Sunday, November 14, 2010

As if you live in the early days of a better nation

When I was a kid, I biked to school. These days, lots of people will tell you that kids don't bike to school because it's too dangerous. While it is true that these are dangerous days, giving in to fear doesn't make things safer. Parents driving their kids to school instead of letting them walk, bike or take the bus puts even more cars on the road. It may be that the greatest risk to a child is being struck by the vehicle of well-intentioned parent dropping their child off at school.

I have to add that "may be" qualifier to this post because I've been unable to find hard data to back up an oft-used quote (I've used it myself) that "Fifty percent of the children hit by cars near schools are hit by vehicles driven by parents of other students." Here is a link to a 2004 article containing that quote, but while it's a good sound-bite, there is no link to data. The people at PolitiFact are are better at digging than I am and they came up empty. The 50% stat may in fact be true or the real number could be higher or lower, but I'm going to stop using that line when I talk to people about safety and cycling. I'll still champion the position that we're safer with fewer cars around schools but I'll manage to work towards that goal without a nifty quote that I can't back up.

While we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, choosing the wisest course of action based on logic and data, we have big blind spots in our thought processes. The phenomena of illusory superiority (sometimes called the Lake Wobegon Effect) causes us to discount the dangers we add to a situation and amplify the perceived dangers that we think of as "out of our control". A child on a bus is much safer than a child in their parents car (OK, I've got a link for this one!) but because we have this tendency to think of ourselves as above average, we're certainly not adding to the problem by driving to school or work or whatever.

But we are. I read the comments that come into this blog and I try to think about them. I sure don't have all the answers and when somebody disagrees with me, I try to look at their point. Sometimes I wind up changing my view. Sometimes I wind up changing my approach. Sometimes I wind up restating my position or asking for a clarification. Recently, in a comment to a post of mine titled "Life'll Kill Ya" a commenter who owns a company that makes bikes in Portland Oregon "a Platinum-level bike friendly community" concluded his thought-filled comment with the words "if I had my way, I would force my employees to drive cars for their own safety and my peace of mind."

I disagree with that commenter, but I understand his viewpoint. I certainly disagree with his idea of "forcing" people to behave in accordance with his view of risk. I also have to wonder if he "had his way" would that in any way make the streets of Portland safer or better for his employees? I certainly believe his concern is genuine, but I also believe that our actions build our world.

It's natural and good to be concerned for others, our friends, our employees, our kids, but with we can easily over-fear and often we fear the wrong things. I'm not certain of enough my own assessments of risk and reward to compel anyone to do anything my way. But I ride my bike and I'll continue to suggest that riding bikes is a good way to make the world a better place in which to live.

My favorite Glasgow pedestrian, Alasdair Gray, is fond of saying, "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation." The kids in Oak Cliff are doing just that with bicycles and root beer floats. I think that's something worth doing.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Oldfool said...

Well said. We have plenty of unfounded fears around here. Even when I can disprove them they persist.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Somewhere in a recent discussion on fear-mongering and over protective parenting someone said "The single most dangerous thing you can do to your child is put them in a car."
There are plenty of stats to back THIS up!
"Motor vehicle injuries are the greatest public health problem facing children today. In fact, they are the leading cause of death among children in the United States"

Anonymous said...

Oops, I actually just misquoted the NY Times article you link to!

Yokota Fritz said...

Several years ago I tried to look up this figure as well and I recall coming up empty. It's possible to come up with stats for some cities where somebody crunched the numbers, but I don't know that national figures are readily available. It's likely somebody quoted a 50% figure for My Town, USA and that quote got repeated until it became just "USA" -- something like the telephone game.

MikeOnBike said...

"While it is true that these are dangerous days"

Really? Dangerous compared to when?

Or maybe these are some of the safest days, if it weren't for all fear-mongering?

Here's one place that discusses how to respond to the fear-mongering:

bikelovejones said...

Your friend's quote is one of the best. Ever.

Pondero said...

That video makes me proud to be a Texan. It also inspires me to want to sponsor an event like that. Just beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I always envied the kids who could walk or ride to school

Dan O said...

Great post and hit home for me - having two kids aged 7 and 11. Awesome link to NY Times article.

My kids walk to school, easy walk. I'm amazed, and laugh, at the mini van parade that drops kids off every morning. A maze of cones and school volunteers opening car doors to keep the parade moving. It's whacked.

Wife and I are on both sides of the fence concerning "safety issues". I'm along the lines of the NY Times article - the kid (our 11 year old) can walk down the street without being kidnaped by the Boogyman. She feels they need to be escorted everywhere. We debate this topic often.

Interesting time we live in...

Barb Chamberlain said...

Glad to see Yokota's link to the Free Range Kids site. It's great. I'm one of those parents who put my kids on the city bus at a relatively young age and helped my middle school get started biking to school by herself (old blog post on this

Wrapping them in cotton wool doesn't keep them safe; it makes them vulnerable because they have no idea how to interact with the world on its terms.

I just saw the 50% figure cited here (and actually just shared this piece on the Bike to Work Spokane Facebook page highlighting that stat!). They cite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as the source but don't provide a link. Now you have me wanting to go dig more.

Love the quote you used as the headline.


Hollie said...

Great post Kent! I still drive my kids to school, but I shouldn't have to, and this is making me rethink that. I was also hugely inspired by the video, it actually got me all teary. Our school is supposed to be a "walk and bike" school, but no one does! I don't think I've ever seen a kid biking, although we do have a fair number of walkers. I wonder how hard it would be to have a biking week here?

David said...

Hi Kent:

Great post & got me thinking.

This is slightly off topic but I (not my kids)am considering biking to work (not school).

It's a long commute - 25 miles and 6 miles of it are on a dirt road - 19 miles on the highway. I don't plan to do it every day but I'd like to do it sometimes.

So, I wonder whether to do this on one bike or two. I do have a safe place to park a bike at the end of the dirt road section.

So, I could, say, ride my full suspension Stumpjumper (the only bike I currently own) on the dirt and switch bikes when I got to the pavement.

In that case I'd be looking for a comfortable style of road bike - as I find traditional drop handle road bikes to be pretty uncomfortable compared to my trail bike.

Or, maybe not - maybe I'd get used to the road bike after awhile. What do you think?

The other possibility is to get a bike that would handle both the dirt and the pavement - maybe some sort of cyclocross bike or something similar? What do you think?

Finally, I'd like to do it all without spending too much. Yes, I could afford to spend a sizable chunk for a brandy new bike but I'd prefer to put something together for, say, under $500. Realistic?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts you may have.

I know you have years of experience with this. maybe you've written about such considerations before & could point me to the place.

Thanks again,


Kent Peterson said...


While there are a lot of bikes out there these days that can fill that middle niche, older unsuspended mountain bikes are still quite inexpensive on the used market and would be my choice for the mission you describe. We converted tons of them for more urban use as I outlined in "The Speed Cruiser Manifesto":

Current Trek 7000 series hybrids or the 7.1FX or 7.2FX would do fine as well. The Fisher DualSports specifically hit this niche.

A bike like a Surly Crosscheck, a Fisher Lane, a Bianchi Volpe or a Redline Conquest would be drop-barred cyclocross type bikes that would work well.

There are lots of ways to solve this. Once you figure how fat you need to go on the tires, the rest will sort itself out.

Susan Tomlinson said...

Lovely post.