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Analyzing bicycle accidents during 50 years of cycling including my latest
July 6, 2022 - James, at home, typing slowly with left hand only:
A few days ago, I took my longest bike ride in almost three years. With the Covid-19 pandemic and its prolonged increase in both Upcycles' business and family care needs, I have not had many opportunities to ride, taking only occasional long-way-home rides from errands. I had completed 45 miles of a planned 60 mile ride when I crashed. I fell hard and broke my right hip, right elbow, and right collarbone. My stoic friends have taught me to respond to unfortunate circumstances by asking "What can I learn from this?" Although I have crashed before, and there are only a couple new lessons for me this time, I want to share with all my my cycling friends what I have learned from 50 years of cycling, with very few mishaps
1. Wear a bicycle helmet! Following CT scans to confirm no internal abdominal, neck, or brain injuries, and then surgeries to repair the broken hip and elbow, I finally took a look at my helmet. As the attached photo shows, the helmet is cracked all the way through in two places on the right side (it will be in the shop, if you want to examine it for yourself). Had I not been wearing the helmet, it seems those cracks would have been in my skull. This is the second helmet I have broken in a fall off a bicycle, and neither fall caused the slightest head injury. SO, in spite of my vanity, my love of the wind rushing through my hair, and my defiant inclinations in most matters, I have always worn a bike helmet when riding because I admitted that the helmet is a light, simple, comfortable, and cheap life saver. I am grateful to be alive, with all my brain functions intact, and grateful to my helmet. BTW, this lifesaver was the same cheap, no-hype Aris helmet we sell in the shop. Good enough!
2. Riding a bike is not extraordinarily dangerous! I have been riding bikes for 50 years, to the tune of 3,000-7,000 miles a year, mostly commuting in rush hour in the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York City, Phoenix, and Cleveland. I have never been hit by a motor vehicle. Overall I have had a pretty low rate of 11 accidents total. I have run into the backs of stopped cars at stoplights 3 times (and 3 times while driving a car -- clearly I am doing something wrong with my attention in those situations), and I have fallen 8 times. Net damage from the falls: 6 broken bones, one dislocated finger, 2 fractured helmets, and various light road rash.
3. There are consistent patterns in bicycle accidents, and they do not match our superstitious fears. We are overly afraid of motor vehicles relative to other causes of crashes. With little variation between databases, collisions with moving motor vehicles account for ~34% of bicycle crashes. Another 6% of crashes are collisions with pedestrian and other cyclists, 34% are falls due to road hazards, and 26% are unspecified falls. So, falls = 60%, collisions with cars = 34%. While motor vehicles collisions are often very deadly or very injurious, simple falls can kill, especially if you are not wearing a hemet.
Many cyclists are terrified about being hit from behind by a car. Statistics show that this is a disproportionate fear, perhaps more due to our ancestors having to watch out for the sabre-toothed tiger sneaking up behind them than actual modern traffic dangers. Of the roughly 34% of bicycle accidents which involve a motor vehicle, less than 1/10th of those are car-overtaking bike collisions. Most car-bike collisions are crossing traffic collisions at or between intersections. In fact, avoiding the discomfort of having cars behind increases a cyclist's exposure to other causes of bicycle accidents. Riding on sidewalk makes the 8-12 mph cyclist far more vulnerable to being hit by crossing traffic at intersections and cars pulling out of driveways. Car drivers do not stop and look both ways before crossing sidewalks, because pedestrians travel at only 2-3 mph, and stop on a dime. Rather, car drivers stop and look before entering the motor vehicle road, and are much more likely to see cyclists approaching there. On sidewalks, the short slabs of concrete offering unpredictable obstacles at the joints every 4 feet.
4. Beware of the diversion hazards! Although probably underreported relative to collisions with motor vehicles, the riding surface is the most common cause of bicycle accidents. My blockbuster accident, like most bike accidents, was a simple fall (8 of my 11 accidents), initiated, like most bicycle falls by a diversion hazard in the road (6 of my falls). When you ride a bike you don't "balance" by throwing your body side to side. Instead you continuously make small front wheel turns to steer the bike underneath you. if you are leaning to the left but you can't steer to the left, you are on the ground before you know it. Where I crashed, the road was narrow, with no shoulder, ending abruptly at the painted white line along its edge. Where I fell, the shoulder was sinking and crumbling left of the white line, and one of those cracks caught my front wheel.
5. Avoiding crashes and injuries involves subjective assessment of vulnerability, equipment choice, and riding style. I do not want to make it sound like there is nothing I could have done to avoid these injuries, because a diversion hazard had my number. Safe cycling requires planning and preparation:
Know your body"s limitations. For me this is about age. My reaction time is way slower, and apparently my bones are more brittle than they used to be. Fortunately, my bike fall frequency has not increased - - this bike accident is my first in over 12 years. Nonetheless, 5 of the 7 broken bones in my body have happened in the last 6 years. Three broken bones from a bike fall at 12 mph has gotten my attention and I should investigate my bone density.
Know your bike handling limitations. Skills like riding in a group, cornering, descending, and riding a rough surface are not easy, and require a lot of incremental learning. It is easy to get in over your head on a high performance bike - - too much speed, not enough room, losing road grip with inappropriate tires. Push the envelope gradually, follow the examples of more experienced riders, not just their speed.
Choose a bicycle-friendly route. Most avid cyclists develop their own personal cycling road atlas. Many American cities have abundant pavement, so to assess which roads are bicycle-friendly, ask: Is the traffic light and/or slow enough or is the road and shoulder wide enough to allow motor vehicles to pass with a safe gap? Is the road surface as low-hazard as you can find or would a block or two away be better?
Choose and maintain equipment primarily from the viewpoint of ride safety. Sure I always wear a helmet, but would I have fallen with wider tires? I don't actually recall whether my feet got stuck in pedals, but would I have slammed down so out of control if I had used quick-release clipless pedals instead of straps? Nothing on my bike failed and took me down, because I do a safety scheck before each ride (see the specs for "Steering, Stopping, Security" Safety Check repair on the Service section of this website.
Expect the unexpected. A trite saying, but how do you actually do it? For me,This accident taught me that I should have been riding a little farther out in the roadway. If I am uneasy with passing traffic, a rear view mirror would tell me when I have to move over as far right as possible, and I could watch that shoulder while doing so. Some others I learned long ago are: near intersections, watch the right front tire of the car passing you and the left front tire of the car going the opposite direction for the first indication it is turning in front of you; assume pedestrians are as predictable as pinballs; avoid the door zone and bike lanes on pedestrian-heavy streets always; never ride through puddles you don't know the depth of; go slower than the limits of tire adhesion around curves and turns; run front and rear lights even during the day; expect the worst driving in any encounter with a motor vehicle, but act nice anyway.