You've seen the public service campaigns, the billboards, and the dire warnings from the government. Drivers who text are six times more likely to crash, so please don't do it. Pregnant women are 7.7 times more likely to die from the flu, so get vaccinated. Babies who sleep on their stomachs are 12.9 times more likely to die of SIDS, so put them on their backs. Because these activities increase someone's chance of dying, millions of government dollars have been devoted to combating them.
So wouldn't you expect the government and well-meaning advocacy groups to try to stop Americans from engaging in a risky practice where they are 12 times more likely to die? Wouldn't you expect them to try to stop this behavior which leads to an average of 7,000 deaths in this country over the course of a decade? You certainly wouldn't expect, let's say, the Charleston County Council to be spending $2 million to encourage this risky behavior, but council members are.
The fact is you are 12 times more likely to die bicycling to work per kilometer than you are if you drive, according to a study by Rutgers University. It's even worse if you walk to work. You're 23 times more likely to die.
The difference between bicycling or walking to work and other equally risky activities is that the former are politically correct, so no one cares how many people get hurt or killed doing them. It's not socially acceptable to attempt an intervention with a power walker or cyclist the way you would with a girlfriend who puts her baby to sleep face down. Cycling or walking are unassailable because they're environmentally friendly and improve your health. And so the Charleston County Council voted to spend $2 million to block off a lane on the busy T. Allen Legare Bridge crossing over the Ashley River. Once this measure is in place, the 14,000 cars that travel the bridge each day will be coming into town on one less lane, a move that will only make rush hour traffic even worse. And it's all being done so cyclists and pedestrians will have better access into the city from West Ashley. But the questions remains: Are there some roads that just aren't safe for bicyclists?
In 2011, Dr. Mitchell Hollon, an anesthesiologist, died bicycling during rush hour on the James Island Connector. A driver drifted several feet out of his lane and struck Hollen, sending him over the side of the connector and into the marsh 40 feet below. It was an undeniable tragedy, and the community rightfully grieved his loss. However, if Hollon had died doing some other equally risky activity, we'd get stern warnings from do-gooders and local governments to change our behavior. Instead, local governments want more people to walk or bike to work.
The truth of the matter is the James Island Connector is not designed for cyclists, and neither are many of the roadways in downtown Charleston. Some of these roads and thoroughfares have bike lanes, but others aren't configured for biking or walking and never will be. They weren't designed to accommodate these activities. And many of the bike lanes we've added to narrow, older roads around here are little more than fancy gutter extensions that won't protect a cyclist if a car swerves even a foot off course.
But, no matter. We'll all celebrate that the walkers and cyclists will be safer on the Legare Bridge, fork over $2 million, and pat ourselves on the back for being so forward thinking. Then we'll sit in artificially created traffic congestion over the Ashley River as the bicyclists ride past us.
On a gut level, you don't need statistics to know that government shouldn't encourage people to get out of their cars and cycle or walk to work on roads that weren't designed for it, even if they are on their way to roads that are. It's hair-raising just watching them. Yes, in raw numbers, more people die annually in auto accidents, but that doesn't change the fact that driving is an inherently safer activity. It just means a whole lot more people do it. When you bike or walk to work on roads that are not intended for biking and walking, you put your life in the hands of every idiot driver on the road. No amount of driver reeducation will change that.
If people want to risk their lives this way, that's their business. I'm even willing to build bike lanes on new roads where it is inexpensive and makes sense. I just don't want to subsidize it beyond that. Or pretend that it's a better idea than any other activity that increases your chances, unnecessarily, of getting hurt or killed.
Editor's Note: The first paragraph in this column bears a noticeable resemblence to the opening of a July 2010 column by Tara Servatius in Charlotte's Creative Loafing. This is not something that meets the standards of the Charleston City Paper. Prior to the publication of this column, Ms. Servatius told the City Paper that "[t]his is actually a slightly toned down, localized version of a column I wrote at [Creative Loafing]." It was our expectation that the above column was a reworking of an argument previously written about before, one that would not feature such a similar lede paragraph. Furthermore, the above column mentions that '[p]regnant women are 7.7 times more likely to die from the flu," while the previous column notes that "[p]regnant women are 7.7 times more likely to die of the H1N1 flu." Since H1NI is a specific type of flu, the statistic in the above column appears to be incorrect.)