Friday, October 14, 2005

Fear

(I started writing this on Thursday, didn’t like it, and revised it a couple of times. I meant to post it that evening, but I was dumped on at work. In a normal week, I’ll see 5-8 computers come into the shop, but this week it was 15 in 3 days! This happens every time there’s a terrain database change on the aircraft. I’ve been running as fast as I can just to keep up. So when I got home last night, I showered, ate dinner, and promptly fell asleep!……Ed)

“Fear is the mind-killer.”…novelist Frank Herbert in “Dune”, wonderful book but a lousy movie.

Mark posted the following:

…Now, that said, I've just never cared for street riding much. I've never understood how someone can feel safe riding on a road posted at 55 mph or faster, with all those cars racing by.

…I would like to know, though, how you don't just get the bejeepers (if you have them) scared out of you…

As a newspaper reporter living in the Ozarks, I saw and heard about accidents that made me sure that, no matter how much I might want to get back into biking, I would not want to do so on the streets.

I'm just trying to understand how you deal with the car factor. Do you think some roads should be considered too hazardous for cyclists?


Mark asks two serious questions. The first addresses fear. The second asks if I believe some roads are too hazardous for cyclists.

THE PROBLEM

Whether real or imagined, fear is a powerful emotion. People do some strange things as a result of fear, and cyclists are clearly no exceptions. There’s a nagging little voice that tells us we could be hit from behind, and many over-estimate that risk. Less than 8% of all crashes involving cyclists and motor vehicles are “hit from behind” events, and the majority of those involve a cyclist riding at night without lights or reflectors. Roughly 85% of crashes occur at intersections when someone fails to yield. (Forester, “Effective Cycling”) The fear of being hit from behind greatly overstates the risk, yet it’s the one thing most cyclists dread.

Fear is not rational. It is not subject to reason. It is not easily dispelled by persuasion. The best antidote is experience, positive experience that reveals the fear as irrational and not grounded in reality. I’ll return to this thought in a moment.

Failure Analysis did a study that showed risk exposure on a per-hour basis. By that measure, cycling is a little less risky than riding in a motor vehicle. Over 40,000 motorists die on our roads each year, and about 700 cyclists. A greater number die from falls in the home as compared to cyclists, yet I never read of anyone fearing such falls.

In Effective Cycling, John Forester cites accident rates per mile traveled. Not surprisingly, children average one accident per 1,500 miles. College students average 2,000, and experienced club cyclists average 10,000 miles per crash.

But people don’t really believe statistics, or at least in my family, my wife and mother certainly don’t. They ‘know’ that cycling is dangerous, just as most people who use ‘common sense’ know it’s dangerous. I like to point out that there was a time when everyone with an ounce of common sense knew the Earth was flat, but that only gets me some stony looks from She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.

Clearly, statistics have little real impact. And they inadequately counter fear. Fearful cyclists are convinced that motorists are all homicidal maniacs intent on running them down. As a result, those cyclists ride on the sidewalks or ride against traffic. They cut through parking lots, and run stop signs and red lights in order to stay away from all those murderous cars. Their actions make them unpredictable and dangerous. We can tell them that their fears are mostly groundless, but that does nothing to alleviate the fear.

It did little good, for instance, to point out to my daughter that the movie she was watching was merely flickering lights on a flat television screen. “Psycho” still scared the beejeebers out of her! (I simply couldn’t resist using that word! Thanks, Mark!)

I don’t think anyone rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, “Gosh! I could DIE today!” We just go about our day, riding to work on a bicycle, driving an automobile, or walking as necessary. No one thinks about the risks inherent in each transportation mode. They just need to get to their destinations.

So with all the above as preamble, I think you’ll agree that the problem is fear. But what’s the solution?


THE SOLUTION

A positive experience is the best antidote to fear.

I’ve been a roadie for over 30 years. Much of what I’ve learned came from the School of Hard Knocks. That nagging little voice never goes away entirely, though. I’ve learned through experience what others might learn from reading, writing, or listening. And frankly, I had the willies a few times after an incident about 10 years ago. The willies are best described as an unreasonable fear arising from unknown sources. They strike at random and without warning. Maybe that’s the clinical description of a panic attack. Regardless, it was annoying.

