Debating the risk of riding on the roads, and whether we overemphasize it

Please forgive me.

I did my best to write today’s Morning Links, despite battling a killer headache. But it looks like the headache has won.

So I’m going to bed, and hoping it’s gone by morning. As usual, we’ll be back tomorrow to catch up on anything we missed.

But before we go, let me share this comment from Rob X, followed by my response. Because it is a conversation worth having, and one that continues to come up from time to time, in one form or another.

I’m a cyclist who’s way past tired of the “SO DANGEROUS!” whining. Bicycling seems to be the ONLY activity whose fans actively discourage others by claiming their favorite activity is dangerous. Or by claiming that it can’t be safe until all territory is redesigned with them in mind.

So you beg for bike lanes. Those bike lanes fill with gravel, glass and junk because car tires never sweep them clean. You demand sweepers, then you demand posts or other barriers that prevent sweepers from fitting. You demand parked cars to hide the bikers from drivers then you complain when a turning car runs over an unseen biker – a biker who doesn’t bother to check for cars because, hey, she’s “protected!”

Look, there are fewer than 1000 bike deaths in the U.S. every year. That’s not “dangerous.” Biking is way safer than even walking, whether you figure total deaths or deaths per mile. Biking is way safer than swimming or motorcycling. It’s safer than walking down stairs! But where are the calls stair walking helmets and elevators at all stairways?

Half of biker deaths are the fault of the biker. Those people are too confused or ignorant to follow simple rules of the road. Complicating those rules things with special lanes, opposite-direction bike lanes, “mixing zones,” blind intersections and more won’t help.

Bicycling is literally safer than NOT bicycling. It has health benefits WAY bigger than its risks. Quit scaring people into their noisy, polluting cars!

Here’s my response:

“Evidently, you haven’t spent much time on this site. Right up there, under Facts & Stats, it says this:

How safe is bicycling? Cyclists suffered in an estimated 52,000 injuries in 2009; making your odds of returning home safely from any given ride nearly 77,000 to one; the chances of surviving any given ride were over 6.3 million to one in your favor.

Sounds pretty safe to me.

On the other hand, statically, an average of 2 – 3 people are killed riding bicycles in the US every day. So while your risk on any given ride is infinitesimal, it’s going to happen to someone, somewhere. And every one of those “less than 1000” deaths you cite is someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, friend or loved one.

I often hear from the relatives of people killed while riding their bikes. And I can assure you it’s no small matter to them. I also hear from riders all levels, from beginning bike riders to experienced cyclists, who have been frightened off their bikes by one too many close calls, or one trip too many to the emergency room.

I’ve made four trips there myself, as I enter my 40th year of riding a bike as an adult.

So should we just tell everyone bike riding is safe, so get out there and just enjoy the ride, when their own experience tells them otherwise? Should we just say “oh well” when yet another innocent person gets sacrificed on the altar of the almighty automobile? Or should we fight like hell to make our streets safer for everyone?

I know what my answer is, because I’ve been doing this for 14 years now.

But remember this. Bike infrastructure isn’t there for experienced vehicular cyclists who have no fear of mixing it up with traffic. It’s for all the little kids and older folks, all the timid riders who won’t bike without it, and all the people like my wife, who are tired of picking their loved ones up at the hospital.

I’m glad you feel safe on your bike. But I hope you open your heart a little more to those who don’t, and those who haven’t been.”

So what do you thinK?

Personally, I think an average of nearly 1,000 people killed riding their bikes is about 1,000 too many.

But I’m willing to listen if you disagree.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my head to bed before it explodes.


  1. Evan says:

    Because biking is not something most people do every day, whereas driving tends to be for most people, I think you’re more likely to have a negative experience biking. I spent my 20s riding my bike a lot, for commuting and for fun, but I just got tired of all the negativity. Between the drivers yelling at me, the contentious city council meetings, the angry online comments, the years of fighting for just one bike lane, the loss of friends and fellow cyclists, I don’t find it as enjoyable as it once was. I continue to advocate for bike infrastructure and biking, but when I need to get somewhere, I just want to get there without worrying if it’s gonna be a fight, or if this’ll be the time I don’t make it.

  2. Phaedrus Leeds says:

    Once you account for the number of miles cycled versus those driven, or alternatively the amount of time spent cycling versus driving, it’s clear how much more dangerous cycling is. There’s an analysis on Kennett Peterson’s blog which found “Accordingly, you are 78 times more likely to be seriously injured by riding a bike than driving a car, with every mile you travel.”

    If you do the analysis based on time rather than distance, the number is more like a 17x increase in risk, according to one of the commenters.

  3. Joe Valenzuela says:

    Confident riders are going to be fine no matter what, really, but to get safety in numbers you have to accommodate less confident riders. Which requires more infrastructure.

    And really a lot of the things that I’d personally like to see – bulbed out pedestrian curbs for example to prevent people wildly swinging around my corner – would be good for car safety too. Hopefully it isn’t the case that new pedestrian or bike infrastructure makes any other form of transportation less safe.

  4. Michael says:

    I’ve ridden on the streets of Los Angeles County for over 30 years. I’m “confident,” and understand how to navigate the flow of traffic. I always defer to cars because you will always lose to cars if you get it wrong.

    The biggest changes I’ve seen over the years is the amount of traffic on the streets, people being distracted by cell phones, and screens in cars. People drive with their heads looking down at their phones or fixated on the screen their tapping at.

    A lot of the infrastructure I’ve seen developed for bikes is poorly thought out and not maintained. There are protected bike lanes in my neighborhood (Long Beach). They are not swept so they’re strewn with glass and road debris – so I avoid them.

    The one thing that I have seen more of are EBikes. I see more and more regular people (aka not cyclists) are commuting to work, school, etc. on them. That’s encouraging.

    Cycling in the city is dangerous. I’ve been hit by a RTD (remember those) bus at Stocker and Crenshaw. I went down and slid through the intersection of Western and Hollywood Blvd after hitting a huge pothole. I have had people try to intentionally run me over for no reason, throw garbage at me, shout very rude things at me.

    I still commute to work a few days a week and ride with my daughter on the weekends. But I don’t fool myself into thinking what I love is safe. It’s not.