Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Life'll Kill Ya

My Twitter friend Arleigh (aka Bike Shop Girl aka @arsbars) was hit by a car last week. Prior to being wisely "advised not to write, blog, tweet or facebook update until things get settled," she shared these thoughts on Twitter:
"Mentally I am really screwed up. I'm a safe rider and this was a calm afternoon and bike commute. Nothing I could have done different. Scary."
"Bicycling, commuting & encouraging others to do the same is my life. I was just hurt badly by that lifestyle..not sure how to swallow that."
I've never met Arleigh in the real world (the one with bikes and cars and roads and traffic) but we've traded bits and bytes and thoughts and pictures and I think of her as a kindred spirit, a fellow rider and a friend. I wanted to write a "it'll be OK, get back in the saddle, keep 'em rolling" kind of thing but as Arleigh noted, things like this are scary. Damn scary.

I've been where Arleigh was, rolling along, then flat on the pavement and then in the back of an aid car. I've had friends die on bicycles. But I've also had friends my age who've died from being sedentary or died at their own hands because they've lost whatever reason they had to live. Too many people die slowly as fear takes the world away from them, bit by bit. It is a scary world but fear is the mind killer. Courage is not the lack of fear, courage is facing the fear and acting anyway.

We can gather stats to rationalize our choices. Here's a lovely excerpt, placing the odds in perspective:

Too Dangerous

The notion that bicycling is too dangerous has been propagated to provide an excuse for those who feel guilty for not cycling to work. About 24 times as many people die on stairs and ladders as die on bicycles. Nonetheless, some motorists have terrible driving habits, especially when late for work. I suggest 1) starting a little early and 2) taking roads generally avoided by the rest of the traffic, 3) obeying all of the traffic laws, and 4) keeping alert at all times. Read my articles on Is Cycling Dangerous? and How to Ride in Traffic.

If the real problem is not that cycling is too dangerous but that you are afraid, remember that fear of doing anything new is quite normal and healthy. While I was a construction worker, I was assigned to working in an area high above the ground with only narrow forms to walk on. For three days I crawled around until I adjusted to the height, and I was only well-adjusted by the end of the week. At that time while we were talking during lunch, I thanked everyone for not laughing at me, because I surely would have quit. But one of the carpenders said, "Hell, we were all crawling around on our first day up here." The way to get over your fear is by gradually acquiring experience by riding on the weekends. Get used to traffic gradually, and get the wobble out of your riding, before you try to ride to work. That's what all of us experienced cyclists once had to do.

The quote above is excerpted from some very good writings on bike safety written by the late Ken Kifer. Ken was a very experienced cyclist who was struck and killed by a drunk driver a few years ago. You can do a lot of things right, heck you can do everything right, and things can go wrong. You can die. Warren Zevon said it best when he observed that Life'll Kill Ya. And back in 1997 America's Finest New Source confirmed that despite all our efforts, the world death rate is holding steady at 100 percent.

I am not trying to make light of the dangers of this world but rather pointing out that we carry on by telling ourselves lies, lies that we are safe. My favorite bike safety website, How to Not Get Hit By Cars, has lots of good information, information that if followed will improve your odds. But you can follow all the advice given there and still get hit. Arleigh was doing everything right and got hit. You can never be 100% safe, but you can be safer if you know the most likely things to fear and you take reasonable precautions.

Here's why I ride, why I have to ride.

Let's say I said "screw it, it's too dangerous" and I got something big, with a motor for all my getting around needs. Heck, as long as I'm being safe, I'll get something with lots of cup holders. I've amplified my mass, I've amplified my speed, I've amplified the danger I pose to others. I haven't improved my reflexes and I've dulled my sense of fear with an illusion of safety. I'm part of the problem now.

I can't do that.

Gandhi advises us to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I love to ride. I'm one less car in traffic, one more bike in the world. We make the world safer for cyclists by being cyclists. Every man, woman and child on a bike or on foot is taking a small step or a tiny pedal stroke towards the world in which I wish to live. I have to be out there with them.

