Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Tragedy of MISS

(Image from McMorr on Flickr)

Recently, I read about the danger faced by cyclists and motorists on a narrow, winding road outside of Nashville. Some homeowners want cyclists banned. It's too dangerous to pass slow-moving bicyclists because motorists have to cross the road's centerline. What happens if there's an on-coming school bus or a station wagon full of nuns? The almost Pavlovian imperative to pass, regardless of the consequences, might require impaling the front end of a bus with a speeding Chevy Suburban, causing wide spread carnage and the end of civilization as we know it.

Conventional wisdom holds that cyclists have no place in traffic. They should not be on the streets - period. Most of those who insist that cycling is too dangerous are not themselves bicyclists. And while I appreciate the terribly exaggerated difficulty of passing something as small and slow as a bicycle and rider, I'm obviously opposed to a ban. We could ask these motorists if their driving skills are so abysmal as to constitute a threat to everyone else in the immediate vicinity. But no, when evaluating their own driving, Americans believe that they're ALL above average.

With the onset of spring, we can expect to see the usual crop of anti-cycling letters appear on editorial pages. Often, they begin with “I ride a bicycle too, but...” then go on to complain that bicyclists ignore stop signs or they should stay on the sidewalk. And why would anyone wear those silly clothes?

“Only gays wear clothes like that!” In the common imagination, 'gay' means someone is not truly masculine. On the schoolyard, 'sissy' is an equivalent pejorative, so cycling on the road then becomes an extremely dangerous activity performed by a bunch of sissies in spandex. Sissies are not generally known for their risk-taking behavior, a behavior more commonly associated only with real manly-men, yet the apparent cognitive dissonance goes unrecognized. (Now, as for female cyclists, I'm not sure how the 'gayness' epithet works and frankly, it makes my head hurt to think about it, so I'll simply ignore the whole issue.)

Perhaps there's an explanation for the inclusion of such polar opposites in one common stereotype despite the logical absurdity.

I've concluded that the very act of driving a motor vehicle induces a kind of schizophrenia. In fact, it has a name - Motoring Induced Schizophrenic Syndrome or MISS for short. These people cannot distinguish between reality and the lurid fantasies playing out in their heads. "You may be right," they scold cyclists, "but you'll be DEAD right." MISS sufferers can quote imaginary traffic law with genuine authority, saying things like, "Bicycles cannot legally be operated on city streets," "Bicycles have to stay on the sidewalk," or "Bicycles have to be ridden within 3 feet of the curb." They almost always solemnly intone, "It's the law!" after one of these statements.

It's sad, really, because they're otherwise rational people. Exposure to motor vehicles has had an enormous negative impact on their cognitive ability. MISS is found almost uniformly across the age spectrum and is independent of exposure time. Its etiology is unknown. MISS sufferers can recover if they receive extensive therapy supplemented by a drug regimen consisting of powerful laxatives. The drugs have a dual purpose, limiting driving exposure on one hand, while helping to clear the patient's thought processes on the other.

So the next time someone yells, “Get up on the sidewalk!” just give him a friendly wave and remember that he's suffering from a kind of mental constipation.


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Monday, March 30, 2009

Ask Dr. Wally

(Image from miscpix on Flickr.)

Dear Dr. Wally,

A few weeks ago, I walked out of my local coffee shop with a skinny, double-carmel, decaf macchiato only to find my precious all-carbon Especializmo Rocket 4 was gone! Stolen by some low-life who certainly couldn't appreciate the bike's ceramic bearings and leather saddle lovingly hand-tooled by Italian artisans. But my insurance carrier paid the claim quickly, and my local bike shop said they can get me a suitable replacement bike, a titanium Nuevo Rico Pretentioso. My only question is, what is the best way to prevent a thief from taking this bike too? I certainly don't want to carry one of those hugely ugly u-locks, and cables are simply too plebian.

Best regards,

G. Brinton Wallingford III

First of all, "Gee", try drinking some real coffee next time, not a candy bar in a cup. Your waistline and your cardiovascular system will thank you.

As for securing your bike, since you're unwilling to carry some form of lock the best you can hope for is to slow down a potential thief. Actually, that's all any security system can do because with sufficient time, any of them can be defeated. But you need some quick-and-dirty way to discourage a would-be thief.