I’ve ridden at all times of the day and night in all sorts of weather. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned that increases my safety in all those conditions, it’s lane positioning, or “taking the lane” in vehicular cycling parlance. A vehicular cyclist generally rides in the right-hand tire track, well to the left of that white line at the edge of the pavement. This idea is unnerving to a lot of cyclists. They simply refuse to believe that this works. In their view, riding further left in the traffic lane only increases their chance of getting hit by a car. But motorists are very good at avoiding something directly in front of them. They have much more difficulty judging whether there’s sufficient space to pass a cyclist riding on the pavement edge.

I’ve learned from experience that it does work. I’ve encouraged others to try it with mixed results. One local guy went out on the 4 lane arterials around town, and discovered to his delight that motorists passed him with ample clearance when he took the right-hand lane. But it was more of a problem on 2 lane roads because passing was more difficult. Regardless, safety always trumps convenience. If it’s safer for a cyclist to take the lane, the overtaking motorists simply have to wait until it’s safe to pass. It’s ALWAYS the responsibility of overtaking traffic to do so safely, regardless of the vehicle they’re driving.

So when someone bitches and moans about those ‘arrogant cyclists riding as if they owned the road’ it’s just too bad. No one is required to do anything on the road that degrades safety. They’re OUR roads, for the use of the public regardless of their choice of transportation mode.

I’m not trying to say that I have nerves of steel. Far from it, in fact. But my worries revolve around my wife and kids, and those are the ones that wake me up at 3AM. Riding to work is not something that ranks high on the list. It requires an alert attitude, but not worry or fear. It’s just human nature to project our own fears onto others. A motorist sees a cyclist on the road and thinks, “I’d be terrified to try that! He must be terrified too, or at least he has a death wish!” Fear is not rational.

Riding a bicycle on the road requires awareness, alertness, good judgment, and a wary eye on traffic. But it doesn’t have to involve mind-numbing fear. Maybe that’s one advantage of regular commuting. I see the same motorists day after day. They come to expect a cyclist somewhere on the road each morning. This is no exaggeration – I rarely have problems with motorists – and I ride a mixture of 4-lane arterials and 2 lane roads in suburban, rural, and industrial areas. The daily commute is a relaxing part of my day, not a stressful dash between home and work.


HAZARDOUS ROADS

Now as to roads that are “too hazardous” for cyclists – I know only a few, and that’s subject to traffic or weather conditions, time of day, etc. Hazard is another subjective criterion. A fearful cyclist sees many roads as hazardous. A competent, experienced one sees far fewer. There are roads I don’t like to ride on, mainly because they’re noisy. Riding next to high-speed traffic on a limited access road is nerve-wracking due to all that noise, and requires some extreme care when crossing ramps. I don’t like riding long bridges on high-speed roads, either.

Oklahoma prohibits cyclists from the turnpikes, but all other roads are open to them. That means it’s legal to ride along the shoulder of a limited access road with a 65 mph speed limit, and it’s even legal to do so at night when a cyclist is properly lighted. Is that a good judgment call? I don’t think so.

Our estimation of hazard is greatly colored by fear. As I said before, a fearful cyclist will see many roads as hazardous. An experienced one will see far less. What’s annoying is when someone with little or no cycling experience tries to tell us what roads we should ride, or tries to ban us from various roads “for our own safety”. (Deputy Cupcake comes to mind here.) It’s almost as if someone with no driving experience, no driver’s license, and no car wanted to tell others how to drive and, worse, how to design high-speed roads.

Hazard is subjective. Long, long ago, I climbed with a guy named Max Sapinsky. We’d look up at a long vertical pitch, and I’d say, “I dunno, Max, it looks tough.”

Max would consider it a moment and say, “I can do it.”

