Freedom from Fear

By Mighk Wilson

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

– protagonist Paul Atreides in the Frank Herbert novel Dune

Undoubtedly, one of the most common deterrents to bicycling is fear. Fear of motorists. Notice I said "motorists," not "cars" or "traffic." When people talk about bike safety, especially those who are afraid to bike on the roads, they aren’t much concerned about potholes or dogs or sand on the corner or their ability to control the bike. They fear the motorist they can’t see and who supposedly can’t see them. This fear is based on the belief that a significant number of motorists are likely to hit bicyclists while overtaking them. Does it happen? Yes. Is it common? Not at all.

Beliefs are survival tools our brains use when we don’t have sufficient direct sensory information to make a decision. Good beliefs can protect us from potential dangers. Bad beliefs mislead us into being fearless when we should be wary or fearing the wrong things. While I sit at my desk in my office I believe my bike is sitting in the bike locker where I locked it and left it, even though I have no evidence to support that belief. It’s not until I go out there, open the locker and look inside that I know my bike is actually there. I couldn’t function sanely if I spent the day believing my locker was being broken into. Conversely, if I believed no one would wish to steal my bike, I wouldn’t bother locking it and would again sit at my desk believing it was still there.

What kinds of events contribute to our beliefs about bicycle safety? First and most common is sensory information -- observation of the motorists and bicyclists around us. Such observations often convince people that bicycling is unsafe. It only takes a few incidents of carelessness or rudeness by motorists to convince some that cycling is a dangerous activity even though most interactions with motorists are non-threatening. We humans are easily startled when something big comes rushing up from behind us. Think -- predator! Even after 25 years of cycling an overtaking car still occasionally startles me.

Second are the lies that motorists tell when they have treated cyclists poorly. Catch up to a motorist after one has nearly sideswiped you and you’ll most likely hear one of the following lies: A) "I didn’t see you." B) "You belong on the sidewalk." C) "You’re supposed to ride all the way to the right."

Third are stories about crashes. The media does not report "20,000 people rode their bikes today and none of them were hit by motorists." They usually report that someone has been killed while cycling and make little or no effort to explain why the crash occurred.

The fourth way is through statistical data on bicyclist-versus-motorist crashes. Here again the information is skewed toward the negative. The statistical data people receive through the media is vague and misleading.

My purpose on these pages is to show you why proper cycling on roads is quite safe and can be accomplished by normal adults. I’ll be covering a few statistics (okay, a lot of statistics) my own experiences, the skills and practices necessary for safer cycling, and some reasoning about the motorist’s perspective.

The Crash Data

I collect a good deal of information about cycling crashes. It’s part of my job as a bike coordinator. Regrettably, what most people get to see are just raw numbers and media reports. (Some are even echoing these reports in their arguments to get cyclists removed from the roads.)

For example: in Orange, Seminole and Osceola Counties there were 644 bicyclists-versus-motorist crashes in 1994; 11 resulted in death. Scary thought, huh? But how many of those involved a cyclist driving on the right side of the roadway (not on the sidewalk) during daylight hours and obeying the signs, signals and rules of the road? Only 74, and of those not one was a fatality. Of those 11 deaths, 8 occurred at night, and 5 involved cyclists hit from behind. (How often do you see a cyclist out at night without lights?) The other 3 daytime deaths involved kids who failed to yield (ages 10, 15 and 16). These are the proportions of crash types you’ll see in most Florida cities.

Of those 74 crashes, 24 involved an overtaking motorist, and that’s the type of crash people fear most. That’s 24 daytime, non-fatal, motorist-overtaking crashes for an entire year for an area with more than 1.1 million licensed motorists (not including tourists). That means only one motorist out of 46,000 (0.002%) in our area in 1994 was so incompetent as to hit a bicyclist from behind in broad daylight. Only 13 resulted in significant injuries and only 4 in incapacitating injuries. Only 2 of the 24 motorists claimed they "did not see" the cyclist.