If you don't lock your bike, DON'T LET IT OUT OF YOUR SIGHT! Even if you can see it, a thief can ride off on it in a matter of seconds, so these minimal security measures are meant to gain you only a few seconds. If you can't see the bike, these methods are worthless.

Consider doing one or more of the following: fasten your helmet straps around a wheel and the frame, or alternatively, remove the front wheel and use the helmet straps to secure it to the frame, put the top of a water bottle between some spokes in the back wheel and rotate the wheel to slightly jam the bottle in place, adjust the shifters so the chain is misaligned, squeeze the brake levers and jam some coins in the opening to lock the brakes.

This should give you enough time to get out of the coffee shop to confront the thief. Come to think of it, you could throw your sticky coffee drink at him, possibly gluing his eyes shut with all that sugar.

Next month: How to ward off attacks by blood-sucking monkeys from West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.



Sunday, March 29, 2009

Walmart and Bicycle Shaped Objects...

(Image from Consumerist)

A tip of the hat to George at Bike Riding Donut Guy for this....

Normally I wouldn't pick up on a story from another blogger, especially one like George, but Norman is practically right down the road from us, if you consider a hundred miles right down the road. My wife, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, has had similarly negative interactions with Walmart and their return process. We've reached the point where we won't shop in there anymore if we can find the goods somewhere else.

I've met another bike commuter who used to ride back and forth to work on an ancient Huffy, an actual honest-to-god 10 speed that may have been manufactured during the Nixon administration. Now, it's absolutely necessary to tell you that the commuter is an aircraft mechanic, so he was able to stay on top of the maintenance. Regardless, the last time I saw the bike, its back wheel was almost square. He bought another one as a replacement. I don't think it lasted more than 6 months.

In a similar vein, there's The Bike of Doom, a blog about life on a $99 department store bike. Unsurprisingly, Steve has found that the true cost of keeping a cheap bike serviceable is more than the purchase price of a better one from a bike shop.

(What is wrong with this picture? CycleDog photo.)

All the above serves as a preface. Those of us with long years of experience view department store bikes - or 'bicycle shaped objects' - as poorly built machines meant to last a season or two at best. They're mechanically unreliable and often difficult to keep in repair. So while it's heartening to see that Keia recognized a shoddy product and sought to return it, the actions taken by Walmart's employee are reprehensible.

Remember, bicycles can be cheap, durable, or light. You can choose any two. But if you buy from Walmart, the only choice is cheap.

Excerpts follow.

Walmart Violates Company Policy, Pretends Not To Accept Bike Returns

By Carey, 5:00 PM on Sat Mar 28 2009

The Walmart in Norman, Oklahoma refused to accept bike returns until a district manager, acting on a reader tip, reminded the store that they were violating company policy. Reader Keia tried to return the "shoddily constructed," "dangerous piece of garbage" for a bike that Walmart sold him, but an employee, backed by the store manager, explained that since Walmart could repair the bike, their return policy didn't apply. That didn't sound right, so Keia went over their heads...

He writes:

Just thought I would share an experience I had at Wal-Mart purchasing a bike. I bought a bicycle with Wal-Mart in order to save on gas money and try to increase my overall health. Living within 2 miles of my University, and considering I happen to work there as well, riding a bike only made good sense.

I bought a Next brand bike from Wal-Mart for the cost of 110 dollars, and about 100 dollars in accessories (helmet, lights, lock, etc). The first problem I had - none of the accessories fit....the right plastic pedal snapped while I was riding the bike and nearly threw me into traffic. All in all, it was a shodily constructed and dangerous piece of garbage.

Needless to say, I thought it would be best for me to return it to Wal-Mart. I loaded it in my car, took it to my local Supercenter with receipt in hand, and headed to the customer service counter. There I encountered Cheryl, the Customer Service Manager at the Norman - East branch. Upon trying to return it, I was told that they had a strict policy regarding bike retuns. What follows is a rough approximation of my conversation with her:

Me: "I'd like to return this bike."

Her: "We don't return bikes."

...Me: "No one told me about this policy before I bought the bike though."

Her: "We don't have to."

I've been told by a well-informed source (Wally, who else?) that women named 'Cheryl' are not to be trusted. I'll just say that the name cannot be uttered here in Casa CycleDog unless I...um, Wally...wants to eat cold food for a week.

