Risks + Dangers of Road Bicycle Riding

Ken Roberts and Sharon Marsh Roberts

We enjoy riding our bicycles on the roads in Hudson Valley for recreation -- and we think there are lots of other people who could be out enjoying that kind of riding. 
  • There are some real dangers and risks in riding on the roads (and some for off-road).  People do get killed or badly hurt riding a bicycle.  It happens to some riders in the Hudson valley every year -- usually on the roads, but sometimes on an off-road path too. 
  • But we still feel comfortable out riding -- because we have worked out an approach and strategy for our recreational riding that we feel makes our level of risk and danger about comparable to the risk of driving a car. 
  • Somebody gets killed driving a car every week, but most people don't let that stop them from driving their cars for "unnecessary" or recreational purposes.  Instead they've learned some skills and strategies to reduce their risk levels, and they keep on driving out on the roads. 
  • That's why we're still out bicycling out on the roads.

Our strategy -- some key points of our approach to riding: 

  • We choose to do our riding on days and times when there are less risky road and weather and traffic conditions. 
  • We choose less risky roads and paths to ride on. 
  • We have learned and practiced some special bicycling skills and tricks for interacting with motor vehicle traffic. 
  • We do some planning and checking in advance -- but often modify our plans and route at the last minute based on conditions -- or even in the middle while we're out riding. 

Choices -- There are choices you have that can make big differences for the levels of risks you are exposed to: 

  • The first choice is:  If you're not sure you have the skills and knowledge and judgment to deal with the possibility of serious bad things happening while you're out riding, then do not use the routes and places on this website.  See below for an alternative. 
  • The second choice is to examine the information about the route (or off-road riding place) in advance:  If you're not sure you have the skills and knowledge and judgment to deal with the possibility of serious bad things happening while riding some sections of that route or place, then do not ride there -- or make up your own route that only includes the sections you are able to deal with. 
  • Another key choice is to improve your skills and knowledge and judgment for preventing serious bad things while riding -- and for deciding where and when to ride, and when and where and to not ride.  We work lots on that ourselves, and we think that many riders could improve their chances of staying alive and healthy by doing some learning and practicing -- see more below
  • Still another choice is to take some steps in advance to prepare for the consequences in case something bad does happen -- see more below. 

You may say:  That sounds like a lot to deal with.  Do I really have to work all that out before I can go out and ride? 

Our answer is:  Yes, if you care a lot about preserving your life and health. 

The hope we offer is that many of the questions and risks for riding a bicycle are something like the questions and risks for driving a car.  If you can work them out for driving a car, there's hope that you can learn to deal with them for riding a bicycle.  But maybe not -- you have to find out for yourself and decide. 

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We enjoy bicycling on the public roads and on paths off the roads -- and we like to share that adventure with other people.  

But that adventure comes with real serious risks:  Bicycle riders get killed and seriously injured out there, both on the public roads and on off-road paths.  Not just "some" rider, in "some" place, at "some" time -- but a real person with a name and an address who rides in the Hudson river valley -- every year -- gets killed or seriously injured in the Hudson valley.

However, you can make choices that eliminate or reduce or help manage those serious risks.  So if you do not understand the risks of riding some of the routes and places described on this website, or you're not sure you can handle the risks in a way that fits with the levels of risks you're willing to accept -- then make a different choice.  Make a choice that will not expose you to risks that are unknown or unacceptable to you.  

Here's some key choices: 

  1. You can choose to get a major benefit of bicycling without taking those risks.  
  2. You can choose a more limited set of risks that still provides some key benefits of bicycling. 
  3. Even if you choose to take on the full range of risks, you can choose to do that using approaches that reduce and manage some of the risks.  
  4. You can choose to take some steps in advance to prepare for the consequences in case something bad does happen. 

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So a required reason to actually try to ride any part of any route on this website is because you've decided to take on a special adventure -- with all its unknowns and risks -- and you choose to accept the risks and the work of managing those unknowns and risks as part of your adventure.  

In the Hudson Valley lots of the most beautiful and interesting riding is out on the public roads.  And we choose to go out and ride on some of those roads -- at some times under some conditions -- out there with cars and other motor vehicles that could deliver serious consequences.  It's a serious choice, and we make it seriously. 

For us, it's like how we choose to drive a car.  People get killed driving cars in the Hudson valley, every year.  But we and other people still choose to drive them -- often at much higher speeds and in more tricky conditions than we ride with our bicycles.  People work out ways to handle those risks in a way that feels acceptable to them.  

