Is It Getting More Dangerous Out There?

My friend Ramon H. from the Rio Grande Valley recently had a shock when a drunk driver plowed into several members of a group ride he was in. Two were banged up, and one went to a local hospital’s ICU. Ironically, the group was riding in honor of another of their cycling circle who was killed a year ago — again, by a drunk driver.

The crash rattled Ramon, and he is reassessing his commitment to cycling.

“At this point,” he wrote me, “I am not sure what the future holds for me as it pertains to pre-dawn cycling or road cycling in general.  This event hit too close to home and emotions are very raw still.  Not just for me, but for my wife as well.”

A lot of Ramon’s riding is done on a trainer now.

I have noticed an increase in traffic on roads I’ve biked on for years. Until the shoulders were recently widened on one popular (but high speed limit) highway, I had stopped riding it. Too many cars going too fast. However, on our longer cycling routes into the country, I can’t say motorists are any more of a threat than they have ever been.

So I was concerned when two members of my cycling club posted about one of their recent rides. Going down Cement Plant Road near Buda, Texas, a cement truck passed so close that it touched the arm of one rider, and left a disturbing cement dust print on his shoulder. Neither of the two was hurt, but we probably will confine our riding on that road to Sundays in the future.

However, a heightened sense of danger on the roads is far from universal. Our guest poster, Don Blount, says he hasn’t seen a problem.

“I have found drivers to be remarkably courteous, giving me plenty of space,” he said. “I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have been buzzed and most of those times will involve some knuckleheads in a pickup truck.”

Don surveyed members of his cycling club in California, and they had similar impressions.

  • “Motorists are pretty mellow in my experience.”
  • “Having lived and biked in the foothills since 1997, I see no real difference in the autos.”
  • “I have not noticed a greater danger,  bad drivers are still bad and don’t count on anyone giving you three feet clearance.”

Our other guest poster, Jeff Hemmel, checks in from Florida: “Not sure if I would say that it feels like things are getting worse, but there are definitely moments.” Jeff says he’s noticed more anger on the roads, as well as more disregard for traffic laws. So, he’s adjusted some of his riding practices.

“I always ride with a very bright, Blackburn Flea blinking taillight day and night,” he said. “I’m also really conscious of watching taillights, looking ahead to intersections, etc, to try and anticipate what might happen.”

Jeff said it’s up to the cyclist to be proactive. “I think about what hours I’m out there,” he said. “I pretty much stick to morning, and especially avoid later afternoon as kids are out of school, people are starting to go home from work, etc.”

Frankly, one of the reasons I’ve started doing some mountain biking is that it gets me off the roads. If I hit a rock and do an endo — well, that’s my fault.

And even Ramon hasn’t given up. “I am not ready to stop cycling because I have seen the tremendous weight-management and stress-relief benefits it provides,” he wrote. “I have seen very positive changes from when I started back in 2009 to where we are today.  Drivers have started to look out for us, and we have slowly started to instill a ‘share the road’ mentality.”

And Saturday, Ramon finished a 100-mile organized ride with his best time ever for a century.

Running Interference

We’ve been enjoying the newly-striped roads in our immediate area. As I’ve mentioned before, in some places there are parking lanes for cars, with bike lanes next to them. The bike lanes are fairly wide, which squeezes moving cars a bit, but has the effect of slowing them down — theoretically.

But I still see cars that follow bikes to an intersection, pass them, and then cut them off to make a right turn. My friend Maggie said she nearly followed a woman into a parking lot to yell at her about it. Maggie is better at controlling her temper than some, and thought better of it.

It doesn’t seem like it’s too much for cars to pull in behind bikes when approaching a right turn. It will cost them, what — only two or three seconds?

So I’ve decided to intervene — surreptitiously. When I’m driving my car, and a cyclist is ahead in a bike lane, I make sure he or she will get to the turn unmolested. I slow down and ease over so the side of the car is right at the edge of the bike lane. That blocks following cars from trying to pass me on the right in the bike lane to beat me to the corner. It also forces them to stay behind me so they can’t cut off the biker.

The beauty of this is that the cyclist is probably unaware I’m even there. They can keep pedaling without worry and get through the intersection. Drivers might get impatient, having to follow behind this slow guy, but they don’t honk or complaint. At least they haven’t yet.

Some of use from the club were sitting around after a ride recently, and the topic of running interference came up. Every person — all six of them — claimed to do something like what I describe here.

How about you? Do you take an active role in protecting cyclists from cars?

Natural Selection

We were thundering down a semi-rural road on our weekly ride. The road was deserted, for a change no cars or trucks were on hand to buzz us.

Off in the distance, we saw a bicyclist turn to cross the road at a right angle. Although the road was empty, traffic does travel fast: 55-60 mph, and sometimes faster. It’s a two-land road with no shoulder. We thought the cyclist was putting herself in some danger.

But she got to the opposite side of the road, and as we got closer, we could see she had taken out her phone, and was using it to take a picture of something.

Just before we pulled even with her, she put the phone away, got back on the bike, and started pedaling in the same direction as we were going — without checking to see if any traffic was coming up behind her. (We were — she never knew we were there, until we passed.)

“Not only that, but did you notice she had both earbuds in her ears?” asked Maggie from behind me.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Earbuds, and no check on traffic before getting back on the road.”

Maggie smirked. “She’s making it easy for natural selection to weed out the stupid ones.”

