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Can bikes and cars share the road?

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2009

Bikes ride with traffic on Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York in May.

Frances M. Roberts/NEWSCOM/FILE


An increase in the number of people commuting by bicycle instead of car would be an unqualified boon for the environment and for public health, but there don't seem to be too many takers: According to 2005 US Census data, fewer than one half of one percent of Americans bike to work.

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One of the biggest deterrents is the perception that cycling is unsafe. And no wonder: Pedaling down a public ways means placing yourself within a few feet of fast-moving one- or two-ton steel boxes, some of whose operators might be busy applying eyeliner, sending text messages, or both.

A survey by the fitness publisher Rodale Press (cited here in an article by the League of American bicyclists) found that some 40 percent of Americans would commute by bike "if safe facilities were available." It seems that a lot more of us would like to bike to work, but we're too afraid of the cars.

But how dangerous is cycling, exactly? In 2007, The New York Times's Freakonomics blog cited a study by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra that found that, per kilometer, those on bikes are 12 times more likely than those in cars to suffer a fatal accident.

It sounds scary, but it's worth noting that the same study found that pedestrians are 23 times more likely than drivers to die, per kilometer. And it's probably also worth pointing out – as Freakonomics did – this Danish study, which found that those who do not bike to work have a 39 percent higher mortality rate than those who do.

What's more, according to an article on the legal website Nolo, only 11 percent of bicycle accidents involve a collision with a car. In most bicycle accidents, the cyclist simply loses control and crashes.

Still, collisions with cars tend to be the worst kinds of bicycling accidents, and cycling on American roads could certainly be safer. As Sightline Institute director Alan Durning noted in the environmental news website Grist, in another study the researchers Pucher and Dijkstra found that, per trip, American cyclists are twice as likely to be killed as German cyclists, and three times more likely to be killed as Dutch cyclists.

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