Today’s guest blogger is Court Nederveld. Court is the president of the Peace River Riders Bicycle Club, a member of the Charlotte County Metropolitan Planning Organization Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, one of two Florida Bicycle Association’s 2014 Citizen Bicycle Advocate award recipients and serves as Co-Chair for the Team Punta Gorda Bicycle Friendly Committee.
Any discussion of bicycling as a form of transportation comes attached with the word “safe.” Webster’s dictionary defines safe as an adjective. A description of particular conditions such as “eggs remain in the damp sand, safe from marine predators.” Safe can also be a noun as in “the bank keeps our money in a safe.” We can even combine the adjective and the noun as “the bank keeps our money in a safe safe.
As people that ride bicycles, we often allow the incomplete or unconditioned statement, “I’d never ride a bicycle on a road that isn’t safe,” to be unchallenged. Safe compared to what? Not as “safe” as what? The primary use of the word safe, when applied to cycling, seems to be fear. It’s not safe out there. Don’t ride a bike it’s not safe. Or if we ask the speaker to refrain from using the word safe they quickly switch to dangerous. “Don’t ride a bike it’s too dangerous. I’d never ride a bike on the road it’s too dangerous.” But again the statement, while not using “safe,” is incomplete. Too dangerous compared to what?
One wonders if the focus on the word safe is merely code for how can we get folks to give up bicycling as transportation and get off the road. If we look around, “safe” is used to restrict cycling activities. Wide sidewalks are renamed MURTs (Multi-Use Recreational Trails) and pointed to as bicycle routes. Even to the school level with Safe Streets to School or Bike Buses. Don’t’ ride your bike to school because it is not safe unless riding the way we want you too. (I’m not saying children shouldn’t be protected, the point here is that the fear of cycling is inculcated at a very young age. What do children do after school or on weekends, get their friends to join in a bike bus?) Municipalities proclaim their adoption of the Complete Streets concept and state with a straight face that a route has bicycle facilities because there is a sidewalk available. Bicycle events are planned with street closings so it’s safe. Don’t tour the area unless we can arrange the police bike patrol as an escort because otherwise it isn’t safe. Or we can’t put sharrows or bicycle route signs on the road because it might imply the road is safe to ride a bicycle on. Only restricted bicycle trails are “safe.” The list and examples could go on and on. So what can we do to change the mental perception of the word safe? Even public education programs on bicycle safety often focus on wear a helmet, have lights, and wear bright clothing. Rarely do they encompass Cycling Savvy’s time proven techniques for riding bicycles and avoiding conflict in urban areas.
One way is to challenge the statement “it isn’t safe,” with safer than what? Facts take all the fun out of an argument. We can nod solemnly and admit that approximately 700 people riding bicycles were killed in 2014. Then pause and add that 4,000 people drowned, 4,700 pedestrians were killed, 33,000 people died in car accidents, the CDC estimates 300,000 people die every year due to complications of obesity and that 440,000 people die from hospital mistakes. So to partake the “safest” activity from that list we should continue to ride our bikes. Another approach is to ask them if they drive a car, then tell them 33,000 people died last year in cars so obviously driving isn’t “safe” and maybe they should stop driving. These usually aren’t the answers expected as it doesn’t seem to imply that we will give up cycling and get off the road.
Another approach might be to circumvent the word “safe,” with a more accurate definition. My favorite is “conflict avoidance.” When the “…it isn’t safe on the road,” line comes up, the statement that I make is that all precautions to avoid conflict predicates skill and experience. Careers are made teaching Crash Prevention, not telling people a particular activity isn’t “safe.”
Another issue we have is our fellow bicyclists and their riding perceptions. Recently I described to a group a 3-foot sting operation I participated in with local police. It was interesting to note that as our group of four experienced bicycle riders traveled back and forth on a heavy traffic road, staying 1.5 to 2 feet to the left of the white line, not one car broached the three-foot envelope for passing. We then moved over to the far right to ride on the white line and within less than a minute, a driver too close to us was pulled over to have the 3-foot passing law explained to them by law enforcement. My purpose for the discussion was to demonstrate the importance of lane control, hold and release, riding large and other habits used by cyclists who practice conflict avoidance. I was then chastised because not every rider wants to ride “aggressively” and is happy to ride the white line. I explained; no experienced cyclist rides aggressively and these actions are a defensive way of riding that clearly avoided conflict with traffic.
If you like the term conflict avoidance you’re welcome to it, if not find a term that works for you but let’s stop implying that cycling isn’t “safe.”
There are cities and municipalities that get it. I recently returned from cycling in New Orleans. Bicycling as transportation appeared to have been integrated into the road system. Sharrows, bike lanes and bike boulevards all meshed traffic into one transportation system that worked very well.
Ride your bicycle; it’s safe compared to…
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