Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics!

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a great article by Kevin Helliker about the new “Cycling Chic” associated with bicycle commuting.

SoapBoxLA found the article especially timely having just returned from a European journey where cycling wasn’t just accommodated, it was encouraged, it was supported, it was driven, it was financed, it was an integral part of an evolved and innovative solution to congestion and it truly was symbolic of the “gestalt” of free access and mobility.

All this was made possible because of the proliferation of commuter bicycles with light generators, mud flaps, baskets, kickstands, chain guards and all the accoutrements that allow Europeans to ride all-weather, all-purpose, all-attire and all-the-time.

Phew! One gets a bit weepy just thinking about it!

That being said, SoapBoxLA must take issue with Helliker’s comment on bicycle safety.

“The biggest downside of cycling is wrecks, particularly with cars. Per kilometer traveled, a cyclist in America is 12 times likelier than a car occupant to be killed, according to a 2003 American Journal of Public Health article.”

Ouch! It's now time for dueling statistics and herein lies the rub.

There are several ways to examine the danger or death factor in an endeavor (deaths per mile, per hour, per trip, etc.) and also several approaches to determining the composition of the user group.

The study cited includes children in the cycling user group (a group that accounts for a disproportionate number of the deaths) and so is really a comparison of apples and oranges to just apples. Adults riding a bicycle in traffic are less likely than adult motorists to die in a traffic accident.

Heck, more people die playing golf than in any other sport but let us try and stay on cycling as the topic.

Robert Hurst, in his book "The Art of Urban Cycling," quotes a study by Failure Analysis Associates, Incorporated* that attributes the following deaths per million hours to the following activities:

Skydiving 128.71
General Aviation 15.58
Motorcycing (road) 8.8
Scuba Diving 1.98
Living (all causes of death) 1.53

Swimming 1.07

Snowmobiling 0.88

Driving a passenger car 0.47

Waterskiing 0.28


Flying (domestic airlines) 0.15

Hunting 0.08

An hour of driving is almost twice as deadly to the driver as an hour of cycling is to the cyclist!

In short, if you’re trying to sell some bicycle helmets, there is a study that will demonstrate that a rider is ground beef without a helmet.

If you’re trying to encourage others to hop on a bicycle and to ride off into traffic, there’s a study that will convince them they’re bulletproof.

And so, after careful study, SoapBoxLA concludes that of all activities, it is the reckless use of statistics that carries with it the greatest capacity for danger!

Be careful out there!

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