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I was fortunate enough to have OpEds I submitted to several local St. Louis newspapers published during National Bike Month, 2010, which is designated as May by the League of American Bicyclists. Each OpEd was somewhat different and the following, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was the last to appear. One I also submitted to the New York Times after a major rewrite of this OpEd was not accepted for publication. I may publish it here later.

The main points are:

1. Bike helmets are for injury reduction ONLY: they cannot prevent a crash. Only bike education can do that

2. The emphasis on bike lanes is misplaced: they do nothing to address the most serious causes of car-bike collisions, which occur at intersections. Bike lanes may actually exacerbate such crashes.

3. Efforts to promote bicycle transportation should focus on bike education, starting with 7th graders where it should be offered in school as a P.E. elective

The Matson cartoon immediately below, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is one I really like. It celebrates Earth Day, 2009.

Matson Earth Day cartoon, April 22, 2009

Help the planet: Ride a bike
By Martin Pion
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Promoting bicycling as an environmentally friendly and healthy means of transportation should be a national goal, as we are reminded during May, designated as National Bicycle Month.

Cycling reduces many of the ill-effects caused by our dependence on fossil fuels and reliance on the automobile, and it’s a low-stress physical activity that can benefit the cyclist for a lifetime. Also, it’s more relaxing than driving once proper traffic cycling techniques have been learned.

Even though it’s been estimated that half of all trips in the United States are five miles or less, a distance readily covered by a fit cyclist in half an hour, convincing the public that bicycling is a viable alternative to motoring remains a challenge. Cycling is often dismissed as something done by children or purely for recreation.

It’s generally assumed that roads are paid for by motorists’ taxes, such as the gas tax, when in reality all local roads, which are the ones used by cyclists, are paid for by property taxes, whether that property owner uses a car or not.

Even access-limited interstate highways on which cyclists are not allowed (except for the shoulders in Missouri) are funded only partially from the gas tax. The rest comes from the pockets of all federal taxpayers, including cyclists. Automobiles are heavily subsidized in the United States by that and other means, such as a tax write-off for the entire cost of a motor vehicle used for business.

And, unlike motorists, cyclists cause virtually no road wear and tear.

When it comes to cyclist education, we have a major problem. Learning to balance a bicycle is the first hurdle, but what comes after that? Typically, no on-road instruction is given.

If parents learned to ride safely, by enrolling in a structured bike-safety class, they could teach those acquired skills to their children.

Such courses do exist. Probably the most influential person in the field of bicycle education is John Forester, originally from England but who has lived most of his life in California. Forester, a scientist and professional engineer, has studied the basic causes of bicycle accidents and drawn important conclusions about them: that most involve only the cyclist and are caused by drain grates, potholes or other road-surface defects. Next in importance are car-bike collisions, because of cyclist or motorist error. Almost all cyclist crashes can be avoided with knowledge and proper training.

Forester developed the Effective Cycling program for adults and children in the mid-70s, which treated cyclists as vehicle operators who “fared best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

Diana Lewiston, a follower of Forester, taught a comprehensive course that graduated hundreds of seventh-graders in Palo Alto, Calif., middle schools. It was offered as an elective in place of physical education and held every school day for 45 minutes for four weeks. About 10 hours were devoted to on-road instruction. By the end of the course, children could use their bikes safely for transportation in nearly every traffic situation.

After 40 years of cycling (the last 13 as a certified League of American Bicyclist cycling instructor), I’ve reached several conclusions based on the work of these two educators and on personal experience:

ā€” Bike helmets are for injury-reduction only, not for crash prevention, which should be our first priority.

ā€” Bike lanes, despite their increasing popularity, do not make cycling safe. They only promote false confidence among novice cyclists and can be lethal when located alongside on-street parking because of opening car doors. Bike lanes don’t help when the cyclist wants to make a left turn, and they actually increase the risk to cyclists at intersections, where most car-bike collisions occur.

ā€” Bike education programs based on Effective Cycling principles are the best way to promote safe cycling on public roads. They should be offered to adults and as part of a school-based curriculum.

Bike education programs taught by certified cycling instructors are available in the St. Louis area and will benefit almost anyone. Consider joining the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, which offers bike education courses to its members.

Help your planet and yourself by becoming a confident on-road cyclist and using your bike instead of your car whenever possible.

Martin Pion of Ferguson is a certified League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor.

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