So what’s happening? A very small number of motorists are unsafely and unsuccessfully passing cyclists and the ensuing crashes are sideswipes that result in mostly minor injuries. Fortunately there is a way that you can reduce the tendency for motorists to pass unsafely. None of these overtaking crashes occurred on roads with wide curb lanes, bike lanes or paved shoulders. They happened on narrow lanes. And the law says that when the lane is narrow you are allowed to leave the right-most side and ride toward the middle.

"What of the other 50 crashes?" you ask. They resulted in 27 significant injuries; 4 incapacitating. They mostly involved motorists who failed to yield at intersections and driveways, and neither bike lanes, sidewalks nor paths offer protection from such crashes. Indeed, on sidewalks and sidewalk-style bikeways you will be more susceptible to such crashes, not less. On the roadway you’ll be more visible. The same defensive driving skills you use as a motorist will normally keep you out of such crashes.

And what of those scary media reports of cycling deaths? The old newspaper adage goes: "’Dog Bites Man?’… that’s not news. ‘Man Bites Dog,’ now that’s news." The commonplace goes unreported; the unusual gets the coverage. Furthermore, we like to have our beliefs reinforced and media producers share the belief that bicycling is dangerous. No one likes being told their beliefs are wrong.

If I owned a radio station I would broadcast a daily bicycle crash report. The most common report would go like this: "Twenty-thousand people rode bikes today. Only one was involved in a crash with an automobile. He was slightly injured while riding on the sidewalk facing traffic and was struck by a motorist exiting a driveway."

Individual Risk

What are the odds of one individual (like you or me) getting hit from behind by a careless or incompetent motorist? The experiences of a handful of other cyclists do not determine your personal risk of being hit by an overtaking motorist. What determines your risk are your behaviors and the behaviors of the passing motorists.

I’ll use my own experience here; I encourage you to work out your own numbers.

First let’s look at my old commute to work. For about 3 years I bike-commuted 6.5 miles each way to our old office in Winter Park about 3 times per week. (Today the office is only 1 mile away in downtown Orlando.) None of the route had bike lanes. About 2.5 miles had wide curb lanes, but the remainder had narrow lanes (11 feet or less) and about a mile of that had parallel parking. Not what most folks would call "bike-friendly." It took about 35 minutes, with about 5 minutes spent waiting at red lights. I would say a car would pass me on average every 15 seconds, 4 passes per minute. That works out to 720 passes per week; 108,000 passes over 3 years.

I’ve been cycling for over 25 years at about 5,000 miles per year. Probably 2,000 of the 5,000 were urban and suburban, and mostly here in the Orlando area. The vast majority of those miles have been on roads without bike lanes or paved shoulders, and few had wide curb lanes. At 15 mph that works out to about 3,300 hours of urban cycling. At 4 per minute (a very conservative estimate) that comes to about 792,000 passes. Out of over three-quarters of a million passing motorists, not one has hit me. (I haven’t experienced any type of motorist-versus-bicyclist collision in 25 years, unless you count the time I ran into the trunk of a parked car while adjusting my toe strap as a teen.) If 1 out of 10,000 motorists (one-hundredth of a percent) who passed me failed to see me, and 10 percent of those who didn’t see me didn’t avoid me I would have been hit 7 or 8 times in the past 25 years. Did I mention I also ride regularly in rain and darkness?

What about "luck?" Luck is a superstitious belief system some use when they don’t understand statistical odds. Remember, only 24 cyclists were hit from behind during daylight hours in our area in one year. If luck had anything to do with it, then there are thousands of "lucky" cyclists in our area. Millions of bicycle trips are made each year but only a handful result in injuries or death. Those who use the sidewalks seem to be less "lucky" since 198 of them were hit at driveways and cross-streets (eight times as many as those hit from behind).

I'm a normal person with normal skills. I make no claim of invulnerability. To claim invulnerability from the risk of passing cars is comparable to claiming it from lightning or tornadoes. While these forces are undeniably lethal, none are very likely to happen to me, or to you.

Training, Skills and Practices

Speaking of skills, another erroneous belief is that to ride safely in traffic one must be an "expert" or have "special skills and training." Strangely, people who believe special skills and training are necessary don’t bother to suggest what those skills or training might be. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know what they are.