One last piece of advice. If you're in the market for a bike and you don't have much money to spend, consider going to your local bike shop looking for a used bike. There's a good chance that it will still cost more than a bicycle shaped object, but you're more likely to get a machine that's in good repair, and one that fits better. Honestly, riding a cheap POS is the very best way to discover that you absolutely hate riding a bicycle. There's little joy to be found on one, so if you're at all interested in cycling, buy a good quality bike.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Bailando con las hormigas...

(Image from St Stev on Flickr)

Maybe it's my short attention span, but I've developed a liking for flash fiction. The stories are less than 1000 words, quick reads by anyone's standards. So I may indulge in some of them myself, partly as a writing exercise and partly as a way to keep new material here on CycleDog.

And I really do need the exercise! I've been trying to write something every day even if it's bad. Some of the stuff is complete crap, like a stream of consciousness or a simple list. This feels like trying to kick start a reluctant engine, one that sputters and dies easily, but churns out good ideas from time to time.

This one came about...well...you'll see as you read it.

Once again, it's time for the annual ant invasion here in the unstately CycleDog Manor. The ground outside warmed up enough to disgorge hordes of the little buggers. The first raids involved my bathroom. Every year, it's the same. They invade the north end of the house and my bathroom, then start working toward the south. Jordan's room is next. It's a real party for them as my eighteen-year-old has a bad habit of leaving soda cans and bits of food lying around. The ants revere him as a god.

But the grand prize is the kitchen with all its goodies. We had a conga line of ants going under a window, across the floor, and up onto the kitchen table where a kid had thoughtfully spilled some pancake syrup for them. Sure, they'd wiped it up so we couldn't see it, but that thin film of sticky syrup was ambrosia to the ants.

In short order, they discovered sugar-coated breakfast cereals, the candy bowl, and the baking cabinet - the mother lode of sweet delights.

I was annoyed at finding the wash basin crawling with ants. But I blew up when I stepped into the bathroom one morning to find one of them using my toothbrush. "Could I have a little privacy?" she complained, and then went right back to brushing her mandibles. I'm a patient kind of guy so I waited until she finished, then crushed her. The worst moment, however, arrived when I walked out to the garage, only to find a gang of ants trying to steal my commuter bike. I'll be the first to admit that their tiny helmets were sort of cute, but there was no way I could allow the situation to continue.

It was war.

I spread insecticide in the yard that evening. It was one of the kills-everything-except-the-neighbors varieties guaranteed to last all summer. As I lay in bed that night, I gleefully imagined the ants gasping and dying, but my attention was drawn to a tiny little beat that sounded like a loud party on the next block. It was catchy dance tune, and for just a moment I fantasized about the ants doing a rain dance. That's when the rain began falling outside. Oddly, rain hadn't been in the weather forecast. It steadily turned worse. Rain pounded on the rooftop, and since this is Oklahoma and no storm is complete without them, lightning and thunder accompanied the unexpected frog strangler.

As just like that – click! It stopped. The rain was gone. I no longer heard the dance beat and I realized that all the insecticide had probably washed away. In a dark corner of my bathroom, ants giggled.

Tomorrow I'll call Wally to see if he has any ideas, hopefully ones that won't get me arrested or deported, and will keep in me in the good graces of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. That's a tall order, I know, so maybe I'll learn to live with the ants instead.

I really don't like spreading wide-spectrum insecticides on the yard. Mary and I think that we see fewer birds as a result. Besides reducing the insect population, we're introducing chemicals into the bird's food chain. She has health problems too, so I really hesitate to use bug killers.

The most effective ant killer I've found is Terra-X. It's a simple mixture of a sugary gel and boric acid. Mary calls it 'ant medicine.' The ants take it back to the nest, feed it to the other ants, and in a few days they all die. It kills roaches too. I put small drops outside on the brickwork and a few on pieces of paper along the back of the bathroom sink. Mary was concerned that one of the cats might eat the bait (some of the cats really are that dumb!) but the quantities are so small I doubt it would hurt them. Besides, the bait is usually covered with ants and eating them is far beneath the cat's dignity.

