Chances are, riding a bike is a lot safer than you think — and just as fun

Let’s talk safety for a moment.

Or rather, the risk you face riding your bike on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Or wherever you happen to ride.

Because chances are, it’s a lot less dangerous than you might think.

Granted, it can look bad at times — especially if you read this blog on an irregular basis; I’ve long noticed that readership spikes whenever a bike rider gets killed or seriously injured.

That’s perfectly understandable. But that means you might miss the stories in between that talk about bike advocacy and improving infrastructure, as well as lists of links and the simple joys of just riding your bike.

Which I freely admit I don’t write about nearly enough.

So let’s make one thing perfectly clear. Riding a bike is fun.

Really fun.

Even a bad day on a bike is better than just about anything else I might do with that time; after a few hours — or sometimes, a few days — I forget about the few moments when something went wrong and remember just how good the rest of the ride felt.

Even when I have an encounter with an angry or dangerous driver, I try to forget the one or two jerks I had a problem with. And focus on the countless others who shared the road safely and, often, courteously.

Yes, bad things can happen on a bike.

Unlike drivers, we don’t have glass and steel plating to protect us. Or seat belts, air bags and crumple zones, for that matter.

Our crumple zones are our own bodies.

And we have nothing more than a helmet to protect us, if that.

On the other hand, we also have much greater maneuverability than those lumbering metal behemoths we share the road with. And can often avoid collisions that would be inevitable if we were behind the wheel.

It may seem counterintuitive, but you actually have a much lower risk of dying on a bike than you do in a car. In fact, you’re 15 times more likely to die in a car collision over the course of your lifetime than you are on a bike.

Even accounting for relative time in the saddle and behind the wheel, your risk of dying in a car is nearly twice as much as on a bike.

And neither one begins to approach the risks of sitting on your couch and doing nothing.

Surprisingly enough, Los Angeles is a pretty safe place to ride, as well. The city has seen five bicycling fatalities in each of the last two years, while the county averages 24 bike deaths per year.

That may sound like a lot, but it works out to just one cycling death per 750,000 and 400,000 residents, respectively. Which makes the area significantly safer than Orange and San Diego Counties, with one death per every 230,000 and 250,000 residents, respectively.

Granted, even one death is one too many.

But given that the city cites over 400,000 regular riders in Los Angeles — and climbing rapidly — your odds of surviving your next ride, and every ride after that, are pretty damn good.

Looking at it another way, I once read a study which said regular cyclists — that’s regular as in frequent, not ordinary or non-constipated — could expect an injury serious enough to require medical attention once every 8.3 years.

Which puts me right on course, with four trips to the ER in 32 years of adult riding.

And only one of those involved an automobile. Which is exactly the same number involving freak encounters with massive swarms of bees.

Better yet, you can dramatically reduce your risk of serious injury just by taking a few simple precautions.

  • Always ride within your own abilities. Yes, it’s fun to push your limits, but riding on the edge is where most injuries happen.
  • Avoid the door zone. Ride at least three feet from parked cars and watch for people inside, open doors or brake lights that could indicate trouble.
  • Ride defensively. Assume that anyone you see on the road will do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, and mentally prepare for it. If they do, you’re ready; if not, you’re no worse off.
  • Always ride with traffic. Drivers aren’t looking for you coming at them, and salmon cycling reduces reaction times and increases the force of any impact.
  • Signal your turns. Even though many, if not most, drivers don’t these days, they expect you to; predictability of movement is key to safe riding in any situation.
  • Use other hand gestures, as well. No, not that one. Point slightly to your left if you’re coming into the traffic lane, or point straight ahead if you’re going through an intersection to keep cars from turning. And if there’s any confusion, waive drivers through ahead of you — it’s a lot better than getting hit.
  • Always observe the right of way. The first vehicle at an intersection goes first, those going straight go before any turning left, and in the event of a tie, the one on the right goes first. It may mean stopping to let a driver go ahead of you, but isn’t your safety worth a few extra seconds?
  • Stop for stop signs and red lights. Yes, it’s inconvenient and requires more effort. But riders blowing through signals is one of the primary causes of preventable collisions. And just about all collisions are preventable.
  • If you use hand brakes, practice braking with your back brakes a fraction of a second before you squeeze the front one, until it becomes second nature. That will keep you from going over your handlebars, which I’ve done too many times.
  • Learn to turn by shifting your body weight instead of using the handlebars. Once you get the hang of it, it’s much easier, natural and more responsive, especially at speed, and allows you to swerve quickly to avoid dangerous situations.
  • Practice sprinting at a higher cadence. Even if you’ll never race, sprinting skills can help you get out of a dangerous situation before it sucks you in. I’ve probably avoided as many collisions by sprinting out of the way as I have by braking.
  • Wear a helmet. Yes, I know all the arguments against helmet use, as well as their limitations. And in 32 years of riding, I’ve only needed mine once. But that one time could have made my wife a widow if I’d been without it.
  • Use lights and reflectors after dark. The law requires a headlight and rear reflector, along with reflectors on both wheels. I use a flashing light up front, two blinkers in back and reflective strips on my wrists and ankles. Drivers can’t avoid you if they don’t know you’re there.
  • Wear clothes that contrast with your surroundings. Hi-viz isn’t necessary; bright colors, deep blacks and whites stand out from the surrounding environment on during the day, while light colors stand out at night. Avoid dull blacks, blues and grays, especially on cloudy days, since they blend in too easily.
  • If you don’t feel safe or confident on the streets, consider taking a Confident City Cycling or Savvy Cycling course. It doesn’t mean you have to turn into a rabid vehicular cyclist, but it helps to have the skills to ride in any situation.

