Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Emphasis on Safety?

There’s a lot of focus this month on getting more people out and about on their bikes. We posted last week about the effort to normalize bike commuting, a topic that as usual sparked a lot of discussion about sweat, appropriate clothing, secure bike parking and, of course, safety.

holland_300x298.jpgHow they promote cycling in Holland.

Today we’d like to talk more about the safety issue — or, more precisely, the perception-of-safety issue., a Streetsblog Network member in Detroit, has a post comparing the Dutch approach to promoting cycling with events like the "Ride of Silence," an international annual event — begun in America — that honors bicyclists who have been killed by traffic while riding (2009’s ride will be held tomorrow):

Last month Copenhagenize noted the Dutch Bicycle Council’s collection of positive cycling promotions. Those photos certainly make cycling look safe, accessible, convenient and fun. There’s no Lycra and almost no helmets.

Contrast that with the Ride of Silence events that mourn cyclists killed or injured while biking — putting the focus on how unsafe cycling can be.

Does this message encourage more people to ride a bicycle?

Does this message make it more or less likely that parents will let their kids bike to school?

The Copenhagenize site — which posted a parody of the widely circulated Danish video of cops giving cyclists helmets — has taken a strong stand against helmet promotion, precisely because of the effect it has on perceptions of cycling as a safe activity.

Of course, Denmark and the Netherlands are countries that have well-established cycling cultures. Here in the U.S., we are just at the beginning (we hope) of establishing such a culture. The question is how to do it.

So what do you think? Is it possible to emphasize safety too much when it comes to cycling, thereby scaring off a significant number of people, especially when research shows that more cyclists means safer cyclists? Is it counterproductive to emphasize the dangers to cyclists with things like ghost bikes and memorial rides? Or — here in America, land of the automobile — do we need to emphasize safety over all other concerns?

Full disclosure: I always wear a helmet when I ride.

  • gecko

    re: “here in America, land of the automobile — do we need to emphasize safety over all other concerns?”

    Yes, we have a really long way to go; though, it is not clear that bicycle helmets are a realistic or substantial safety intervention especially, for adults.

    To start off, the most effective safety interventions will involve complete protection and isolation from cars, trucks, and buses.

    Full disclosure: I only and always wear a helment when I inline speedskate (in city parks or on the West Side bike path) or downhill ski, though, I consider cycling on New York City streets much more dangerous than either.

  • Doug

    Seat belt laws, mandatory air bags, and increased safety standards have not discouraged driving, even though they certainly reinforce the perception that driving or riding in a car is dangerous. Do fewer people ski now that helmets — something you never would have seen on a mountain 15 or 20 years ago — are a common sight at ski resorts everywhere? Football doesn’t seem to be losing any popularity because one needs to wear a helmet and pad when playing. I think a focus on wearing helmets misses the point.

    Despite the dangers inherent in driving — and the need, by law, to wear a seat belt or make new cars comply with safety requirements — people still drive because the roadways look and appear safe and because almost all civil infrastructure is built to cater to their use. Streets are built for drivers with massive signs, painted lanes, separated from the rest of a city in many cases. Parking lots are vast, plentiful, secure, and generally free or inexpensive. It may or may not be in reality, but driving APPEARS safe and convenient. The need to take safety precautions is almost secondary to everything else about driving! Most people are more interested in the size of their cup holders and their stereo system than they are in their car’s safety performance.

    But safety is the PRIMARY concern for most riders and the number one fear of most people who might be thinking about riding but don’t. Tell someone you bike to work and the first thing they’ll ask is, “Is it safe?” Biking does not appear safe to many people, so they don’t ride, helmet or no.

    So, putting aside the argument of whether or not helmets are effective — which I’m sure this discussion will inevitably devolve into — I don’t think encouraging people to wear them discourages riding. If only that was the biggest problem!

    There are plenty of communities with safe streets and bike trails where people ride AND where helmets. What really holds people back in New York, other urban areas, and even in a lot of suburbs, is a lack of safe bike lanes, few places to securely park one’s bike, lax traffic enforcement, hostile drivers, and the general appearance of biking as an unsafe activity. Those are the real issues. Focusing on helmets leads us to a “blame the victim” mentality that has been discussed on this blog ad nauseum.

  • gecko

    Ghost bikes are a welcome reminder of the life-threatening dangers from cars, trucks, and buses, are like the crucifixes that have been placed on treacherous South American mountain roads and the shrines where whole buses have gone down and many people killed (as portrayed in Bunuel’s “Mexican Bus Ride).

  • Gray

    I think Doug said a lot of what I was going to say. But I think these are two different issues: (1) Helmet use should be encouraged, just like we wouldn’t dream of ignoring whether people wear seat belts while engaging in a risky activity.