The first wave of invaders has been turned back. Their numbers dwindled through the week and yesterday I didn't see any in the bathroom. However, we've had rain moving through all morning. The outside bait will be washed off and another merry band will arrive after the ground dries again.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Eugene Fields Bicycling Program

Eugene Fields Elementary School Kid's Cycling Class

On Saturday, I helped with maintenance on a bunch of donated bicycles for the Eugene Fields program. Gary Parker asked for my help, and Gary is a good friend, so how could I say no? As I understand it, the kids have to attend 3 classes after school, get fitted for a helmet, and if they stay with the program, they get a free bike. The bikes aren't shiny and new, but for some of these kids that's unimportant.

The photos from Saturday's work session are HERE. And the photos from today's class session are HERE. Now if you look at the work session photos, you'll undoubtedly notice that one of our number is lying on the sidewalk surrounded by paramedics. Brian was cutting a carton when his knife slipped and plunged into his leg. He is recovering from surgery due to a car crash, so any wound is to be treated seriously. He was transported to the emergency room and released later that day. Fortunately, he's going to be fine. Brian has the dubious distinction of being the first-ever casualty at one of these events.

We fitted kids with bikes and helmets today. Gary and Tom talked about basic safety. They watched LAB's "Kids Eye View" video and gleefully pointed out the other kids mistakes. Then we were off for a ride along the River Park trail.

The wind was relentless out of the south, scattering the kids along the trail. The cross wind at the pedestrian bridge was extremely difficult for one of the kids. She got off and walked part way across. Huge black clouds towered to the south, moving toward the north east. I felt a few raindrops, but that was all. Honestly, trying to keep a group of kids together under those conditions is like trying to herd cats!

They have two more sessions to attend this week, but my schedule is full so I won't be there for the others. Still, it was a lot of fun.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Dumbfrakistan Drivers Test...

(HDR image from fsudaft on Flickr. I like high dynamic range photos!)

Sometimes I think that Oklahoma is the buttocks of the known universe and the intersection of 86th and 129th in Owasso is its anus. I've had more trouble at that intersection than in all the other parts of my commute combined. There simply must be some explanation, and after considerable thought I may have hit on one.

It a concept I call the douchemobile. It's sort of like Stephen King's "Christine" - a haunted car that slowly takes possession of its owner. But in my example, it not an object - it's a geographical location.

Obviously it doesn't affect everyone. Some drivers, those who are dimwitted to begin with or those who've substituted large steaming heaps of fecal matter for their under-used and under-educated cranial filler, seem to be particularly susceptible. Perhaps that's an exaggeration.

No. It's not.

There's another thing operating here. I'll call it the 'passing imperative'. In Oklahoma as in the rest of the country, it's a sin to proceed at less than the speed of traffic. Cyclists, then, are big time sinners. Naturally any good, God-fearing motorist wants to put as much distance as possible between himself and a near-satanic bicycle rider. The best way to accomplish this is by passing immediately while maintaining speed or even accelerating. Motorists in the oncoming lane will understand. They'll even pull off the road so some bubble butt in a '74 Douchemobile can roar by a slow moving cyclist.

By now you may have guessed that I had another less-than-pleasant encounter with one of our motoring shit-headed brethren. Am I that transparent?

The mile long section of North 129th East Avenue between 76th Street and 86th Street is still under construction. It will be widened to 4 lanes soon, but at present the northern half is still 2 lanes through the construction zone. And of course, that's where I've met numerous colorful individuals including the Queen Of All The Oklahomas and today's aforementioned Senor Bart Bubblebutt. He insisted on passing me despite oncoming traffic and the narrow lane, and thought to "teach me a lesson" by zipping past my handlebar with about a foot of clearance. Then he flipped me off when I yelled.

Meanwhile, God made the stoplight at 86th turn red. I caught up to Bubblebutt, who was frantically winding up his window at my approach, and - politely - informed him that he had to allow 3 feet of clearance when passing. He yelled through the window that I was supposed to get out of the way.

This is the first time in quite a while that I've been very tempted to simply smash someone's window. Instead, since I'm a relatively calm, sane person who deflects anger with humor and sarcasm, I've developed the People's Republic of Dumbfrackistan Drivers Test. Enjoy!

1. Is it necessary to stop at every stop sign and red light?

Yes, if a police car is present.

Yes, but only if there are other cars in sight.

Only if it's still daylight.

Stopping is a sin.

2. The intent of a speed limit sign is to:

Set an upper limit to your speed.

Provide a challenge to your manliness.