Hold Your Line!

Recently, I was riding with a group I hadn’t ridden with before. We got along well, and seemed to have similar abilities. About halfway into the ride, we crossed a busy road and got onto a rough street in a rural town. The street made a 90-degree turn to the left to go into the town’s business district.

I was in the middle of the group, making the left turn, when suddenly, a rider to my left called out, “Watch it, there!”

I flicked my handlebars a little to the right to make room for him, concerned that I might bang into the rider on my right. The guy who had come in on the left realized that he had nearly caused a crash, and started apologizing profusely.

“Yeah, I was coming down that small hill and had more speed than the rest of you,” he said. “I was swinging a little wide there. Sorry ’bout that. I didn’t mean to crowd you.”

Well, maybe not — not intentionally. I had picked a line for the turn and stuck with it, mindful of the positions of the riders around me. He had been trailing the group a bit, so we weren’t aware of his presence nearby. His speed caused him to make a wider turn than I was, but since he was on the inside of me, he almost hit me.

The drawing is crude, but you get the idea.

The drawing is crude, but you get the idea.

What should he have done? Braked harder. That would have allowed him to control his turn and stay on a line to my inside. He had been riding behind the group most of the morning anyway, so falling back a little at this point would have made no difference. Besides, we had a rest stop coming up in just a few blocks, anyway. He’d have gotten there pretty much with the rest of us.

In a turn while riding with a group, be predictable. Stick with your line. I’m hearing about too many crashes lately, and many of them result in serious injury.

Share the Road

Share-the-Road-SignA bike advocacy organization, Bike Delaware, has come out against “Share the Road” signs. I’m sure these signs are common in most places throughout the United States — I certainly see them on several city streets near me.

I’ve always been glad to see the signs. It’s an indication that the city recognizes that cyclists use our streets and roads, and is a reminder to drivers that we’ll be out there, too. So often, when a driver gives the excuse, “I didn’t see you,” it’s likely they were not expecting to see cyclists.

But the point Bike Delaware makes is that the signs can be interpreted differently by different people, under different circumstances. The group also contends the signs serve no traffic control function.

Hm. Hadn’t thought about that before. Apparently, some drivers think “Share the Road” admonishes them to give up something they own. Why share the road when it’s mine?

I think most drivers don’t realize that bikes are treated under the law as vehicles, subject to the same rights and responsibilities as cars. “Share the Road” is a reminder that bikes have a legitimate right to be out on the roads.

But I could be easily persuaded one way or another. What’s your take?

Reporting On Cycling

I might have mentioned a time or two before that I am a journalism professor. As such, I see a lot of academic research in that area. In one fairly new venture, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University sends synopses on research being done on current news topics, with ideas for incorporating that research into news stories.

This morning, I got the latest batch of synopses, and one caught my eye right off the bat. It’s titled, “Ten key issues for covering bicycling and bike infrastructure in your community.” The Center’s newsletter editor suggests that taking a look at these ten issues and related studies can “facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town.” Some of these will be old news to seasoned cyclists, but others offer the germ of an idea that just might trigger some more in-depths looks at the role of cycling in a community.

Here are their ten issues:

1. Cycling trends. The Center links to two studies of cyclists, one from big cities, one from smaller towns. “Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists,” the item says. “This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.”

2. Helmets and safety. (Oh oh.- Bike Noob.) The Center cites studies on the effect of helmet laws on children’s cycling injuries, and the health impact of mandatory helmet laws. It also notes that helmet use is less prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling. A British study examined the use of a bike share program in Barcelona, Spain, and found that deaths rose when people used the bike share, but because of increased physical activity, 12 times that many deaths were avoided each year. With any physical activity comes risk, the Center notes.

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists. A 2011 environmental study found that cyclists who share the road with motorized vehicles have decreased heart rate variability for three hours after being exposed to car exhausts. That is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws. One study looks at cycle tracks, and how they reduce the chance of injury, while another finds that even in a city with a bicycle-friendly attitude, bike infrastructure can be “patchy.”

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars. One study used helmet cameras to track commuter cyclists, and found that in 90 percent of collisions, it was the motorist at fault. Another found that the three-foot passing law in Baltimore is routinely ignored.

7. Car-free events. You’ve heard of “ciclovias” — when city streets are closed to cars for a day? One study looked at the health benefits of four different ciclovia programs. It found the more often such events are held, the greater the health benefits.

8. Immigrants and cycling. One study showed that immigrants are 41 times more likely to use bikes than to drive cars, while another found that as the number of cycling immigrants goes up, so does the rate of car-bike collisions.

9. Commuting by bike. One study did an overview of the literature on bicycle commuting. It found that the distance of the commute was a factor, but so was bike infrastructure and the availability of such amenities as showers at work.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes. Two studies look at the health costs of commuting by car, compared to other means. The numbers are startlingly high: $180 billion/year for traffic crashes, and $50-$80 billion from traffic congestion. Any ideas for a healthier, cleaner and cheaper mode of transportation? (Oh, you mean bikes?)

Most, if not all, of these issues have been touched upon either here or in other popular cycling blogs. Maybe it’s time to revive some of these discussions. I’d be happy to tackle them, using the studies suggested by the Shorenstein Center. What’s your take? Are these ideas worth investigating, or have they been done to death? I’m interested in your reaction.