Tuesday, November 1, 2011


It was the Halloween night last night. It usually means that kids are coming for candies and there are all possible horror movies played on TV. I am not American so I don't know what exactly the point of Halloween is, but I guess it is supposed to remind us that death is around the corner and we should live in fear. In a funny way, of course.

When it comes to cycling, we somehow really like to think that fear should be the integral part of cycling experience. Still many Americans believe that cycling is dangerous and in general should not be attempted without protective clothing and helmets (Let's forget about performance/sport cycling and focus on vehicular cycling for a while).

Maybe the case with fear of cycling is a bit like the problem with fear of flying. We all know that far less people die every day in plane crashes than in car accidents, yet many of us experience some hard-to-explain hysteria when sitting on a plane. We could argue that this statistics is not valid here since many more people drive daily than fly. We would have to then look at a place where people drive to work as often as they cycle, like Holland. Let's take a look at this graphics:
Cycling safety in various countries (Source: http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1079.html)

Well, it turns out that the percentage of trips done on a bicycle in the U.S. is only around 1% compared to 27% in Holland. Yet somehow, America leads with 110 deaths per billion kilometers cycled, compared to only 19 in Holland. So it looks like it is not simply a matter of scale. Somehow the Dutch managed to make cycling safe. How?
In the 60' citizens of Holland became richer and richer. This means that they could afford more cars. And large cities in Holland became flooded with cars. Public city space was converted into much needed parkings and bike lanes were reduced. Sounds familiar? Pretty much like in the U.S. right now. More cars, more drivers, richer citizens... They must have been very happy, right?. Or maybe not so much, since they quickly noticed the increase in fatal accidents. In 1971, 3000 people died on Dutch roads, including 400 children.

So what did the Dutch do to reduce number of fatal accidents and make cycling safer? Judging by our American standards, they should have probably given helmets and reflective vests for free to every biker. It looks like that was not the case since only 0.1% of cyclists in Holland wear a helmet. If you don't trust these numbers, you can see it for yourself:
Can you count how many bikers wear a helmet in this video? None. Zero. Not even one. Weird, right? Based on the above graphics U.S. should lead the world in bicycle safety since 38% of all cyclists wear a helmet. If this is not the case why do we live in fear and gear up for cycling, while the Dutch just simply take their bikes everywhere not fearing any danger?

The answer is in this excellent post by Kim Harding. Basically, in the U.S. we are trying to fix the situation by penalizing its victims, while in Holland they really got the to root of it. It is like sweeping all the dust under the carpet. Yes it is faster and easier this way and it gives you a feeling that room is clean. But is it really? So instead of educating drivers, building infrastructure, and motivate people to use other means of transportation, we prefer to spread the fear that cycling is unsafe, and all who cycle must be nuts because real Americans should only drive.

This means that unlike the Dutch, we take a "backwards approach to road safety", which in my area results in 1 crash every 1030 cycled miles.

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