I may die on a bike today or tomorrow. I know that's a real risk. I take the precautions that I think are reasonable but I do know that in the end, life'll kill me. But I'm not going to waste the life I have stuck in a box or racing around making a world in which I don't wish to live.

I'll be out there, rolling. Arleigh, I hope to see you out there too real soon. Heal up, Bike Shop Girl.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Yokota Fritz said...

Another thought I've had lately about people who tell me bicycling is dangerous, primarily because of the traffic: If driving is what causes the danger, how can I morally allow myself to increase the danger of everybody (not just cyclists -- but everybody) around me by hopping into a car? And everybody who acknowledges the danger of traffic: how can you live with yourself knowing, as you do, that your trip to wherever increases the chances that you'll kill or maim somebody?

nollij said...

As usual kent, you have adressed this with an eloquence I could only hope to emulate. I will say a prayer to the FSM for a speedy recovery for Bike Shop Girl and hope that the future will bring more safety for all of us on 2 wheels. May his noodly appendage annoint us all this day with the holy marinara, ramen!

Captain Hairdo said...

Amen, brother!

dexey said...

That is sad news and you have addressed it beautifully.
I wish the lady God speed in her recovery both physical and mental.

Scott Cutshall said...


Good post.

Life is dangerous, fact. Death and being dead isn't, fact.

I would prefer living to being dead... and I would prefer living with danger than being dead with absolute certainty of safety.



The Velo Hobo said...

For twenty years I was an avid skydiver. Over 1,400 jumps, only one reserve ride. No injuries, no regrets. All around the world tens of thousands of people make hundreds of thousands of jumps every weekend with only the very rare fatality. How do they do it? Their dedication to and focus on safety. Everyone looking out for each other, doing gear checks for each other, dirt diving maneuvers on the ground over and over; the focus in between jumps is how to do the jump successfully with no one getting hurt.

The thing about riding a bike on a public road (or driving a car or riding in a bus on a public road) is that despite all our good efforts, our safety is mostly in the hands of strangers in thousand-pound hunks of metal passing inches away from us. In all honestly, I felt safer flinging my body from high flying airplane than riding down some of the country roads here in the mountains of North Carolina. But obviously, I don’t think it is too dangerous.

Wonderful post! Jack Moore

RJ said...

Great post, Kent.

Great post.

MikeOnBike said...

Velo Hobo said "The thing about riding a bike on a public road (or driving a car or riding in a bus on a public road) is that despite all our good efforts, our safety is mostly in the hands of strangers"

Partly, but not mostly. We can't control everything, but we're not just sitting ducks. See the Layers of Safety in the sidebar here:

Johann Rissik said...

Great stuff, Kent.

The mix of cars and bikes is a reality we're going to be living (and dying) with. In my country people refer to "dangerous roads", hell, the roads just lie there, summer and winter. It's those beings behind the steering wheels that make the roads "dangerous". For ALL other road users.
Bike Shop Girl get well soon.

The Velo Hobo said...

Agreed, "mostly" may have been a poor choice of 'word'. I think there are many things we can do to mitigate the danger. From road position, visibility, helmet and mirror...but in those few seconds when the two (I and the motorist) pass, there is a huge shift in what I am able to do to remain safe and their ability to put me at risk.

Thanks Kent for up bringing this most important topic. Jack

srbaughn said...

Well said. I appreciate the sensitivity you show as well the logic of your argument.

Ryan M. Williams said...

Nice post Kent. I've been hit by cars three times, twice on my trike and once as a pedestrian. Every time it was because the driver wasn't looking and was more concerned about things like being late.

And I'm still out riding! I'm wary and careful but I still feel safer pedaling than driving.

DrewTek said...

Great post and well said!

I was hit by a car and yes, it was scary, and luckily for me it wasn't too bad. Just took it as a reminder I have to be safer when riding. You can't let fear detract you from what you love doing, you just have to keep going.

My heart goes out to Bike Shop Girl and everyone else who is hurt on the road due to the negligence of others.

Jim Laudolff said...

thanks Kent.

Anonymous said...

