Coasting into my driveway after work a couple of weeks ago, I was met by my father-in-law, Ken, who was joining us for dinner. After exchanging pleasantries as I put my bike away, he mentioned he’d just read an obituary for a young woman killed by a driver while commuting by bike to her last day in a graduate program. What ensued was a spirited exchange on the relative safety of biking versus driving.
I suggested that biking is safer than driving when measured by hours on the road. He countered that there are more bike fatalities per mile traveled by bike than by car. I replied that this isn’t a fair comparison given the longer distances and higher speeds logged for car trips. You can see where this kind of conversation was going.
The funny thing is my father-in-law is a cyclist himself. Shortly after I began bike commuting several years ago, Ken bought his first road bike. He’s now an avid touring cyclist. He’s also the father of two active daughters, one of whom (my wife) had a serious accident on her bike this spring.
Our conversation caused me to reflect upon not merely why I bike, but why I prefer to bike on the road — with traffic, at the mercy of those driving vehicles that weigh 100–200 times mine.
I must admit up front that I have a great route to work. It’s roughly 25 miles round trip — a long way for those who don’t bike regularly and not far for those who do. Half my commute is on a paved trail: The Southwest LRT (the Midtown Greenway as it heads west out of Minneapolis).
The other half is on a wide-shouldered, two-lane road: Excelsior Boulevard west of Shady Oak Road. Cars drive fast here but there’s a wide shoulder and the route is surprisingly scenic, with some nice wooded sections and hills.
While I love the trail, riding it regularly reminds me that the perceived safety of dedicated paths and trails is exaggerated.
On the trail, cyclists contend with other bikers, runners, roller bladers, walkers with baby strollers, even dogs. And then there are the road crossings. Some well-meaning drivers stop and wave cyclists through intersections, while others barrel through without touching the brakes.
Sidewalks are even more dangerous. Even where it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk (and in most urban areas it’s not) it’s a real minefield. In addition to pedestrians, a cyclist must beware of driveways, side streets and alleys. Most drivers pull up to intersections with an eye toward the traffic on the cross street, paying little to no attention to the sidewalk.
And on the topic of sidewalk riding, I want my kids to understand how to ride safely on the road as well — when they’re ready. My 8-year-old rides with me on residential streets. He rides in front of me and listens carefully to my instructions. When he’s by himself, he still rides on the sidewalk since drivers could have trouble seeing such a short rider.
In the end, my father-in-law and I were at a stalemate. It’s certainly true that biking involves an element of risk. Over the past few years, one to two cyclists have died annually in car-bike crashes in Minneapolis. This is tragic.
But nearly as tragic is the observation that many fatal bike accidents could be easily prevented. About half of all car-bike crashes are caused by dangerous behavior on the part of cyclists, such as riding on the wrong (left) side of the road, turning left in front of passing vehicles, running through red lights and stop signs, or riding at night without lights.
And it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of bike accidents result in only minor scrapes, sprains and, in some cases, broken bones. These accidents often go unreported, making those that are seem disproportionately severe.
Not surprisingly, the more someone bikes, the less frequently they’re involved in accidents. It has been estimated that a decade of experience will reduce a cyclist’s accident rate by roughly 80 percent. Cyclists’ worst fear — being hit from behind by an inattentive driver — accounts for only a small fraction of bike fatalities, and a much smaller fraction of bike accidents generally.
Ultimately, we need all types of safe routes: Dedicated paths, paved and unpaved trails, on-street bike lanes. We need more education, for cyclists and drivers alike. And we need motorists and bicyclists to respect one another and understand their shared rights and responsibilities.
Finally, regardless where you prefer to ride, know your rights and responsibilities as a rider. And be safe.
See you on the road!