Driving is easy. Cycling is hard.

Anyone can drive. Anyone can cycle. Actually, I think that there may be more people that can’t cycle than can’t drive. Why? Driving is easy. Cycling is hard.

A teenage kid can’t choose who they want to govern them, but they can be given a licence to control an object that kills over two times more people than homicides in the US (and there are more than a few of those there). In Australia in 2007 (the last year I can find statistics across both categories) there were 260 people killed as a result of homicide, and 784 drivers, 337 passengers, 204 pedestrians, 237 motorcyclists, and 41 cyclists killed on the roads. I would think that voting is an easier thing to do than be trusted with using a potential weapon on a daily basis. Especially considering the limited thought and research that goes into the average adults vote.

You get in a car. Push a button for it to start. Don’t even have to look behind you to pull out of your space because there are parking sensors and a screen for that. You no longer have to shoulder check when changing lanes because there are blind-spot indicators for that. You can get work done and attend meetings in the car through the bluetooth. The touch screen multi-media-interface beckons you to play with it. Relax – the lane departure warning system will let you know if your attention lapses and you start to drift. Still not paying attention? Forward crash mitigation will take care of it. Accident? You’ll probaby walk away from it. The other person might not, and if they never walk again, you might get a small fine or maybe nothing at all. Don’t worry about it. It’s a piece of cake.

Driving is getting safer, but that’s not from a lack of accidents. It’s just that the cars are safer for the occupants. There is more information at the side of the road and more and more cars on the roads than ever before, so our need to be attentative to what is around us has never been higher. That’s the argment for all of the “safety features” making their way into cars. There is no doubt that they are helpful, but I wonder if they give the driver the illusion that they needen’t excercise as much caution as they need to.

Now, I’m not saying that driving is not difficult. It is difficult. In my opinion, people are granted permission to drive too easily, and worse, they are allowed to continue doing to when they have clearly demonstrated their inability to do so responsibly. Still, cars are making the task easier. On the other hand, people have shorter attention spans these days (here and here, and a million other places). There are more distractions around us (street signage or lack thereof, advertising, etc) and in our cars – the number of people I see scrolling through some form of social media on their phone while driving, and thinking they’re doing it all secret-squirril because it’s below the window, is truely worrying. The study referenced below deals with lifeguards, but the subject matter is scanning and attention spans and is quite relevant:

“Recent research has suggested that as the level of environmental bombardment (e.g. noise, activity or any other distraction) increases, the level of its usefulness decreases. It is believed that as environmental bombardment increases, people become less aware of peripheral objects and events (i.e. those to the side).11 Thus, whilst music playing may help prevent a lone lifeguard getting bored, at a certain point this arousal will become detrimental, resulting in a worsening concentration span. If, added to this there is other background noise or stimulation occurring, these effects may accumulate, thus causing further deterioration in the lifeguard’s concentration span and scanning ability.”

This is the environment that cyclists and pedestrians have to navigate on a daily basis, but that’s getting a little off topic. Maybe in another post.

My ponit is that if driving is hard, cycling is harder. See, a cyclists has to deal with all the same conditions and environmental distractions as drivers (minus, usually, of the self-inflicted ones), as well as whole additional layers of mental and physical responsibility.

Additional mental responsibilities include, primarily, constantly scanning the road for debris. When I say constantly, I mean constantly. And, unlike drivers of automobiles, it’s not as easy as spoting things like fallen trees or errant animals. It’s things like tiny pieces of broken glass, sand, small branches, tacks or nails (that, sadly, are sometimes placed there purposely), or doors being carelessly swung open from parked cars. Motorists have to look out for other vehicles so as to avoid being driven into by one of them, but another car is easy to spot and if one does drive into you, your car will get a bit of a scrach or a dent, but you’ll be fine. A cyclist has to constantly keep an eye on the vehicles around her/him lest one of them drift out of their lane or decide to turn across you at an intersection or pull out into the road into you. More care and attention is taken automatically because any one of these things can send you directly to the hospital. You might consider balance and mobility to be an additional physical responsibility of a cyclist, but it’s just as much a mental one, requiring anywhere from nearly no mental effort to a whole bunch, denpending on conditions (cross winds, steep hills, etc.).

Additional physical responsibilities may take up some of your mental focus, but they may also be a benefit for cyclists. Dirvers can loose focus from bordom or any number of reasons (cruise control, hot, a little tired, mundane road conditions, facebook, texts, etc). A cyclists increased circulation, heart rate, and wind in their face increases alertness. Unless you are riding home after being on the piss all night, you’re not likely to fall asleep or slip into a daze at the handlebars. Further, because of the inherent danger of cycling in traffic, the cyclist is pretty much automatically put on full alert all the time. Even if the danger were the same for drivers, their passive and active restraints, suspension, soundproofing, comfy seat, climat control, and dozen airbags isolates them from the idea or reality of it, but also the physical consequences.

This is generally a relatively new idea to me. At least, it’s never occured to me before. I wonder what non-cycling motorists would make of the idea?

So what am I arguing here? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.

You could say that if cycling is actually more difficult than driving, then maybe it should require a certain level of compentancy that is standardized and tested. I’m certainly not saying that, and I think it would be a daft idea. Firstly, it would be pretty near impossible to regulate, but cycling isn’t like driving so much as it’s like walking – kids do it, it’s a recreation or sport  as well as transportation, and it should be encouraged as a sustainable and healthy form of transportation for everyone. That may not be a very strong argument, and I’ll confess that I’m not sure I have a better one without thinking about it a little more, but I’m against it nonetheless.

I suppose that if I’m a fair and logical person, I would have to entertain all possiblities, including the possibility that if it is more difficult, that something might need to be done about it. Right now I’m going to say that in places where cycling actually happens in large rates, something is done about it. General transportation infrastructure is organized so as to accommodate the difficulty of cycling in traffic (need I actually name those places?).

So, to bring this post to a close, I think I’m just going to have to leave it a little bit unresolved. Maybe there actually isn’t much more to say. Maybe there is. Maybe just consider this a talking point. Maybe you could leave your thoughts on the topic in a comment below, and maybe we can pick this up at a later date.


Header image (and an article that describes the conditions I’m talking about): here