Using myself as the example again, I ask, "What particular special skills have I mastered to consistently keep overtaking motorists from hitting me?" None that I know of. I’ve used a rear-view mirror attached to my helmet, but don’t look at it every second. Besides, I don’t think looking in a mirror is a special skill; motorists do it all the time. My mirror broke a while back and I got along fine for a few months until finally replacing i.

What about training? In elementary school in the 1960’s I got the usual "Officer Friendly" presentation on bike safety. His message? Always stop and look both ways before entering the road, ride on the right side of the road, stop at stop signs and red lights, and signal your turns. That was my sole bicycle safety training until I was into my early 20’s. My parents didn’t (and still don’t) ride any significant amount. (Dad was surprised to learn you’re required to ride on the right side of the road, not the left.) As a kid I rode an enormous amount of mileage compared to most. Every day during summer vacation I was out on the suburban streets and country backroads, traveling farther and farther each year. At age 14 I rode my first century, solo. I was doing self-supported, multi-day touring before I graduated high school. The bike continued to be my primary mode of transportation after I got my motor vehicle operator’s license. For about 10 years I rode entirely on roads with no more training than the police officer’s simple presentation. This did not occur in some sleepy small town, but in the bustling suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. I did not see my first bike lane until I was 27. In my early 20’s I started reading Bicycling Magazine, and picked up some pointers there. I didn’t ride regularly with a club until 1988. I didn’t read John Forester’s tome Effective Cycling until seven years ago. So much for the argument that safe cycling requires elaborate training.

I will not deny that I am an "expert" cyclist today (guilty as charged!), but I wonder when it was that I graduated to that level. I suppose one could say I was an "expert" cyclist at age 14 since I rode that solo century and regularly rode in heavy traffic. But I somehow achieved that level with no more training than the "Officer Friendly" pitch.

What skills and practices do I use while cycling? Let’s break those skills and practices into two types, General Driving Skills and Practices and Cycling-Specific Skills and Practices. General driving skills and practices are those you use when driving any vehicle. Ask yourself if you are capable of all of these:

  • traveling on the right
  • stopping for stop signs and red lights
  • yielding when entering the street
  • scanning for and negotiating with overtaking traffic before moving left
  • scanning for threats from cross-streets, driveways and turning vehicles
  • keeping out of the right turn lane when going straight
  • turning left from the left or left turn lane

If you practice all of the above you will eliminate the vast majority of motorist-versus-cyclist conflicts and crashes.

Cycling-Specific Skills include balance and steering, braking, shifting, and scanning over your shoulder. Three emergency maneuvers are taught In the Effective Cycling curriculum and other bike courses: the "rock dodge," the "quick stop" and the "instant turn." In 25 years I’ve not used either of the last 2 except when teaching Effective Cycling courses. At bike rodeos we teach 10-year-olds how to do the "rock dodge" in a couple of minutes. If you’ve been cycling a while you probably do it instinctively. There were 2 crashes in 1994 that involved an overtaking motorist and a cyclist avoiding an obstacle, one of them at night and neither involving serious injury.

Obviously you’re not going to head out onto a busy road without having mastered balance, steering and basic braking. Many novice cyclists don’t understand shifting, but I don’t see any evidence that that leads to a significant number of crashes. That leaves scanning over your shoulder. Now it’s not the scanning that’s the skill, but scanning without making the bike swerve. We can teach this skill to 7-year-olds in a few minutes. Most readers of this article are already capable of it. In 1994 there were ten cases in which an adult cyclist supposedly veered left in front of an overtaking motorist. Four of them were riding in the dark or at dusk and one was intoxicated. It’s critical to understand that this skill is necessary whether one is in a bike lane, on a sidewalk, or on a road without any special accommodation for cyclists.