Objectively, we were both seeing the same thing, but our estimation of the hazard was influenced by our fears. I fell a lot, so I was more fearful than Max!

Roads are much the same. I’ve been on a club ride when someone refused to ride a particular road, saying it was too dangerous. The road in question is a wide arterial with ample shoulders, but this cyclist was just too terrified of traffic, and she flatly refused to go that way. It’s a popular route for many local cyclists, but she was too fearful to ride it. Objectively, the hazard was the same for everyone, and in fact, I’ve never heard of any cyclist getting hurt out there. But she was just too fearful to attempt it.

Some of my co-workers comment on the ‘dangers’ of cycling. I’ve told them that in my experience, the most hazardous part of the ride is just getting out of the parking lot at quitting time! Too many of them drive as if they were extras in one of the Road Warrior movies. It’s much calmer once I’m out of the lot and onto the road. We all follow the same rules on the road, and that makes everyone more predictable and safer.

So, like Frank Herbert said, fear is the mind-killer. Fear makes us over-estimate the hazards we face, and in the absence of good information to the contrary, fear makes us do things that make little sense. The antidote to fear is positive experience coupled with appropriate bicycling education.

6 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

Great piece, Ed! You know, I didn't get very far into it before I completely understood where you're coming from. Thank you, too, for quoting what you quoted, instead of the somewhat ill-advised things I wrote in my original post. I was quoting myself blowing off steam more than actually re-stating that as an opinion. Kind of "telling on myself" in a way. Still, I can see how cyclists would not take kindly to it.

Great point about fear. I was deathly afraid of heights until I volunteered to be trained as a ropes course facilitator. I was happily jumping off 30-foot platforms after I got past the shrieking 12-year-old stage. Why? Because prior to that, heights had no structure, no rules. As you said, in an environment where there is an established system, a set of rules that everyone follows, fear tends to take a backseat after positive experiences. You said that very well, and I think it applies to my situation, too.

Now, when I'm near cliff edges, I am not nearly as nervous as before I had that training. I don't have the ropes and pulleys, but I understand that my body will not just fling itself off the edge for no reason.

Thank you for answering my question. My wife and I are in Tulsa three or four times a year, and I have a bike rack. I might just take you up on your offer.

I still hate flying, stinging insects, though. Might not ever be de-sensitized to that!

9:30 PM  
Blogger Fritz said...

Great post, Ed.

To Mark: It works well to go in a group if you're going out in traffic for the first time. If you ride regularly, try to find a League of American Bicyclists "BikeEd" class -- the class should include some road riding.

10:07 PM  
Blogger bikefridaywalter said...

as someone who has almost exclusively ridden the "hazardous roads" without incident for years, trying to convince people that this can sometimes be safer than alternative routes, all i can say is good post.

it's legal to ride on i-5 anywhere in oregon except for portland and medford, if you ever get out to one of the other states that starts with an o, ed. as a cleveland native, i wouldn't suggest ohio.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Bikefridaywalter,

I grew up near Pittsburgh, and when the Detroit portable track was traveling the country, some friends and I drove up to Cleveland to see the races. The track was 140 meters around with about a 47 degree banking. Riders pulled about 3 G's in the corners. It was the most exciting racing I've ever seen! I strongly recommend seeing a track race if at all possible.

But the highlight of the night was when I asked a Cleveland police officer if the town had a good semi-pro football team. i asked this while wearing one of my Steelers shirts. He offered to give me a free stay in the city jail overnight if I didn't move my sorry butt down the street!

1:28 PM  
Blogger ItsJustMe said...

Excellent post. I will definitely be linking to this and pointing it out to many people in the future. Thanks.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

>No one thinks about the risks inherent in each transportation mode.<

Actually, I wake up every weekday morning and think, "J. could die today." J. is my significant other who drives a car to and from work and during the workday. As the days get shorter and rain, snow, and ice become a regular part of the weather, I think about that possibility more often. It's only a few times a year that I think "I could die today," but it's not a thought that will cause me to give up cycling. I'd rather get killed riding my bike than get killed in a car.

7:28 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home