Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Emphasis on Safety?

There’s a lot of focus this month on getting more people out and about on their bikes. We posted last week about the effort to normalize bike commuting, a topic that as usual sparked a lot of discussion about sweat, appropriate clothing, secure bike parking and, of course, safety.

holland_300x298.jpgHow they promote cycling in Holland.

Today we’d like to talk more about the safety issue — or, more precisely, the perception-of-safety issue. M-bike.org, a Streetsblog Network member in Detroit, has a post comparing the Dutch approach to promoting cycling with events like the "Ride of Silence," an international annual event — begun in America — that honors bicyclists who have been killed by traffic while riding (2009’s ride will be held tomorrow):

Last month Copenhagenize noted the Dutch Bicycle Council’s collection of positive cycling promotions. Those photos certainly make cycling look safe, accessible, convenient and fun. There’s no Lycra and almost no helmets.

Contrast that with the Ride of Silence events that mourn cyclists killed or injured while biking — putting the focus on how unsafe cycling can be.

Does this message encourage more people to ride a bicycle?

Does this message make it more or less likely that parents will let their kids bike to school?

The Copenhagenize site — which posted a parody of the widely circulated Danish video of cops giving cyclists helmets — has taken a strong stand against helmet promotion, precisely because of the effect it has on perceptions of cycling as a safe activity.

Of course, Denmark and the Netherlands are countries that have well-established cycling cultures. Here in the U.S., we are just at the beginning (we hope) of establishing such a culture. The question is how to do it.

So what do you think? Is it possible to emphasize safety too much when it comes to cycling, thereby scaring off a significant number of people, especially when research shows that more cyclists means safer cyclists? Is it counterproductive to emphasize the dangers to cyclists with things like ghost bikes and memorial rides? Or — here in America, land of the automobile — do we need to emphasize safety over all other concerns?

Full disclosure: I always wear a helmet when I ride.

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