Monday, December 03, 2007


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This article appears in the latest Bicycling magazine. It's long and detailed, and may provoke some frustration and anger. The following are my thoughts on it Please feel free - as always - to add your own thoughts in comments..........Ed

Broken.......Bicycling Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008 issue

by David Darlington

Every time we take to the open road, we entrust our lives to a safety net of legal protection and basic human decency. That system has failed.”

Darlington highlights several horrendous crashes involving cyclists and motor vehicles, and pays special attention to the aftermath. These were not 'accidents' which would imply they were unavoidable acts of God. Crashes have causation, a chain of events that, if any link were broken, would prevent the incident. Sadly, too many people die as a result of other's bad choices, whether they're impaired by alcohol or drugs, or they're distracted by something that takes their attention away from the road ahead. In writing this piece, I'm going to use 'impaired' as a catch-all covering alcohol, drugs, or anything that diverts a motorists attention from safe driving.

...It was just an accident...hit by uninsured driver...pickup struck and killed...SUV struck her...SUV struck and killed him...died on a four-person ride when a log truck attempted to pass her single-file group on a tight turn...a freeway in Santa Cruz had a left exit and you had to cross three lines of traffic...SUV struck...just miles from their home...hit from behind in over by an elderly man with macular degeneration...victim of a hit-and-run...driver attempting an illegal pass...”

Normally, I'd expect an article like this to follow a problem/solution format. And while there are some conclusions to be drawn, there's very little in the way of suggestions to prevent similar injuries and fatalities. Since this is a cycling magazine, the viewpoint predictably is that of cyclists. No mention is made of those cyclists who are killed or injured due to their own actions, yet this is something we should not ignore. There's something to learn from every crash. In my industry, commercial aviation, crashes are analyzed in depth to determine the cause in order to avoid a similar crash in the future. Human error is responsible for 85% of aviation accidents, and by examining these “human factors” we can gain insight into prevention. There is no doubt this approach saves lives. I believe we should investigate all transportation-related crashes with similar intensity. I've included a brief list of human factors at the end of this article along with their relationship to bicycling crashes. There's also a link to further information from the FAA.

The argument here doesn't revolve around facilities or the lack of them. Indeed, three of these people were injured or killed while riding in a bike lane or on a road shoulder, presumably safe places for cycling. Adding more bike lanes, or cycling-friendly laws like the 3 feet minimum passing clearance would have no effect on similar crashes because the motorists were distracted, drunk, or possibly drugged. The magic paint line denoting a bike lane would not have prevented these deaths, yet one of the knee-jerk reactions is a call for more facilities in order to make cyclists 'safe' rather than targeting dangerous behavior. We already have laws regarding driving under the influence, and some states have laws designed to reduce the danger associated with distracted driving. Typically, these prohibit cell phone use unless it's a hands-free unit. Yet, we're still seeing traffic deaths totaling over 40,000 per year. It seems that existing law has little effect on preventing injuries and deaths. We need another approach. We need to change behavior and expectations long before someone gets behind the wheel of a car.

I'm very tempted to propose draconian penalties for drunk, drugged, or otherwise impaired drivers. For instance, prohibit anyone convicted of a drunk driving offense from owning a vehicle – ever. Require that DMV maintain a database of offenders and compare it with motor vehicle records whenever a license is renewed or a new license plate is requested. Prohibit them from having a driver's license ever again. And back it up with asset seizure if necessary.

But while such harsh penalties have a feel-good aspect to them, I seriously doubt they'll have any immediate effect. Too many people who've had their licenses revoked simply continue driving. The chances of being caught are relatively small.

So I think we have to change perceptions and get people to value their driver's licenses more, perhaps by making them more difficult and more expensive to obtain in the first place.

Naturally, Bicycling has their own recommendations.

Take Action

Find local friends

Connect with other cyclists and your local advocacy group.

Learn from the leaders

Avery Stonich, marketing and communications manager for the bike Belong Coalition, suggests taking cues from other successful bike advacacy groups” like LAB, TA, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.

Set goals

Know the law in your area as well as community needs. Establish both short-term and long-term goals, like changing a particular law or creating a bicycling master plan.