Since a bike gives us less protection than a car, we have to be more careful and learn better skills, in order to make those serious risks feel acceptable to us.  And just like we needed to learn a new set of skills before we drove our parents' car out on the roads, we think it's important to first learn some key concepts and skills before riding a bicycle on the routes described in this website.  So we point to some Resources to help with that.  But just because we have worked out a way to manage the risks in a way that's reasonable and acceptable to us, that does not mean that you should. 

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Choices about Risks and Dangers 

Here's more about those choices: 

Choice 1:  Ride on an indoor exercise bicycle. 

We do lots of our bicycling indoors on stationery exercise bicycles.  That way we get lots of good exercise and fitness benefits, without the risks (and hassles) of riding outdoors. 

Riding indoors on a bicycle that cannot go anywhere is a key risk management tool used by many many bicyclists who are serious about exercise and training. 

Choice 2:  Ride outdoors on an off-road path. 

When we ride with children, we do a large percentage of that on paths that are off the public roads.  This is not "safe" or risk-free, but the points of high risk are easier to identify and control than out on the roads. 

One point of special high risk on an off-road path is where it crosses a road or driveway used by cars or other motor vehicles.  It's easy to get complacent while riding off-road and dealing only with moving things coming behind or ahead -- and then be unprepared for a crossing where much bigger and faster things are coming at you from the sides.  We have heard of at least one occurrence during the last few years of a user on a path in the Hudson valley dying that way. 

Choice 3a:  Get help from another person. 

This is a desirable approach, but it's not so easy to find a person who's good at helping you understand the multiple complex risks of bicycling and your own willingness to accept and manage those risks -- so trusting another person for this is yet another risk and unknown. 

Some pitfalls to watch out for:  (a) Lots of people will advise you based on their willingness and skills to take on risks rather than based on yours; (b) Once you've chosen to ride a route and/or conditions which are too risky for you, another person riding with you may not be able to do much to really reduce the serious risks to you.

  • Riding with other experienced riders or members of a club or even with an official "ride leader" typically does little to reduce the most serious risks, and sometimes actually increases the risks. 
  • Riding with an "organized" ride with route markers painted on the pavement and directions on paper and support vans typically does little to reduce the most serious risks, and sometimes actually increases the risks. 
  • Even if you ride together with us, there isn't much we can do to help you against the most serious risks -- and if we don't all use special care we could all end increasing our risks. 

Why is this?  It's because once you're out there riding in a place, the really serious stuff like getting killed or paralyzed usually happens so quickly and unexpectedly that there's nothing anybody else can do to protect you but call an ambulance and try to stop the bleeding.  Leaders and organizers and support crews can help for some things -- like fixing a broken chain or figuring out mistakes in the route directions.  But they can't do much for the real serious stuff. 

Riding near to other riders usually brings distraction and complacency, also the new risk of colliding with another rider.  One function of a "leader" could be to try to get other riders to refrain from the worst instances of these problems.   Some leaders would do better to focus just on not adding to the risk problems by their own behaviors. 

Therefore if in doubt, take less risk -- like Choice 2 or Choice 1 -- rather than thinking that some other person or organization can somehow make a risky situation safer for you.  

Choice 3b:  Improve your skills and judgment for handling risks. 

We spend lots of time riding out on the public roads -- with those major risks of death and serious injury.  We also believe that levels of risks vary greatly depending on when we choose to ride what specific roads, and how we ride -- what specific strategies and techniques we use.  So we spend a lot of time thinking and talking and learning about risks and strategies. 

But given how deadly the consequences can be out on the public roads, we also believe that it's not a smart idea to try to "figure it out for yourself" how to handle the dangers.  Much better to learn as much as you can from the mistakes and ideas of other riders -- especially since we've found that some of the best strategies are the opposite from what we would have first guessed, and some of the deadly risk factors are ones we never even thought to ask questions about. 

Therefore, we strongly recommend that you check out and learn from some of the Resources listed below -- and then think and talk through some of the ideas, and practice some of the techniques.  

Like with driving a car, we think it's important to spend some time learning strategies and concepts from reading a books and taking a course, and practicing skills and strategies in more controlled environments -- before venturing out onto the roads. 

More thoughts: 

  • If the main risk management strategies you know are "always wear a helmet" and "ride as far to the right as possible", we recommend that you not ride out on the public roads until you learn lots more. 
  • If it's not worth it for you to spend a few dollars to buy a book and take a course, and a few hours over a few days to practice some techniques, that's a choice and a statement about the value you put on your future life and health. 
  • The routes and places on this website were not selected or designed to provide good situations for learning.  Each route or place is intended for a rider who already has their skills and strategies up to levels that they judge to be acceptable for riding that route or place under the current conditions. 

