Social Costs of the Traditionalist Approach to Road Safety

some impacts on cyclists and pedestrians

D. A. Clarke

[Note: This essay is a companion piece to my review of Julian Barnes' recent article in the New York Times, and should preferably be read in that context.]

negative consequences of dangerizing cycling

After years of focussing exclusively on the "safety problem" posed by cycling, rather than the risks imposed (on cyclists, among others) by excessive numbers of motor vehicles, our "safety authorities" have successfully redefined walking and cycling as "dangerous" activities. There is a social cost associated with the promulgation of this "view through the windshield," as it has been called. Much of what I say below applies also to pedestrians; see, for example, 'Pedestrians Often Blamed', (L. A. Times December 1999).

There is probably a feedback loop between the traditional approach (relentless promotion of helmets) and the reduced number of people cycling. The more our authorities insist that protective gear must be worn at all times when cycling, the more cycling is redefined as a dangerous activity -- more dangerous than driving in a car, even more dangerous than walking. This is sometimes called the "dangerizing" of cycling. The more people are afraid of cycling, the less likely they are to ride.

The decline in cycling created by this fear, in turn, does seem to create a marginally more dangerous road environment for those cyclists who persist. The fewer cyclists there are on the road, the less motorists are expecting to see them -- and the less motorists appear to be willing or able to see them. This may be an instance of the "Smeed curve" or "Smeed's law". But common sense alone would suggest that when cyclists are very few, and when cycling has been dangerized by authorities, cyclists are more likely to be perceived as a marginal, eccentric, foolhardy bunch who should not really be on the road at all. If that perception becomes a cultural consensus, then it becomes easier for motorists to ignore cyclists' road rights and consider that cyclists "deserve" whatever happens to them.

When helmets are the only method on offer for increasing cyclist safety, we have not only deflected public attention from the actual source of the public risk. We have also shifted responsibility onto the cyclist alone -- i.e. he or she is solely responsible for mitigating his or her own "dangerous" behaviour.

The cyclist can now be blamed for his or her injuries in a collision with a car, if he or she was not wearing a helmet. The behaviour and decisions of the driver become invisible or irrelevant. Public attention now focuses critically and narrowly on the cyclist, who must be a "good victim" in order to obtain public sympathy, compassionate treatment from police and medical personnel, etc. There is an approximate analogy in the poor treatment of rape victims in the first three-quarters of the last century, when trials would focus on the victim's clothing, or "why she was where she was when she was", instead of focussing on the hostility, violence, poor impulse control, etc. of the assailant.

This "blame the victim" tendency has been documented in interactions between law enforcement personnel and cyclists. There are many cases in the last decade or two, in which police have exonerated a motorist who has killed or seriously injured a cyclist -- even if the motorist was breaking the law at the time. Once a social atmosphere has been established which is conducive to blaming cyclists, motorist excuses like "He came out of nowhere," "I just didn't see her," etc. are then more likely to be accepted. When the cyclist is perceived as being "out of place" or as indulging in inherently risky behaviour, it is less likely that the motorist's own behaviour (such as speeding, running a light, falling asleep at the wheel) will be penalised.

When the treatment of motorists who injure or kill more vulnerable road users is excessively lenient (as it is in most automobile-centred societies), there is less incentive for motorists to drive with adequate care; and drivers with a record of injuring more vulnerable road users continue to drive. In countries where motorists automatically lose their driving privileges if they kill a cyclist or pedestrian, not surprisingly, cyclists' and pedestrians' travels are a bit safer. In a country where the driving privilege is seen as an inalienable right and almost never revoked, the safety of people outside cars is a secondary consideration -- with predictable results.

Thus the dangerizing of cycling by authories has helped, I believe, to create a persistent cultural bias against cyclists and cycling. Obviously this works against the best efforts of those (including other governmental agencies!) who hope to address pressing issues of environmental and personal health, urban congestion, etc. by promoting cycling. The erasure of risk inflicted by driving is also, I think, a serious problem. It is hard to see how public health and safety can be well served by a discourse which defines the risk from cars as invisible, inevitable, and unspeakable. What we cannot perceive or discuss, we cannot remedy.

negative consequences of overselling helmets

In addition to these diffuse social costs of dangerizing cycling, there are also specific safety costs associated with what many cyclists (myself for one) consider to be an exaggeration or "hyping" of the protective virtues of helmets, to the exclusion of all other safety considerations.

In the last 25 years the single-minded focus on promoting and enforcing helmet use has reduced the attention paid to road skills and vehicle code. We might say that a "fatalistic" stance has been taken. It is considered inevitable that cyclists must crash -- even though many older cyclists exist who have logged many tens of thousands of miles without ever experiencing a serious crash or injury. As I mentioned above, road danger from cars is considered inevitable, unquestionable, and irremediable (in the US, that is; some European nations have taken a much more pro-active approach). Cycle collisions and falls are treated as the pre-ordained fate of those who do something terribly risky. This causes us to overlook the quite correctable causes of a large number of cycling accidents, and therefore to do nothing to remedy them.

