Dueling PSAs and Trust

Bike Jax posted two bicycling safety PSAs that I think show the tension between two ways of thinking about responsibility on the road.

I like this PSA because it promotes the idea that bicyclists are responsible for their own safety. One of the ways to exercise that responsibility: Follow the rules of the road. I also like the visual implication that a bicycle helmet won’t save you in a car crash.

I do not like this one because it promotes the idea that the safety of bicyclists is in the hands of alert car drivers.

And that brings me to an interesting nexus: I’ve recently been reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It’s one man’s journey to discover why some countries are happier than others. One of the important themes in the book is the role that trust plays in a society’s happiness. People who trust their neighbors and friends are happier than people who do not. People who trust the average Joe on the street are happier than people who do not. People who trust their institutions are happier than people who do not.

Now recall a passage I highlighted from The Cyclist’s Manifesto:

As a bicyclist, then, the primary task is not to plug oneself into a shaky system [traffic], but to withhold trust in it on the fundamental level. In traffic we find the very essence of fallibility. It’s most important feature, if not its most prominent, is the basic human mistake…. That’s not to say bicyclists should shun the rules of the road, mind you. They just have to be realistic about them. The task is to ride always with the understanding that you could be overlooked easily by this or that mistake-prone motorist and to remember the potentially very serious consequences, and ride accordingly, rules or not.

I largely agree with this. So connect the dots.

Trust plays an important role in happiness. Part of taking responsibility for one’s safety on the road is withholding trust in the system. Therefore, we’re all doomed to unhappiness.

OK, I’m obviously exaggerating with a rather poorly constructed syllogism. But I think there’s something interesting to consider here. I was trying to get at it when I wrote about self-inflicted nonsense: “I find myself getting into mental conflicts with other road users (mostly the drivers of automobiles) even when nothing remotely bad has occurred. I see a potential situation, and I begin thinking how I’m going to handle the resulting conflict.”

Could the following be true in the context of our current traffic system:



Should it be the case that SAFE = HAPPY? And if so, what role for TRUST?

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Comments 11

  1. Kelly Dowman wrote:

    I ride like that too…even when I’m driving a car. It’s defensive driving, or riding, and I think it’s an intelligent way of being on the road, given the fallibility of the human operator of vehicles.

    I don’t think having the attitude of “what can go wrong here and how would I react if it did?” necessarily makes one unhappy, actually you could argue that it makes it likely to live longer in good health, thus increasing your chances for happiness.

    However, I get your larger point about happiness, and I would offer this tidbit, a third way of thinking about it…I find I use my awareness of how often and easily drivers can mess up to feel and express gratitude for when drivers get it right and/or show kindness toward me.

    I find a wave and a smile to a driver who gives me room on the road to be much more positive than a curse and a finger to one who doesn’t…and if you believe psychological theory of reward systems, much more effective. Besides, I have a much better experience if I’m looking for drivers doing something RIGHT and expressing appreciation for them, than if I’m only focusing on the negative experiences that I am/might be having.

    Posted 30 Jun 2009 at 9:58 am
  2. Keri wrote:

    Great post! And thank you for yet another book recommendation! I just purchased and downloaded the audiobook. I’m drawing a hospital campus site map today, audiobooks give me something to do with my brain 😉

    I like Kelly’s twist on happiness. It is quite gratifying when drivers get it right. As mindful cyclists, we can make them get it right most of the time. That experience has led me to a higher degree of trust than most American cyclists (or even motorists) experience on the road. I have very few conflicts with motorist mistakes, the thing that undermines my happiness on the bike is incivility—motorists vomiting their own unhappiness on me.

    BTW, don’t you find it interesting how the videos and ads that become most viral among cyclists are the ones that externalize our safety? Victim culture is oppressive, it prohibits growth and imprisons us in a negative paradigm. The door is open, we have only to walk out. It’s so easy to be a proactive, mindful bicycle driver.

    Posted 30 Jun 2009 at 10:48 am
  3. Abhishek wrote:

    I like the comments here. Unfortulately, the comments on Bikejax’s article has been overtaken by a Vehicular Cyclist for which I spend a significant time refuting.