(I say supposedly because "He just veered out in front of me!" is almost as common as "I didn’t see him!" Experienced cyclist Duke Breitenbach was hit and injured in Lake County by a motorist who had just passed three other cyclists on a four-lane highway on a bright, sunny day. The driver said, "He just veered out in front of me!" and the Florida highway patrolman believed him. Duke told the patrolman he most certainly did not veer, but the officer treated the cyclist with a Ph.D. as though he was a juvenile delinquent.)

Now we come to cycling-specific practices. Taking the lane is the most important cycling-specific practice because the ones mentioned above won’t discourage motorists from passing you in an unsafe manner. If the lane you’re in is too narrow for a motorist to pass you safely and you keep all the way to the right, some motorists will try to pass you within the same lane. This is both dangerous and unpleasant. Dangerous because you will have no room to maneuver around a road hazard and the motorist may even sideswipe you. I guess I don’t have to explain "unpleasant."

Another very important practice is keeping at least three feet from the driver-side doors of cars parked on the roadway. This very similar to taking the lane. In big cities like New York and San Francisco "dooring" is a very common and serious crash.

Taking the lane is something I’ve only been doing since I read Effective Cycling about six years ago. I’ve noticed a few important things since then. First is that I have far fewer close calls with passing cars. My roadway position forces motorists to give me a wider gap. I’ve found it to be less stressful cycling this way. No, I do not experience more annoyed or aggressive motorist behavior. But when a motorist does get annoyed and passes aggressively I have much more room to maneuver. As for the threat of the inattentive overtaking motorist, all I can say is I’ve yet to hear the sound of squealing brakes coming from right behind me. Horns? Yes, but no more than before.

Behind the Eyes and Between the Ears of the Big, Bad Motorist

A while back I mentioned lightning and tornadoes. Reasonable people strive to understand the true nature of such forces so they can learn to avoid harm. In the same way, a cyclist must learn the true nature of motorists.

We can break motorists into four classes: competent ones who don’t want to hit us, incompetent ones who don’t want to hit us, intimidators who don’t want to hit us, and those who want to hit us.

If you bike in a vehicular manner, follow the rules and use lights at night, the competent type will not hit you. Why? Because you are both acting in a predictable manner and following traffic rules based on logic.

The intimidator will honk, scream, and even maneuver in such a way as to threaten you, but won’t hit you unless you escalate the conflict.

There is very little you can do to avoid being hit by the psychotic fourth type. Neither a wide curb lane, bike lane nor paved shoulder will stop them. But worrying about them is like worrying that ball lightning will come bouncing into your house and smack you in the head. Cycling only on paths separated from the roadway might work, but keep in mind that cycling on sidewalks increases your risk of being hit at a cross-street or driveway two- to ten-fold regardless of your level of experience. Stories of motorists who hit cyclists with intent to harm or kill fall into the "Man Bites Dog" category. In over 125,000 miles and 25 years of cycling I’ve had only one motorist attempt to hit me. He did so because I made him pass me twice on a narrow roadway. I recommend you not do that. Now we’re left with the incompetent motorist.

Even incompetent motorists care about self-preservation. The primary threat to a motorist is another big vehicle coming from the side or front, so that’s where his attention will be. On urban and suburban roads there are many driveways and cross-streets, so motorists are always on the lookout for what’s ahead of them. In order to be avoided you must be seen. The best way to be seen by a motorist is to put yourself where he’s normally looking – right in front of him. The one serious exception is the intoxicated driver. I avoid cycling after dark on major roads on Friday and Saturday nights. Of course intoxicated motorists put everyone at risk; motorists and pedestrians as well as cyclists.

Taking the lane forces motorists to move into the adjacent lane and gives you the space you deserve. I recently wrote an article about roadway positioning and one reader said he disagreed with my recommendation to take over a narrow lane. He said he always rides "right on the white line," is frequently passed too closely by motorists, has been run off the road a few times, and that when he gets a chance to confront them they inevitably say, "I didn’t see you!"

