Inattentiveness Even More Deadly for Cyclists

Inattentiveness Even More Deadly for Cyclists

Posted by Matt Russ on 21st May 2018

Inattentiveness even more deadly for cyclistsI recently witnessed this near calamitous incident between motorist and cyclists; and a lot can be learned from it.  I was driving home behind one of the local group rides.  The riders were taking up a full lane, riding 2-3 abreast, which never creates good will with people trying to get home, but they were moving.  I was impressed as I was going 25 mph.  I recognized the "A" group from a local ride and they were sprinting the final couple miles from home.  It made me nostalgic watching them vie for a wheel, going all out- these guys were fit!  They approached a major intersection making a right turn into a feeder lane with a yield sign, but nobody was yielding they were just blowing through it.  I have to admit I had done this many times myself in my younger years; no one wants to break their momentum that close to home.  They continued to funnel through as the light turned red, the last 3 guys were about 15-20 meters off the back trying to get back on a wheel as traffic was moving across the intersection.  I watched both car and cyclist on a collision course moving at about the same rate.  My knuckles turned white and I held my breath as I watched the car slam on it's brakes just in time to let the cyclists through.  The now stopped car laid on the horn as one of the cyclist almost reflexively held a middle finger high, apparently not comprehending that the attentiveness of the driver had just saved their lives, which were at risk due to their complete inattentiveness.  These guys had no idea the danger they had just put themselves in- they were just completely and totally focused on holding that wheel.

Cyclists are quick to point out that the law protects them and their right to be on the road, but some flagrantly and intentionally violate the law putting others at risk; and not just the cyclists either.  The irony is that if you explained the situation to these guys after the adrenaline had worn off they would probably, sheepishly, admit that they were in the wrong.  And they probably would acknowledge that hanging on to the back of a group ride is not worth risking their lives for, or not getting home to their families.  There are certain physiological responses at play here that dull awareness, sense, and even reason.  This can make cycling much, much more deadly than the already very high risk of cycling in traffic dense areas.

When I began cycling a cycle computer had 3 metrics- speed, distance, and ride time.  Then came cadence and heart rate, then GPS with a list of new features and mapping, then power meters with another list of algorithms and data to monitor.  In my experience a cyclist can only watch 2-3 pieces of data at a time- MAX.  And now that devices pair to your smart phone you can monitor all of these things and still check your texts, alerts, Facebook, etc., etc..  And split screens allow you to watch 6 or more metrics at a time including heart rate, cadence, power, speed, distance, speed, heart rate zone, power zones, turn by turn maps, even the workout that is designed by your coach.  These metrics can be split further into various algorithms and variations- avg., max., normalized, etc..  And don't forget the video camera that pairs to your smart phone.

Motor vehicle fatalities mostly went down through the 90's and into the next century until 2012 which saw a significant rise in fatalities.  This was at first curious as cars have progressively become more and more safer adding features such as air bags, ABS brakes, better crash protections, and even the roads themselves have become better designed with safety features.  Then in 2015 they rose a whopping 10.5%!  In the 2016 another 5.6%.  That is over 16% in just two years!  We all know the reason now- inattentive driving, texting in particular is almost as deadly as being drunk behind the wheel.  For the first time teen-age girls have higher insurance rates than testosterone driven teen-age males due to the fact that they are more likely to text behind the wheel.  All the while cars continue to add amazing safety features; it is almost as if we can't keep up with your own stupidity.

So why are cyclists even more inattentive in a lot of cases?  Physiology plays a huge part in it.  If you have ever bonked on a ride (blood sugar crash) you know that "inattentive" does not cover it.  You are barely surviving just trying to keep the pedals turning.  You feel like crap.  The brain is a blood sugar pig and when it does not get it, it lets you know in a big way.  Alertness is the last thing on your mind.  On those longer rides simple fatigue makes you progressively less alert.  As the body becomes more tired the mind begins to drift and we become less and less aware of our surroundings.  And then we have adrenaline- when we are going all out on those intervals or group rides.  Adrenaline gives us tunnel vision and can cause us to do impulsive (stupid) things we would not normally do.  So there are three basic examples of physiological factors that cyclists deal with consistently that motorists do not.  Now apply these on top of all the extraneous data being monitored and you create a situation that is even more deadly.  People remark how dangerous a motorcycle is but I feel much, much safer on a motorcycle in traffic.  Reason being is that I have better situational awareness, visibility, and I am in the flow of traffic, not blocking it.  I am also not fatigued and I can't even look at my cell phone.

Driver inattentiveness is getting a lot of press right now, and states are passing laws that prohibit texting.  Our state just passed a "hands free only" law for cell phones.  These are definitely a step in the right direction.  But as cyclists you have to consider some of the same distractions coupled with the physiological factors that dull awareness.  No, your speeds are not nearly as high on a bicycle but that matters little if you pull in front of a car going 50 mph..  You should always ride defensively, keep your head on a swivel, and maintain your situational awareness.  Be cognizant of the danger you put yourself and others in, and of course be courteous to all.  Finally if you find yourself consistently looking down to check your data you are taking your eyes off the road, and as we all know bad things can happen very quickly when you do this.  The us vs. them mentality between cyclist and motor vehicle has validity in many cases, but you should also take a good hard look at how safely you are riding before casting too many stones.