Being Anti-Car As A Cyclist Requires Thinking With That Portion of the Brain Used By Climate-Change Deniers

Background Reading

On the Urban Cyclists “Whine and Jeez” Club Forum a fight discussion broke out over whether the casual anti-car rhetoric was helpful in getting motorists to understand the thinking of cyclists with regards to their personal safety. The notion of automobiles being “death machines” is the core thrust of the article titled “Bicycles don’t kill people; cars do“. And since that time many cyclists have equated the number of pounds that a vehicle ways with its potential for lethal destruction.


Things got uglier in this discussion when a reader wrote:

When will people realize that the whole militant anti-car thing is more hurtful to the cause of cycling than it is helpful?
Ever wonder why people think cyclists are smug assholes? You’re answer is right here.

There is much truth to this statement. But frankly the real problem is that calling anything that weighs 3,500 pounds a “death machine” is about as scientific as denying that climate change is real. The weight of the vehicle distracts from the real cause of injury, the speed at which the object collides with another.

Some Basic Physics

What harms you when a collision of any sort occurs is the release of potential energy. Regardless of the mass the speed to which the object is accelerated is what really counts. And it should be pointed out that if the two objects are colliding “head on” it is their combined speeds that matters.

Now if you think about mass critically you begin to realize when a car is motionless and you collide with it, that 3,500 pounds of mass is harmless in terms of its contribution to your injuries. But accelerate that mass to 50 MPH and you are likely dead with you hit a motionless car or it hits you.

An activist recently described the speed issue thusly:

A pedestrian hit by a car going 20 mph has a 95% chance of survival

And if that statistic seems unbelievable think about the situation this way, a one ounce object accelerated to a sufficiently high velocity could easily kill you. We call them bullets.

Understanding The Dangers of Underestimating the Deadliness of Bicycles

Bicycles in fact can and do kill.

It takes a relatively low speed to do damage if the pedestrian with which you collide is elderly or frail or just small in stature. There is nothing about  a bicycle that is inherently benign once its speed is accelerated. If we can just keep this in mind then it becomes easier to focus on the real problem in urban collisions of any sort, speed.

Limit the top speed of any vehicle to perhaps 15 MPH and danger is reduced. But again if you hit a pedestrian while riding a bicycle and you knock him down so that his head contacts the pavement he can die a few hours or days later of brain swelling. Does that mean that we should consider a bicycle a “death machine“? In a word, yes!

Denying the stark reality of the lethal nature of an accelerated bicycle is like denying climate change.

If you are a cyclist or a pedestrian and are struck by a moving cyclist you have the ability to be as hurtfully injured as you might be when struck by a car at a lower speed. We are sometimes smug about the fact that very few deaths are caused by cyclists. Yet if you are the loved one of a person injured or killed by a motorist or a cyclist their death is equally hurtful to your psyche. The heart does not distinguish between the agent of death it is only responding to the loss.

It would be wise for cyclists to consider this when they rail against drivers for driving drunk. A drunk cyclist is equally deadly under the right conditions. In fact operating any moving vehicle when inebriated is dangerous. No just for potential victims but for the operator themselves.

Let’s stop all of the finger pointing and own up to the fact that anything moving is a potential cause of death to an unsuspecting victim, provided there is enough speed. Keep in mind too that any stationary object (e.g. a fire plug, street sign or lamp post) is under the right circumstance capable of killing a fast moving cyclist who falls from their bike in an inebriated state and strikes it “head first“.