For example, there is almost no enforcement of night lighting requirements for bicycles in any state in the US; yet almost half of US adult cycling fatalities in the last several years have occurred during night-time darkness, and many have involved an unlit cyclist. In the last ten years I have not seen a single poster, newspaper ad, or "safety program" which placed a strong emphasis on the importance of cyclist night lighting for the avoidance of collision; the only advice we offer cyclists is "Use your head: wear a helmet!" or similar soundbites.

If a driver were to travel at night without lights on the public roads, we would attribute any resulting crash correctly to the unwisdom of driving unlit. If the same thing happens to a cyclist, we attribute it to the innate high risk of cycling. As a result, we do almost nothing to promote and encourage the use of adequate lighting; and small numbers of cyclists (with and without helmets) continue to die from night time collisions with motor vehicles.

The same argument could be made with regard to rear-view mirrors, which are a legal requirement for automobiles but are used by a tiny minority of cyclists; a rear-view mirror is just as useful to a cyclist in traffic as it is to a driver. If a cyclist pulls out in front of fast moving traffic with poor timing, and has a "near miss" or a collision, we do not ascribe this to his/her lack of a rear view mirror. We ascribe it to the inherent recklessness of cyclists or the inherent danger of cycling.

We have taken the same foolish approach to riding skill. The fatalistic approach to road safety means that we discount entirely the importance of riding skill and compliance with the law; if bicycles are inherently dangerous and cyclists will inevitably crash, then skill is irrelevant. Older "high mileage" cyclists know better. The fundamental skills needed to ride a bicycle safely on public roads are no different from the skills needed to ride a moped, a motorcycle, or to drive a car: alertness, courtesy, and respect for vehicle code.

There are additional skills and instincts which cyclists develop to compensate for their relative vulnerability. Or we might better say that the "vulnerability" of cyclists is also their strength: cyclists have certain advantages over motor vehicle drivers, including less obstructed vision and hearing, smaller size, and superior manoeuvrability. These advantages can and should be exploited to the cyclist's benefit. But we do almost nothing to educate young people in these skills. Instead, we tell them to wear a helmet, and then send them out onto the streets with no other advice. See


    for one version of what we might more productively teach our younger cyclists.

    Older cyclists (such as myself) who have logged several thousand road miles, were mostly raised during a more fortunate time when our parents strongly emphasized obedience to road law. As a result we are often appalled to see younger cyclists (mostly equipped with helmets) flagrantly violating vehicle code and basic common-sense safety. We routinely observe younger cyclists riding on sidewalks, riding against traffic, running red lights, riding unlit after dark, etc. Since I have a moderate or skeptical assessment of the mitigating effects of light helmets, I feel strongly that the additional risk incurred by this type of cycling far exceeds any risk reduction achieved by helmet use. In fact, the risk compensation or risk homeostasis theory suggests that helmet use may (ironically) stimulate or encourage such "wildcat" riding.

    If this careless and ignorant cycling behaviour -- not very dangerous per se -- is combined with the increasing number of cars on American roads; with larger and heavier cars predominating; and with such unwelcome new phenomena as "road rage" and cell-phone distraction; then it is hardly surprising that a rise in the rate of cyclist injury collisions is being observed. No one factor can be isolated and blamed for the whole picture; but I do feel that the over-promotion of helmets has contributed more to the negative than positive side of the ledger for US cycling.

    We should always bear in mind that the actual risk per hour of fatal or major injury while on the road (in a car or on a bike) is extremely small (down in the 1/100,000 ballpark). Therefore, very small adjustments of cyclist or motorist behaviour, which alter per-trip risk infinitesimally for any one individual, can produce measurable trends in regional or national populations. For cyclist road fatality and major injury, the raw numbers are so small that very small absolute perturbations are large percentage effects. As J Adams (author of Risk) has pointed out, risk compensation is a small effect; but we are already in the realm of very small effects, and it may be more than enough to consume any benefit from the (also slight) protective advantage afforded by a styrofoam helmet.

    Or to look at our problem from the other side: small adjustments in the attitude of motorists and police towards cyclists, small improvements in the average cyclist's skill and judgment, small investments in headlights and tail lights and/or mirrors, even moderate increases in the number of cyclists, can lead to measurable reductions in cyclist injury and fatality. Unfortunately, from what I have observed so far, the aggressive promotion of bicycle helmets has helped us to make these adjustments in reverse -- in the wrong direction: more public fear of cycling, a more negative social and cultural attitude to cyclists, a de-emphasis on roadworthy skills, disregard of basic safety equipment like mirrors and lighting, and a decline in the number of cyclists.
    De Clarke
    Santa Cruz, CA