Increasing the odds of safe cycling: a response to the OHSU report

What can aggressive cyclists do to improve their chances of commuting safely in Portland, Oregon? This is the question that all serious bicycle commuters should be asking in response to “Bicycle Commuter Injury Prevention: It Is Time to Focus on the Environment,” a research project by people based at Oregon Health and Science University. The study, which took place from September 2007 to August 2008,  examines the experiences of 962 adult bicyclists in Portland, Oregon, who commuted a monthly average of 135 miles to school or work. The researchers draw three conclusions:

“Approximately 20% of bicycle commuters experienced a traumatic event and 5% required medical attention during 1 year of commuting.

“Traumatic events were not related to rider demographics, safety practices, and experience levels.

“These results imply that injury prevention should focus on improving the safety of the bicycle commuting environment.”

This study deserves careful attention because it was (1) done by a team with good credentials, (2) using reliable methods for data collection and evaluation,  (3) supported by knowledgeable use of results gathered by other studies, (4) submitted to peers both in public forum and publication in a professional journal, and (5) written to attract the attention of the general public in Portland and of agencies and personnel who deal with matters related to bicycling in this city and across North America.

My first response to this report is dismay. Is it really true that 20% of commuters will suffer bicycle-related trauma every year? What should we conclude from the findings that age and other demographical practices, experience of the cyclists, and their safety practices make no difference? If it is really the case that there is a higher incidence of trauma while cycling in bike lanes and boulevards, how should cyclists and transportation officials respond?

My second response is a strong desire to examine this report carefully in order to discern more clearly what it means for aggressive cyclists like me. In a subsequent column I will clarify the definitions used by the researchers, highlight the facts they report, suggest matters that may not appear, point to assumption by the researchers, and evaluate the conclusions they draw.

This second response is prompted, in part, by my experience a few years ago when examining the report of a longitudinal study published by a major medical journal and widely reported in the press. While the conclusions reported in the press were supported by the study, one contrary finding–the one that described my condition–was not mentioned in newspaper articles. If I had not examined the report itself, I might have failed to take potentially life-saving action.

I can’t help but wonder if the same might be true with respect to the OHSU report on cycling in Portland.

My third response, is to follow the lead offered by one of the respondents when the OHSU team presented their study to professional peers. Fortunately, their report includes a transcript of this discussion, which may be as important as the formal report for cyclists and public officials. I want to believe that there are ways for serious cyclists to increase their safety odds.

My credentials for this series of columns are my forty years as aggressive cyclist, during which I have logged approximately 150,000 bicycle miles throughout the United States and Canada. For twenty-five years I commuted to the Indianapolis campus where I taught, a six-mile round trip through a residential community on streets with no provision for bicyclists. Despite heat in summer and cold in winter, I commuted year round, except for a few days each year when the streets were slick.

Although now retired, I continue a commute-like ride on Portland streets two days a week. On Thursday afternoons I cycle across the I-5 bridge, along Marine Drive, to the Oregon Food Bank, a round trip of twelve miles. On Fridays, I cycle across the bridge at 6:00 am, travel through Delta Park and then Vancouver Avenue or Interstate Avenue to a scheduled breakfast meeting at NE 10th and Broadway, a round trip of twenty miles. My frequent trips by bicycle through downtown Portland ordinarily take me south on Broadway and north on 10th or 4th Avenue. I have cycled many miles in highly disciplined circumstances and am well-read in a wide range of cycling literature

During my forty-year history as cyclist and thirty years as commuter, with a yearly average of 1,000 miles a year, I have suffered only two events that the OHSU study would classify as traumatic. If there’s something I can do to keep on cycling safely, that’s what I want to do!

Notes: An editorial in The Oregonian called my attention to the OHSU study, and a link in provides access to the report, which was published in The Journal of TRAUMA, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care in November 2010. The image at the top of the column comes from 100 Years of Bicycle Posters, edited by Jack Rennert.

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