Don't Be A Bicycling Statistic: One Key Way To Stay Safer

Tanya Connolly, 37, crushed under a tractor-trailer in South Boston last Monday. Doan Bui, 63, killed by a speeding pickup truck on a busy Dorchester thoroughfare the Friday before. Alexander Motsenigos, 41, victim of a hit-and-run in surburban Wellesley late last month.

In major metropolitan areas like Boston, it often seems as if every week brings news of another bicycling death — or, as in this past week, more than one — usually in an unequal clash between vehicle and rider. Biking experts say that as more people take to two-wheel travel — surely a good thing — more accidents are also likely. Below, writer David C. Holzman describes his own bike crash, and shares a key safety technique that many riders ignore: Helmets save lives, but they have to be worn right.

By David C. Holzman
Guest contributor

The treetops seemed far away, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. They were all green, leafy, and dreamlike — like my memory of Seattle before I moved away at age eight.

The dream quickly soured as it began to dawn on me that I might have had a bicycle crash. But that didn’t make sense. Even in my stupor, I remembered that I was a very experienced cyclist, and very safety-conscious.

I began trying to wake myself up, as I’d done so easily in the lucid dreams of my early childhood. But it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t even shift the scene. Shock was cushioning me, like emotional Novocaine; nonetheless, I could feel the fear growing ominously more perceptible.

[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"When you are hit by a car, if your helmet can move, it will.'[/module]
Now I saw two women standing over me. “Am I dreaming?” I asked, fully expecting I was. (I had to be. Crashes didn’t happen to me.) “No, honey, you not dreaming,” one of them said in a dialect common in northeast Washington, DC.

I took five or ten seconds to grasp that I really was lying on my back in the street, and not in a bad dream. Once I did, I thanked the women “for watching over me,” actually thinking that they had come to protect me, the feelings of gratitude washing over me like an ocean wave on a beach.

Then one of them asked me for two dollars. Heretofore, I hadn’t moved a voluntary muscle outside of those involved in speech, but now, almost as if her voice was a hotline to my motor cortex, I pulled my wallet from my pocket, opened it, found a twenty and two ones, and gave her the latter. Had she asked for the twenty, I probably would have given that to her.

Memorial for a bicycle crash victim in Cambridge (Rachel Zimmerman)
Memorial for a bicycle crash victim in Cambridge (Rachel Zimmerman)

Soon the women had disappeared, and a crowd gathered. I asked someone where I was. I was able to trace the route in my mind from my home, at 1200 Jackson St. North East, two miles to Rhode Island Avenue and First Street North West, but I still didn’t know where I had been going, or even whether I still worked at Insight Magazine, or whether I had been laid off, an event which had occurred four and a half months earlier.

Then someone informed me that my face was “all messed up.” I don’t understand why, but suddenly my head was much clearer, and I knew I would be fine.

I looked at my watch. It was 8:20 a.m. on September 6, 1991. I realized I’d been on my way to the doctor’s office, for an annual checkup. I’d crashed about 10 minutes earlier. I’d have to reschedule the appointment.

The guy who told me my face was messed up was partially correct. As my then-four-year-old niece, Beth, said with obvious bemusement when she first saw me the next day, “Uncle David, you need to wash your face!”

I’d been going around 15 to 18 mph when I hit a large bump in the road that I hadn’t seen, wrenching the handlebars out of my hands. That’s the last thing I remember. Despite the tight chin straps, the force of the crash on my helmet had pushed it so far askew that my cheekbone had kissed the pavement, acquiring an impressive bruise, and a laceration which I think had to be taped shut. Luckily the straps had been tight enough to keep my helmet on my skull, or I probably would not be writing this warning.


So I’ve been appalled to see air between the chin straps of helmets and the chins of about one third of the cyclists on the Minuteman Trail, where I run or ride my bicycle just about every day. Chin straps on helmets should be snug, like one’s shoe laces.

When I informed one woman — a graduate of the University of California at Davis, no less — that her helmet was too loose, she used one finger from each hand to very daintily apply torque to her helmet, to show me that it was tight. Others have similarly shown their ignorance of the power of the forces that occur during a crash. If bicycle crashes were that gentle, you wouldn’t need to wear a helmet.

Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, VA: "Some riders leave their straps so loose--or even unbuckled--that in a crash the helmet may move enough to leave part of the head uncovered, and if that hits the pavement, the likelihood of disabling brain damage becomes much greater. Other riders leave the straps less loose, but still loose enough that the helmet could be dislodged in a first impact — whether with a car or the pavement — leaving the head vulnerable to any secondary impact, just as if you were not wearing a helmet at all."

I consider the bicycle shops and other stores selling helmets and failing to inform customers of the need for tight chin straps to be grossly irresponsible. Guys, are you listening?

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]

My former optometrist had to give up her practice after she fell on a bicycle path, hitting her bare head, while barely moving.

