Thursday, October 23, 2014

Taking the Lane: Facing your fear

I am an avid cyclist with a secret. My secret is that I am quite terrified of the roads that I use for transportation and sport. I am telling you this, because I also want you, my reader to know, that I do not let this stop me from riding regularly. It is also my desire that if you are struggling with fearing the road that you know you are not alone. I am writing this to encourage you to keep riding or to start riding if these fears are what have been keeping you from the joy of traveling on two un-motorized wheels.

Bike Commuting (Photo by Piper Williams)
Having a little fear of the road is not unfounded and not a bad thing. Fear is a natural and healthy response for situations that require our care. One common bit of advice given to those with phobias is to rationalize the situation and assess the actual dangers. There is and always has been a measure of danger using any type of vehicle on the road. In cycling, assessing the actual dangers can be a little tricky. Individuals who are solely motorists often exaggerate dangers for cyclists and cycling advocates sometimes describe cycling as safer than it actually is to combat the false reports of the motorist. Being a scientist, I like to see facts. The statistics show that cycling is more dangerous than driving, but not by much. For cycling, the death rate is 0.37 - 1.26 deaths per 10 million miles (source). The death rate for cars is 0.11 deaths per 10 million miles traveled. These statistics include accidents from recklessness and the difference goes down when these types of cyclists are excluded. What we can learn from this is that we need to take care when cycling, but we have no reason to fear it anymore than we fear driving. Now, for the sake of full disclosure, minor injuries are more common on a bike than in a car, but studies have shown that these types of scrapes do not keep people from riding.

When I was getting my motorcycle permit, I was given an important piece of advice. “Fear the road enough that you give it the respect it deserves, but not so much that you put yourself in danger.” So we have covered that a little fear that generates safe practice, but excessive fear can keep people from riding. So how does one cope with that?

Another common piece of advice when dealing with fear is to have the person realize the control they have in the situation. I think this applies to cycling as well. As a cyclist you have a good deal of control in your personal safety. You can ensure that you are visible at night. You can educate yourself on traffic and bike laws and follow them. You can read Taking the Lane each week to learn new commuting tips. You can avoid situations where your safety is overly compromised. These would include passing large vehicles (busses, trucks etc.) on the passenger side, taking a corner at the same time as a large vehicle, and cycling too close to parked cars. One of the biggest actions you can take is to try and bike with confidence. This is something I have struggled with as I navigated narrow, shoulder-less roads with speeding cars. However I realized that cars give me more room if I am further into the lane and assert myself. This is a necessary in taking control of your bike safety.

Some tips for Defensive Cycling

When you are riding, another way to take control is be aware of those around you. This allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. Take note of what vehicles are ahead of you and beside you. Also learn to took behind you from time to time, especially if you need to move further into the lane. One great skill that will give you greater bike confidence is learning how to turn your head back while keeping your bike straight. The trick to this is practice and little bit of core strength. You are in control of your bike.

As a cyclist, you are also in control with the circumstance in which you cycle. You do not have to bike at all speeds and in all conditions if you are not comfortable doing so. It is better to cycle some of the time than none of the time. If cycling at a slower pace means you will cycle with more confidence, than do so. I often choose to go slower when commuting especially if I am balancing a heavy bag. It is also okay to make judgment calls about weather conditions that you feel are too risky. My personal no go scenarios are heavy fog and snow in parts of the world that are not used to snow. (I personally love biking the snow, but I do not trust drivers that are not used to the snow.) Doing this is not giving into your fear, it is yet another way of realizing your own control.

So far we have covered the actual danger of riding a bike and tips to be a confident cyclist who is in control, but what about the bad rides that leave us more scared than usual? What about the element of the unknown? All cyclists have had rides that have left them shaken. There are times when I feel like every driver on the road is out to get me and none of them are seeing me. In these circumstances I remind myself that my perceived danger is likely higher than my actual danger. Then I assess how I feel. If I am biking scared and am unable calm down, I have had to call it quits and take public transportation home. This does not make me a failure. If you have ever had to end a ride early because you were shaken, it is okay. What is important is that you ride again. As for the element of the unknown, I cannot promise you that you will be safe if you take every precaution. Some accidents cannot be prevented. What I can tell you is that cycling is a wonderful activity. It will improve your fitness, make your commute more enjoyable, and give you greater confidence. I can also tell you that facing a fear of the road gets better with practice. The first time I road my bike as an adult, I road on the sidewalk and could not keep my legs from shaking as I heard the cars passing. Now, I ride confidently on roads interlaced with roundabouts and shared with double decker busses. I still have fear, but I have also have recognized my own control.

Confident Cycling and Look at How Much Fun I am Having (photo by Piper Williams)

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