Pedal/brake errors: car < bike < tandem

I’ve been reading news stories from the past few years about car crashes caused by pedal application errors – that is, when a driver accidentally stomps on the wrong pedal, either gas or brake. The only stories out of the hundred I’ve seen so far are of drivers hitting the gas when they meant to brake, and then careening catastrophically into whatever happens to be in front of them. It’s pretty grisly stuff to spend my day reading. The majority of these cars go sailing into store fronts as the drivers are trying to park somewhere, but they also run down pedestrians on sidewalks, crosswalks, playgrounds, parking lots, and inside struck buildings, like businesses, homes, and elementary schools. [Saw this blog post recently suggesting, perhaps accurately, that Wal-Mart parking lots may be the most dangerous places in America.] The least of it is that thousands of dollars in damage are done to property and vehicles in each wreck; worst are the disfiguring injuries and deaths.

Age and experience seem to play a big role in these accidents. Drivers in their first couple years often make the mistake, but more than anyone seem to be drivers over 60. However, it could happen to anyone anytime in moments of panic, frustration, dullness, or total distracted absorption in things other than driving.

These crashes are often described by witnesses as explosions, bombs going off, or tornadoes ripping through a building. Other things that are described like this are explosions, bombs going off, tornadoes leveling towns, and terrorist acts. I’m just saying…

There’s really nothing amusing about these stories I have to sift through. So I had to change the game in my mind to deal with it a little, and I tried to think about corollaries in bicycling. Bicycles don’t really present the opportunity of mixing up the force of acceleration with the force of deceleration. We’re not likely to have an instance in which a cyclist has to explain to a terrified crowd that they accidentally pedaled too hard when they actually meant to slow down, and ended up making a crater in the side of an office building.

The only nearly related mistakes I can envision on a bike are 1) choosing which brake to use when you have a front and rear hand brake, and 2) forgetting you can’t coast on a fixed gear when you’re used to riding a free wheel/hub. Of course, the scale of the mistake between a car versus a bike makes this comparison basically worthless.

When I lived in the Chicago in the past few years, I did a lot of my commuting and night-out going on a fixed gear that I’d built especially for being the city, like I now realize a lot of idiots (like myself) do, but have no business doing. It seemed to make sense to have an uncomplicated bike with less to steal and less moving parts to get destroyed in the ridiculous weather and salted streets up there. I only had one major mishap during my first tentative week of riding the fixed gear around the city. I was moving pretty fast and then realized I needed to stop quickly at an intersection, and my bicycle-muscle-memory automatically decided that I should coast first. This bucked my feet off the pedals, crunched my boys on the top tube, and and bruised my calf when the metal pedal came back around and actually dented to the shape of my leg.

Now about those brake levers. There’s lots of debate about proper brake application: when to use the front or rear or both in certain situations. But when you’re a new rider, it seems like the basic (and not necessarily correct) advice you receive is to avoid using the front brake alone lest you flip yourself over the handlebars. (The late great Sheldon Brown has a thing or two to say about this.)

I got my first bike with brake levers when I was twelve, having ridden coaster brakes since I was 5, so making the switch was a little awkward. I remember tottering around on that bike in my driveway trying to get the hang of it before hitting the neighborhood streets. I ran into the family cars a few times, mainly because I remembered too late that I even had brake levers to squeeze, but of course nothing explosive happened. Then there was the time about 10 years ago when I was house-sitting and decided to take the owners fancy (at the time) carbon racing bike for my first ever carbon racing bike experience. I wasn’t used to light road bikes at the time either, nor was I used to how quickly I could sail over the handlebars if I panicked and squeezed the front brake too quickly. I guess that crash could have been catastrophic, for me at least, as I landed like a sack of potatoes in front of a car at an intersection.

Now I realize that once again, the tandem is the ultimate solution for all my biking needs: in this case, for brake application errors. Sure, the decision to apply the front or rear brake in specific situations can effect handling through turns, or on various pavement conditions. However, with my partner on the back, I’ll never have to worry about the endo ever again.

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3 Responses to “Pedal/brake errors: car < bike < tandem”


  1. 1 Mai Vukcevich January 13, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Nice post, Jeremy! I’m still not use to braking on the Surly since it is so much faster than the Traveler. It’s funny how you get to know your bike so intimately — like knowing how much you need to squeeze to slow down and stop. Can’t wait for spring to begin working on the relationship with big S. Hope you are well!

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