    On the other hand, (2) these memorial rides could indeed have a chilling effect on biking. I’d much rather see the memorial energy be used positively to work for safer streets for bikers. Maybe that’s the goal, but I’m not sure I see how a memorial ride furthers it.

  • JSD

    PR campaigns promoting seatbelt use all speak of the “What if” scenario. Safe driving is important, but you can’t account for the driving skills of everyone on the road. Be careful, and wear a seatbelt, just in case.

    Helmets shouldn’t be any different. A bicyclist should ride safely, and within the boundaries of the law. But that bicyclist can’t account for the behaviour of others on the road, be it pedestrians, other cyclists, motorists, or potholes. It’s unrealistic to not educate the public on the very real dangers of cycling. We aren’t going to get anywhere until people actually know about cycling. The good and the bad.

    It’s not all sunshine and happy riders. There are risks. Covering up the dangers is just clever marketing, and bad for those considering a change in transportation.

  • Greg

    If it was just alarmism that would be be one thing. But I for one personally know more people who have been killed on their bikes than killed in cars. So I don’t think emphasizing safety is unreasonable, or that we shouldn’t talk about it because its a downer. As if the ostrich approach was even possible in the age of mass communication.

  • Tank

    Huh. Count me with the Copenhagenize folks. The emphasis on ghost bikes is particularly grim and pointless. Basically, it’s a way for a self-contained community of cyclists to nurse a feeling of besiegement. Let’s all memorialize another fallen soldier in the war against cars. Feh. Most people already tend to exaggerate the (fairly low) dangers involved in bicycling. No need to remind them yet again of the possibility of an accident.

    Ditto for the moral crusade regarding helmets. I’ve got nothing against helmets, although I don’t wear one in my daily rides around New York City. But the shock and disgust I often hear when people see an unhelmeted rider — clearly this has less to do with safety and more to do with people’s seemingly incapacity for disapproval. Let people make up their own minds, and give the helmet thing a rest.

  • gecko

    The safest bikes — without considering cars — are recumbents because they are low to ground and the rider has a shorter distance to fall and is less likely to go headfirst over the handlebars. They are also the most efficient because of the inherent streamlining. Cars, truck, and buses make then impractical on New York City streets for safety considerations.

    Recumbent tricycles are perhaps the safest cycles — again, ignoring the dangers from cars — except for the possible tipping from going too fast on turns and bad roads. Adding electric power makes these vehicles usuable by virtually everyone, so that having cycling on New York City roads without providing complete protection from cars, buses, and trucks is a major accessibility issue contrary to policies, laws, and interventions protecting the disabled.

  • Tank

    Argh. “seemingly incapacity” = “seemingly infinite capacity”

  • It is only partially meaningful to compare bicyclist safety with other modes of transportation. Bicycling improves health overall, even accounting for collisions/accidents, according to a “Cycling: Towards Health and Safety” from the British Medical Association 1992. This effect is not present for other modes except perhaps walking; but walking takes too long for many trips.

  • Doug

    The point is not really about what the data points to, but rather what the appearance and general opinion is. As we all know, the statistics say that flying is far safer than driving, but fear of flying is all too common nevertheless.

    Biking doesn’t have a statistics problem, it has an image problem! The question is how do we make that image catch up with the statistics?

  • gecko

    #7 Tank (regarding Ghost Bikes)

    1. They serve as reminders of dangerous locations as I recently watched a tow truck rapidly cross in front of me on the West Side bike path near where the doctor was killed (by such a dangerous action) and the Ghost Bike remains.

    2. Hopefully, they will serve in part at least, to mitigate the high level of passive complicity allowing these extremely dangerous conditions to continue and perhaps should be extended to those pedestrians killed by cars (if this does not exist already) which is a much larger number in this city.

  • Geck

    I think the real or perceived safety issue in NYC is the scarcity of Class 1 bicycle tracks. I have discussed bicycling with a number of Europeans from cycling cultures who cannot conceive or riding in New York because of the absence of bike lanes separated from traffic.

  • Yes. There is so much emphasis on safety that it often dominates discussions about riding bicycles. In this way it discourages riding and portrays the activity as much more dangerous than it is. As many people know, the more people that ride the safer it is. What’s dangerous is driving an hour or more every day. Get on your bike!

  • I’ve seen a cyclist die of a head injury right before my eyes, so I don’t think there’s too much emphasis on safety.

    But the immediate cause of the cyclist’s death was a college kid who drove an SUV to school and then drove home, even though he was feeling sick and probably not competent to drive safely, and ran a red light because he was impatient to get home. The more distant cause was the Albuquerque political culture that thinks it’s just fine and dandy to put a six-lane boulevard in between a college campus and a quiet residential neighborhood, and to build lots of parking so that any student who wants to can drive to school.

    So yes, place emphasis on safety – but focus it on the short-sighted nitwits who constantly prioritize some people’s convenience over others’ safety.