Know the local politicians and bureaucrats. Know who pulls the strings.

Be specific.

Have a narrowly defined goal in mind when speaking with the pols and bureaucrats.

Is it getting unequivocal yes and no.

Since 1995, the total number of cyclists (according to NSGA figures) has declined from 56 million to 43 million in 2005. Yet rate of cycling deaths increased from 1 per 10,800 to 1 per 7,100 over that same period. The inverse relationship between the numbers of cyclists on the roads and the number of deaths and injuries seems to indicate that as more people ride bicycles it becomes a safer activity.

One really good, really simple idea,

This is the 3-feet minimum clearance passing law that's gaining favor across the nation. It supplements the usual language about the responsibliity of an overtaking drivers to pass safely. But would it have prevented these crashes? Probably not. The problem isn't the law, whether it a 3 feet minimum pass. The problem is impaired driving, not cyclists behavior.


Several European nations...have slashed their annual traffic-fatality figures over the past few decades, largely through “traffic calming” measures that forcibly reduce the speeds of motor vehicles.” Great Britain reduced fatalities by over a third when use of CCTV became wide spread and motorists realized their chances of being penalized for traffic infractions had greatly increased. CCTV is the big stick.

(We must) “acknowledge the fact that being inattentive at the wheel of a car is criminal”...we need to change the language we use to describe the consequences. “call them crashes,” she says. “Not accidents.”

If the public thinks it's just those crazy people who were killed, they don't have any reason to get involved...We had to show that a bicyclist isn't just something in your way – it's somebody's dad, or dentist, or doctor.”

We have numerous laws intended to reduce traffic fatalities – the stick – but we need to change the culture for motorists – the carrot. As I said up above, one approach may be to make getting a driver's license harder and more expensive. Maybe then drivers will place a higher value on keeping their licenses. But if we can add a monetary incentive as well, the prospect of having a little more cash in their pockets could be even more effective. I'll admit that I don't have a wealth of ideas on this, but as I've said before, there's no one as smart as all of us put together. So feel free to add your ideas in comments.

Human Factors

This list was developed from the Human Factors course information in use at my place of employment. A link to the FAA's HF page is provided below.


Distraction is thought to be responsible for 15% of all aviation accidents and incidents. The following items on this list often aren't single issues when it comes to air crashes. They tend to overlap.

Lack of Teamwork is a failure to share goals. In cycling terms, this could be something as simple as not informing everyone on a group ride of the intended route.

Fatigue. Mental or physical exhaustion that may have a slow onset, so subtle the individual is unaware. Fatigue impacts our judgment and reaction times in much the same way as alcohol.

Lack of Resources. In aviation, this is meant to address the absence of technical support, tooling, shelter, etc, that can effect how a job is performed. For a cyclist, this may mean performing a job without the proper tools, leading to substandard quality and reliability.

Lack of Assertiveness. Be assertive when you see an unsafe condition or practice. Don't confuse being assertive with being aggressive. How many of us see another cyclist do something we know is unsafe, yet we keep quiet about it.

Stress. The acute manifestation of stress is road rage. It's more common in motorists than cyclists, but we're not immune. Fortunately, the easiest solution to stress is to simply pedal faster.

Lack of Awareness. This is not the same as lack of knowledge. Lack of awareness implies a failure to anticipate possible outcomes or consequences.

Norms are unwritten rules or behaviors, often reflected by a majority of the group. The group riding practice of yelling, “Clear!” as the whole pack rides through an intersection is an example of a norm.

Lack of Communication. As I said above, there's significant overlap in all these factors, and lack of communication is significant in almost all of them.

Complacency results from constant repetition. “We've always done it that way!” Another description for a cyclist would be habit formation. “I always run that stop sign!”

Lack of Knowledge is the failure to have the training, information, or ability necessary to complete a task.

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Blogger Jeff C. said...

Perfect post for what I am trying to do now. P.S. Thanks for posting on my site- hopefully I'll be able to cause some stir. I'm going to add to the post and link to your post. Thanks!

6:58 PM  

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