The temps are warm. The roads are clean of snow and sand. My aging body is young again as memories of boyhood bike rides call me to get back into the saddle. But every year, news reports of accidents appear again too, huge cars and trucks versus little bikes, bicyclists arrogantly riding as if they own the whole road, motorists oblivious to two wheeled travelers in the lane right next to them. So here’s my yearly column on bicycling safety. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE watch out! Thank you!)
Average weight of an American car: 4,000 pounds
Average weight of an American bicycle: 30 pounds
From the start folks on two wheels and folks on four wheels have not had the best of relationships. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the first recorded automobile accident in the United States happened in 1896 when a car collided with a bike in New York City. No doubt each blamed the other for the mishap. 54,000 bicyclists have died on America’s roads since 1932, 618 in 2010, the last year such statistics were reported.
As an avid bicyclist, a human, and a child of God, these numbers break my heart and scare the heck out of me, especially on these gorgeous May days as the roads fill up again with bikes and cars. Because every cyclists’ death represent a real person, a parent, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend. One day out spinning the pedals and soaking up the sun and then in just a micro-second, he or she is splayed out on the road, their bicycle a heap of twisted metal, their body bleeding and busted up, one life over, done, through.
From Boston.com: “Alexander Motsenigos, the father of a 6-year-old son, was riding his bike on Weston Road [in Wellesley] near the intersection of Linden Street just before 2 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2012, when he was hit by an 18-wheel truck. The driver left the scene. Though Wellesley police sought to charge the truck driver with motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, unsafe overtaking of a bicyclist, and failing to take precautions for the safety of other travelers, a grand jury declined to indict him.”
Now in this case police believed the driver was at full fault, the rider innocent. But the story goes the other way too. Just three springs ago in Boston, in the span of seven weeks, two cyclists died in accidents. Neither was wearing a bike helmet. Both took crazy risks in traffic. One attempted to pass a bus on a very busy city street. The other ran through a red light and collided with a car.
As one who is an enthusiastic, committed and experienced cyclist, I’m doubly sad for the fact that just by following basic rules of bicycle safety, these tragedies might have been avoided. I’ve biked thousands of miles in fifteen years of long distance road biking. I’ve biked over a wide variety of roads: narrow rural streets, packed city avenues, stretches by the sea, long mountain hills. I’ve ridden in charity rides from Boston to New York, Raleigh to Washington, D.C. and San Francisco to Los Angeles. This summer I’ll ride in my fourth Pan-Mass Bike Challenge.
In all of those miles and all of those years I’ve never once gotten on a bike without first strapping on a helmet. That’s a given for anyone who takes biking seriously. A bike is not a car. A bike weighs twenty or thirty or forty pounds. A car or truck, of course, weighs a ton or more. A bike is nimble. A car traveling along at the speed limit cannot maneuver so quickly. Whenever those two vehicles collide, the biker always loses. Always. No contest. And when cyclists lack head protection, these accidents go from bad to worse to deadly terrible.
So of those 610 cyclists who died nationwide in 2010, ninety-one percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. No doubt some of these collisions ups were the fault of rude, unthinking, texting, talking on the phone, not paying attention, in a rush drivers. But bikers need to own up to our part of that equation too. When we fail to wear a helmet. Fail to keep a straight line on the road and stay within or on the road’s shoulder. Fail to ride single file. Fail to obey the rules of the road: stopping for traffic lights, using hand signals, acting responsibly as the vehicle on the road that we are. Fail to be safe and wise in sharing the road.
So here is a simple plea to bikers and drivers as we both go out for rides in this the busiest biking time of the year. Drivers: please watch out for us. If the road is narrow give us some space. Hang up the phone and watch the road. If you see a biker coming down the street and are tempted to quickly pull out in front of us, please consider letting us pass by first. If you’re parked on a busy city street and are about to open your door, take a quick peek behind to see if a biker is coming. Please take care as you share the road with us. Thank you.
Bikers—wear a helmet, always, everywhere, no questions asked. No excuses. No whining about how much it messes up your hair or how hot it makes your head. Nothing compares to a traumatic brain injury. Nothing. Follow all the rules of the road. All of them. It is our responsibility (and the law) to do so. Give up riding double or triple file so you can chat with your buddy. Talk when you get home. It is rude to drivers and rightfully frustrates folks behind the wheel. If you ride in a group, police the other riders too. Bike etiquette is everyone’s responsibility. Keep a straight line when you bike. No weaving. Drivers need to trust this. How you bike, with consideration or thoughtlessness—this reflects on all the other bikers out here. So often when I tell folks I’m a recreational biker they tell me how stupid or clueless or arrogant or entitled so many bikers act on the road these days.
Parents? Don’t just tell your kids to wear their helmets. Wear your helmet too. Insisting that your kid stay safe on her bike, while you go bareheaded, isn’t exactly the wisest of examples. Legislators? How about making the wearing of bicycle helmets mandatory for all ages, not just those 16 and younger, the present law in Massachusetts?
Police? Enforce all traffic laws fully, for both bicyclists and drivers. Give a warning, write a ticket to the daydreaming driver blabbing away on his cell phone as he barrels along in his SUV. Give a warning, write a ticket to the idiot biker hogging the rode, or blowing through a red light, or riding in a pack of Saturday morning bicycling buttheads. As one bumper sticker proclaims, “Same road. Same rules. Same rights.” Same laws too!
Every time before I go out for a ride I say a little prayer to God and ask for a safe ride. That’s my spiritual insurance. But so too, I also try my best to ride safe and to ride smart. As the proverb might note: “Pray to God but bike with safety.”
We all travel a common road. So please watch out for us two-wheeled travelers and we’ll watch out for you. See you on the road!