  • Ed

    I’m also with Copenhagenize on this point. And I’m so tired of this argument. Tank and Alex said it well. More riders means more awareness of cyclists by drivers and that means safety. Scaring people with horror stories about bike accidents and mandating helmet laws will only dissuade potential cyclists. (Comparing cycling with football is just silly)
    Wear one if you want to, I won’t tease you. . . but don’t preach to me about wearing a helmet. Seriously.
    I don’t know if this is relevant but you don’t even have to wear a helmet on a motorcycle in Pennsylvania.

  • I think we go about the issue of safety entirely wrong. What we in America end up telling cyclists is, “cycling is dangerous, and we’re not going to do anything about it, so you’d better wear a helmet and neon yellow and try your best not to get hit by a car.”

    Sure, emphasize safety, but actually DO something about it too. Certainly, everyone has responsibility for their own behavior on the roads, and that is a large part of what safety comes from, but cycling and walking will never be as safe as they can be until we start really limiting the freedom of automobiles to go anywhere and drive however they like.

    Promoting safety does not equal telling cyclists to wear helmets and good luck!

  • gecko

    People look at the way cars drive and the conditions of the streets to gauge how safe it is to cycle in this city. Long and detailed practical discussions about safety with broad implementation will rapidly improve the cycling and pedestrian environment.

    Extensive cycle tracks down the center of the city’s large avenues (including the outer areas) where cars tend to drive too fast and recklessly would probably be a great way to start to immediately improve the actual and perceived safety of cycling in this city.

  • Gecko, cycle tracks are fine but they are not an answer to reckless driving.

  • Paul

    NYC needs some serious traffic calming. Give the streets to the people. Cars don’t belong in city centers.

  • Tim

    Having lived in the Netherlands, I’ve noticed a different mentality to biking there then here. In the States the bikers are often enthusiasts, health conscious people or environmentalists. In the Netherlands though its just your average person trying to get from A to B. Biking is something anybody does from your grandmother, to the young kid, to the sportsman. Thus the system is made to be safe enough that bike helmets and such are not necessary. I have never seen anybody who wears helmets in Holland. Indeed if they do, people immediately presume there American!

    Similarly most bikers in the States have sports bikes or mountain bikes and wear a plethora of bike specific clothing. This is because biking is a specific “sub”-culture, while in Holland its the “mainstream” culture that bikes. Hence people wearing normal attire, even business suites and bike with the typical “dutch” bike which includes mud guards, chain guards, integrated locks, fewer gears and so forth!

  • JSD

    Are there any figures related to bicycle injuries and deaths from nations where bicycling is considered mainstream?

  • Andy B from Jersey


    The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany all have cycling fatality and injury rates that are much lower per 100,000,000 km cycled.

    Killed, Injured
    NL – 1.1 1.4
    DK – 1.5 1.7
    D – 1.7 4.7
    UK – 3.5 6.0
    USA- 5.8 37.5!!!!!

    Source: John Pucher; Ralph Buehler – Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, Transport Reviews, p506

  • I’m not going to wade into this helmet debate (I always wear one), but I had to laugh to stop from crying when I saw this item from the Streetsblog network:

    Missouri Bans Texting for Drivers 22 and Younger

    Does that mean it’s not a bad idea for people 23 and older to text while driving? Are older texters more responsible about how they take their eyes off the road?

    I think I’ll keep that helmet on (OK, I lied about not wading in, but I’ll bet drivers in Copenhagen or Amsterdam don’t text while driving, and they don’t drive their SUVs down city streets at 60 mph, either). Not that the helmet would save me from that kind of driver.

  • benbo

    Seriously? You guys have already made this point and already offended a lot of people by doing so. This blog is getting boring.

  • JSD

    Thanks Andy. Interesting numbers.

  • Annie


    Maybe it’s time to stop being offended and take note of the fact that ghost bikes scare the crap out of lots of New Yorkers and probably help ensure that they will never ever ever get out there on the street and ride with us.

    Don’t get me wrong. Ghost bikes were an incredible art project. They had their moment. They served an important purpose. But now that City DOT is, essentially, functioning as a bike advocacy organization and the ghost bikes have been featured in the NYT and a zillion other media outlets, they are no longer all that powerful as art or useful as advocacy. Ghost bikes, as you might say, are boring. They’re over.

    If we want biking to continue to be considered a kind of cool, exclusive, predominantly young, male club in NYC then ghost bikes probably help achieve that goal. If we’re looking to get more older people, school kids and parents riding bicycles, ghost bikes’ constant re-enforcement that CYCLING IS DEADLY, just doesn’t help.

    Sorry if that’s offensive to you. But that’s the way a lot of people see ghost bikes.

  • I wish there were an equivalent of ghost bikes for killings of pedestrians.

  • You mean like this?

