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Dispelling the myth

I have just read a wonderful pro cycling article in the British Medical Journal. (BMJ) It came out last December so you may have already seen it. If not, there is a link at the end.

What makes this piece different is that it is not written by a cycling advocacy group, but is an article for doctors by an independent writer pointing out the health benefits of cycling, and how these benefits far outweigh the slight risk of riding on the road.

This is a view that I strongly agree with. If cycling is ever to become popular again in the western world, the myth that cycling is dangerous must be dispelled.

The BMJ article comes out against helmet use on the grounds that it gives the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it really is. I am inclined to agree to a certain degree. I wear a helmet, but it is my choice; I am opposed to helmet use being mandatory, especially if it stops people from cycling.

The article points out, when helmets were made compulsory in Australia, hospital admissions from head injury fell by 15-20%, but the level of cycling fell by 35%. Ten years later, cycling levels in Western Australia are still 5-20% below the level they were before the introduction of the law yet head injuries are only 11% lower than would be expected without helmets.

At the same time, 17 times more motorists than cyclists died of head injuries in Australia during 1988, and yet no one is advocating mandatory helmets for motor vehicle drivers.

The BMJ article refers to the inherent risks of road cycling as trivial. Of at least 3.5 million regular cyclists in Britain, only about 10 a year die in rider only accidents where there is no other vehicle involved. Compare this with about 350 people killed each year by head injuries after falling down steps or tripping. (Total cycling fatalities in the UK in 2005 were 148.)

Another study estimated that out of 150,000 people admitted to hospital annually with head injuries in the United Kingdom; road cyclists account for only 1% of this total, yet 6% of the population are regular cyclists and a further 5% are occasional cyclists; 60% of admissions were alcohol related. Maybe we need helmets for walking drunks.

Finally, the BMJ article touched on a point that is the crux of the whole road death issue. In 1983, compulsion to wear seatbelts cut deaths among drivers and front seat passengers by 25%. Up until 1983, there had been a long established trend of declining deaths in car accidents. This reversed and just six years later by 1989 death rates among car drivers were higher than they had been in 1983.

Evidently, the driving population "risk compensated" away the substantial benefits of seatbelts by taking extra risks, at the same time putting others in more danger. This period saw a jump in deaths of cyclists.

Although temporary, the jump was followed by a decline and can be explained by cyclists having adapted to a more dangerous road environment through extra caution, or simply giving up cycling.

It is no coincidence that the long decline in cycling in the UK began in 1983. Between 1974 and 1982 cycling mileage in Britain increased 70%, but there was no increase in fatalities until the seatbelt law was introduced in 1983.

The civilized world should be outraged at the appalling casualty rate on our roads. It is the drivers of automobiles who are doing all the killing. In particular, aggressive drivers are the problem, speeding, running red lights, and taking all kinds of other risks.

In many cases, an aggressive driver is an angry driver, and I have heard it said that an angry driver is as much danger as a drunk driver. However, aggressive driving does not carry the social stigma that drunk driving does. It is time that it did; a dead person is just as dead whether killed by an aggressive driver or a drunk one.

Aggressive driving is unnecessary; it is just a habit, the sad this is, it has become accepted as the norm. Driving aggressively may only take five minutes off an average thirty-mile trip. Aside from the danger, there’s the mental stress, the wear and tear on the vehicle, and the gas wasted. Is it really worth it?

In spite of this, it has been proven that experienced cyclists are still safe because they become street smart, and ride defensively. Just as good, defensive drivers stay out of trouble. Inexperienced riders need to seek advice on safe riding practices, and get out there and ride. Like all skills there is no substitute for actually doing it.

It is a myth that cycling is dangerous, and car driving is safe. That seat belts save lives, because indirectly seat belts have lead to more deaths due to unsafe driving practices. However, we cannot go back. Making seat belts optional would claim more innocent lives, and would not stop aggressive driving.

I will go out on a limb here and state that it is also a myth that helmets save cyclists lives, because it is mostly the experienced bike riders who wear the helmets. It is experience that protects a cyclist’s life; but like the seat belt situation, we cannot go back. I for one will continue to wear my helmet.

Read the BMJ article here


Looking one way, driving another

A cyclist is about to ride across a busy main highway; there are two lanes westbound, and two lanes eastbound, with a center median or possibly a turn lane.

There is no traffic light, and only a two-way stop; cross traffic does not stop. The cyclist’s plan is to wait for a gap in eastbound traffic, then ride halfway to the relative safety of the center median.

At the same time the cyclist arrives at the south approach stop sign, a car arrives way across on the opposite north side. The car driver plans to cross over the eastbound side and make a left. He does not see the cyclist because he is looking to the left for westbound traffic. (Top picture.)

