Sunday, May 4, 2014

On general perception of cyclists and cycling

I was browsing through my old posts on this blog and I started asking myself what is the general perception of cyclists and bicycling in our society.


As I wrote in my previous post, a whole bunch of cyclists (But not all!) are simply impatient and happily break the law by e.g. running red lights. This is one reason why motorists often hate cyclists and consider them being "cycloterrorists". This is why you keep hearing from the drivers things like "We will start respecting cyclists once they obey the law", which obviously is just a plain stupid statement and whenever you hear it from a driver you can laugh straight in his/her face. You see, I would argue that 100% of motorists break the law every day (Driving 2mph above the speed limit is violating the law!) so maybe the drivers should first look at themselves before blaming others.
Nevertheless, many cyclists (myself included) think that those cyclists who break the law reflect on all of us people on bikes and make the motorists hate us even more.

Helen Blackman says "Stop blaming me for what others did" and disagrees with this point of view on her blog. She claims that "cyclists are disliked for transgressing social boundaries, for not doing what’s “normal”" and the "normal" behavior is to drive a car everywhere, not ride a bike. I generally agree with it. We are hated for being different. We are the few who refuse to "save" the legs and spend life sitting in a car.

But this is only half of the truth. I believe that as nearly everywhere, the truth is a bit more complex. Helen says that cyclists are bullied by motorists so you can't expect the victim to earn respect of the bully by (in this case) obeying the law to the letter. But even if breaking the law is not the main reason why drivers hate cyclists who ride on "their" roads, it doesn't mean that cyclists are excused for following the general rules of the road, even though I realize that a lot of today's road infrastructure was not designed with cyclists in mind.

So when she says that "cyclists are not disliked for their law breaking", I think she's wrong. Cyclists are definitely disliked for their law braking but it's not the only reason (and maybe not even the main one) why they are disliked. When motorists sit in their cars being stuck in traffic and see cyclists passing by, often running red lights, they must think "He's on a bicycle and can get away with it, while I am stuck here!". This likely leads to frustration.

Helen notices that many motorists seem to think that "it’s OK to run one cyclist over because once someone saw another cyclist somewhere else doing something wrong." On the other hand - we, cyclists, don't even have to try to run any drivers over (assuming we could) because just by simply looking at car accident rates we know that those drivers are already doing a great job killing each other.

To sum up - yes, some cyclists can be real a**holes and some of them break the law (Newsflash! Drivers break the law too - statistically much more often than cyclists). But let's not generalize. If according to Helen, motorists hate as already by simply being different, let's then not put even more arguments in their basket and stop running red lights. It's just stupid.

... and bicycling

When it comes to the general perception of cycling in our society, a lot has been written about it already and it can be explained by our culture of fear. For some reason we just love to picture cycling as a very dangerous activity that requires special protective gear, even though statistically cycling is much safer than driving a car - something most Americans believe is perfectly safe (Otherwise they would give licenses to 16 yo kids).

The best evidence of this the widespread fear among cyclists is a high rate of helmets and reflective vests use in the U.S. Yes, helmets can be very effective... in decreasing the number of cyclists on roads. But other than that - how helpful they really are? Howie Chong thinks that not so much. In fact, he found data showing that wearing a helmet may be a bad idea. The general facts from his and other similar studies are:
  1. If you get into a serious accident, wearing a helmet may significantly reduce your head and brain injury.
  2. On the other head we have to define what a "serious accident" is. Head collision with a car moving at 50mph means cyclist's death. No helmet will help here other than having a psychological effect of feeling "safer".
  3. Head injuries are dangerous but they can happen anywhere. Statistically, they happen most often when driving a car, yet we don't require drivers to wear helmets. Same with pedestrians - they suffer more head injuries than cyclists but there is no public demand to put a helmet on every person on a sidewalk.
  4. Statistically, helmets reduce the damage to your head but obviously, only if you get into an accident. Logically, this applies to everyone regardless of activity but there are no studies on helmeted pedestrians or drivers because there aren't any.
  5. Bicycle helmets are designed and tested to reduce damage to your head with the force acting to the top of the helmet. So they may effectively reduce the damage caused by a falling brick but how often if you fall off your bike you would land exactly top of your skull down?
  6. Wearing a helmet may be bad for you. There is evidence showing that drivers leave helmeted cyclists much less space when passing them. Helmets may also increase a chance of some neck injuries and also some cyclists get a false sense of security (even subconsciously) when wearing a helmet and ride more aggressively.
So to summarize, the general perception of cycling in America is that this "extreme" activity should not be attempted without a styrofoam hard hat. And even though the Dutch and Danes showed that cycling in the city can be perfectly safe without any protective gear worn, still many people think that mandatory helmet law should be introduced.

I don't really find any compelling reasons to wear a helmet but I still do it frequently. It keeps me warm in winter but now that days are getting warmer, I will start to hate my helmet more again.

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