  • gecko

    #27 Annie, “If we’re looking to get more older people, school kids and parents riding bicycles, ghost bikes’ constant re-enforcement that CYCLING IS DEADLY, just doesn’t help. ”


    Cycling is deadly and I cycle all the time. City cyclists have to constantly be aware of the grave danger otherwise they can be killed. It is a lie and foolish to say that it is not dangerous, or ignore it, or make believe it is not dangerous. And, people have to lobby to make it safe. It is just that simple.

    Ghost bikes serve a very useful purpose. And, if you like, they can be retired them when the streets are safe which, is not now.

    Many people have the coordination, reflexes, conditioning, and youth to continually dodge the bullet and cycle the city in cavalier ways. Many others do not and can be seriously hurt or killed if they do not take the extreme care that is warranted under the current conditions which will improve tremendously as more people cycle.

  • gecko

    #28 Mark Walker, “I wish there were an equivalent of ghost bikes for killings of pedestrians.”

    I agree entirely.

    “Ghost Walkers” would nail home the level of violence perpetuated by the current transportation system on the people in this city. The fact that the very young and old predominate would make a very strong state which should not be ignored.

  • I agree with Alex Ihnen. The problem is that safety is such a lowest common denominator topic. Anyone who needs something to say can always repeat a few safety tips. I urge bike advocates and bike writers to try harder, and work on the other points we need to make.

  • gecko

    #32 Matt O’Toole, “Anyone who needs something to say can always repeat a few safety tips.”

    If people are to put themselves in harms way — which is the current situation in this city — they should know how to cycle for the conditions and cycle for their own abilities. The more people cycle the more they learn to mitigate the dangers and cycling can be quite safe.

    But, to ignore the dangers is totally irresponsible. And, people will not believe you when you tell them it is safe.

  • Ed

    Gecko, maybe you should just slow down. You’re making me laugh with talk about
    “coordination, reflexes, conditioning, and youth to continually dodge the bullet”

    Geez. Do you ride a fixed gear or something?

  • gecko

    #34 Ed, “Geez. Do you ride a fixed gear or something?”


    No, a clunky Cannondale bike with knobby tires that is way too big for me but, I tend to be late all of the time.

  • Ed

    Ha!.. . sorry if I caused you any offense! Fashionably late I presume.

  • Despite constant protests from my family and friends, I don’t wear a helmet. Honestly, if it were mandatory it would make cycling a lot less enjoyable for me, and a lot more annoying. I just don’t feel bike commuting at low speeds with caution is a dangerous sport that requires protective headgear.

    Honestly, its safer biking here than you might think:

  • redcatbiker

    The current global economic collapse (really, when a nation is hemorraghing 500,000-plus job losses per month, with no end in sight, and no jobs available to absorb these losses, one cannot call this a recession, it is a depression) and peak oil are going to make more Americans take to getting about on bicycles, and we’ll see fewer cars on the road, for the cost of the car, insurance, and its maintenance will reveal the absurdity of that mode of transportation for getting about town.

  • gecko

    #19 Erik SandblomGecko, “cycle tracks are fine but they are not an answer to reckless driving.”


    Cycle tracks down the center of streets:

    1. Prevent u-turns on two-way streets.

    2. Mitigate dramatic lane changes and high speed driving since excess space is taken away from cars.

    3. Mitigate complexity and conflicts at curbs where double parking, pulling away from the curb, and loading vehicles make for a more dangerous environment.

  • Ed

    This is hilarious concerning the helmet discussion.
    By the way, lots of good points here all around. I enjoyed this!

  • Ed

    Ah…. yous guys already posted that link .Bravo

  • John Deere

    The answer to Sarah’s question is that in a city where the majority of people don’t own cars, and a significant minority don’t have driver’s licenses it is important for newcomers to cycling to learn some traffic skills and knowledge (I’m avoiding the snooze word “safety” here) so that they will have the confidence to stick with it. If one picked up their traffic skills information from simply watching NYC cyclists, one would learn all the wrong ideas about how to avoid crashes, be courteous, and be a good ambassador for cycling. I’ve heard way too many would be cyclists say “I’d like to try that, but traffic scares me.” Certainly Streetsblog efforts to tame traffic and build more bike facilites are an important part of bringing those newcomers into the fold, but giving those would be cyclists accurate information about cyclist errors that cause crashes (and how to avoid them) is just as important. It isn’t all hardware . . . it’s the software too.

    And SB isn’t all that great at avoiding “scare” dialogue either, with its constant demonization of all motorists. As a cyclist, the vast majority of motorists I encounter every day are paying attention, following the rules (better than most cyclists do), and watching out for other people’s safety. Rides of silence and ghost bikes also have mixed results in terms of encouraging new cyclists vs. scaring them. So yes, whether you want to call it “skils” or “safety” or “knowledge”, it’s important and makes a difference when cyclists have it & use it.



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