Posts Tagged 'safety'

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.



The stoker weighs in about dogs:

I am afraid of dogs, even though we have one. I am not exactly sure where this fear comes from. My mother occasionally recalls an experience I can’t remember when I was two and she rescued me from a German shepherd dragging me down the street by my hair. Or, maybe my fear comes from all the stories my grandfather told about his dog encounters. As a child he was bitten a couple of times and from then on went on all walks with a long wood staff. Maybe my fear of dogs has to do with an interview I heard on NPR about a guy getting eaten alive by a bear—it just seems like something that could also happen with a dog.

Getting a road bike provided me with a lot of new reasons to fear dogs. Over the years, some of the more memorable dogs I have encountered on my bike include a chow-cheetah mix that outran our tandem at 26 miles an hour, two chihuahua-pit bull mixes that almost got squashed and wrecked us, the pit bull monster that broke away from his owner and nearly ate us all up, the house of the seven black labs, five snarling curs on a road named “Lamb,” and a great dane whose teeth were as high as my handlebars. Then there have been all the puppies that have chased us along busy roads. I particularly hate going past houses that have life-sized plaster dogs as yard ornaments, because from a distance they look like real dogs poised to get me.

The following video illustrates how we felt today during the one encounter riding home today.

Wolf hunting caribou in BBC's Planet Earth.

See the baby deer – that was us today on our ride.

Cycling on rural roads has taught me some truths about dogs and bikes:
1) Dog owners do not always leash their dogs.
2) Dog owners who live on busy roads do not always leash their dogs.
3) To a dog, there is something irresistible about a human whizzing past a house at about the same speed as a running deer.
4) The best, loveliest rides have the meanest dogs.
5) The worst dogs appear when you are going uphill.
6) Before a bike ride through the country, it is better not to watch that episode of Planet Earth where the wild dogs attack the gazelle.
7) Dogs are less likely to go after groups of riders.

One of my favorite conversations with other cyclists is how to deal with dog encounters. Some of the strategies I have heard include using pepper spray, throwing handfuls of rocks, squirting with the water bottle, shouting “no,” kicking in the face, clubbing with a tire pump, activating dog sonar to hurt their ears, yelling “go faster!” and carrying a gun. While I wouldn’t try all of these, I clearly need a strategy besides yelling “no,” and “go faster!” which didn’t really work today on our ride home from work (I am writing this from the hospital. Just kidding, y’all). On the next ride, I’m going to stuff my jersey pockets with pebbles.

What I really want to know is, does that dog sonar really work? Here’s one of the brands of “sonic” dog repellent:

That’s like Prairie Home Companion’s riff “Duct tape: it’s almost the only thing you need sometimes.”

I have to say that being on a tandem is much better for dog encounters, for a number of reasons. You can go faster and outrun a dog. The stoker, i.e. me, is free to inflict all kinds of self-defense tactics (see above) on canine offenders. You are quieter and sneakier, especially if your tandem is as well-maintained as mine. You can take a picture of the mean dog to display on your tandem blog (one day, folks!) and finally, your hands are free to call the sheriff on the beast’s owners.

Getting (hit) older together

When I met the other tandemists at the Durham Habitat ride, I realized that being a tandem couple automatically places us in a different age class. As with most other tandem pairs I’ve met, these two were probably 20 years our senior. I’m sure there are lots of dedicated tandem riders in their early 30’s like us, but my (admittedly small) sample puts us in the minority. Frankly, I’m happy to be in the company of couples that have years of experience navigating the roads, as well as years of experience navigating life together. Maybe it’ll rub off on us like a chain grease on your calf – or for my lovely stoker, on both calves, from the drive train on the right AND the timing chain on the left.