Offer a convenient target for beer bottles, deer rifles, and handguns.

Driving at less than the speed limit is a sin.

3. "Share the Road" means:

Get out of my way, asshole.

I don't do sharing, asshole.

I'm driving a car! I don't have to share, asshole.

Sharing is important in church on Sunday, but otherwise it's a sin, amen.

4. Most people riding bicycles are:

Communists, liberals, and bunny huggers.

Illegal immigrants.


Anarchists or maybe the AntiChrist. Spelling ain't my thing. Anyway, I'm agin 'em.

5. At a four-way intersection with stop signs, who has the right of way?

Whoever has the largest 'magic Jesus fish' on his bumper.

Whoever honks.

Whoever is driving the oldest, nastiest car.

Stopping is a sin.

6. When approaching a crosswalk where pedestrians are present, a motorist should:

Drive behind them at high speed.

Drive in front of them at high speed.

Honk and curse while dodging to whatever side has the most room.

Stand on the brakes in order to bring the car to a skidding stop while simultaneously honking, cursing, and flipping them off.

7. While driving with your family, you pull out in front of another car whose driver has to brake to avoid a collision. What do you do next?

Speed away.

Brake suddenly to "teach him a lesson"

Flip him off.

Instruct your children to flip him off.

(Honestly, that last one happened to me recently. A pickup truck pulled out in front of me and a pre-school kid - standing on the front seat, no less - turned around and flipped me off! It's one of the real highlights of my stay here in Dumbfrakistan.)

8. Bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians are small and sometimes difficult to see. What should a motorist do to be more aware of them?

Honk the horn when encountering one, regardless of your direction of travel.

Yell something incomprehensible.

Flip them off, except for motorcyclists who could catch up and beat the shit out of you.

Aware of what?

9. Your sixteen-year-old son just passed his drivers test and wants to visit a barber shop for a fresh mullet before his photo is taken. Do you:

Take numerous photographs of this proud moment.

Put a personal notice in the local newspaper.

Send out party invitations to the rest of his eighth-grade classmates.

Hold his beer while he gets the haircut.

All of the above.

10. You're pulling out of a motel parking lot with a woman who is not your wife sitting in the passenger seat when you're involved in a minor accident. Before the police arrive, do you:

Give her another hundred bucks for 'cab fare' and tell her to get lost.

Give the other motorist the hundred bucks and tell him to get lost.

Leave the car and get home as quickly as possible. Report the car stolen by some anonymous hooker.

Stopping is a sin.

Scoring on this is relatively simple. If you actually took the test, drop your driver's license in an envelope addressed to your state Department of Motor Vehicles. Everyone else, well, never mind.



Monday, March 16, 2009

Keep those jumper cables handy!

Here's an Irish article on a German study linking traffic and subsequent heart attacks. I'll have to find the original study, though the last two paragraphs offer a clue.

Traffic may trigger heart attacks

[Posted: Tue 17/03/2009 by Joanne McCarthy]

Exposure to road traffic may trigger heart attacks, according to a new study.

People who have had a heart attack are three times more likely to report having been in traffic within an hour of the onset of their heart attack, the researchers said.

The German researchers also observed small increases in the chance that a heart attack happened up to six hours after exposure to traffic.

Driving a car was the most common source of traffic exposure, but taking public transport or riding a bicycle were also included. Females, elderly males, people who were unemployed and those with a history of angina were affected the most by traffic.

...The researchers are doing further studies to explain the reasons that the exposure to traffic was associated with a higher risk of heart attack.

The research was reported at the American Heart Association’s 49th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention.



Friday, March 06, 2009

Tulsa Tough News!

This arrived today!

Announcing New Support Programs for 2009!

Tulsa Tough has introduced three new support programs for 2009. We're sponsoring tour riders, other tour ride events, and clubs. That's right! We want to support you and we want you to help us spread the word about Tulsa Tough. Get the details here.

Ride Registration Now Open

Ride registration is now open for all distances from the 100 mile Deuce Challenge to the 8 mile Townie ride. Tulsa Tough has fun for the whole family. Details on the kids program will be announced soon - registration is not yet open for the kids bike program or races.

Speaking of races, Tulsa Tough is part of USA Cycling's National Race Calendar, meaning the top Pro teams in the US will be right here fighting it out on our high speed, spectator friendly courses. So enjoy your ride and make plans for great evening entertainment.

