November 2015 Bar Bulletin
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November 2015 Bar Bulletin

The Risks and Rewards of Bike Commuting

By Bob Anderton



In this article I will discuss the risks and the too often ignored rewards of bike commuting in an attempt to convince you, dear Bar Bulletin reader, to commute by bicycle.

More than 20 years ago, the British Medical Association calculated a 20-to-one benefit-to-risk ratio for bicycling and concluded that, "in spite of the hostile environment in which most cyclists currently ride, the benefits in terms of health promotion and longevity far outweigh the loss of life years in injury on the roads. This peer-reviewed study found that, statistically, riders were rewarded with 20 years of life gained while risking one year of life lost."1

More recent academic studies have found reward-to-risk ratios ranging between nine-to-one and 96-to-one. A 2012 multidisciplinary review of these studies concluded, "there is a large net health benefit of increased cycling, since the risk of fatal injury is greatly outweighed by the reductions in mortality afforded by increased physical activity. Air pollution risks and benefits had smaller impacts in either direction."2

Despite these statistics, many people think riding a bike in an urban environment is just too dangerous. The amount of risk depends, however, on where one rides. Seattle is relatively safe compared to other U.S. cities, but as Jane E. Brody recently reported in The New York Times, "Per kilometer and per trip cycled, American bicyclists are twice as likely to get killed as German cyclists and over three times as likely as Dutch cyclists."3

Several factors influence why it is much safer to ride in many European countries than in the U.S. Better bike infrastructure is key - things like physically protected bike lanes and 30-km speed limits (18.6 mph) on residential streets. But it is also the case that, because more people ride there, people driving expect to see cyclists so fewer collisions occur per mile (or kilometer). Finally, it's worth noting that most European countries have strict liability laws for drivers who collide with bicyclists, so drivers there are especially motivated to prevent crashes.

In the last few years, more people have been riding bicycles in the U.S. Nationwide, from 2000 to 2014, bicycle commuting has grown 62 percent.4 More people riding automatically makes it safer to ride. A recent study by P.L. Jacobson published in the journal Injury Prevention5 found that collision rates decline with increases in people walking or bicycling.

The study concluded, "Since it is unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling."

This chart from the organization People for Bikes6 illustrates that there really is safety in numbers:

Cascade Bicycle Club claims that bike commuting in Seattle has increased 152 percent since 2000.7 According to the Seattle Bike Blog, the Fremont Bridge bike counter recorded 8.5 percent more people riding in 2014 than in 2013.8 So far this year, the bike counter on the West Seattle Bridge counted 14,617 more riders than in the same period in 2014.9 The Fremont Bridge count is actually lower than in 2014, but it still has recorded more than 800,000 trips so far this year, which is almost four times the number over the West Seattle Bridge.10 More bike commuters make for safer commutes.

The biggest risk for bike commuters is getting hit by a car. When this happens, drivers too often say that the bicyclist "came out of nowhere." This victim-blaming is why I've been working to update our rules of the road. Drivers involved in collisions with pedestrians or bicyclists should be presumed to be civilly liable. Improved driver's education and this legal presumption would empower and motivate those most able to prevent collisions to do so.

A presumption of liability would not just make our streets safer, it would be fairer. A driver could still prove that a bicyclist was at fault for a crash by, for instance, not having a headlight at night on a dark street. Yet, such a presumption would mean that bicyclists who are taken to hospitals before police arrive would no longer routinely be blamed by drivers and then ticketed, or have their cases dismissed on summary judgment if they are unable to recall how their collisions occurred.

The League of American Bicyclists ranks Washington as the most bike-friendly state in the nation.11 Our state should lead the way in updating our rules of the road to make our streets safer for everyone. Such legislation would help more people feel safe enough to start commuting by bike . like you.

So, how do you stay safe for now? Use protected bike facilities if possible. Seattle is expanding this network, but we have a long way to go, both in building the facilities and in educating people on how to safely use them.

In 2014, The Seattle Times reported, "Among large U.S. cities, Seattle has the second-lowest fatality rate for pedestrians and cyclists." Reporter Gene Balk wrote, "While Seattle's stats may be envious, more can be done to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety here." 12 He was right. Balk was recently hit while bicycling on Seattle's new "protected" bike lane on Second Avenue.13 A driver made an illegal left turn through the bike lane and "left hooked" him.14

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