Riding a Bicycle IS Safe

One of the comments we got about yesterday’s post about the crash that killed Bike Fed member Andy Nowak asked why our organization doesn’t recommend people not ride on roads without wide paved shoulders:

“Mr Held,

I fail to understand why you would recommend riding to the left of the fog line when there is so much room to the right if it.

I notice that in most of your posts you do a great job of describing how motorist can drive more safely without any mention of good safe defensive riding for bicyclists. If your intention is to help make road riding for bicyclist more safe, why don’t you recommend a few things like:

  • Use bike paths whenever possible
  • Choose roads with asphalt right of the fog line and ride there
  • Ride single file whenever cars are present
  • Avoid riding when the sun is low in the sky
  • Come to a complete stop at ALL stop signs
  • Ride without earbugs so that traffic can more easily be heard

If the goal is to keep bicycles and cars from coming into contact with each other, both car drivers and bicycle riders share the responsibilities. It would be helpful if you would spend equal time in describing road safety to car drivers and bicycle riders. After all, it’s the bicyclist who has the most at risk and making recommendations like riding to the left of the fog line when there is room to the right of it sounds dangerous.”

I think the question and suggestions were made in a respectful manner, but they reflect a pervasive culture among people who don’t ride bikes for transportation that blames the victim rather than the perpetrator in the United States. I try to answer questions like this in a way that helps people rethink the perspective that blames the victim and emphasizes the responsibility we all shoulder when we are driving a motor vehicle in a space we must share with other road users, some of whom are walking and bicycling. Below is my response:

Hi Jerry, relative to the fog line, according to state law and best safe practices, bicycles should ride as far to the right as is “practicable,” which means as far to the right that safely and successfully ride. For most riders, that means leaving about 3 feet from hazards since bicycles stay upright in part by moving from left to right when the wind blows, including gusts from passing motor vehicles which tend to push a bicycle to the right. The 1-2 feet to the right of the fog line on this road is not sufficient width for safe travel.

Since people like this victim need to get places like to work that often do not have a separate path or even a wide paved shoulder, it is necessary to ride to the left of the fog line. Since people in cars are doing the killing, using your logic but putting the responsibility where it belongs, you would be better to argue people should not drive on roads without wide paved shoulders when their visibility is limited if they think there may be people walking, bicycling or farmers using them.

Instead, we choose to ask that everyone who gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and operates that potentially dangerous moving object obey our laws and take their responsibility for other’s safety seriously and drive with extra caution when the potential to cause serious injury or death through personal negligence exists.

As a further practical measure, we advocate that roads be constructed for the safe passage of all users. The purpose of our roads is to transport goods and people, not move people in cars. With proper design, a complete street is much safer for all users.

To reiterate what is mentioned in the post above, despite this tragic death, when the health benefits are factored in, riding a bicycle is probably safer than driving a car AND riding bicycles has a positive return to our society and communities, where as driving personal motor vehicles, however necessary for many, has a negative return.

Thanks for reading and writing though, civil dialogue is always a good thing. -Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director, Wisconsin Bike Fed

The implication is that it is that given how dangerous it is to ride bicycles, it simply irresponsible to a ride anywhere but a bicycle trail or road with a wide, paved shoulder. First, we object to the supposition that blames the victim for simply riding on a road with motor vehicles. While the suggestion that instead people shouldn’t drive cars on roads without paved shoulders is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it makes the point that we all have a responsibility to drive safely, which sometimes means traveling below the posted speed limit.

Furthermore, while crashes like the one that killed Andy, whom I have ridden with recently on a couple Spring Classic rides, are horribly tragic, they remain relatively rare. Statistics show that riding a bicycle is actually very safe, and when you factor in the health benefits, riding a bicycle is more likely to lengthen your life than shorten it.

Recently there have been some studies done to quantify the relative risk of cycling and weigh that agains the health benefits.

Many of the biggest risks we face in life can be reduced with one simple tool: the bicycle.

