cycling

Cycling, women, and safety in numbers

bikesandbrains poster, image of a brain

I’m a speaker at a community event called Bikes n’ Brains. It’s here in London, Ontario at the end of the month. I agreed as long as I get to put a gender angle on it. 🙂

My plan is to talk about women and cycling, and what it takes to get more women out on bikes. For some, but not all of us, that’s cupcake rides but for pretty much everybody it’s safety.

But what makes cycling safe? There’s a tension between institutional solutions, like better cycling infrastructure, and individual solutions, like wearing helmets and bright colours.

I’ll actually set aside, for the purposes of this event, some of my skepticism about the usual individual safety tips.

Does high visibility clothing make a difference? No, actually. (See Why cycling in high-vis may be not as safe as you think : A study of motorcyclists shows head-to-toe fluorescent yellow does not always ensure you are visible and High vis clothing doesn’t make cars pass you more safely, says new study.)

And then there’s the debate on the internet that I hate having: Should bike helmets be mandatory?

For the record, I’m opposed to mandatory helmet laws for adults even though I never ride without a helmet and my children ride without a helmet on pain of losing their bikes.

Why? It’s complicated.

Here’s part of the answer. The biggest predictor of cycling safety is numbers. The more people who ride, the safer it is. Helmets put people off in two different ways. One, they contribute to the perception of cycling as unsafe, as risky. “Look you need special gear!” Two, they’re awkward and ugly and mess up your hair. Fine, whatever.

We don’t make joggers wear helmets even though they’d be safer if they did. I’ve got a friend recovering now from a pretty severe concussion caused by tripping on a curb when she was out for a run.

And, in the kind of crashes cyclists most fear, impact with cars, helmets often don’t make a difference.

Why do I wear one? Despite what I’ve said the answer is still safety.

I’ve “come off my bike” as cyclists say a few times. One time involved another bike. The other involved a car passing too closely and an unexpected pothole. Both involved visits to the hospital, scans of various sorts, and replacing my helmet. Mild concussion in one case, nothing in the second. In both cases, I was told by emergency workers that my helmet made a huge difference in the outcome.

That said, I don’t wear a helmet riding in European cities or even in large North Americam cities on rental bikes, in segregated bike lanes. There I’m riding very slowly, away from cars, and around thousands of other cyclists all riding without helmets.

So my safety focus will be more on infrastructure, less about individual behavior though I’ll always push individuals to wear helmets, remain attentive, and obey the rules of the road.

I love the contrast, by the way, between today’s bike safety posters and the ones from the 1940s, reprinted here from the blog The Retronaut. Enjoy!

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8 thoughts on “Cycling, women, and safety in numbers

  1. Good post, Sam– I agree with you about helmets and cycling. I used to take the position that no one should ever ride a bike without a helmet, but now there are lots of people in my city riding on paths, around neighborhoods, using our Hub Bikes loaner system (that currently doesn’t provide helmets), etc. Yes, riding without a helmet is very risky, and I never ever do it on one of MY bikes. But like you, I’ve rented city bikes in many other places (Amsterdam, Washington, DC, Seattle, to name a few) and ridden with no helmet. It feels a little odd (except in the Netherlands!) but it’s a great way to get around and see a new place. And switching the burden to infrastructure is a very good way to go– make our streets safer for the massive influx of all kinds of riders, including lots and lots of kids. I saw two kids riding their bikes (with helmets– for kids it’s the law here in Massachusetts) down a city street in Cambridge last week. They did fine, and the cars were paying attention. The more riders we have out there, the more pressure on drivers, police, public works, legislatures, etc. to make the riding environment safer. Here endeth the sermon… 🙂

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  2. Let us know how people respond to your talk, Sam.

    A lot of men who don’t bike much or at all, won’t admit that really they don’t feel safe or self-conscious. And yes a helmet and unfamiliar bike will increase that self-consciousness. Women are more quick to openly express their fears.

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  3. The last time I fell off my bike, I was going 0 km/h. I was riding very slowly on the sidewalk in front of St. Joe’s hospital and there were some pedestrians walking towards me, so I turned onto the grass. After they passed, I tried to turn back onto the sidewalk, but my wheels got stuck in a rut between the grass and the sidewalk. Before I could put my leg out to stop myself, I fell sideways onto the concrete and whacked my head with enough force to see stars for a few seconds. I’m glad I was wearing a helmet. No concussion, but I got whiplash! So I will always wear a helmet while riding a bike, no matter how slow I’m going or how protected the bike path is.

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    1. Yeah, that’s exactly why I wear a helmet. I know it won’t do much if a car crushes me but I think I’m way more likely to have something like what you described happen!

      BTW glad you are okay and that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

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  4. I wear a helmet when riding just because I’d hate to fall off and crack my skull. I’ve known some people who have been in accidents where a helmet kept things from becoming catastrophic.

    That said, I totally agree that safety in numbers is really the key, and that when I’m riding on roads I feel safest on roads with lots and lots of cyclists. That way I know drivers are aware that we are out there and that they are already on alert for us, instead of being taken by surprise when they see us.

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