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Commentary: Education more important for safety than bike lanes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2010 - May is celebrated throughout the U.S. as National Bicycle Month, with various bicycling-related events organized by such groups as the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation.

My adult cycling career began in England 40 years ago when I became a strong environmental advocate after reading Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring." When I started cycling to work daily, the first hurdle was overcoming being rather unfit. The next issue was personal safety: getting out of a car and onto a bicycle was a distinctly scary experience.

The first book I bought about bicycling, "Richard's Bicycle Book" by Richard Ballantine, wasn't much help. The chapter on bicycling in traffic starts:

"For many people 99 percent of their riding is in traffic ... I have the worst misgivings about this chapter, for on the one hand I want you to use a bicycle as much as possible, but there is no way I can tell you that riding in traffic is safe. In plain fact, it is dangerous."

This chilling perspective led me to become a strong advocate of separate bicycle facilities in England, a perspective that only changed significantly after meeting Bob Soetebier, a St. Louis on-road cycling enthusiast. He recommended that I read "Effective Cycling," written by John Forester. Forester's background as a professional engineer and an experienced cyclist, provided a unique vantage for drawing important conclusions on the causes of bicyclist crashes. After analyzing studies on the subject he concluded:

"Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles."

Forester observed that most cyclist crashes are solo falls. The antidote is for cyclists to improve their bike-handling skills and avoid the potential causes, such as drain grates. Car-bike crashes are important, but they are usually caused by motorist or bicyclist error that the cyclist can be taught to avoid or mitigate in a properly organized bike education course, such as those offered by League Cycling Instructors.

After 40 years of cycling, especially the last 13 as a certified League Cycling Instructor, I have concluded that efforts to promote bicycling by emphasizing bike lane striping and helmet wearing are misguided.

Last year, for example, the city of St. Louis gained recognition from the League of American Bicyclists as a Bicycle Friendly Community. The main reason for that award was its painting bike lane stripes on some roads, plus the associated Bike St. Louis signage. The sense of security bike lane stripes give novice cyclists is illusory: very few car-bike crashes, which is what concerns most cyclists, are the result of a bicyclist being hit by a motorist from behind.

According to Forester's analysis in "Bicycle Transportation," a book aimed at traffic engineers, 75 percent of adult cyclist car-bike crashes in urban areas are due to crossing and turning movements at intersections. Bike lanes do nothing to mitigate such crashes and can actually exacerbate them.

Two such fatal crashes occurred in Portland, Ore., in October 2007, when cyclists in bike lanes were hit by right turning trucks whose drivers failed to see the cyclists. Instead of recognizing the problems caused by bike lanes, the city installed so-called "bike boxes," which add swerving out in front of motor vehicles to dangerous overtaking on the right.

The oft-quoted statistic that helmet-wearing can prevent up to 90 percent of bicycling fatalities is a myth, based on initial flawed published research. Later studies indicated that, while important, helmet wearing saved significantly fewer lives.

Helmet wearing is analogous to a motorist wearing a seat belt: neither can prevent a crash; they only mitigate its potentially serious effects.

In "Bicycle Transportation," Forester estimates that bike helmets prevent 300 deaths and 3,000 serious injuries annually, compared to 500 deaths and 100,000 serious injuries that would be prevented by a qualified bike safety program. In contrast, bike lanes may actually cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.

The emphasis should be on education, starting in the schools, since children are a prime target audience. An excellent example of a school-based course is the successful curriculum taught to seventh graders as a physical education elective in Palo Alto, Calif., schools in the early 1990s by Diana Lewiston. Literally hundreds of students learned to bicycle safely for transportation on regular streets.

Martin Pion, Ferguson, has been a certified League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor for 13 years. 

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