“For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.

Conclusions: On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.” Source: Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? Jeroen Johan de Hartog1, Hanna Boogaard1, Hans Nijland2, Gerard Hoek1

Annual Risk Of Death During One’s Lifetime

Disease and Accidental Causes of Deaths Annual Deaths Death Risk During One’s Lifetime
Heart disease 652,486 1 in 5
Cancer 553,888 1 in 7
Stroke 150,074 1 in 24
Hospital Infections 99,000 1 in 38
Flu 59,664 1 in 63
Car accidents 44,757 1 in 84
Suicide 31,484 1 in 119
Accidental poisoning 19,456 1 in 193
MRSA (resistant bacteria) 19,000 1 in 197
Falls 17,229 1 in 218
Drowning 3,306 1 in 1,134
Bike accident 762 1 in 4,919
Air/space accident 742 1 in 5,051
Excessive cold 620 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure 273 1 in 13,729
Lightning 47 1 in 79,746
Train crash 24 1 in 156,169
Fireworks 11 1 in 340,733
Shark attack 1 1 in 3,748,067

Sources: All accidental death information from National Safety Council. Disease death information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shark fatality data provided by the International Shark Attack File.

We also regularly share the following graphics about crash data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Safety. We share it whenever people worry that riding a bicycle is dangerous, complain that traffic is just getting worse and worse, or admonish people for taking their life in their own hands by riding a bicycle in traffic.  The fact is that bicycling is safe and keeps getting safer all the time.

Fatal crashes involving bicycles have dropped from highs of 30 or more in the 1970s and hovered between zero and 15 in recent years.

The number of crashes has been on the decline for years, even as the number of people commuting by bicycle increases. The fatal crash numbers are so small, that the variations from year to year are probably statistically insignificant. Given the number of people riding is going up, the actual fatal crash rate is declining too.

All the risk assessments like the one above that I have seen tend to show the risk of death for bicycling is lower than the risk of death in a motor vehicle. Some still argue we don’t have the best data for bicycling to fairly compare it to other activities that have been studied more. We are all for more studies and better data, but it seems clear already that in general, riding a bicycle is a pretty safe activity that keeps getting safer.

Of course, like our partners at the Wisconsin DOT, we are working for safety improvements in engineering, education, encouragement and enforcement so that nobody dies in traffic-related deaths. Zero in Wisconsin is more than a vision, it is part of every roadway redesign and our improving traffic safety education programs like Share And Be Aware. We can all play an active role in moving closer to our goal by taking extra caution when we are driving a motor vehicle and following safe practices when walking and bicycling.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

7 thoughts on “Riding a Bicycle IS Safe

  1. Great column, Dave. Excellent data points as well. I will definitely be using some of these in the Wausau area. Your last sentence is perfect. Thanks for a good read. Keeps me motivated to continue to make communities in Wisconsin bicycle-friendly.


    Aaron Ruff
    City of Wausau Bike/Ped Advisory Committee

    • Thanks for reading, writing and riding Aaron. And thanks for doing all you do in Marathon County to make our roads safer for everyone.

  2. We ride our bike a lot. I hate riding with traffic and much prefer roads with a bike lane or even better riding a bike path. When possible we stay off highways/busy roads and take bike paths or residential neighborhoods where kids ride and play in the street even if it adds miles to our trips. We know several people who have been hit by cars but luckily not killed.

    We have a loud horn to make sure that cars don’t make left turns, don’t pull out of driveways and roads on top of us and use it to make sure that people are looking at us. I don’t like tinted windows where we can’t see the driver. We have mirrors, and wear bright reflective clothing. We are always ready to take evasive action. Despite all these precautions we have had many close calls. It would be nice if drivers who tailgate you on roads would get tickets or be forced to ride a bike for a week.

    In an ideal world drivers would not be texting, or thinking of other things instead of watching for bikers and pedestrians. However, this is not an ideal world. I think all car drivers should ride a bike for one week on a variety of roads so they can be more aware and alert. especially if they get caught hitting or almost hitting a biker or pedestrian.