    Thanks for picking this post up.

    Posted 01 Jul 2009 at 2:42 pm
  4. Kevin Love wrote:

    What’s with the “culture of fear” safety videos? There are all kinds of safety videos that show cycling as a pleasant, normal way of getting from A to B.

    For example, Yvonne Bambrick, leader of the Toronto Cyclists Union, with The Toronto Star, produced the video at:


    Notice how everything is pleasant and cycling is normal and there are zero helmets or other bizarre protective gadgets mentioned or shown in the video (except for an amusing interpolated slide after the video is over).

    That’s my kind of safety video. One that makes me actually want to ride a bike.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 8:29 am
  5. Kelly Dowman wrote:

    Hmmm…I kinda object to helmets being characterized as “bizarre protective gadgets”… I watched my husband’s head BOUNCE off the concrete as he lost control just fooling around on his bike. The huge crack in his helmet could have been a huge crack in his head. But thanks to the helmet, he was fine.

    Neither of us will EVER ride again without helmets, we’ve experienced personally how easy it is for something untoward to happen.

    If that’s bizarre to some people, so be it…at least he’s alive to tell the tale.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 9:27 am
  6. Andy Cline wrote:

    Kevin… That’s a wonderful video for middle class people. I wonder if such an approach would appeal to the working poor in Springfield — the people I see putting themselves and others in the most danger. I suppose a good compromise would be to boil that down to a 30-second PSA that stated positively that riding with traffic is the safest way to go.

    Thanks for the link! I’ll post it out front with comment later today or tomorrow.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 10:34 am
  7. Abhishek wrote:


    I hate to tell this to you but if a helmet cracks, it failed to absorb the impact, transmitted it to the head and the head took all the impact.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 11:18 am
  8. Abhishek wrote:

    I would also like the NY Bike Safety Coalition to post videos of people hurt after car-on-car accidents just to be fair.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 11:22 am
  9. Kelly Dowman wrote:

    Abhishek, all I know is the helmet had a crack in it and the head did not. No neurological symptoms such as headache or a lump on the skull either. In my book, the helmet did it’s job.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 3:40 pm
  10. Keri wrote:

    I wear a helmet when I bike, snowboard, whitewater kayak, rock climb, etc.

    For bicycling, a helmet is the very last of 5 layers of risk-management and if the other 4 are followed, the need for it is very low-percentage. I follow the other 4, but I wear one anyway. And I’ve read all the anti-helmet stuff, but I wear one anyway. Maybe it’s just a talisman. I wear one anyway.

    Now, on to the video. That is NOT a cycling safety video. Everything is pleasant and non-scary and… only ONE urban hazard is covered—streetcar tracks. After doing an acceptable job of crossing the streetcar tracks, she proceeds to ride TOTALLY in the door zone sandwiched between parked cars and parallel tracks! It’s such a tiny clip, but it made my palms sweat and my heart race! If she swerves to avoid a door, or pedestrian (they do appear from between parked cars), she will snag the rail track and get thrown into the middle of the travel lane and be run over. On second thought, maybe she doesn’t need a helmet. It won’t help.

    The video does a nice job talking about being respectful of pedestrians. I’d like to see more discussion of that in other safety videos.

    She talks about a tail light, but not a headlight. ??? 95% of crashes happen in FRONT of a cyclist.

    I’ve see a lot of marginal “bike safety” videos. That one is by far the worst. But the flowers on the bike are lovely. Really. Very artsy. I must go find some for my Surly.

    You don’t have to do the “culture of fear” shtick to make a good safety video. But it is helpful to inform people AT LEAST of the common mistakes cyclists make that get themselves hurt (and killed) — like riding in the door zone and passing on the right in an intersection.

    Posted 02 Jul 2009 at 6:22 pm
  11. Andy Cline wrote:

    Keri… I’m not sure that video can really be classified as bicycle safety. I read it far more as bicycle promotion. And despite its flaws, it does make it loos pleasant, which I do think is a good goal.

    I think what all of this really shows: We need better bicycle PSAs.

    If anyone has seen a good one, please post a link here.

    Posted 03 Jul 2009 at 9:18 am