Worcester, Mass.
July 17, 1994

Obeying rules means a safer ride

By Lynne Tolman

    Whenever a bicycling accident makes the news, someone will say to me, "See, biking is dangerous. Aren't you scared to ride in traffic?"

    The same people, of course, zoom off in their cars without a second thought.

    So who's taking a bigger risk, the cyclist or the driver?

    Statistically, it's hard to say. Bicyclists account for less than 2 percent of all traffic fatalities in the country, and the number of deaths is declining, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But bicyclists' death rates per trip or per person-mile of travel "greatly exceed the rates for car occupants," according to the Johns Hopkins Injury Prevention Center.

    A cyclist is 40 percent more likely to get in an accident than a motorist, according to the Minnesota Peace Officers Guide. "That's looking at the whole population," which includes about 44 million children riding bikes and about 55 million adult cyclists in the United States, said Susie Jones, education director for the League of American Bicyclists.

    "But if you're obeying traffic rules, they found you're no more likely to be in a crash than if you're in a car," Jones said. Indeed, NHTSA reports that 66 percent of bicyclists killed in traffic crashes were doing something wrong, such as running red lights or stop signs.

    John Forester, author of the biking-skills bible "Effective Cycling," breaks down the major causes of car-bike collisions as follows:

    Under Massachusetts law, bicyclists and motorists have all the same rights and responsibilites. That means cyclists are supposed to keep to the right, stop at stop signs, not pass on the right, signal our turns, make left turns from the left lane, yield to pedestrians and all the rest.

    The key to sharing the road safely is to be predictable. Because so many cyclists flout traffic rules, drivers don't know what to expect when they come upon someone on two wheels, and they fear a sudden maneuver will spell disaster. To show drivers you will not veer into their path, ride in a steady, straight line without weaving or wobbling, even if you must ride in the roadway to avoid hazards in the shoulder. Don't duck in and out between parked cars.

    Motorists, for their part, need to lose the attitude that bikes don't belong on the road at all and can be treated differently than other vehicles. A common motoring mistake is to pass a cyclist on the left, then make a right turn in front of the rider, cutting him or her off.

    Rich Whalen of Worcester was biking on Manning Street in Holden last weekend, signaling to turn left into Trout Brook Reservation and moving to the left of the shoulder. A driver behind him couldn't wait to pass him and yelled as he forced Whalen back to the shoulder, "What are you trying to do? Get yourself killed?''

    To his credit, Whalen resisted the impulse to shout back or raise his middle finger. No sense fanning the hostility and seeing the driver take it out on the next rider up the road. But it's frustrating for a cyclist to behave with respect, only to be endangered by disrespectful motorists. Would the driver have pulled around a car or motorcycle signaling a left turn from the middle of the lane?

    "Cyclists fare best when they act as -- and are treated as -- drivers of vehicles," said John S. Allen of Waltham, a board member of the Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts, quoting Forester.

    Allen said cautious, experienced riders need not be alarmed by accident statistics. He cited a British medical study, "Cycling Towards Health and Safety," that shows the exercise of cycling adds years to your life, and that greatly outweighs the risk of getting killed while pedaling.

    Car-bike collisions, the most feared and most fatal bike crashes, are only 12 percent of serious bike accidents, Allen noted. Other accidents send more than half a million bike riders a year to hospital emergency rooms. About 96 percent of them are treated and released, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    Josh Lehman, bicycle-pedestrian coordinator in the Massachusetts Highway Department, doesn't downplay the dangers of the roads. "Traffic, even without cyclists, is a contentious environment," he said. He won't give blanket recommendations on where it's safe to ride; instead he asks, "What's your comfort level? How experienced are you? Will you be riding with children?"

    Lehman and Allen agree that besides drivers' and cyclists' behavior, road designs and conditions play a big role in safety. "The traffic engineers' attitude seems to be, 'Maybe if we make it really hard for cyclists, they'll go away and the cars can go faster,' " Allen said.

"To operate any vehicle, a bike or a car, you need space," Lehman said. "The more skill you have, the less space you need to feel comfortable. But more space equals more margin" to maneuver when conditions are less than perfect. And when it comes to cars and bikes sharing the pavement, there are going to be bumps in the road.

                    TRAFFIC FATALITIES
          UNITED STATES      |        MASSACHUSETTS
Year     Bicyclists   Total  |  Bicyclists     Pedestrians    Total
1987     941       48,290    |       19             135        690
1988     910       49,078    |        8             143        726
1989     831       47,575    |       15             141        599
1990     856       46,814    |        7             128        505
1991     843       41,508    |       13             109        552
1992     722       39,235    |        9              98        485
1993     814       40,150    |       13              84        475
1994     802       40,676    |        8              86        440
Sources:  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Massachusetts
Registry of Motor Vehicles.

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