    We do have a lot of kids and adults who ride bikes in our area so near home we’re somewhat safe. However a lot of them do ride on sidewalks because they’ve gotten hit and so are afraid to ride on the road.

    • Thanks for the comments, one thing to be careful of is although riding a bicycle on a sidewalk “feels” safer, it often is much more dangerous. Most crashes happen at conflict points. Intersections are conflict points and driveways are intersections too. The speed that a bicycle travels on a sidewalk is faster than walking or jogging, and drivers often only use their peripheral vision rather than turning their heads, to check for people walking before they pull out. Furthermore, they often only look in the direction of on-coming motor-vehicle traffic, so if you are riding a bike on the sidewalk opposite direction the nearest MV travel lane, they don’t look for you at all. That is why many cities and towns make it illegal for adults to ride bicycles on sidewalks.

      That same rule of danger still exists for little kids on neighborhood streets, but it is much reduced compared to riding along a street with business parking lots. I mention this just as an FYI.

      We totally understand why people ride on the sidewalk. The successful keys to getting more people to ride in the street is protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards. Both are being installed rapidly in other cities. Minneapolis just announced plans to construct 140 miles of protected bike lanes. Chicago is closing in on 100 miles and has major streets that now carry more bicycle traffic during peak hours than car traffic! Portland has bicycle boulevards that do the same thing.

      Anyway, thanks for reading, writing and riding!

  3. Cars kill 45,000 people per year. Cyclists die, usually as a result of cars hitting them, at less than 800 per year. This Jerry guy concludes that bicycles are bad, and cars are terrific. I think that tells you everything you need to know about Jerry.

  4. I agree that we must push back against attitudes that bicycles don’t belong on all roads or that they are simply toys for recreation. At the same time, we ourselves musn’t perpetuate these attitudes by focusing most of our official efforts on races, fun rides, special how to bike to school workshops, etc. Rather I wish US bike organizations would put much more emphasis and effort on pushing, lobbying, and “guerrilla installing” the buffered bike lanes, bike boxes, bike parking, contiguous bike lanes, and other real bike infrastructure (and law enforcement) needed to ensure not only adult/experienced rider safety but also safety for young and novice riders. In countries where bicycling IS used for transportation, even is probablly the primary means of transportation, advocacy organizations focus on continuing to grow and improve bike-centric infrastructure, shaming and lobbying local and national governments where infrastructure is poor or inadequate, recommending routes and practices that improve already safe commutes, pushing for improved bike parking, and furthering bike design to make those vehicles even more useful. Imagine if, in order to be safe walking the dog, people had to strap on helmets, lights, blinkers, knee and elbow pads, and padded marshmallow suits and then had to walk on a painted path in the middle of a highway and all the time dodge, Frogger-style, speeding cars and trucks. And imagine pedestrian advocacy organizations, rather than spending most of their efforts lobbying, rallying, and organizing for sidewalks, crosswalks, signaled intersections, and severe penalties for car drivers who kill or injure walkers, instead organizing events to race from one city to another or hike through the woods, or walk in a group from one tavern to the next, or show people how to more perfectly strap the padded suit onto their child or dog! If we want to really grow a true bicycle culture, we have to first ensure that every human can safely bicycle everywhere she/he wants and needs to go without having to buy or don expensive special clothing or safety equipment and without having to spend even one minute mapping out a route for safety reasons or fearing for their lives the whole time they are riding. Unless and until that happens, I believe, we’ll continue to have and perpetuate a small elite bike club where only those who can afford the equipment/location/time/chance of bankrupting medical bills will ride. So, there SHOULD be a buffered bike lane – at least – on all our roads or if not there must be legal penalties severe enough and enforced enough to make every driver tremble at the consequences of hitting someone else. That’s where the real advocacy has to focus in my opinion.

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