While I’m excited about growing older together with my betrothed, leaving us years to master honking, we may in fact be growing older together with the entire population of cyclists. I’m not a demographer, not even an amateur one, but a quick look at NHTSA’s recently published traffic safety stats for bicyclists, based on 2008 crash and fatality data, makes it look like cyclists as a population are actually getting older. [BTW, there’s lots of great public crash data available in these annual NHTSA reports]

Here’s the macabre statistics. Steadily since 1998, the average age of cyclists killed in traffic crashes has gone up.

bikes safety facts 2

At this point in my life, perhaps I should be comforted by the fact that I’m still under this average. But we’re gaining fast, unless that age keeps rising. I suppose this chart could indicate that younger cyclists are just becoming more skilled at earlier ages and are better at avoiding accidents. But no, I think these statistics must derive from exposure of all cyclists to traffic.

What this chart really says to me is a number of potential things: 1) people in the U.S. are bicycling longer into older age, 2) more Americans in their “working” years are choosing to commute to work by bicycle, 3) there are more cyclists of all ages riding bicycles now, including older adults (those over 30) riding more and riding into later years, or 4) there are less young people choosing to ride bicycles. I’d like to think that all of these possibilities are actually positive indications, except for the very last one. NHTSA’s Federal Highway Administration should be putting the finishing touches on the National Household Travel Survey, due out in January 2010, which should illuminate these numbers.

Also evident in the 2008 numbers is that fatalities for “pedalcyclists” (that is bicyclists plus other 1- to n-wheeled machines operated under human power) is the only category other than motorcyclists that saw an increase in fatalities. Again, I think this must mean that there are just more people choosing to ride bikes these days. At least more older people, maybe those who ride tandems… (gulp).

Pass the morals, please

The tandem is the perfect solution to one of the trickiest issues for cycling on roadways shared with cars – whether to ride two abreast, or ride in a line. This is a stressful question for me. It’s certainly more enjoyable when riding with others to be able to chat side by side, however the act of being side by side frustrates even the most patient motorists. [This same discussion can be applied to all types of users of recreation paths, too, like the Lake Shore Path in Chicago.]

For much of my cycling life, I’ve simply avoided this issue by choosing to ride alone. The tandem is an even better way to avoid riding two abreast. Now my honey and I can chat and never lose touch throughout the ride. That still doesn’t solve what to do when we want to ride with a great group of friends. Nor does it get at what the politics are of the road that makes this decision so stressful.

In a plainly legal world in which everyone governs their behavior based on what the law allows and what it does not, this would not be an issue. At least in North Carolina, it’s not illegal for cyclists to ride two abreast. In this world, motorists would drive the speed limit, slow down when they see cyclists (riding two abreast or not), wait behind the cyclists until it’s clear to pass, and then pull around the cyclists leaving at least three feet of space, crossing the yellow line as they would to pass any vehicle.

I do this when I drive a car, and frankly don’t see what’s so difficult about it. Cars would have to do this when confronting other cars on the road that they need to wait for in order to pass, like turning traffic. Something other than law is governing our behavior on the road, as is true about the law in all aspects of our lives. Laws of the road are treated as guidelines suggesting better ways for us to keep ourselves safer, and then we decide to what extent we adhere to or stray from them given the present conditions of the road and our state of mind.

There’s something about the size and speed of bicyclists that seems to invite motorists to judge cyclists differently from other road users, though they are classed as eligible vehicles. When drivers see one cyclist riding along the edge of the road, they generally make a calculation that they can keep driving without changing too much – maybe slow down a little bit, don’t have to pull around too far over and cross the yellow line. If there is a car in the on-coming lane, they probably try to squeak by without waiting to pass. This is of course is all wrong, dangerous, and in the end doesn’t save a driver more than 5 seconds.

BUT, if cyclists are riding two abreast, all of a sudden it’s an untenable position these cyclists have taken, even though it’s legal. Now the motorist is really forced to slow down, and wait until it’s safe to pass and pull around crossing the yellow line – all of which they should have done when confronting a single rider or single line of cyclists.

This may be why I witness a number of older, experienced cyclists make the deliberate choice to ride two abreast, as a matter of safety: it’s legal to ride side by side and it forces motorists to slow down and pull around as they would for any other car or truck or tractor or horse-drawn wagon.

