April 30, 2000
URBAN TACTICS; Using a Bicycle Helmet, and the Head Inside
The New York Times
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
ONE afternoon two years ago, Bill DiPaulo was riding his bicycle north on Eighth Avenue when a car driving east on 14th Street accelerated into him. Anticipating the impact, Mr. DiPaulo threw himself onto the hood of the vehicle, then fell to the ground. He was not seriously injured. After opening the car door briefly and peering at him, the driver sped off.
”The people on the street stopped and stared but no one came over,” Mr. DiPaulo recalled recently. ”I was in such a state of shock, it seemed like everything was happening in slow motion.”
On other occasions, Mr. DiPaulo, a member of an environmental group called Times Up!, which promotes recognition of bicyclists’ rights to the road, has been hit by a car he did not see coming and fallen after riding into a deep pothole that had been camouflaged by heavy rain.
These experiences are hardly unusual. Although statistics vary, nearly three dozen cyclists were killed in New York in 1999, and close to 20 in 1998, according to both a police department source and Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle advocacy group.
The number of people at risk of such accidents is not small. John Kaehny, a member of Transportation Alternatives, said about 100,000 cyclists were on the road daily in the five boroughs. There are 63 miles of off-road trails and 41 miles of bike lanes throughout the city, but most bicycle miles are logged on streets and avenues, where cyclists compete for space with pedestrians and motor vehicles.
While cyclists acknowledge that they are sometimes responsible for collisions, they also point out that bicycling is good exercise and helps keep the air free of exhaust. They go on to tick off the litany of dangers they face. There are speeding drivers; motorists who switch lanes erratically or turn without signaling; automobile passengers who abruptly swing open doors; potholes and slippery metal construction plates; pedestrians who suddenly emerge into the street from between parked cars; vans and trucks that obscure the view of traffic; and delivery vehicles that double-park in bike lanes.
Still, riders should not be frightened off the roads, said Dave Glowacz, author of ”Urban Bikers’ Tips and Tricks” (Wordspace Press), which gives advice on how to buy, maintain and repair a bicycle and how to remain safe while riding in the city.
Mr. Glowacz addresses such subjects as how to avoid ”helmet head” (wear a bandanna under your helmet or ask your barber for a cut based on the state of your hair after a ride) and how to behave while being menaced by a crazed driver (take the sidewalk in the opposite direction). But much of the book deals with everyday situations.
Besides emphasizing the standard advice — use helmets and, at night, wear bright, reflective clothing — Mr. Glowacz offers a variety of tips. To get a jump on trouble, cyclists should watch the ground 20 to 30 feet ahead while also keeping an eye on cars and pedestrians on either side. They should also be conscious of what Mr. Glowacz calls ”the door zone” — the three or four feet next to a parked car in which a rider can be struck by an opening door.
Also, he said, bicyclists should watch the vehicles surrounding them for clues that signal their drivers’ intentions. For instance, if a driver glances into a rearview mirror, he may be about to stop or turn. A burst of smoke from a tailpipe may indicate that the driver is about to speed up.
”If you know what you’re doing,” Mr. Glowacz said, ”riding a bicycle is not as dangerous as it may look.”
Theft is another problem that haunts riders. According to Transportation Alternatives, 12,058 bicycles were reported stolen in the city in 1998, up from 3,235 in 1996. But here, too, there are ways to protect yourself.
”You have to think like a thief,” said Mr. DiPaulo, describing how to modify a bicycle to make it less attractive to criminals. He recommended taping old inner tube scraps over shiny new bike frames so they stand out less and making quick-release wheel levers difficult to get at by binding them with radiator clamps covered with tape. Some bicyclists go so far as to melt solder over the screw heads that attach their handlebars to their frames.
The most effective locks these days, Mr. DiPaulo said, are hardened steel chains with Kryptonite locks, which, unlike some U-locks, cannot be pried open with metal bars. And, he added, two locks are better than one, allowing bike owners to use one to lock the frame and a wheel to a stationary object and the other to lock the remaining wheel to the frame. With this method, it is best to deploy two different types of locks — say, a U-lock and a chain, or a chain and a cable — so thieves are confronted with two different systems to pick or break. Seats should also be locked to bicycle frames. For about $5, some bike shops will fashion a permanent seat lock made of a recycled gear chain wrapped inside an old inner tube.
Even wary cyclists sometimes do not do enough to protect their bikes. Not long ago, Mr. DiPaulo appraised a visitor’s year-old mountain bike. Although he approved of a heavy chain for the frame and pronounced the seat lock satisfactory, he pointed out that the unsecured quick-release levers on both wheels made them inviting targets for thieves. Two days later, the visitor chained his frame to a lamppost on St. Mark’s Place, then returned 20 minutes later to find that the wheels had vanished. The replacement cost was $200 — almost the original price of the entire bicycle.