Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fear Itself

I am extremely fortunate to still have the companionship of my 92 year old father and the wisdom he shares with me. Among the many things he has been able to teach me are the symptoms of getting old, an enterprise in which he is almost 30 years ahead of me. A number of years ago, a symptom about which he warned me was increasing apprehension about almost everything. This is a symptom that, at age 64, I am definitely starting to experience, especially on the bicycle. What is insidious about this symptom is that it makes it hard to tell truth from fiction; when is fear reasonable and justified and when is it unreasonable and disabling? I find that if I am off the bike for even a few days, the idea of jumping into traffic for a ride feels intimidating. Fortunately, this sensation dissipates fairly rapidly and by the end of the ride I am enjoying myself. That said, the rides I am willing to do are fairly stringently limited by the streets on which I am willing to ride. This fear has not been helped by a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle documenting bicycle fatalities in our city. This lead me to ask the question, how dangerous is cycling, actually?

When I started looking into this, one of the first things I came across was an amusing infographic that had some very surprising results. It suggested that cycling was more dangerous than bungee jumping, for example while being much safer than canoeing. As I looked at this graphic, I realized that, as amusing as it was, I was not quite sure what it was telling me nor was I sure I believed it. Fortunately, as I kept searching, I came across what appears to be a very well researched blog post on bicycle safety. The blog, "Mr. Money Mustache",  is about frugal living and early retirement, but the writer has identified automobiles as a major enemy of frugality and bicycles as its friend, and thus the post about bicycle safety. Using government statistics, the author calculates that bicycles are about 6 times more dangerous per mile than cars. I found this statistic comforting because I understood how it was derived, it intuitively made sense to me (my gut tells me that I am safer surrounded by 2,000 pounds of steel than sitting on my bike protected only by a light plastic helmet), and yet the news is not as bad as I had feared. In fact, as the author points out, one is inclined to drive many more miles than cycle (due to the higher maximum speed of a car, among other reasons) so that if I am worried about my safety, it might make more sense to give up the car rather than the bike. But, wait, there's more. If you factor in the health benefits of cycling, the health benefits are greater than the accident risks so that riding my bike is actually making my life expectancy longer, not shorter.

Even if I take such statistics at face value, these are averages and there are many things that can make an individual cyclist (me) more or less safe than average. The Ohio Bicycle Federation, a cycling advocacy group, has their own blog post on bicycle safety. It makes many of the same kinds of activity to activity comparisons as the infographic with which I started albeit with better explanations of what the comparisons are actually comparing (e.g. injuries per exposure hour) but one statistic I found particularly interesting concerned the impact of my behavior on my safety. The article notes that roughly half of car-bicycle accidents can be attributed to unsafe behavior by the cyclist, and finds that a safe cyclist is about twice as safe as an unsafe one. Thus, it makes sense for me to ride as safely as I can, but I also don't have to fear that the occasional lapse in best behavior will have a catastrophic effect on my safety. Similarly, one might think that where one cycles will affect safety. When I moved to Houston from Boston, I was warned by Houstonians that cycling in Houston was much less safe than in Boston, as Houstonians were "not used to cyclists." Thus, it was no surprise this year when Outside Magazine advised its readers not to cycle in Houston, as Houston has the worst drivers of any city in the US. However, statistics tell a different story. Here is an actual comparison:

Granted, this is per resident, so the apparent safety of Houston might be due in part to the relative paucity of Houstonian cyclists, but I take comfort from it nonetheless.

A number of years ago, I developed an almost crippling fear of flying. Since travel was part of my work, this was a real problem. What made this so embarrassing is that I have always fancied myself as an extreme rationalist, and before this happened to me, I had no sympathy for those afraid to fly, knowing that flying is one of the safest forms of transportation. Fortunately, this fear went away as mysteriously as it appeared, but not before teaching me how irrational such fears can be. Thus, I do not expect the research I did for this post to make my fear of cycling just go away, but I do think it will help, and in any case, I now know that the right thing to do is to push past that fear, knowing that it is irrational.

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