I’m not sure that this is the best method to ensure safety. I say this because of the anger it induces among motorists, even good patient ones, even ones that are cyclists. And for that reason, a lot of cyclists are frustrated with the behavior of other cyclists, and why I’ve often avoided group rides. We know that the practice of riding out into the middle of the road angers other people, and that makes it discourteous, raising the ire of drivers against all cyclists. In this sense, it’s a moral issue rather than a legal issue. If we’re demanding this: sign

…then as cyclists we have to think about whether we are sharing the road.

How to communicate this to other cyclists on a group ride is an issue in and of itself. The tendency is to be social and ride two abreast. Another tendency is ride within the rights we are entitled. But, the fact is, it makes a lot of us nervous when some of the group insist on riding out in the middle, because the cars behind often become obviously frustrated. In a sense, we lose our welcome on the road. Even though we are legally entitled to use the road, our safety still at the mercy of the graciousness and attentiveness of the majority of road users who happen to be driving big fast things that can kill us.

Ultimately I side with drivers on this issue, and wish that all cyclists would either ride in line, or else keep an eye out for cars and pull into a line when one approaches. Mainly it’s because I do feel like it is a moral issue. If we expect drivers to make the effort to pass us safely treatment, we should make a similar effort to make their passing easier. Perhaps this behavior in time could change driver behavior to be more welcoming and alert of our presence.

But this shared effort is not a 50-50 deal, in my opinion. Drivers who read this blog (which include all of us cyclists who have not made the decision to go car-free yet, including me) need to know that the greater burden of responsibility for safety lies with them. The fact remains that a car’s speed and size is a deadly weapon, and there’s a legal responsibility to be in control of that speed and size at all time, as a well as a moral responsibility to yield to more vulnerable road users. There’s just a lot more at stake when drivers choose to be nice or not.

Open letter to Saxapahaw

Dear Saxapahaw,
You are no longer merely a rural crossroads and a boarded up mill. You have become a desirable residential area. And you are now a regional destination for arts, food, and entertainment. I’ve enjoyed living in your town for four months now, and I intend to stay a while. It’s pretty here.

The view from Saxapahaw.

The view from Saxapahaw.

Your star is rising. People claim to be “saxy” and “saxapahawlics.” There’s even a nascent cycling club that calls itself the “Saxapahawgs.” OK, we love you, now change.

Your roads and intersections are dangerous, and incidences of injury and death are likely to rise if you don’t take planning and re-engineering seriously.

Normally I would be the last person that would want to disrupt the quaintness of an historic place – the old mill on the Haw river sitting atop a Sissipahaw Indian site. We all want to preserve rural heritage and individual character. However, it’s not quaintness and history that is your particular allure. Your historic river mill shut down almost 20 years ago, and the old mill house community has long since changed. It’s time you caught up.

Development thus far seems to have worked for you, at least from my perspective. Local culture and entrepreneurship are thriving and expanding. Your big attractions are the farmers market and live music that run half the year and draw hundreds of people from surrounding regions; the Shell station that is now the Saxapahaw General Store – it still serves as a filling station and convenience store, and is now home to a wildly inventive grill that is cooking some of the best food in the entire region, on par with the finest restaurants in Chapel Hill and Durham; and you are the home of the Southeast’s premiere puppet company, Paperhand Puppet Intervention. The River Mill apartments, resurrected from the ashes of the closed mill, are a bee hive of residential activity.

It’s not just that I’ve lived here for four months: you have been a stop on my cycling routes for 8 years, far enough back that the mill was not renovated and the General Store and its amazing grill really was just a filling station and a place to get cold gatorade. Now I’m happy that all my bike rides end here with you.

The result of your growth, which is not likely to subside soon, is more people on the roads, more modes (driving, walking, biking, young engaged couples on tandems) in use on the roads, and more need for safety and appropriate facilities to accommodate the volume and the modes. Children of all ages reside here, and are now zooming on bikes and skateboards and scooters, and bouncing balls, through roadways not meant to accept simple walking, much less the antics of kids.