[/module]Of course, many cyclists don’t wear helmets at all. If you’re cycling without a helmet, or with loose chin straps, you’re taking your livelihood, and perhaps your life, into your hands, even on a bicycle path. My former optometrist had to give up her practice after she fell on a bicycle path, hitting her bare head, while barely moving.

Helmet use reduces the risk of head injury by 85 percent, according to an estimate by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says is the best source of bicycle fatality statistics on the web. In New York City, three quarters of all fatal crashes involved a head injury, and nearly all bicyclists who died -— 97% -— were not wearing a helmet, according to the helmet safety institute. (That statistic may be due partially to helmet-wearing cyclists being safer riders than those without helmets.)

According to the Snell Memorial Foundation, “the number of bicycling head injuries requiring hospitalization exceeds the total of all the head injury cases related to baseball, football, skateboards, kick scooters, horseback riding, snowboarding, ice hockey, in-line skating, and lacross.” (No statistics were given on the numbers of cyclists, vs. the numbers in all these other pursuits, so this comparison, while compelling, is hard to interpret.)

How to pick a safe helmet

In buying a bicycle helmet, “The most important thing is to make sure it fits properly,” says Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. “It needs to fit so that it feels snug on your head and so that it won’t move more than an inch in any direction. When you are hit by a car, if your helmet can move, it will.”

All bicycle helmets are designed to the same Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) standard, says Swart, adding that a helmet with a higher price doesn’t mean it’s a better helmet. (If the helmet is not certified by the CSPC, or by ANSI or Snell for older helmets, don’t buy it.)

Be visible

Besides protecting your head, you want to be visible. To that end, wear one of those lime green cycling jerseys that are hard to miss even from several blocks away. The sooner motorists see you, the less likely they will hit you.

At night, wear light-colored clothing, preferably white. It also helps to have a white helmet. If you do a lot of night riding, you probably should have a very bright headlight and tail light that are also easily visible from the side, as well as from front and back. I don’t bicycle at night anymore, but when I did—infrequently—I used to carry a large white T-shirt in my backpack that could go on over whatever I was already wearing. (I keep a large white T-shirt in the trunk of the car in case I get stuck on the side of the road on a dark night.)

If you cycle infrequently at night and you don’t want to weigh your bicycle down with accessories, the blinking red and white lights you can purchase at most bicycle stores can do a good job of making you visible if you wear them correctly.

Wear enough of them so you can be seen easily from any angle, including a white light for the front. Make sure that when you are in your riding position, they are neither blocked (by a loose shirt or a backpack, for example) or poorly positioned (for example, pointing upwards instead of to the rear when you’re leaning forward on your handlebars). And always make sure your batteries are still strong. I’ve seen cyclists in dark shirts and pants with a single red light pinned to their back, blinking so tepidly as to barely be visible from a couple of car lengths.

If you’re under 35 or so, all this focus on visibility may seem overwrought. But you need to realize that as people age, their night vision often fades.

Look behind you

I’ve found one other piece of safety equipment invaluable. I have a rear-view mirror that attaches to my spectacles. You can also get mirrors that attach to your helmet. Either works far better, in my opinion, than handlebar-mounted mirrors because you can move your head to scan behind you.

I got my first such mirror just before I rode across the country. It took the stress out of cycling on the long stretches in the Great Plains of North Dakota, when it seemed that all the grain trucks in the world were headed towards Duluth. When they were about to pass, I could see exactly how big they were and exactly how much room they were going to give us, and I could ignore their frequent honking, although one time I really did need to get onto the soft shoulder. I saved myself a lot of stress with that mirror, and my travel-mates were envious. It makes city traffic less stressful, too. In fact, the one time I broke one and didn’t have a spare, I was afraid to ride until I replaced it.

Tips for drivers

1. Give cyclists at least several feet when you pass them. Passing too close is very scary, and dangerous.

2. When you pass them, pass quickly. Cambridge drivers, in particular, seem to feel so guilty about driving—cars being evil and all—that they drive extremely slowly. I’ve had Cambridge drivers pass me so slowly that in the time they took to get around me, we could have had coffee together, like Henry Louis Gates, the police officer, and President Obama. When you do that to me, O Cambridge driver, you make me so nervous that if we were having coffee, I’d probably spill it all over myself, staining my lime green jersey. Just hit the gas and get around me!

3. Don’t honk at us. You startle the H-E-double hockeysticks out of us when you do. Rest assured we can hear you just fine without the horn.

4. Don’t open your car door without looking to see if a cyclist is coming. If you “door” a cyclist, you can seriously injure or kill them. A good way to get into the habit of looking is to open your car door with your right hand (if you’re on the left side of the car).

5. Add your own. Readers, do you have any tips to add for drivers or bicyclists?

Science and automotive journalist David Holzman
Science and automotive journalist David Holzman

David C. Holzman wrote his first-ever article that was not for the college newspaper on bicycle safety. An avid cyclist, he figured that knowledge would boost his odds of avoiding trouble. By the time of the incident portrayed in this article, he’d logged around 60,000 miles total, much of it on the city streets of Washington, DC.

This program aired on September 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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