Both he and I have biked for many years. I’ve been taking the lane for more than five years. (Before that I my experiences were quite similar to his.) Why did those motorists "not see" him yet consistently see me? The answer is simple; they did see him. Of course they’re going to say they didn’t see him, they just startled or threatened him through rudeness or carelessness and probably believe he doesn’t belong on the roadway. The motorist will blame only one of two people, the cyclist or himself. The cyclist on the roadway – even the one riding on the white line – is in plain view of motorists. If motorists routinely missed seeing bicyclists riding straight ahead of them it would be the most common type of motorist-versus-cyclist crash, but it’s one of the least common. "I didn’t see you" really means, "I intentionally passed you in an unsafe manner but I don’t want to admit it." They might as well say, "I cannot be held responsible to avoid hitting you because you are virtually invisible."

Here’s a story to illustrate the silliness of the "I didn’t see you" line. My wife Carol and I were on our tandem at dusk in downtown Orlando. We were signaling a left turn and moving into the center of the lane. A motorist passed us on the left, crossing the double yellow line, again, as we were signaling a left turn. After the unsafe pass I decided to go straight instead of making our left and see if we could catch her. We caught up with her a few blocks later as she was exiting her SUV to enter a house and I asked for an explanation for her action. She said she hadn’t seen us. We were on a tandem with a trailer with a yellow flag and a flashing red taillight on a slow-speed, well-lit street and she crossed the centerline to avoid us…but she "didn’t see us." What were her response choices? A: "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that" or B: "I didn’t do anything wrong; you did something wrong." But since she couldn’t identify anything we had done wrong she could only say, "I didn’t see you."

If so many motorists don’t see you, how do they avoid you? They are very likely to hit you if they don’t see you, even if you’re riding on the white line. If they do see you, why do they pass you in an unsafe manner? Because you let them or they are extremely rude or maybe a combination of both. If someone’s going to be rude to you, where do you want to be, up against the curb with nowhere to go or out in the lane where you have room to maneuver?

Unfortunately there is an important difference in behavior between urban/suburban roads and rural roads. Out on rural roads motorists often let themselves get distracted. This is especially true when the road is very straight and there are long distances between intersections. High-speed, fatal, motorist-overtaking crashes are the ones that draw the notice of the club cycling community and the media, since they usually happen to "one of our own" and to someone who does a lot of cycling. These deaths are relatively rare, but their emotional impact is far-reaching. Our only recourse to reduce these is to push for strengthened motorist training and accountability, for paved shoulders, and for the removal of dangerous motorists from the roads.

We all have our stories about aggressive motorists, but most result in just that – stories. Many of us have friends or acquaintances who have been hit or even killed (I’ve lost two). But then, those of us in bike clubs know a lot of cyclists. These deaths are always on high-speed rural highways. Florida has more than its share of long, straight, boring rural roads where motorists can nod off or distract themselves with radios, cell phones, cassette players and whatever else. Out there you have to make yourself as conspicuous as possible; a solid and brightly colored jersey is best.

The more bicyclists people see the more they will look for them and the more they will believe that bicycling is a reasonable means of travel.

National Risk Analysis Rates

There’s no such thing as absolute safety. Risk is a relative thing. In 1993, Exponent Corp. (then Failure Analysis Associates, Inc.) published fatality rates for various activities. Here is how some of the activities scored, in Fatalities per Million Hours of Activity:

Motorcycling 8.80

Life Overall 1.53

Automobile travel 0.47

Bicycling 0.26

School bus travel 0.22

Airline travel 0.15

Cyclist Ken Kifer validated Exponent’s rate using data from the Bicycle Institute of America on his Web site, Ken Kifer’s Bike Pages (see Sources).

That 0.26 rate applies to all bicycling fatalities. Here is some recent data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to further break them down. There were 117 cycling fatalities in Florida in 1999; 91 were adults (18 and over); 54 of those adults were riding at night.* Only 5 (4%) were sober adults riding during daylight hours on the roadway and obeying the rules of the road. Four percent of that 0.26 rate comes to 0.01. One should also keep in mind that only about 44% of motorist fatalities involve 2 or more vehicles (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), so we could drop the risk of being killed as a motor vehicle occupant by another motorist to 0.21. So proper daytime vehicular cycling for sober adults (even on those "dangerous" rural highways) is about 15 times less fatal than airline travel, which is widely considered to be one of the safest forms of transportation available, and 21 times less fatal than being an occupant in an automobile.