The current road situation is an inevitable legacy of the past. Now you have to take account of the present reality, and catch up with the development you’ve made possible. The River Mill and the attractions have concentrated a greater population here.

Here’s my wish list:
1. Sidewalks. Well, there’s one 200 ft. section of sidewalk from the River Mill apartments along the road to the General Store. But no sidewalks connecting any of the other neighborhoods to the center of town.

The right idea.

The right idea.

Let’s have more.
2. Crosswalks. This is especially a problem on Farmers Market/Music events on Saturday evenings when the town becomes a parking lot and neither cars nor pedestrians know how to proceed.
3. Sightlines. There’s no visibility around corners, due to tight corners, overgrown vegetation, and narrow roads.
Turn left here? Look out!

Turn left here? Look out!

No sightline around curve. To make a left turn, you have stare hard through the bush on the right to see cars coming, or drive around the corner to see oncoming traffic and risk traffic running up behind you around the curve. We take a leap of faith every single time we turn here, be it in a car, on bike, or crossing on foot. I walk this narrow, curving hill at night with my dog around this corner to get home and there is no refuge at all. If a sidewalk were here, it would serve dozens of residents (and their pets).

4. Streetlights, particularly at major intersections. Though not in “downtown” Sax, the intersections from the major highways (87, 54, Old Greensboro) need to be lighted to safely guide the increased volumes of traffic turning onto the rural roads that meet in Sax.

5. Improved intersection of Sax-Beth and Swep-Sax.

Intersection of Sax-Beth/Swep-Sax/River Mill.

Intersection of Sax-Beth/Swep-Sax/River Mill.

Hill, curve, no sightlines, signs all over the place indicating nothing, no street light. Recipe for crash.

6. How about a widened road and shoulder (i.e. bike lane) along Sax-Beth road out to Highway 54? How about shoulders everywhere? This could mitigate roads conflicts between bikes and drivers.

7. Enforcement. Regular speed checks would put drivers on notice that they are coming into a pedestrian area and need to slow down.

I’m writing this to you, Saxapahaw, because I feel like I’ve come to know you and we’ve gotten along so far. I don’t have the same rapport with N.C. DOT and Alamance County planning yet. I think you and I should get together and call them sometime and see what we can do. Maybe we can meet at the General Store, order up a kick ass goat burger (you’ve had it, right?), and talk.The parking at the General Store by and large still looks like this:

They know food, and they’ve got the right idea about where this town is headed. This parking lot shows the style of the future:

Bike + ice cream + parking at the General Store = the right idea.

Bike + ice cream + parking at the General Store = the right idea.

Anatomy of a commute

This was a great week for tandem commuting, road rage incident notwithstanding. Tuesday was world car free day. The daylight is holding out for us in the early fall. The weather was widely varied – sun, rain, heat, humidity, still, windy, fall chill, and all the lovely smells of the outdoors that come from these conditions.

Honey and I have now been living together out in the country for three months, and only now does the 20-mile commute into town start to feel like a normal commute, and not a huge bike ride that you have to get amped up for. Heat? We’re used to it. Low light? We have lights and reflective gear. Rain? It doesn’t stop us (well, not always).

The Burley.

The Burley.

Here’s an anatomy of our tandem commute and the bike and gear that make it possible and enjoyable. First, the equipment:

The Burley Duet in all its length. Ortleib panniers that, after nine years of daily commuting and multiple self-supported bike tours, are as functional and waterproof as the day I got them. They’re stuffed with clothes and enough food to get our ravenous selves through the day. Plus we can do a little grocery shopping after work – we hauled home two pie pumpkins last night in the panniers! (Hey, hungry honkers demand fresh food, and you can’t beat fresh pumpkin for pies and soups. Celebrate the slow life – slow transport, slow food…) Note the matchy Brooks saddles. Helmets are a must. As are sunglasses with changeable lenses, because no matter the light, you need to keep debris and bugs out of your eyes.

The pilot's cockpit.

