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. M-bike.org, 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.

  • Really interesting question. I think it’s a really personal thing for each of us, expressive of whether we’re able to greet life’s risks with confidence (or bravado, depending on your point of view). I know smart, sane people who would rather die young than miss out on a lifetime of feeling the breeze in their hair as they ride. I can’t make that choice, but I’m reluctant to judge them.

    As a matter of public policy, though, I think we have to expect government to promote safety messages. I shudder at the thought of the young Dutch family shown in the photo heading out without helmets. To me it’s on the order of riding in a car without a seat belt, and encouraging a child to do that is irresponsible even if we feel the right to make the choice for ourselves as adults.

    But among adults this is a hard question. It goes really deep into who we are, so I think we mostly need to tolerate our disagreements about it.

  • I wouldn’t ride my bike without a helmet, and I think anyone who does is putting their life at unnecessary risk. I remember when seat belt laws were first proposed with people saying, “It’s uncomfortable,” or “My dress gets wrinkled,” or “I feel strangled.”

    Now, almost everyone wears one. Saftey first!!!

  • Cathy

    There are different kinds of risks. I can accept the risk of hitting a rock and crashing my bike or skidding on sand. I cannot accept the risk of being killed by drivers who don’t think I belong on the road or who blow thru stop signs. I would do everything I can to reduce risks like wearing a helmet, having lights, proper clothing. I won’t ride on streets with traffic.

  • I do think what we focus on as safety is a bit off, cycling has been so spinned as inherently dangerous – ummm, what about cars?? I was interested to see this email I just from One Street News:
    “The immense harm done by shock-horror helmet promotions and mandatory helmet laws goes unrecognized by most officials and the general public as they blindly replicate these horrifying, false messages. In countries where bicycling mode share is low, the spell is most intense.”

    Check out this interesting brochure from the European Cyclists Federation http://www.ecf.com/3500_1