Choice 4: Prepare in advance for the consequences

Some of the consequences of the bad things that can happen while out riding can be handled much better is you take some steps in advance to prepare for them.  

The basic guideline for this is to think about:  

  • what you might do to prepare if you were traveling through the same exact places walking, and 
  • what you might do to prepare if you were traveling through the same exact places driving a car. 

Some examples: 

  • Car drivers wear a seat belt.  Most experienced riders wear a helmet. 
  • Car drivers carry a spare tire and tools.  Experienced riders carry at least a spare tube and tools to fix a flat. 
  • Lots of car drivers carry a cell phone, and an emergency number for a towing service.  Some riders carry a cell phone -- with some emergency phone numbers for an ambulance and taxicab service. 
  • Lots of hikers carry an extra jacket and a warm cap.  Some experienced riders have a windbreaker and a helmet liner stashed in their pack. 
  • Lots of car drivers have a set of insurance policies that cover the financial consequences of something bad happening while they're driving:  liability insurance, health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance.  So do many riders. 

That's just a partial list of ideas -- every experienced rider has their own style of preparation.  The point is to think about it, and make choices.

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  • The Art of Cycling, by Robert Hurst.  Globe Pequot Press, 2007.

Lots of specific suggestions, and an interesting overall perspective about interacting with motor vehicle traffic. Emphasis on handling city streets and traffic, but helpful for anyone riding on the roads.

  • Bicycling Street Smarts: Riding Confidently, Legally, and Safely, by John S. Allen.  Second edition, Rubel BikeMaps, 2001 (First edition, 1988 by Rodale).

 - - see version on the Web 

 - - purchase paper copy from Rubel BikeMaps 

  • Bicycling Magazine's Complete Book of Road Cycling Skills, by Ed Pavelka, et al.  Rodale Press, Emmaus PA, 1998.  ISBN 0-87596-486-9.

Chapters 17 - 21 give specific techniques for "safety in traffic".  The rest of the book has lots of ideas about skills and training. 

  • Effective Cycling, by John Forester.  (6th edition)  MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1993.  ISBN 0-262-06159-7 and 0-262-56070-4.

The classic for the techniques (and politics) of riding a bicycle in traffic with motor vehicles.  Chapters 26 - 32 are very helpful on strategies and techniques for riding on the roads.  The rest of the large book has lots more on all aspects of bicycling.

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Riding a bicycle on roads -- and off roads -- is risky.  If you're looking for a safe way to spend an hour or a day, try something else.  See the Choices above.  Numerous riders have been killed or suffered permanent severe injuries or other losses. 

Knowing the dangers and risks, we ourselves choose to ride our bicycles lots -- for why and how, see above.  We think we've worked out a strategy for us to reduce our level of risk out riding, and we think the rewards of the adventure are worth it. 

But you might think otherwise for yourself, and we think that before choosing and acting, you ought to have some information about the dangers and risks, as well as the fun and the rewards. 

A quick summary of the risks of riding a bicycle are that anything bad that can happen to you walking or driving a car can happen to you on a bicycle -- with the added problems that you're going faster than if you were walking, and you've got less protection and less stable balance than if you were driving a car. 

Some examples of the risks and hazards include

  • Falling and hitting the surface of the road or path or ground or something on the ground
  • Losing control and hitting some obstacle
  • Colliding with a car or other motor vehicle
  • Colliding with other things that move -- animals, pedestrians, other bicyclists
  • Getting lost, thirsty, hungry
  • Getting severely cold, or wet, or hot
  • Bad road surfaces -- gravel, potholes, things hidden in the shadows, ice, etc.
  • Equipment failure
  • Criminal act by another person
  • Attack by animals

Sounds like lots of kinds of dangers and risks -- and there are others.  That's why we call riding a bicycle an "adventure".  It's not for everybody -- and perhaps not for you -- or not yet.  

Approaches for working with these risks can be found in the Resources (see above).   But there is no way to eliminate all the risks and dangers. 

You might wonder, given that comparison of risks to walking and car driving, how there could be any hope of riding a bicycle at acceptable levels of risks.  The answers we give to ourselves are:  

(a) We try to ride with more attention and skill than most walkers.

(b) We try to ride with lower speeds and more conservative maneuvers than most car drivers -- with more conservative selection of routes and times and conditions than most car drivers --  and better attention and skills than most car drivers. 

(c) We find that fun and beauty and challenge of the adventure are worth taking some risks for.

(d) We see the paybacks from the adventure to the rest of our lives, like motivation for exercise and long-term cardio-vascular fitness, practice in disciplined attention, problem-solving, and teamwork in situations with real consequences.

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