[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Be a Little Gingerbread Man
The Gingerbread Man erred when he trusted the fox. As cyclists, we should never completely trust the motorist to do the safe thing. Obey the traffic law, be predictable, but be ready to jump.

What mistake did the Little Gingerbread Man make? How can a bicyclist learn from this mistake and apply it to riding in traffic? Is there such a thing as an accident? If a cyclist repeatedly has the same accident, was it still an accident? How many vehicles are required for a collision? Can you trust motorists to be careful? How can a cyclist use his maneuverability to avoid collisions? What are the top three safety rules? Can a cyclist reduce his reaction time? What kind of crashes are acceptable and what kind are not? Does a careful cyclist look any different from a careless one?


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Be a Little Gingerbread Man

I  wrote: But I am a good little gingerbread man.  Whenever someone pulls into my space, I'm not there.  People who have lots of accidents believe in bad luck; people who don't have any accidents believe in being careful.  Go figure.

Matt Boersma replied: Ken, while you and Frank are justifiably proud of your bike skills and safety record, you do us all a disservice by implying that those who have had accidents on their bikes are themselves at fault.

Do you know anyone who is an experienced bike handler who has had accidents?  Or does the simple fact of them having crashed disqualify them  from your elite club of gingerbread men?

I'm a good bike handler and I believe in nothing so much as being careful.  Like you, I consider myself much safer riding a bike than driving a car.  This despite the now-famous four accidents I've had, which to me validated my choice to wear a helmet.  You can of course choose to disbelieve me, but you simply don't know.  Let's ride together sometime and see.  We'd probably enjoy it more than this pedantia.

The little Gingerbread Man.I don't think I had any intention of sounding elite when I picked the Gingerbread Man as my symbol.  For anyone who has never heard the nursery story, the Gingerbread Man ran from everyone who tried to stop him until he accepted the help of a fox and was eaten.  Somehow, as a child, I was supposed to believe that he should have trusted someone before he got to the fox; if he had done so, he would have lived happily ever after.  But let's get real; what is anyone going to do with a gingerbread man?  If, as a cyclist, you trust no one to be a safe driver, you will never have the sudden surprise that he had when he got eaten.

I once had a paramedic friend tell me that there is no such thing as an accident.  I disagreed. I told him that the first time something happens to us, it is a complete shock, and we're not prepared to react.  So, I thought everyone could have one accident of a certain type, but if the same accident occurred again and still caught the person by surprise, it wasn't an accident the second time; it was a case of willful neglect.  There are cyclists who keep having the same accidents over and over again.  One fellow told me about being struck by turning cars five different times, one of them a police car.  I can't believe that he was that unlucky; I believe he never was paying attention when someone suddenly turned.

Vehicular collisions require two vehicles.  It takes two to tango.  One person makes the mistake (or does it deliberately), and the second is not paying attention.  All you have to do is to let your mind wander for a few seconds, and you're dead meat!  And you can't trust anyone; I have been nearly hit by old ladies who wouldn't hurt a fly and by friends of mine who just weren't thinking.

On the other hand, even if someone deliberately tries to hit you with a car, if you are on the ball, he's got a tough job.  Besides being a small target, the bike can make a 90° turn within a few feet, can usually stop quicker than a car (this is not as dependable as turning), and provides the operator much greater visibility.  And you can always slide the bike if you should have to hit the ditch.  I have experienced having people deliberately try to hit me, so I'm speaking from experience.

The job then of a cyclist is 1) don't make mistakes yourself, 2) be visible, and 3) always be prepared for someone else to do the wrong thing.  I sum up the last in a rule: NEVER TRUST A MOTORIST.

In a science fiction novel by van Vogt, The World of Null-A, the hero has an extra brain inside his head that he can set to watch for accidents.  Having such an ability isn't science fiction; your brain already has the ability to alert you when something is suddenly wrong; you just have to train it (although you shouldn't be bike-riding on automatic anyway).  The lack of proper training is why some motorists are very dangerous; they pass you within inches because their brains are cued to looking out for cars and trucks, heavy things that can hurt them, and not bicycles.  Others will hurt you because once they've passed you, they forget you're there; they have a fixed notion that a bike moves at 5 mph or so, and the fact that they have to race to beat you to the turn does not, for some strange reason, alert them that you're moving much faster than that. When I'm riding a bike on a solitary road, my mind has the freedom to wander and enjoy, but as soon as I encounter any traffic (traffic includes cars, trucks, trains, streetcars, buses, pedestrians, dogs, cats, and even cows), the alarm in my brain goes off, I get prepared, and I watch very closely for any surprises.  For example, I have had many cars suddenly pull out so close in front of me that I  shouldn't have been able to avoid the collision, but I always did.  Although it takes 3/4ths of a second for the brain to recognize danger and to react, I had already recognized the danger, my hands were already on the brakes, my body was already braced for a sudden, violent turn, and so I didn't even need the whole 3/4ths of a second.

There are very good and experience riders who frequently have crashes in races, where winning is worth taking changes.  And off-road riders will frequently have spills because the challenge is worth the risk to them.  But those aren't car-bike collision, which account for almost all of the deaths.  Cyclists can afford to get skinned up, but they can't ignore traffic accidents: the injuries will be much worse, and there's too much chance of becoming a fatality.

As far as riding with me, I doubt you'd notice anything unusual except I'm a stickler for obeying the traffic law.  Some people won't let anyone ride with them who won't wear a helmet; I won't let anyone ride with me who won't obey the law; it's too easy for me to get killed that way. Besides, I want the motorists to respect me; how can they do that if I'm disobeying the law?  If someone is riding with me in traffic, I prefer for that person to be in front, so I can watch him/her and everything else at the same time.  I also like to wear bright yellow during the day, and I always have a front light, a rear flasher, and a rear reflector at night.

But my defensive safety measures are mostly on the inside where they are invisible.  I don't have a casual attitude towards traffic, I am always alert when anyone is around, and I'm always prepared to run away so I can cycle another day, like a Gingerbread Man.

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