Why wait? Make plans and register now.

Of course, I clicked on the links. The Kid's Challenge hasn't been finalized, but there's this exciting bit of news - sponsorship - for non-racers, clubs, and events:

Tulsa Tough has introduced three innovative new programs for 2009. Our goal is simple, we want you to spread the word about Tulsa Tough and our great tour rides. So whether you are a first year local club member, RAGBRAI die harder, or event director we want your help. Of course, we'll do our part. Apply now, we'll be announcing our sponsorships on or before March 15, 2009. Application deadline is March 13th for all support programs.

Supported Events

Funding is tight for everyone but we need more great touring events! What to do? We're looking for ten great tours to support with $500 each. We'll list your event on our website and we'll probably attend. We want you to list us on your website, let us put a flyer in your registration packet and tell your participants about Tulsa Tough.

Apply here.

Supported Clubs

We're looking for a few, okay 10, cycling clubs. Here's the deal.

Tulsa Tough commits to the following:
TT makes a $250 contribution to your club (up to 10 clubs)
TT recognizes your club as a Supporting Club on our website
TT provides a link to your club on our website
TT provides t-shirts to your sag driver(s)
TT provides gas money for your sag driver(s)
TT provides lunch & snacks for your sag driver(s)

Each club commits to the following
Club provides link to TT on your website
Club provides TT with contacts for your club members and permission to e-mail them (we're not spammers)
Club provides one central contact person as coordinator for our TT Club program
Club provides one manned sag vehicle for our tours on Saturday and one on Sunday
Club's sag volunteers commit to attend TT training meeting(s)

If you're interested, apply now.

Supported Tour Riders

Do you like to travel and ride your bike with diverse groups of people? Do you talk a lot? Is the only thing keeping you from attending the next tour ride your number of vacation days? We want to help support that habit.

We are seeking 8 tour riders (get lost racers) who plan to participate in prominent cycling tour events. We'll give you a Tulsa Tough jersey and $250 for event entry fees, etc. We want you to write about your experiences so we can publish them to our website, we want you to interact with others at the event and tell them about us, we want you to be yourself take pics and have fun. We even have helmet cams if you're the video blogging type.

Sound good? Apply now

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Conventional Wisdom...

This is what happens when I have too much time on my hands and far too much coffee.

Conventional wisdom holds that cyclists have no place in traffic. They should not be on the streets - period. We've encountered this attitude time after time. It's one of the driving forces behind facilities advocacy, and it's deeply entrenched in local planning. When Tulsa's on-street route system was first proposed, a small group of experienced cyclists were invited to critique it. At one intersection, cyclists would have been required to dismount and walk. At another, they were directed up onto a sidewalk that shunted them off on a half-mile detour to avoid crossing at a non-signalized intersection. Planners, presumably well-intentioned and intelligent people, simply regarded cyclists as second-class road users on a par with pedestrians. That hasn't changed.

That is simply one example, and some may regard it as ancient history. But just recently, I learned that part of the on-street route along Archer may be lost to angled parking. It's decidedly unsafe to put cyclists (and motorcyclists, for that matter) behind cars parked at an angle, and it's especially dangerous when you consider that most cyclists ride the right-hand side of the lane. They're almost invisible. I've always believed that we shouldn't implement ideas that enhance safety or convenience for one group of road users if by doing so we degrade the safety of another group. That's precisely what's happening here.

Why did I bring this up? It was an issue I thought was resolved several years ago when the Archer Street plan was first proposed. Again, it may be ancient history. But it's not unlike a game of whack-a-mole. We have to fight to get cycling amenities and we have to fight to keep them. As a sop to the cycling community, a plan was floated offering an alternative route that went through alleys, sidewalks, and even included a wrong-way bike lane. It was an awful design and we quite rightly opposed it then, just as we'll oppose its latest incarnation.

As those two stories illustrate, the devil is always in the details, or as one of my real estate friends says, "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away." If we merely accept an overall plan without checking the details, we'll get blindsided again and again. We have a civic duty as responsible citizens to demand that our government be accountable. That's not arguing or being a hindrance, that's our right as citizens. We ask the uncomfortable questions and tell elected officials, planners, and bureaucrats what they may not want to hear. It would be easy to take a 'go along to get along' approach, becoming little more than a rubber stamp for bicycling programs. It would clearly be a more politic position if we relied on grant money or any funds provided by local government. And it would undoubtedly be popular with some uninformed local cyclists.

