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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Risk

I don't know how these thoughts advance our transition to a future mobility paradigm, but a few of the ideas put forward by John Adams at a Camden Cycling Campaign talk (courtesy of velorution) make a lot of intuitive sense to me. The first idea, which I originally heard about during a trip to England, suggests that anarchic traffic rules (no signs, no traffic lights, no line markings, etc.) actually can make the roads safer for everyone concerned. Adams, an authority on risk, claims that odd erratic or absent-minded behavior makes everyone more wary as they travel around urban areas. Making frequent eye contact in this kind of environment apparently helps quite a bit.
John showed us figures to support the idea of " safety in numbers " for cyclists - countries with large numbers of cyclists have a lower per km cycled accident rate. He then returned to the " balancing behaviour " diagram and talked of interactions between road users, in particular between cyclists and lorry drivers1. The other user affects our behaviour and we affect theirs. But unfortunately lawyers and insurers get involved and the fear of litigation is stifling - risks that we might have been willing to take in the past may not be so acceptable in the future.
The corollary of this: making people feel safer doesn't really help either, largely because they compensate with risky behavior in other areas. As a case in point consider bicycle helmets. Apparently, studies cited by Adams showed no increase in fatalities when local government lifted mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. The rationale being riders feel more invincible and travel faster when wearing helmets, which makes the chances for injury greater, helmet or no helmet.

When I look back and consider the rare situations where I wear a helmet, such as during competitions with mandatory rules, I've begun to realize more and more that these rules serve more as liability disclaimers than anything else. I had a few more comments on this from a post from last year.


1The band's spokesman, Mick Houghton, said the accident happened last Monday (year 2002) as Mary (Hanson of Stereolab) was cycling through central London. "We believe a vehicle, possibly a truck, backed into her, but I really don't know much more than that at the moment..."

4 Comments:

Professor Blogger Matt said...

Believe it or not, I'm a neurotrauma researcher at a university hospital that is a regional trauma center. I wish you could see what I have seen at this job. My (unscientific) opinion is that nine times out of ten the helmet cuts way down on the trauma to the brain. I could actually query the numbers out of the database, but then I'd get fired and no one wants that. Essentially, the helmet is really the difference between a recoverable injury and a horrible, horrible fate. The best fate is them putting a couple holes in your head. The worst is a persistent vegetative state (like Terri Schiavo). Death is a fate in between the two. However, your point about pedestrians is excellent. When people are hit by cars, they really could benefit from helmets. It's the hitting of the head that tends to fuck you up in severe polytrauma. Anyways, risk IS a relative thing. Pedestrians really only come into contact with cars while crossing the street. Bicyclists are constantly in danger of being cut off or sideswiped. Finally, I would really like to reiterate that in traumatic brain injury death is the least of your worries. Existing with a wrecked brain is much much worse.

Sorry to be a downer.

12:06 AM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

Matt, That is why this has been a continual discussion topic on the rec.bicycles newsgroup for the last 15 years.

5:59 PM  
Professor Blogger Matt said...

That's true. I've followed it off and on. I didn't know if you were bringing it over to this posting. Guess not...

8:42 PM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

If you mean that I would not continue the endless discussion, you got it right. It's certainly a wedge issue for people looking to popularize bicycling.

9:53 PM  

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