The pilot's cockpit.

My handlebar bag holds lots of necessities – wallet, phone, keys, snacks, camera – and can even accommodate small shopping items, like that pint of yogurt that didn’t quite fit in the pannier yesterday.

"Vintage" Burley rain jacket.


A well-cut, rain-proof jacket with reflective strips (alas, Burley cut this line, too) and a bright, reflective safety vest. Essential and ultra-nerdy. But at least the vest is nicely complemented here by the model’s Paperhand Puppet Intervention t-shirt.


Gotta get those PSI up for fast rolling. I love these fat slick Continental Sportcontacts for their cadillac ride on rough roads.

Rolling out.

Rolling out.

Now we’re ready for the ride to work.

We cycle along lovely country lanes…


We hit Highway 54 for a quicker way to work in the morning when time is more of an issue. There’s more exposure to cars – heavy volume, generally traveling over 55mph – but the car lane is wider than most secondary highways in NC, and there a wide paved shoulder, another rarity in this state. Just look out for road debris, which is usually gravel strewn from driveways that enter onto the road.

Highway 54.

Highway 54.

Of course, the stoker has another great view:

The view from the rear.

The view from the rear.

The end.


The stoker shoots last Saturdays ride.

The stoker shoots last Saturday's ride.

I did not have the pleasure of tandem commuting today, however I did ride the single bike and have the opportunity to face a more and more common sight on the road – a distracted driver headed straight toward me in my lane. I deliberately chose to ride up one of the steeper hills in Carrboro through a quiet neighborhood in order to avoid the worst of 5pm college town traffic. I met just one car on the street, and it was coming right at me. He corrected his course just before I needed to veer away, but he passed by close enough that I could see what was up – he had just finished dialing his cell phone and was bringing it up to his ear. I gave him the raised-arm open-palmed what-are-you-thinking salute, and got a negligent wave in return.

There’s no need to repeat all of the research that’s been in the media lately, but suffice to say, we cyclists have to watch out for them, because they’re not looking out for us. The roadways were unsafe for lots of other reasons before all of these devices increased the amount of distractions to drivers. There’s just that much more riding on our own defensive awareness now.

As non-motorized road-users, we also need to evaluate our own device use. All of us: bikers, runners, pedestrians. A road user is a road user, we’re in the same space, and we can little afford to be distracted. As among drivers, more and more complaints are being raised about cyclists on cell phones weaving across the bike lane, and runners and cyclists oblivious to road noise because of the headphones in their ears. Often, that road noise can convey some pretty essential information, like there’s a bus on your left that’s just not going to stop, or there’s a car crash currently happening next you, as I’ve witnessed while cycling on the Lake Shore bike path where it parallels Lake Shore Drive in Chicago some 20 feet away. Some cities are thinking about creating ordinances to ban use of some of these devices while walking or riding on city streets. Maybe some already have. (I guess it’s not a new issue -found this article from 1982).

I see a lot of my friends heading out for long bike rides on the bucolic rolling hills of the North Carolina farmland with the little white cords dangling from their helmet straps. Sometimes even while we’re riding together. Does this make the ride more interesting? Does it take your mind off the pain, or help keep you in rhythm?

I’m not a pill enough to comment on it to them, but maybe I will start. I tried riding with my ipod a couple times on a bike path, even rode years ago with a big old discman once or twice stuffed into a rear jersey pocket of a cycling shirt. But I never liked it. Mainly because I had to have the volume cranked to the max in order to hear past the whoosh of the wind, and I thought it best to save what remains of my ear drums for live rock shows. Maybe being able to hear the road conditions has saved my neck once or twice, too.

The question for tandem riders is, What about the stoker? It’s important for us to be able to communicate about road conditions and navigation. But it seems like it would be really helpful if the stoker could “multi-task” back there, snapping digital pictures over my shoulder (note the fine photography at the beginning of this post) ,taking cell calls from my soon-to-be in-laws,  checking a map on a wireless device. Maybe even tune out my rambling by ducking her ears into headphones.