Let's face it - the majority of cyclists are recreational riders with little knowledge of advocacy. If they're confronted with a road they deem too dangerous to ride on, they simply take another route. If a signalized intersection doesn't work for them, they take another route or run the red light. As for Archer, maybe the mindset is something like, "I don't ride on Archer, so it's not important." It's easy to make such riders dependent on bike lanes and the entities that provide them. In fact, I ran across one in another city who said that she couldn't get from A to B because there were no bike lanes connecting the two. If that's not dependency, what is? But when someone relies on a bicycle for transportation, route selection becomes a much more critical decision. Just like motorists, commuter cyclists will take the shortest route. And just like any motorist, they have an equal right to use that public space. I've always felt that if you don't exercise your rights, you don't truly have them.

It's an uphill struggle. We read studies and analyze statistics that point toward a "best practices" approach to advocacy. Yet when we sit in a public meeting and use that information to contradict conventional wisdom, we're labeled as obstructive radicals. It would be easy to take the opposite tack and kowtow to that conventional wisdom, accepting as gospel what people believe to be true. I like to point out that at one time a majority believed the Earth was flat. An idea may be popular...and plainly wrong. I prefer to base decisions on reality rather than feel-good issues. Best practices is based on the best information available. It's a way to inform and empower cyclists so they experience genuine safety, not merely the illusion of safety. As an example, there was a study from Copenhagen, widely regarded as a cycling Mecca by some facilities advocates, that reached the astonishing conclusion that area cyclists believed they were safer on the city's segregated cycle tracks, when in fact, just the opposite was true.

My friend Brian believes that safety is most effective when it's based on behavior. I'm in wholehearted agreement on this. One writer describes safety as three concentric zones. The outer one is the cyclist's own awareness and behaviors. The next circle is the road infrastructure, signage, and any other engineering. The final circle (and we all hope we don't have to discover its efficacy) is his protective equipment, mostly helmet and gloves. I tell kids that a helmet is a wonderful thing to have in that instant before something really bad happens, but I want them to learn how to avoid getting into that situation in the first place.

Ultimately, my goal is to see that cycling is so commonplace as to be unremarkable. A cyclist will be just another road user, perhaps a guy on his way to work or a grandmother out to get groceries. It doesn't take millions of dollars spent on infrastructure. It doesn't require super-human abilities or nerves of steel. All it takes is some simple instruction on a Saturday morning. That's what we do because we know it works.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Human Factors

(Flickr image from Drocksays under a Creative Commons license.)

This piece grew from our meeting with the Bartlesville Pedalers last week.

As most of you know, I work in aviation. Safety is a major part of my recurring training, and one of the longest courses is called Human Factors. There is often a chain of events that leads up to crashes and incidents. Human Factor training is meant to make us recognize possible safety problems and prevent them. Between 80 and 90 percent of all crashes are due to human factors. The rest are mainly attributed to weather and equipment failure.

I've been thinking about trying to apply some of this to bicycle crashes, particularly ones involving bicyclists and motor vehicles because they're the main cause of fatalities. Granted, about 80 percent of all cyclist injuries are due to simple falls, and they're certainly deserving of study too. Information on these types of injuries is harder to obtain, however, because there's no standardized reporting system. Crashes involving motor vehicles are recorded in the Federal Accident Report System (FARS). While it's not perfect, it's a good place to start.

The following list is from our corporate training material and it's called The Dirty Dozen:

1. Complacency
2. Distraction
3. Pressure
4. Fatigue
5. Stress
6. Lack of (job) knowledge
7. Lack of teamwork
8. Lack of resources
9. Lack of communication
10. Lack of assertiveness
11. Lack of awareness
12. Norms

Most crashes can be traced to one of these factors, though in reality there's almost always some overlap. For our purposes, I've drawn up a similar list using bicycling crashes as the focus.

Bikelanes: Cars never cross to the right of the magic paint stripe and bikes never cross to the left of it.

For motorists, eating and cellular phones. For cyclists, other cyclists or pedestrians.

I have to get to work on time!

Effects similar to alcohol, leading to poor reaction times and lapses in judgement.

