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Monday, December 13, 2010

Are we making progress?

Opinion: The Oregonian

PORTLAND - Academic studies so often promise new insights, even revelations, about the commonplace. A report this month about Portland bicyclists seemed to be one: It shows everyday bicycle commuters are at significant risk of being injured a bleak, one-in-five chance in any given year for anyone pedaling off and braving the rain.

But the picture quickly complicates.

The rate of injury among Portland bicyclists 20 percent of those studied reported an injury from crashing, with 5 percent crashing badly enough to seek medical help corresponds roughly to bike-active places such as Toronto and Phoenix. So Portland, increasingly branding itself as the nations bike mecca, hardly leads a road race to calamity.

Yet the researchers, from Oregon Health & Science University, also found that bicycling skill level didnt matter a whit when it came to pitching over the handlebars or losing the front tire in a rail track.

For the 962 commuters followed over the course of a year roughly half men and half women with an average age of 37 skinning knees and cracking teeth were equal-opportunity perils. (Other factors you might guess would count age, gender, body mass index, even ones history of crashing held no sway in the probability of colliding or taking a dive.)

If there's no getting better at bike commuting, then, where do we go from here? What stands in the way of reducing an injury rate that hits everyone with the same force particularly in a city that intends to spend $613 million over the next two decades on new, yet safer, bikeways?

There are no easy answers.

Yes, the researchers found roughly 20 percent of injuries occurred where challenging road conditions prevailed loose gravel, wet leaves, slick steel plates covering construction, streetcar tracks. Those things are easy enough to stay after.

But against expectation, bicycle commuters were found to be more likely to experience serious traumatic events in places the researchers had considered among the safest: on residential streets and on bicycle boulevards, those low-traffic streets designed to give priority to bikes over cars.

It just doesnt seem quite enough to wear a helmet (95 percent of study subjects did) or use lights in the dark (96 percent did) or, for that matter, assume that segregating bicycles and cars solves everything (48 percent of serious traumatic injuries did, however, involve a motor vehicle, and bicyclists are 12 times more likely to suffer injury in a crash than occupants of cars).

But taking into account the study's results, however counter-intuitive some of them are, will help planners challenge orthodoxy every step of the way as Portland proceeds with installing the right kinds of things for safe bicycle passage.

A curious thing happens, it turns out, when greater numbers of bicyclists show up: Injury rates decline. The bicycle-dense Netherlands boasts a low injury rate among bicyclists, and researchers here link better, expanded bicycle infrastructure, which invites more riders of all skill levels, with greater overall safety.

Dr. Melissa Hoffman, one of the Portland study's authors, concurs. The more people who are riding their bicycles, the safer we all are.

Well, there's no telling how far away that day is. What is clear is weve got a way to go. It will take not only money, and lots of it from a willing public, but even more of the right questions along the way.

1 comment:

  1. My thought on the skill level aspect is that more experienced riders are more prone to take risks than less experienced cyclists. People tend to ride at their comfort level.