Now that it’s getting towards autumn and the days are staying darker longer and getting darker sooner in the afternoon, and it’s getting closer and closer to the rainy season, people are talking more and more about safety while riding. I’m a big advocate of being safe while riding, however, I think the way we typically go about thinking about and acting out safety precautions has some big drawbacks.
First off, we put almost all responsibility for safety on the the individual who is vulnerable, or at the very least, on the individual in general. That is, we are told (usually not in so many words, but via demonstration) that things are the way they are, they aren’t going to change much, if at all, and that we are simply responsible for protecting ourselves (and if we feel like it, looking out for other people when it’s not too much trouble).
What seems to me to be one of the main results of this way of thinking, is that people who choose to walk or ride bicycles are seen as also having chosen to be vulnerable, and therefore they come out on the bottom because they didn’t choose to protect themselves to the extent that they could have (that is, they didn’t buy a giant SUV to drive around, so they could survive collisions).
This line of thinking leads to even more detailed issues of protection, as then those people who are walking or riding bicycles but choose not to wear a helmet or have super bright lights or high-visibility clothing are also seen as not taking all the measures they possibly could to protect themselves, and are therefore liable for anything that may happen to them.
Because much of our society thinks this way, and because of worries regarding liability and all kinds of other things, people have a tendency to go overboard protecting themselves. The problem with this is that, at a certain point, it not only perpetuates all the messed up thinking around safety, but it then in some cases makes it worse, and in some cases starts to debilitate or harm other users of public space.
Think about it – if we get used to a world where the unspoken rule is that if you don’t wear high-visibility clothing, you aren’t being safe, then pretty soon it becomes the spoken rule, the written rule, and eventually if you get hit without high-visibility clothing on, you’re out of luck, it’s your fault. We are pretty close to that place with bicycle helmets in many places in the U.S.
We live in a world now where people feel the need to go to extreme lengths to be visible at night, and that means all kinds of flashing and ultra-bright lights. From my own experience, this can be very distracting or confusing (what is that big flashing mass up ahead?) as another road user, and often the ultra bright lights (particularly aimed upwards or on helmets) obscure anything else that is nearby from vision, ruin night vision of other road users, and generally make it less safe for everyone on the road but the person with the light.
Here’s the deal – I’m not saying you shouldn’t take some measures to protect yourself (though I would argue that your behavior is actually more important than your safety gear). I do think it’s important to have certain things (lights, reflectors, bell, etc) in order to operate a bike safely on the road. But I am saying you shouldn’t have to go to extreme measures just to feel safe entering your own city streets, and you shouldn’t be content with a situation where you feel you must protect yourself just to step into the street.
What needs changing is not how many lights we put on our bikes, backpacks, heads, etc, or how blindingly bright they are, or how much high-visibility clothing people wear, or how many people wear helmets. What needs changing is the whole way we view safety, from the bottom up.
Many of our streets need re-designing so that people on foot and on bicycles are more visible by design, have designated spaces to move in (even across the street, not just alongside), and have traffic speeds low enough that collisions can actually be avoided in surprise situations, and damage minimized. For instance, it’s no good having a law that says every street corner is a crosswalk if the street corner is not visible from in the street (because of on-street parking, bus stops, curve in the road, or other obstructions), there is nothing signaling the people driving to stop for waiting pedestrians, and the car traffic is moving too fast to stop without a warning far in advance of reaching the pedestrians. The road design has to match and enable the law, and vice versa.
We need to put responsibility on each person to be safe, but with equal emphasis on the safety of other people, not just each individual looking out for themselves. If a person causes injury to another person, through negligence or willful bad behavior, there should be a consequence for it, and the consequence shouldn’t be shifted off on the person injured simply because they didn’t take enough measures to protect themselves.
We need to, from an early age and continuing into adulthood, educate people on what the law is and why it is and what will happen if it’s broken (and then stick with it). We also need to, from an early age, educate people on how to exist in a mixed-mode transportation system, which is becoming more and more common in cities across America. As more and more people are getting around by means other than car, we need to all be aware of how to behave in a way that causes the least conflict, no matter which way we choose to get around.
When taking safety measures to protect ourselves, we need to think about how they might effect other people, such as in the instance of poorly aimed, extremely bright lights. If you’re protecting yourself at the expense of other people, you probably should re-think if what you are doing is the best idea. Think about whether what you are doing is reasonable, or if you could tone it down or re-arrange it in a way to still provide yourself reasonable protection, but not put others in harm’s way.
Think about things other than equipment that might help guarantee your safety, and may mitigate some of the need to have the equipment. Our behavior on the roads can, to a great extent, dictate our safety, and if we behave responsibly and predictably, within our own limits and the limits of the vehicles we use (car or bike), and the limits of our laws and simple common sense, we can be quite safe without the need to go overboard protecting ourselves with equipment. Many general ideas apply to operation of any kind of vehicle – whether driving or riding a bike, think about, if you needed to stop quickly, would you be able to do it without hurting yourself or someone else given the speed you’re traveling?
Safety is a very complicated issue, and each person’s situation requires a different treatment, as each person has different circumstances, but I think in general we would do well to think about which battles we ought to be fighting (battles to get people to use more and more safety equipment, or battles to make our roads safer), and what measures are really reasonable to protect ourselves in the meantime.