Unfortunately, bad things can happen on a bike.

And I’m going to keep writing about the bad things that happen on bikes, and to bike riders, until there aren’t any more to write about.

But until then, don’t let that scare you off your bike.

Because those bad things happen a lot less often than it might seem.

And with a little effort and skill, they probably won’t happen to you.

10 comments

  1. Chris says:

    I read every column from this blog. I love the good, bad & indifference that comes with cycling news & feel I’m much more informed & safer when I’m logging miles. Thank you for taking the time to create a forum for cyclists that touches the heart of riding and the love of the open road.

  2. grrlyrida says:

    You’re funny Ted. I always read your blog. Next to LA Streetsblog, I think you have the most important blog in LA. Thanks for putting all the time into your blog keeping us informed, enlightened and impassioned.

  3. Allan says:

    Dang, I really thought I might see something on lights here. OK I’ll do it!

    Use lights in the dusk and at night. Some even advocate the use of lights in the day time! Given that your life is easily well worth at least $25, investing in a SuperFlash rear light would be a rather cheap investment. Yes there are bigger and maybe brighter rear lights out there, but for the money and what you get, it doesn’t get beat! A good front light that you can be seen with and see the road, is not a bad investment either.

    And really? You’ve gone over your handlebar many times? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to learn to use your brakes properly. Learning and practicing is the key here. In all the time I’ve ridden my bike, which is from childhood to my adult years, about 50. I’ve never gone over my handlebar, and that includes a good amount of off road riding. I contribute that to practicing and learning, and maybe some slight luck.

    And in regards to the drivers out there. I just got back from being away from the LA area for about a month. I have had a chance to experience things recently and it seems that drivers are being a bit more alert and courteous to riders out there. Yes they’ve got a ways to go to get to drivers in the Sacramento area, where I was, but I keep thinking there’s hope. Really the best way for all is to build infrastructure. If you ever get a chance to go to Sacramento, bring your bike! You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the whole scene. So often I feel like I’m the only one on a bike in the city I live in now(LB, CA). That’s not the feeling I got in Sacramento! More riders on the road, more alert and courteous drivers and far more infrastructure does amazing things!

    • bikinginla says:

      Hey, I talked lights — check the third bullet from the bottom. But thanks for adding to it.

      • Allan says:

        Sorry, you were losing me at “Stop for stop signs and red lights.” , 8th one down. Thought for sure I’d see something on lights by then. Wish there was some way to tally fatalities due in part to inadequate lights. I think there would be far more emphasis on proper lights.

        Thanks for the write up.

        • Jeff Nerdin says:

          My favorite new lights are Revolights, which not only increase side visability, but communicate to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists alike an immediate message about the direction the cyclist is headed because they use the same white in front – red in back patterns as automobiles. They say they work as a headlight, but I think I’d want something brighter on a dark night. Still, I think they are a great idea, I just wish I could afford to buy them. At $199, they’re a little more than I can spend right now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some before it starts to get dark again in the Fall. Check them out at http://www.revolights.com. (No I’m not affiliated with the company in any way…I didn’t even contribute to their Kickstarter campaign. I just like the product.)

  4. bikinginla says:

    Thank you all for the kind words. I really do appreciate it.

  5. Ralph says:

    I feel that I can reduce my risk by riding correctly. If I obey the laws, to a large extent, my chance of me making a mistake, getting the blame, drops.
    I do wear a helmet also. Had a couple of Look Delta chrome molly spindles snap. Landed on the back of my head crunching the helmet. Can’t remember anything except waking up….from a few seconds before the failure.

    • bikinginla says:

      I know what that’s like. When I ran into the bees on the beach, last thing I remember is seeing a bee walk across my glasses… then waking up to a lifeguard putting an oxygen mask on me several minutes later.

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