Family biking is safe

I don’t write about road safety while biking much (ever?) because it’s not at the forefront of my mind. Sure, I’m cautious, but that’s just a natural part of being on a bike.

I’d say it’s just like driving a car, but it’s not. I feel less safe in the car. I’m much closer to all the distracted drivers–yakking on cell phones, texting on phones pressed against steering wheels, busily looking for parking spots. Not to mention the car isn’t as fun as a family unit: I can’t hear the kids as well; the three-year old complains about the car seat straps; one’s facing forward, one’s facing rearward so we’re not seeing the same things at the same time. I also find I’m able to focus much better on the bike than in the car. Maybe the motion of pedaling opens up the mind to handle processing simultaneous train and puppy conversations while negotiating traffic.

So why write about safety now? Well, I got my first angry blog comment, including a “…get your precious babies OFF THE STREETS!” I referred to her as a troll (in the Internet sense of the word) in my reply, but that’s not accurate. She saw family bikes, freaked out, and Googled her way to an old post on my blog. Many friends suggested ignoring and deleting the comment and maybe I’ll do that in the future, but this first time I felt the need to respond. I don’t expect to change her way of thinking, but I feel better after feeling pretty crappy for a while. And the outpouring of support from both friends and strangers is buoying. Start here and scroll down to feel the love.

Swearing at Motorists--it's just the shirt I'm wearing today (it's a band, not an attitude)

Swearing at Motorists–it’s just the shirt I happen to be wearing today (and it’s a band, not an attitude)

I’m not fired up anymore (my published reply is quite toned down from the original), but I’m still feeling a bit defensive. Family biking is safe because biking is safe. There are countless articles out there. I like this recent one: Which really is more deadly: cycling or sitting down watching TV?.

More: as a family biker I have to say I feel even safer than the statistics. It’s not due to a sense of responsibility for my passengers, though that probably adds an innate level of cautiousness I’m unaware of. I contend it’s simply about size, speed, and posture. My bike is BIG and therefore easy to spot. But even more helpful is that I’m very slow–motorists (and pedestrians and other bicyclists) have tons of time to notice me. In fact, I’m so slow going uphill that on Dexter’s separated bike lane I’m slow enough to peer in each parked car as I approach to see if I have to worry about an inhabitant opening a car door into my path. That’s a luxury many bicyclists don’t have. While I’m not bolt upright like a Dutch bike or beach cruiser, the Big Dummy (and my Bianchi Milano city bike before it) is fairly upright so I’m tall and can look around much more easily than on a bike with drop handlebars. Granted, I can’t see behind me, but I can see everything to the front and sides. It’s remarkable how different things feel from my road bike. I’m small and superfast (well, unless I’m lugging 130 pounds of Engine Engine Engine) and feel somewhat at the mercy of my surroundings. Maybe I wouldn’t have this feeling if I only got around by unencumbered road bike, but regardless, I never have this feeling on the family bike.

Have I had any close calls? No (well, maybe one–see below). Have pedestrians or motorists perceived close calls? Yes. This usually happens when crossing an intersection. Intersections are dangerous–I’m hypervigilant in ‘em. But it’s second nature so I don’t think about it. I don’t assume motorists won’t run red lights or look for me before turning on green lights. I’ll enter an intersection mindful of all surrounding cars, but if a motorist disregards the law and gets within ten feet of me it sometimes looks scary to nearby pedestrians (or the distracted motorist) evidenced by the “That guy almost hit you!” No, he didn’t–I saw him, don’t worry. But I’m sorry it scared you. Hey, maybe he’ll check for traffic next time.

I used to get angry about distracted drivers. Months after fuming about drivers on cell phones and imagining myself pantomiming “hang up the phone” to them, I did exactly that. I was riding with a family biking friend and the driver in question was talking on her phone while nosing into traffic (and into my bike lane). I skirted around her and made my gesture and immediately felt silly. Not the way to inspire friends to get out there and ride more. So that was the one and only time I did that. Shortly after that incident, I was crossing a street to get to the grocery store. It was a busy street–NE 45th St crossing the freeway and 7th Ave NE in the U-District so I was using the crosswalk. A young woman exiting the freeway barreled into the intersection with no regard for her red light, thinking only of her right turn. I was moving slowly and cautiously and she didn’t hit me, but had I been moving a bit faster–say, had I been a jogger pushing a jogging stroller–that wouldn’t have been the case. She stopped halfway through the intersection, finally heeding her red light and I went mamabear on her and angrily thumped my fist on her trunk. She wasn’t phased (perhaps this happens to her all the time?!), and while it felt right to react in this manner at the time, it didn’t leave me feeling good about things.

Family biking sets a wonderful example for my children, but attacking cars certainly doesn’t. So I’ve changed my tune completely. I used to ignore or give hard looks to inattentive drivers, but now I smile and wave. Really. Not in a sarcastic way, but in a “Hi there, I’m on the road, too, nice to see you and be seen by you” way. Not that I rode around in a perpetually bad mood before, but my rosy outlook was periodically dampened. Now it’s all whiskers on kittens.

I find it fascinating that several family bikers I know have independently arrived at this same behavior. Apparently it’s a thing. Discussing bad drivers isn’t something we family bikers normally do–we’re too busy having fun!–but it came up a while back in a discussion in the Seattle Family Biking Facebook group.

But back to this particular driver. Here’s Terry Avenue North:

I consider it a pretty quiet street. My video is from Sunday, the day after MOHAI’s grand opening and my commenter’s family biker sighting. Saturday was probably a bit busier due to the free museum admission.

It’s a shame MOHAI’s visit us page doesn’t indicate how hard it is to park at South Lake Union Park (I’ve never tried myself, but I hear it’s impossible). It takes a village to get people like my commenter to think outside the car.

Let’s end with something warm and fuzzy: Kidical Mass headed to MOHAI today:

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16 thoughts on “Family biking is safe

  1. Great post. I always fund it ironic when people send me off with a “Be careful,” wish as I bike away. I AM careful, I AM safe, it’s the motoring many that are not careful or safe.

    Anyway, I think biking around is the best way to go places and including your kids is even better. Kids that bike or are biked places just have a different sense of the world. And it’s parents like you, children like yours that give me hope for a better world

    • In the past I never had anyone say stuff like that but in the past few years I now get “Ride safely” and “Be careful” and even a “You’re very brave”.
      I sometimes suspect that there’s a conspiracy, by, say, the auto industry, oil industry, old farts with investments in the old ways, whoever it might be, to make people believe that cycling is dangerous. People were never concerned like this in the past.

  2. My word, woman! How can you take your precious children on such a busy street! I saw a VAN pass you! Seriously, I’ve seen bike boulevards (similar to your Greenways?) with more car traffic. My belief in my hypothesis about Janet is even stronger now.

    I agree that interacting with drivers in a positive manner is more beneficial to everyone’s moods. My gloves are fingerless with a mitten flap that folds over and I’ve learned that with mittens even a flip-off can look like a wave.

    • Kath! I am picturing you joyfully, stealthily flipping off motorists. I will admit I was surprised at the oncoming traffic turning left in front of me at the traffic light. Again, not a close call, but talk about ignoring my right of way. Wait, I shouldn’t be surprised at all.

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  9. I just had my first encounter with an aggressive motorist while I was on our family bike (thankfully, I was riding solo at the time). I’ve been thinking a lot about how to engage with motorists since then. I’ve decided to give big waves and smiles to every car I see driving, and if they wave back I know they can see me. So it is fantastic to read this post and see another bicycling mother’s perspective. :)

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