Wednesday, November 11


Photo from Wikipedia - Remembrance Day Poppies
Go here for their story.
Cycling really IS fun and safe. This is true even though there seem to be a high fraction of people on bikes doing really DUMB stuff. However, like soldiers, life is much safer for some than for others. In each case, it’s disproportionally the veterans that survive.
In the mini series, “Band of Brothers,” I recall one episode in which replacements come to the unit. None of the veterans really wanted to know anything about the replacements. They knew the replacements would mostly be the ones hit when the battle resumed and they didn’t want to get wrapped up with someone that’d be dead in a day or two.
In a milder form, the same trend may be seen in motor traffic. It forms the basis for the notion of “graduated driver licensing” that has been implemented in many states, and is part of the reason teen drivers pay higher insurance rates. They don’t have the experience to be veterans. The same thing may be seen in motorcycle accident rates – most often it’s new riders that get killed.

Cycling is the same. Forester, in Effective Cycling, points out that accident rates drop dramatically with successful cycling experience. He claims, and I think he understates things, that a cyclist’s chances of having an incident in a given year are about the same regardless of how far he/she rides. It’s clear cycling veterans know something useful.

This effect, while it ought to be perfectly obvious, plays a role in many ways. For example, accident rates in the Netherlands are lower than the US, but it is it because of their facilities and large numbers of cyclists, or is it really because people cycle there enough that they simply get better at it? Nobody really knows. All I will claim is that an increase in novice cyclists will result in an increase in cyclist deaths, regardless of what facilities may or may not exist at any given moment. It’s mostly the “replacements” that get killed. Those that survive either give up or get better.

There are two main things that’ll help, with a less important third factor that figures strongly in news articles. Training, experience, and equipment. The first two are far and away the most important. The second reinforces the first. The third seems most popular, particularly in the press.

Training comes in two forms, formal cycling education; often difficult to obtain in the United States, and a recognition by the cyclist that he/she can purposely consider and practice situations that may be encountered in the real world. A good start is a post-ride recap, to consider what might have been done better and what might have turned into a dangerous situation. All cyclists do this after a close call. Do it WITHOUT the close call and you’ll be better for it. Another good start is to get a solid book on traffic riding. Effective Cycling comes to mind. Our military trains almost ALL the time.

Experience is also something that can be actively cultivated. In my case, for example, I find that I lack experience in riding amongst large cycling groups. I got downright nervous seeing all the crashes at the HH100. This raises my risk in those circumstances compared to a more experienced rider. That awareness alone reduces the risk somewhat, and adding training/experience will reduce it further. I also lack experience in weekday downtown cycling because I have little cause to be downtown on weekdays. Should that change, I’ll have to work on that. In the meantime, I simulate that experience when opportunity presents. Our military works very hard to communicate the results of experience to all who might benefit from it. They revise the training to better reflect the experience.

Equipment can also help, but it has been demonstrated many times that the superior pilot in the inferior plane wins almost every time. So it is with cycling. Equipment is, at most, a tie breaker. Going back to the analogy, the superior pilot would be foolish to rely on that superiority and eschew safety equipment such as a parachute, but equipment is no substitute for training or experience. As has been noted elsewhere, equipment is a hardware solution to what is, at its heart, a software problem.

This Veteran’s Day, we’d do well to remember that training and experience are most of what make the US military what it is. The same two elements can help us become OLD and wily cyclists.

Seen on Katy Road, on Veteran's Day 2009.
It's amazing some of the things you notice on a bike!
I'd make way for this guy any day...


Keri said...

I always love pilot analogies :-)

To expand on the equipment... an inferior pilot with superior equipment has been a demonstrated failure as well. JFK Jr. had a superior airplane which had an autopilot that could have saved him (and his family members). In a moment of uncertainty, pushing one button on the panel would have made the plane fly straight & level til he could get his bearings. Oddly enough, he'd had significant training "under the hood" (more than I had the day I had to fly the instruments to Cedar Key because I lost the horizon in haze)... so I suspect other factors (arrogance or distraction) can undermine training. Probably true in cycling as well.

Steve A said...

Pilot analogies have a major weakness. During WWII, new pilots also got the dog aircraft. Nobody wanted to waste a good airplane on a pilot that'd be gone before anyone knew his name. It was the veterans who got the pick of the squadron aircraft and maintenance crews.

Hmm, thinking about it, perhaps it isn't so different for bikes. The veteran cyclists usually understand their equipment better and keep the stuff in good order that's important for them to be safe. It's the "replacements" that'll ride on dry rotted tires and with nonfunctional brakes. I see it all the time.

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