Freakomomics on Car Vs. Bike Wars

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

TTAC contributor Robstar sent us the heads-up on this New York Times Freakonomics post. The blurbette was plenty prescient; it was posted a few days before the death of a Toronto cyclist in an altercation with a zealously anti-street-racing former Ontario Attorney General. After revealing the startling fact that 52,000 bicyclists have been killed in U.S. traffic over the last 80 years, “the hidden side of everything” offers some non-startling analysis, based on a bicycle-biased source ( projectfreeride.org) and an undated DOT report. Apparently, it’s all our fault. Well, mostly . . .

When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist’s fault — a result of reckless or aggressive riding. But an analysis of police reports on 2,752 bike-car accidents in Toronto found that clumsy or inattentive driving by motorists was the cause of 90 percent of these crashes. Among the leading causes: running a stop sign or traffic light, turning into a cyclist’s path, or opening a door on a biker. This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise: motorists cause roughly 75 percent of motorcycle crashes too.

Yes, well, let’s get really freaky, shall we? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) did some deep data diving on bike accident stats. According to the IIHS, 95 percent of bicyclists killed in 2006 weren’t wearing helmets and “twenty-four percent of bicyclists killed in 2006 had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) at or above 0.08 percent.”

As for the lethality of the car-bike mix, there’s no doubt accident rates are highest in urban areas (71 percent) where such encounters are (obviously) far more likely. But one wonders what would have happened to the stats if all these cyclists had worn helmets, or ridden defensively (whatever that means).

[TTAC apologizes for getting the timeline wrong on the NYT post. Text amended.]

Robert Farago
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  • Stuki Stuki on Sep 06, 2009

    Robstar, I don't know if 3+1+3 is a rule, but riding three feet from the curb seems to be what I hear bikers are supposed to do to "stay out of traffic". And cars are supposed to not pass closer than 3 feet. And I'm assuming a biker is about 1 foot wide. I also check mirrors and blind spots for bikes before turning, but we're (presumably) lane splitting motorcyclists. Lots of cars don't even think about it. But even if they did, it makes a lot more sense if the bikers, upon seeing a car blinking right, or even just approaching a road where a right turn is possible, move far enough left to not impede right turns, just like motorcyclists do. I'm sure you're right that some riders at Critical Mass events run reds. Some of them are out of control, and on that day, they have police escort. But the real annoyance, at least to me who were just trying to get home as quickly as possible while keeping the number of bikers I bumped into at least somewhat reasonable, was specifically that they did follow the law to the letter, and took all the time they were allowed to at every intersection, making no effort to help drivers piled up behind them get ahead. And I know very well that this is not how many of those guys usually ride (a courier riding that slow, would likely starve to death for lack of work.) As such, I much prefer their everyday, red light running, break less kamikaze riding, to the supposedly perfectly legal crawling around they do during Critical Mass. I also assume most of the couriers still alive and not in a body cast, have a much better sense of what is, and is not, a safe way to get around town on a bike, than someone whose only involvement with bicycling laws are to mindlessly declare bikers should ride like as if they were a 6 foot wide, 4000lb steel box with 200 horsepower. It's that latter mentality that means I can get ticketed for jaywalking across an empty intersection, and that, back when I rode a motorbike, I was supposed not to lane split on surface streets, but rather just sit there sucking smog, despite having plenty of room to move. In some states, You can't even lane split on the freeway legally. That just means the law is stupid. Period. If you can break it without getting busted, please do so. And I feel the same way about most needlessly restrictive bike laws. How come, if those Evanston students ride so dangerously, wouldn't they be taking themselves off the roads in fairly large numbers? As I've said before, I don't dispute that some, even many, bicyclists, ride like complete a-holes. The ones that really bother me are those who think it's ok to blast down sidewalks at full speed, their knees coming within inches of children's heads. But as long as they stay on the road, they, just like lane splitting motorcyclists, are the ones risking major injury if they get too far out of hand, so I simply can't see why a riding style that helps both them and cars get from A to B faster should bother me as a driver.

  • R H R H on Sep 06, 2009

    stuki> I have never ever lane split (illegal here, and dangerous anyway) on any motorcycle I've driven (4 years). Lane splitting is illegal and dangerous.

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