Perils of winter biking

For the past week, Seattle has been blessed with cold, sparkling clear weather.  The crisp air makes the snow-capped mountains that surround us appear 50 miles closer.  Did I mention we live in paradise?  🙂

It’s also extra-tempting to hop on the bike and enjoy a few moments in the sun as it slinks along the horizon.  But be careful of the frost on the road!  That’s a lesson my wife just learned the hard way.

On the first workday of the new year, she was riding her bike to the bus transfer station.  As she approached a turn at the bottom of our hill, she stayed in the center of the road, well away from the frosty edges.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t apparent that even the center of the street was polished with a microscopically-thin layer of black ice.  Just enough to take down a bike, swift and hard, without a moment’s notice.

My wife landed on her hip, shoulder, and head, then slid for several yards before coming to a stop.  We’re grateful to report that she sustained only minor bruises.  That positive outcome can be attributed to three things.  First, in the middle of the car lane, she was well away from the curb and other obstacles that might have complicated the fall.  Second, the car behind her was following at a respectful distance, and she didn’t have to worry about it sliding over her.  Finally, her bike helmet prevented a nasty bump to the head and kept the pavement from scraping her face.

To helmet or not?

This incident has caused me to reexamine my opinions about bike helmet use.  Only a few weeks ago, I was taken to task by a reader for comments I had made regarding a helmetless rider on a video about electric bikes (here).  The reader referred me to a site called, which cites various research showing that mandatory helmet laws reduce bike riding by up to 30% without reducing bicycle-related head injuries.  There are various charts like this one:

I won’t dwell on this, but the implication is that skyrocketing bike helmet use did not significantly reduce head injuries.  And the rate of bicycle injuries is similar to that of pedestrians, who remain unhelmeted in Australia at this time.

The other side of the argument (which has been going on for many years) is presented on sites like this one from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

I’m not an expert on this.  My family and I have been serious about riding bikes for only three years, and besides my wife’s recent fall, we’ve experienced only one other.  That was when I simulated a panic stop with a heavily loaded bike on wet pavement (you can read that bit of foolhardiness here if you’re curious).  Our limited experience suggests that bike helmets do more good than harm, and we’ll keep them on.

But legally requiring others to wear helmets is a more complicated issue.  Given the reduction in ridership that follows mandatory helmet laws, I’m not convinced that there is an overall increase in safety.  Having more bikes in the streets increases the safety of individual riders through better visibility, infrastructure, and driver familiarity.

I realize that this is a contradiction relative to my opinions about mandatory seat belt laws.  Those laws have led to documented reductions in highway deaths.  That’s good for individuals and society.  On the other hand, helmet laws may save a few individual bonks on the head, but may reduce benefits to society as a whole and bike riders in particular.  Until there is a pretty strong case otherwise, I think our default stance should be individual responsibility.

Slippery Seattle

The other lesson for my family is that we should stay off bikes when the temperature dips below 37 degrees Fahrenheit.  I realize that people all over the world ride bikes in temperatures colder than that (we routinely did so in Copenhagen), but Seattle has some special considerations.  Our hills, our minimal bike lanes, and the mixture of car and bike traffic are part of the difference. 

But perhaps the biggest factor is salt.

When it snows in Copenhagen, the bike lanes are plowed even before the streets are (that always amazed us).  And then the lanes are liberally seasoned with salt.

This has two results: we never slipped during our winter in Copenhagen (admittedly, the 2007-2008 winter was an unusually mild one there), and my bike displayed an appalling amount of rust after only one season.  In Seattle, car dealers often make a big deal about used cars that are “local”.  You don’t want some rusty hunk of junk from some other state that uses salt, they say.

But there’s a very good reason why Seattle doesn’t salt its streets and probably never will: salmon.  Adding salt to the already oily brew that washes off our roadways could deliver a potentially lethal shock to young salmon.  One might wonder if it’s appropriate to endanger human lives on slick roads for the welfare of fish.

Well, if you haven’t lived in the Pacific Northwest, it might be difficult to appreciate the importance of salmon.  Fresh salmon are not just an important food (featured in almost every menu of local restaurants), they are integral to our economy, our culture, and our environment.  Children study salmon in school, and we celebrate them with community festivals in the fall.  The incredible migration upstream to spawn is a metaphor for dedication to a goal in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  In the process, salmon deliver literally millions of tons of nutrients from the ocean to our rain forests, enabling a rich ecology that couldn’t exist otherwise.

You would think our love for salmon and a generally eco-conscious mindset among Seattle residents would spur us to develop alternatives to car-based transportation.  But instead we have endless arguments and litigation.  We disagree on the placement of light-rail lines, expansion and tolling of our bridges, replacement of the earthquake-damaged highway which is a blight on the city, and how to fund buses and ferries.  There are squabbles between residents, transportation agencies, the legislature, and city councils.

I think of this as a testament to the tenacity of our car culture.  It has taken over a century to develop our current transportation strategy, and it may take the better part of a century to unwind it.  I’m hoping that in ten or twenty years, we will see a visible reduction in the steady stream of cars that crosses a bridge we see from our house.

Change at that pace is likely to be appreciated only by the truly patient.