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A Rant on Risk

By March 1, 2012Equipment, How To..., Stay Safe

I am what I suppose you could call a low level extreme athlete. I like to do sports that involve risk, because I believe that danger is a delicious gravy to life. I paddle whitewater kayaks in ocean surf, I do some rock climbing, and I happily seek out and ski off-piste terrain that most people would consider highly challenging, on non-releasable telemark bindings. And naturally, I ride bikes on trails and roads in all kinds of conditions. I have a pretty high tolerance for risk, but I am not foolhardy. I try to manage the risks I take.

So I’m always a little amazed at the unnecessary risks that I see people taking when they ride their bikes.

One cannot really remove risk from activities like bicycle riding, but one can be educated about managing risk. From an operational perspective, managing risk on a bike begins with following basic rules of the road, and doing things like riding with traffic and stopping at stop signs and lights. But one see cyclists with an alarming frequency riding against traffic, despite the fact that it is both illegal and statistically one of the riskiest things one can do on a bike. Likewise, one sees cyclists treating stop signs and stop lights like decorations that do not have to be obeyed.

Crashes that happen as a result of these behaviors are not “accidents.” They are the result of bad operational decisions. And besides the physical danger one puts oneself in by choosing to disobey traffic law, a bicyclist also increases their legal risk by doing so. Violating traffic law means you will probably lose in court if a crash does happen. Breaking the rules of safe operation is actually taking on extra, unnecessary risk. I am always baffled by such behavior, which seems gratuitously dangerous and rude.

Operational considerations aside, there also are a number of decisions a bicyclist makes before they start riding that can increase or decrease their risk. And again, I’m astounded by how willing some folks are to make decisions that unnecessarily expose themselves to easily avoided risks.

One such decision concerns wearing a helmet. Yes, if you operate safely, you may not crash. But if you do crash, and you don’t wear a helmet, you greatly increase your likelihood of suffering a brain injury. Even worse, not wearing a helmet could, again, jeopardize your legal rights if another vehicle or insurance company lawyers are involved. Not wearing a helmet can sometimes be considered “culpable negligence”, meaning that you were negligent in failing to protect yourself as much as you could have. As with obeying traffic law when you ride, wearing a helmet helps manage both physical, and legal, risks.

Another decision concerns your clothing choice. In our education classes, we tell folks to dress “bright and tight”, which means that you should dress for visibility and so you don’t get tangled in your bike. What you wear while you ride is a two second choice that can make a huge difference in how you’ve managed the risks of road riding.

The decision to be visible is even more significant for nighttime riding. You can be following all the rules of the road, wearing your helmet, using signals, but if drivers can’t see you, you’re toast.

I am always astounded when I see folks riding their bikes after dark without bright and reflective clothing or lights on their bikes. I personally run two headlights and taillights, and wear the most hideously bright neon clothing I own when I ride after dark. And my commuter bike (which is the bike I’m most often on after dark) is covered with reflective tape. I’m not afraid of traffic. I’m just trying to manage some of the extra risks inherent in nighttime riding by making it easy for other traffic to see me.

The League of American Bicyclists website mentions these “Five Steps to Riding Better : 1. Follow the Rules of the Road, 2. Be Visible, 3. Be Predictable 4. Anticipate Conflicts, 5. Wear a Helmet.

The League’s Traffic Skills 101 Curriculum also mentions these five, which do overlap a bit: 1. Know how to Control Your Bike, 2. Obey the Rules, 3. Choose the Right Lane Position 4. Learn Hazard Avoidance Moves and 5. Wear a Helmet.

I think that these points are a recipe for sensible risk management on a bicycle.

Jim Tasse, Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s Education Director