Public Comment

Response to ‘Bike Safety as Political Fodder’

By Andrew Ritchie
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 11:57:00 AM

Prosterman’s piece is an odd mixture of sense and nonsense. As someone who has ridden a bicycle for 51 years now, in the UK, Europe and the United States, and also run a one-year Bicycle Safety Program for the City of Berkeley in the late 1970s, I sympathize with some of his points, but I contest others. In the end, I find his attitude and the details of his arguments provocative but not very useful, practical or accurate. 

There are adequate laws on the books to protect cyclists. More cyclist education would be a good thing, especially in the schools. I cling to the belief that 99.99 percent of car drivers do not want to be involved in an accident with a cyclist, and my everyday observations tell me that the vast majority of cyclists on the road are their own worst enemies, rather than the victims of other road users. So what’s the problem with Prosterman’s arguments? 

1. Prosterman’s compulsion to mandate helmet use is one peculiarity of his position. Another layer of bureaucracy would be imposed, whereas statistics from Australia and Holland suggest that cycling declines when helmets become compulsory. We want more people to ride, not fewer. Better to spend the money to teach cyclists how to ride their bikes in traffic than make them wear helmets as an alleged solution to “protect” them. It should be my choice to wear a helmet if I need its reassurance. One of the beauties of cycling is that you can just do it! 

It is not necessary to see cycling as inherently dangerous. Everything we do can be seen as accident-prone. Based on accidents per miles ridden, being a cyclist is not much more dangerous than being a pedestrian. Intelligent pedestrians tend not to get hit by cars. The same is true of cyclists. The more experienced cyclists there are—using the roads intelligently—the safer the roads become. In a typical bicycle accident, you may break your shoulder or your arm, but there is actually only a miniscule likelihood of you dying or suffering a major head trauma from an accident. Serious collisions with motor vehicles, or even self-cyclist crashes can hurt you in any number of different ways, not just head injuries. My point is that the obsession with helmets as a panacea for safety distorts the realities. 

2. As a cyclist in Berkeley, I have never had any problem whatsover with navigating the mini-roundabouts. I don’t understand Prosterman’s beef. You simply fall into the line of traffic and ride through the intersection as you do at any roundabout. Nobody needs to push anyone anywhere. And the mini-roundabouts are cyclist-friendly—they slow down motor vehicles. 

3. Now about “dooring”! Yes, cyclists can get doored if they are not alert, and don’t know how to ride on the road. But a skillful, experienced cyclist knows how to avoid being “doored” and is always ready and waiting for it. It is deeply ingrained in experienced cyclists—a kind of sixth sense—always to be aware of the cars on their right, and to listen for whatever is coming up behind them so they can be out far enough into their lane, signalling his intentions if necessary, to avoid the possible opened door. I’m willing to take a bet that a large majority of doorings occur to inexperienced cyclists or cyclists who are just not paying attention to the parked traffic on their right-hand side. Once again—take responsibility for your own actions—don’t wait for someone else not to do something wrong. They never will not do it! As a cyclist, you have to take full responsibility for your actions on the road. You have rights, but you also have responsibilities. Obey the rules of the road and learn to ride confidently, skillfully and with consideration for others. Behave predictably. Make your intentions clear at all times by signalling and positioning yourself correctly on the road. Wear bright clothing; have lights on your bike at night—the new generation of l.e.d.’s are fantastic! Wear a helmet if it makes you feel better. 

Don’t get stuck with the cyclist inferiority complex, (thank you, John Forrester). Your safety as a cyclist—and how other road users view you and behave towards you—depends heavily on your own behavior, not on what more bureaucrats think they can do for you, or tell you to do. Prosterman thinks he can impose better behavior on everybody by legislating it. But he can’t, and—except for the occasional citation—they (city, police, courts) can’t either. It’s up to you—the cyclist on the road, to take your safety into your own hands.  

I think I understand why, perhaps, Prosterman complains that he has difficulties ingratiating himself with City of Berkeley personnel, and why they resist him. He’s one of those people who thinks society has got to be shaped according to his own version of good, and that only his ideas are the right ideas. Idealist, yes, ok—but just a little bit too fanatical in his own egotism. 

The roads are ours as well as theirs. Cyclists were there first, before the motor car was even invented. Bicycles were born into the horse and buggy age in the 1880s. Our responsibility is to co-exist politely and in a disciplined way with those who came later. We all drive cars, too. Be nice to the other people on the roads in their cars, be expert and be visible, and you will be amazed how most of them will show you consideration in return! Of course, we know there are exceptions! They’re the ones you have to worry most about. Many drivers are even jealous of our style and our freedom! 



Andrew Ritchie has been a cyclist since 1958 and is an El Cerrito resident.