Safety is overrated. Life without danger is worthless pablum. This does not mean that I have an avid need to seek out danger, but that I acknowledge and accept it as a part of life, in order to manage my realtionship with it. We all choose the life we live and the risks we take. I never really counted, but I know that the number of times I have interacted physically with cars while riding my bike is well into double digits now, and I usually give as good as I get. The one time I was on a horse that fell (on me, natch) I got back on right away. Horses are nice, but bikes are better; as long as I am able, I'll be getting back on. Val

sac cycle chic said...


Well said. I also have been following @arsbars and as you was concerned. I also had my share of close and scary calls. Thanks for articulating my thoughts better than I could ever have.

Get Well soon, Arleigh. Lot of love your way!

jnyyz said...

As always, wonderfully put.

Having been doored just a couple of weeks ago (and I consider myself a very cautious cyclist), I know that if I wasn't so lucky on that occasion, I would have been far worse off. Still riding, just trying to keep safe.

Susan said...

This is my first time to your blog, not my last. I also blog about biking and would like to post a link to your post. I can relate to what BSG tweeted, I was hit by a car in 1995 and although my injuries weren't serious physically, they were mentally and emotionally. My daughter now 31, still remembers the day of the accident vividly and my shall we say personality swings for weeks and maybe months afterwards.

Like you, I had to ride and got back on the bike within 6 weeks. I rode on a trail around a lake for quite a while but gradually ventured back out on the road. I still have my days when something happens and I rethink my decision to bike on the road. We had 3 cyclists killed here in a matter of a few days. I retreated to a paved trail, offroad for a few weeks but then back on the road.

I have to ride too. Unless you do ride, I don't think you can understand it. Hope Bike Shop Girl makes a complete recovery and is patient and understanding with what she is feeling. Thanks again for your excellent post.

Anonymous said...

It’s human nature to question and even perhaps withdraw, at least for a time, from participating in an activity that led to an injury. I say let Bike Shop Girl work it out for her self, hopefully she will be back to commuting by bike, but if not it’s her biz and hers alone.

Also no matter how you approach it, in general commuting by bike is dangerous compared to the common available alternatives.

We can ‘rationalize’ all we want to ease our minds. And we can practice defensive riding to the utmost degree to better the odds.

But as long as car’s and bike’s share the same space, commuting by bike will remain comparatively dangerous.

Jason said...

I'm typing with one hand because the other is in a cast and sling, having just broken my wrist and a finger - plus chipped 2 teeth and needed stitches to put my lip back together. i'll be seeing a surgeon next week for pins.

This happened yesterday around 5pm. And I'm on this blog today because I can't wait to ride again. I'm not a cycling advocate, and it's something I came by later than most... I ride a bike for the simple pleasure of doing so... and can't imagine how my crash could stop me from getting back on a bike.

All the best to your friend, sure she'll feel the same soon.

MikeOnBike said...

Marshal said "Also no matter how you approach it, in general commuting by bike is dangerous compared to the common available alternatives."

From the stats I've seen, I don't think this is true.

Anonymous said...

"I'd rather be ashes than dust" -- Jack London ... "you only live once" -- Kent Peterson ... Arleigh, Get well both mentally and physically. I've been hit many times and have since become a traffic avoider, but even so, worse accident on the Burke Gilman trail bike on bike the other guy with an I-Pod

Wayne Methner

Ken said...

Kent, you took a really tragic situation that many people would not ever want to talk about, and put the information out there in a loving and caring way.

My prayers go out to Bike Shop Girl, and I hope with time and healing (both physically and mentally) she will be back out on the road.

Unknown said...

I am tired of people riding on roads. In fact, sick of it. Stay in parks and on trails only. No more roads for you please.

Dan O said...

Great post.

Yes, there is some risk to life on two wheels. The benefits however, outweigh 'em. Well, I think so anyway.

Lucky for me, I have the off the charts safety record concerning bicycles. Someone out there has been taking the hits for me - and for that - I thank you.

I have a motorcycle background as well. Lots of risk, talk of risk, minimizing the risk. Even so, the chance of being seriously tagged is there. Yet - people ride.

Why? 'cause we have to. It's part of who we are.

I ride quite a bit with my 11 year old son - mountain bike and 'cross. He's getting more then fast enough to get hurt - at least banged up a bit. Lucky, nothing yet.