(*I am not saying that people should not ride at night, only that cyclists should make themselves conspicuous.)

Fatalities aren’t the only crashes we worry about, of course; what about injuries? In a study of trampoline safety, Exponent included comparisons of bicycling and automobile injuries (as Hospitalizations per Million Hours of Activity):

Football 12.4

Bicycling 7.5

Automobile 3.0

Trampoline 2.5

Swimming 1.9

Don’t let that 7.5 number mislead you though. Once again, the above includes all bicyclists and all types of crashes. We’re concerned here with just the motorist-versus-cyclist crashes. Professor William E. Moritz at the University of Washington surveyed experienced cyclists in 1996 on their activities and crashes. He found only 11% of their crashes involved motor vehicles. Experienced cyclists also experience one-fifth as many crashes per mile as "novice" cyclists. So the risk of being injured by a collision with a motorist is certainly much less than the 7.5 per million hours shown above.

How much less? We may not have enough data to calculate that. The rough cut estimate would be to take just the 11% that involve motorists from the 7.5 hospitalizations per million -- that drops us to 0.83. But we really need to know how many hours of on-road exposure cyclists experience, plus the number of injury-producing crashes with motor vehicles in which the motorist was at fault. (While it’s not appropriate to apply the data from fatalities to injuries, remember that only about 4% of Florida cycling fatalities involved a sober adult cyclist obeying the rules of the road and riding during daytime hours.) Moritz estimated that his survey respondents experienced crashes (of all types) on major roads without bicycle facilities at a rate of 66 per million miles (or one crash per 15,000 miles). Those same cyclists traveled only about 7,000 miles per crash on multi-use trails and about 700 miles per crash on sidewalks.

Don’t Forget the Good Stuff

I could spend many pages describing the benefits we get from cycling that more than balance out the small risk. Here’s one recent example. A 1999 study from Sweden on physical activity and health found, "Even after adjustment for other risk factors [and that includes crashes], including leisure time physical activity, those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39% higher mortality rate than those who did."

What Does All of This Say About Cyclists and Society?

Very young children will cover their eyes when playing "peek-a-boo" with their parents. They believe that because they can’t see their parents, their parents cannot see them.

Most of us believe what we want to believe. Those who want cyclists out of the way because they see them as a hindrance will certainly use ignorance, lies or sophistry (plausible but fallacious argument) to convince us that bicycling on roadways is dangerous. They use the false-danger argument because society tells them it’s wrong to say they’re superior to others. It’s socially acceptable to say bicycling is inherently dangerous, not that a fellow citizen is a nuisance when exercising a basic liberty. But the most effective way in which motorists convince cyclists that they don’t belong on the roads or that they will be in great danger is through intimidation and harassment. Such behavior reinforces the scare stories and bad statistics in the media. That is why I encourage cyclists to take legal action when motorists commit assaults. (Assault does not require physical contact, only threat.) Such incidents are rare, but ripple through the community as a wave of intimidation.

Being afraid of real risks and threats is healthy. But the belief that bicycling is dangerous is based on intimidation, scary stories and vague statistics. The bicycling community must attack the true threat to bicycling – the attitude that cyclists are intruders, second-class road users or sacrificial lambs. We cannot and will not change that attitude by saying, "Please give bicyclists a place to ride." Indeed, such pleas reinforce the belief that bicycling on roads is dangerous.

We change it by saying, "Bicyclists are human beings, citizens and vehicle drivers, and have the inalienable right to liberty. Travel on our shared public roads is an essential element of this liberty. Treat us with respect."

And by encouraging one another to claim our rightful piece of the road.


"Is Cycling Dangerous?" From the Web site of Ken Kifer --

Effective Cycling, John Forester, MIT Press

Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die, Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D., Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2000

Exponent Corp. Web site,

"All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports, and Cycling to Work," Lars Bo Andersen et al, American Medical Association,


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