Before anyone checks, I’ve probably used the same term before, but I think it’s time cyclists examine the term “unsafe” when we talk about roads… and quit using it.
A better term would be “risky,” but not for the reasons you might think. Risk is created by behavior. Some risk can come from the behavior of others. But crash statistics support that the risk is often perpetuated by the behavior of the cyclists themselves. It’s about the people, not the roads.
A few weeks ago, Mighk Wilson surveyed a small group of vehicular cyclists about their mileage and number of crashes. In his post, he also calculated an estimate of how often a car might pass the cyclist. His conclusion: huge numbers of cars pass without incident or accident — your crash risk is quite low. It’s valuable to note that most of the cyclists who responded feel comfortable and confident on their bikes, and have ridden many miles on roads that the average person might consider “unsafe” for cyclists. Other Internet research (for instance, here) concludes that, in general, riding a bike is much less risky than riding in a car. So overall, we could conclude that roads are not “unsafe” for bicycling.
Perhaps what some people call “unsafe” is really an issue of “unpleasant.” Cycling down University Blvd. can be unpleasant, due to higher speeds and higher volumes of traffic. But Keri has shown that it is not unsafe — quite the opposite.
Infrastructure can be held accountable for increasing risk — think of bike lanes painted next to street-parked cars (dooring), the abrupt ending of bike lanes at intersections, high speed limits on roads with reduced sight lines, potholes in the road, steep-angled railroad tracks, etc.
But do these infrastructure faux pas alone raise the bar to declare a road as being “unsafe?” Riskier — possibly yes, and maybe even riskier to inexperienced cyclists. But unsafe? I don’t think so.
OK, maybe I’ve climbed out too far on this “unsafe” limb to make a point. But any discussion of (road) cycling being “unsafe” brings up such negative connotations. It discourages people from trying it, or worse, it may encourage them to ride in ways that increase their risk. It encourages some motorists to think we have a death wish (relieving them of responsibility to be courteous and careful). I think we should all try to de-emphasize the use of negative, scary words like “unsafe” and find ways to show that cyclists really have a lot of control over their own safety. And there are so many other positives that outweigh any cycling negatives.