As a parent, a different perspective. Of course you wince at the thought of them getting hurt. However, he seems to really enjoy riding and it's great father/son time. I think if you asked him the question - he also would say the occasional injury is worth the overall enjoyment of it all.

SeattleM+M said...

Heal quickly, Arleigh! Thanks for the great post, Kent.

So far, I haven't been badly hurt in a bike-car encounter, but I can understand how the mental trauma would be hard to get over. A couple of months ago, I happened to witness an accident, where a man got pinned by a drunk driver driving full speed into a string of parked cars. I'd been riding my bike, and was sitting outside a cafe drinking coffee when the accident happened. Really sudden, really violent, and definitely reminded me that the same driver could just as easily have rammed me from behind at speed. Haven't taken a ride since when that accident didn't cross my mind at least once. I can only imagine what it's like to ride after actually getting badly hurt by a driver. Seriously, might be worth looking into some short term PTSD counseling.

monk3y mike said...

Amen Kent!

Jeff said...

Some of the best words that I have ever read about why we ride. Thank you.

kfg said...

Everything has a risk factor and sooner or later, you ARE going to die. Getting used to and making peace with this simple fact makes life easier and more enjoyable.

I am not unfamiliar with the backboard, but I keep 'em rolling (the bikes have not always been so lucky).

Darrin said...

Thanks for the post Kent

Kennyboy said...

My company makes bicycles in Portland OR, the first major city to be designated a Platinum-level bicycle friendly community. My seven employees and I all love bikes and we all commute by bike year 'round. Each is scrupulous about safety, wearing helmets, reflective clothing, using lights and respecting the rules of the road, none rides a fixie or other trendy, but dangerous rig.
But each evening, I feel like a commander in a war zone, sending out my night patrols and hoping they live through it, because each of my employees has been hit by cars, 3 of them more than once and 2 of them seriously. I ride less than they do, but I've had two aggressive drivers try to scare me off the road by driving within inches.
There are comments here like 'life is dangerous', etc., but I call nonsense. I am over 50 years old and I don't know a single person who's ever been injured commuting in a car.
Bicycling in traffic is dangerous, period, and that's in bike-friendly Portland. I also lived in Amsterdam, where cycling wasn't dangerous, but Portland and the rest of the country have a long way to go before we reach that state of grace.
In the meantime, I am very disturbed by the danger of bike commuting, and the likelihood of attending an employee's funeral. I love bikes, I love riding, I embrace commuting and sell bikes to do it on. But if I had my way, I would force my employees to drive cars for their own safety and my peace of mind.

dotcommie said...

Heck of a lot higher risk being seriously overweight than riding a bike as well.

Great article.

Scott McElhiney said...

This from Whizzer's link above...
"I am sick and tired of sharing the stinking road with bicycles. You do not belong on roads. You should only be allowed to ride in parks and on sidewalks. Period. Today, while commuting to work in my car a bike pulled in front of me. I was reading my paper and drinking my coffee, and did not see him until it was almost too late. I spilled my coffee on my new blue shirt, and ruined my paper. I draw a line today. I am sick of you suckers being on MY road. Get off!"

Which makes me wonder... is the site serious or satire? The rest appears to be serious. I was thinking the quoted post was too stupid for words... but there it was.

Mike Schwab said...

Per hour of travel, a bicycle has half the death rate compared to travelling in a private automobile in the U.S.A.

my chariot wheels said...

Well said. I have been in two accidents in the last 2.5 years. both on the same section of road I justify my insanity by arguing that 2 times out of lets say 1000 rides on this route is a "reasonable" risk. Yea its dangerous, but we have no guarantees that we will survive crossing the street. as a pedestrian.

Anonymous said...

I was hit by a car whose driver was looking the other way. I did nothing wrong, but 19 months later, I am still struggling with my battered body.

The driver felt terrible and was very frightened, but she has gone on with her life, while I'm tying to get patched back together.

I have been all over the world on bicycle tours, but I will never ride on a main thoroughfare again. My attorney wants me to see a psychologist, but I don't agree. I think I am being prudent.

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