There is a gap in traffic so the driver does a rolling stop and continues across the two westbound lanes. He still does not see the cyclist because he is now looking to the right for a gap in eastbound traffic.

Meanwhile the cyclist saw a gap in eastbound traffic, and also did a rolling stop. This is his first big mistake and things will only get worse from this point on. He is now in the middle of a two-lane highway and he sees the car for the first time. (Picture below.)

The cyclist is completely screwed at this point, he cannot stop in the middle of the highway with traffic bearing down on him at 60 mph. He should be waving frantically and shouting at the top of his lungs, trying the get the driver’s attention.

The car driver has still not seen the cyclist because he is continuing to look to the right. The driver has seen the same gap in eastbound traffic that the cyclist saw, and he starts to accelerate.

He may glance forward to the southbound approach, but sees no one there because the cyclist has left that spot, and in all probability is in the driver’s blind spot caused by the door pillar and his driving mirrors. The driver is already turning while accelerating, still not looking ahead, and will only realize the cyclist is there when he runs over him. (Below.)

Who is at fault? The car driver of course for failing to see the cyclist, but this is of little consolation the cyclist at this moment. This is sloppy and aggressive driving that is all too common on roads to day. However, cyclists cannot afford to be sloppy.

Had the cyclist come to a complete stop and assessed the whole situation before crossing he would have seen the car on opposite side. He should have not only been looking for a gap in traffic on his side, but also looking at the traffic on the opposite westbound side.

If there was westbound traffic, this would be his safety buffer and the car opposite would not pull out and he would have time to get to the center median.

If the car starts out from the opposite side at the same time the cyclist does, there is no way the cyclist can beat the car to the center. Cars are faster, and the above scenario is very possible.

Don't count on drivers using turn signals; don't assume a car is going straight just because his turn signal is not on.

The cyclist may miss the gap in traffic, and have to wait a little longer, but let the car drivers be in a hurry, a cyclist cannot afford to rush.

Vehicles turning in front of cyclists is the most common bicycle/vehicle accident on roads today and will continue to be if people drive in one direction, while looking in another.

Sloppy, bad driving is not going away anytime soon, so always be on the lookout for situations like this one. Think ahead, ride smart, and ride defensively.

Footnote: Written for US readers. For UK readers and others who ride on the left side of the road, read left for right, and right for left. If possible, copy the pictures and flip to a reverse image.

Readers have asked me in the past, what do I use to make the drawings? I use MS Visio for the line drawings, save the picture as a JPEG, then fill in the colors with Photoshop.


New South Carolina Laws to Protect Cyclists

Mark Sanford, Governor of my adopted home state of South Carolina, signed a new bill into law yesterday, clarifying that cyclists have as much right to the state's roads as motorists do.

Motorists will be required to keep a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the cyclist. As I see it, there is no three-foot passing law that other states have enacted, but I guess at least if a motorist hits a cyclist he can’t argue that he was at a safe distance.

There are provisions for fines of up to $1,000 if a cyclist is seriously injured.

It is now a misdemeanor to harass, yell at, honk at, or throw and object in the direction of a cyclist. Punishable by a $250 fine, or 30 days prison, or both.

Cyclists are required to use a bike lane where provided, but may move into the road to avoid a hazard. Cyclists are not required to use a separate multi-use bike path, and can opt to ride on the road.

A cyclist can ride on the shoulder of the road, or the road, but is not required to ride on the shoulder.

Cyclists are not allowed to ride more than two abreast on public roads, which means they can ride in twos if circumstances allow. (This has been the law in SC all along and remains the same.)

A cyclist is no longer required to have a bell on their bike. (Someone should get a no-bell prize for that one :) I guess if it is a misdemeanor to honk at a cyclist, it is only fair that cyclist should not be allowed to ring their bell in anger.

Cyclists should signal a left turn by extending their left arm straight out, and in the case of a right turn, may signal with the right arm straight out. In other words, point in the direction they intend to go.

I am pleased, as this is what I have been doing all along. It seems to make more sense than signaling a right turn with your left arm at a 90 degree angle pointing upwards.

This bill has been kicking around since 2004. Sadly, it was the deaths of two cyclists that spurred it on. The new bicycle safety legislation was signed into law yesterday, Tuesday, June 10th, 2008, the day after Rachel Giblin’s birthday and the day before Tom Hoskins’ birthday. Rachel would have been 17. Tom would have been 50. Both died in vehicle-bike crashes.