For example, while driving home from work, I bumped into two cars when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Saying that my mind was elsewhere is a vast understatement.

Lack of knowledge
I didn't know the road, but went downhill at high speed only to discover that the pavement ended.
Improperly installed part - stem far too high, for instance.

Lack of teamwork
Boring into the wind with a wheelsucker leads to fatique and stress. (See how they overlap?)

Lack of resources
Three flats but only two spare tubes.

Lack of communication
Yell, "Stopping!" Rider runs into your back wheel anyway.

Lack of assertiveness
Newbie doesn't question the route selection or illegal operation of more experienced group leaders.

Lack of awareness
I swear I never saw him, Officer!

We always do it this way.

Here's a difficult scenario, one that almost seems to defy conventional solutions.

On a local weekend ride, there's a state highway with a long curving climb to the right that strings out the group. Part way up the hill, they want to turn left onto a two-lane county road. The highway has three lanes, 2 ascending and one descending. It has a 65mph speed limit, and there's a guardrail on the right hand side that prevents a pedestrian-style left turn. The curve limits motorist's sight lines.

Recently, two cyclists were struck by a car as they attempted this left turn. The ride leader checked over his shoulder, them moved into the left lane. The rider behind him simply followed. An overtaking car hit both of them. Fortunately, neither of them were killed though the following rider was severely injured.

Now, looking at the list above, what factors may have contributed to this crash? (Note: I use the word 'crash' rather than 'accident' because the latter implies that it was unavoidable, and as most of us realize, crashes can usually be prevented.) The obvious ones are: pressure, fatigue, and stress. We're always going to feel these while climbing a hill on a group ride. Pressure and stress come from the knowledge that we're going very slowly while overtaking traffic is travelling very fast on a relatively narrow road. We know that a momentarily distracted driver can become a very large problem in just seconds. Throw in the physical effort of climbing a hill, and the desire to get out of fast motor vehicle traffic, and you have compound human factors contributing to the crash. But I think there's one I initially overlooked, and I'll return to that thought in a moment.

Brian and I were presented with this scenario at the Bartlesville Pedalers meeting on Monday. It's a real poser. My first thought was to do a pedestrian-style left turn. That is, move off the roadway on the right and stop. Wait for a break in traffic, and then cross over to the county road. But the guardrail placement prevents that maneuver. There's no space to get off the road.

Since I normally ride solo and very seldom join group rides, this wouldn't be a big problem. I'd just try to time my movements across the lanes, signaling my intentions well in advance. Heavy traffic might make this difficult, but even then, there are significant gaps.

Imagine the confusing scene before an overtaking motorist when there's a group on this road, however. There are 'clumps' of riders strung out in the right hand lane, and perhaps several have moved left in order to make that turn. The motorist is distracted by trying to pay attention to all the various movements, and he dithers before deciding to slow down. He's not accustomed to sharing the road with slow-moving cyclists. His momentary confusion slows his reaction time. Just as magicians use misdirection to pull off a trick, he's looking in the wrong place at the wrong time, and high speed relative to the cyclists only aggravates the problem.

Teamwork is what I initially overlooked. Consider this - a fragmented group climbing a hill offers motorists a series of problems to solve in rapid succession as he overtakes each individual or small group.

My proposed solution is to keep the group together. Don't allow the group to string out. Before reaching the bottom of the hill, move the slowest climbers to the front and everyone climbs at their pace. When it's time to initiate the left turn, the ride leaders at the back of the pack move to the left first, communicating their movement to the riders ahead.

Now, you can see the obvious difficulties in doing this. It requires teamwork, good communication, cooperation, and planning. This maneuver - putting the slowest rider to the front in order to remain a cohesive group - must be clearly communicated to the entire group before the ride starts and it must be executed BEFORE they start the climb. The goal is to provide safety in numbers for the riders, and provide unambiguous communication of their intentions to any motorist they encounter on the hill. A large, cohesive group is easier for a motorist to observe and avoid rather than scattered individuals and 'clumps.'

As for studying human factors in bicycle/motor vehicle crashes, I'm going to collect news stories and try to tabulate them in some way. Obviously, I don't have access to the detailed information found in the FARs, so this can hardly be considered scientific. I've wondered, though, if it's possible to get a large sample of those reports through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. If any of you have had some experience with this, please let me know.

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