-ranked age group endurance track cyclist here in the Seattle area over the weekend due to yet another deadly bicycle/car collision. Cars belong on roads, bikes belong on paths, trails, or tracks.

    • You would probably love it if I weren’t, but I was racing road bikes in Southern California in the mid-70′s when the sight of a black riding short-clad, Moltini-jerseyed cyclist was such a novelty that we got things thrown at us by nasty teenagers. I’m sure I have track burns, road rash, and Campagnolo chainring scars older than you are and my Salsa Mukluk is still compounding interest on my credit card.

  28. As long as the attitude prevails that cars belong on the road and bicycles don’t, there’ll be the culture of entitlement among drivers that can and does lead to prangs. Apartheid isn’t an option over here in UK, and it’s not one I’d welcome even if it were practicable. Roads are for everyone! Happily, we’re attempting to do something about it over here….

    • That’s great for the UK and if you want to do battle with thousands of pounds of steel, drunk and stoned (we have lots of marijuana-smoking drivers here in Seattle) and indifferent drivers, then more power to you. As for me, I’ll stick to bike paths and trails as I want to be sick when I die.

  29. Worth it. Though the lack of infrastructure is infuriating. They make a bigger deal (paint and space wise) separating carpool lanes from regular lanes than bike lanes from regular lanes. Something wrong with that.

  30. I love Biking. Due to arthritis I had bilateral hip replacements just to carry on. Three weeks ago I hit a small piece of wood with the front tire of my road bike the wrong way, came down and shattered both my Pelvis and right shoulder. I was released from hospital 3 days ago. I consider myself lucky not to have fallen to the left – I would have been killed instantly by traffic. Last year my saddle bolt snapped and brought me down before I realized what happened. That time I walked away.
    As bikers we are unprotected, open, unshielded, unstable. It is a dangerous pastime. No question.

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