South Carolina is unfortunately seventh in the nation when it comes to cycling fatalities, a horrible record. It saddened me when my local paper, the Post & Courier, printed this story on Monday and many hateful comments from readers were posted.

It only goes to show when people can no longer discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, or sexual orientation, they can improvise and still find someone to hate.

I am not a Lance Armstrong wannabe, I was racing bikes before Lance Armsrtong’s parents were born. I just want to ride my bike and come home safely, as we all do. I have a wife and also two daughters who love me, and would miss me.

I don’t expect attitudes to change overnight, however, this is a huge step forward. Every time another state passes laws like these, it makes it a little easier for the remaining states to follow suit.


The West Ashley Greenway

I recently learned of which lists all the Biking and Hiking Trails in the State of South Carolina.

On this website, I discovered the West Ashley Greenway, which runs from the Windermere district, just over the Stono River from James Island, to Main Road on Johns Island. I had heard of this trail, but I did not realize it was so long. (10.5 miles.)

On Sunday I decided to check it out and picked up the trail at about the half way point about a mile from my home. I headed west towards Main Road; there was no one else on the trail at 7:00 am. The first part of the trail was hard packed dirt and grass, easy riding on my road bike; I stopped to take a few pictures.

As I neared Main Road the trail went over some marshes; the last mile was loose stones and a little tough, but still ridable. (See below.)

The trail emerged under the railroad bridge on Main Road, just before the Stono River Bridge. There is easy access onto the Stono Bridge without having to cross Main Road, and even on the way back, you make a left at the foot of the bridge, and keep going left under the bridge (See below.) to the access road on the opposite side that takes you back to the trail head.

The trail was once an old railroad line and runs parallel with Savannah Highway (Route 17.) Savannah Highway is the main road South out of Charleston and has very heavy traffic. I will only ride it on the weekends when the traffic is a little lighter.

The trail enables me to bypass Rte.17 altogether. Main Road is also a busy two-lane highway that leads to Kiawah Island and Seabrook. Not good for riding, however, the Stono River Bridge has a wide shoulder, and once over the bridge it is only a short distance to a light where a right turn takes you onto Chisolm Road.

Chisholm is a road that goes nowhere; it just does a ten-mile loop and then joins back up with Main Road. As a result the only traffic on this road are local residents, and they are so used to seeing cyclists that they always give plenty of room when passing.

The road has a nice surface and much of it is shaded by trees on both sides, giving respite from the summer heat. (See picture below.)

On the weekend it is not unusual to see as many cyclists on this road as cars. Many local cyclists drive out there, then park and ride their bikes. I hate to do that on principal, plus we are a one-car family, so tying up the vehicle while I ride my bike would be a little selfish.

I am excited about the Greenway Trail because for me it makes riding Chisolm a possibility during the week and not just weekends. I actually enjoyed riding it, took me back to my old cyclo-cross days.

The European pros know from experience of riding on cobblestones, the faster you ride over rough ground the more comfortable it is. I rode this trail using the highest gear I could handle. A high gear gives more traction, and when you are pushing hard your weight is on the pedals rather than the saddle. Arms bent and holding the bars loosely allows the bike to float over the rough ground.

The only time I will not be able to ride this trail is when the ground is wet; I will also have to clean my bike a little more often. This is a chore I could do without; I would rather ride my bike than clean it. Oh well.


A Million Bucks? What a Crock*

This is a bike that Koga has developed for Dutch Olympic hopeful Theo Bos. Koga claims they have spent a million US dollars developing this special one off bike.

I’m sorry I don’t buy it, all I see is just another carbon fiber bike. If this was new technology I might be convinced, but CF bikes have been around for twenty years or more, they were built for the Olympics in the 1980s.

It’s a bicycle fer Cri-sakes, not a Formula One race car; where do you get a million bucks. Give us a breakdown of where the million dollars went.

What about truth in advertising? Because this is what it is. You build a one off bike, and then you think of a number. Okay, a million dollars is a nice round figure.

Next, put out a press release saying you’ve spent a million developing this special bike that is so light a fart would blow it away.

The press and the general media, knowing sod all about bikes goes with the story.

When it comes to bicycle racing it is the strongest rider that will win every time. If Theo Bos is the best rider he would still win on a stock bike that anyone can buy.

Can’t Koga see that? If Bos were to win on one of their stock bikes, it would in the end sell more bikes. Because what they are saying is, our stock bikes are not good enough for the Olympics we have to spend a million dollars.

The smart thing to do would be to pay Theo Bos a million dollars if he wins the gold on a stock bike.

* UK translation: What a Crock = What a Load of Bollocks!

Footnote from Dave: Ooops! Koga not Kona, mistake edited. See first comment. Thanks Darren