Warning labels on bikes in US

I was in Washington, DC last week for the Transportation Research Board conference, the largest academic conference about transport in the world with 6,000 people- most of whom from the US. I borrowed my friend’s bicycle of course and, though it was January, managed to get some good cycling in nearly every day.

Yet I was quite shocked to see that his bike came with a warning label admonishing me to “be safe, and always bike with a helmet” and “don’t ride at night”. So riding this bicycle is clearly only for sunny weekend days on a segregated path for recreation?

If the US is ever going to get bikes on the street, we have to realize that we can’t have warning labels on bikes and that it is is CARS that are dangerous, not bikes. Visibility and safety are about making cars used to seeing bikes and training drivers how to see bicyclists, not about keeping off the street at night and wearing some styrofoam on your head.

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12 responses to “Warning labels on bikes in US

  1. Ezra, great insights! LMAO about the styro on the head! If we are ever going to have commuters & students safely riding bicycles, we must have better lighting. Working with Hella (client) we have perfected a patent pending system that is based on ATM voltage regulation (25,000 Diebold ATMs can not be wrong) and LED lighting system technology. We call it our SAFETY PACKAGE. The system includes a handlebar mounted control board not much larger than a cell phone (but thicker). Buttons for the 95Db horn, turn signals, four way flashers, and a powerful Hella LED headlamp that is auto OEM technology (think Audi, BMW, Porsche).

  2. Rob, you are joking, right? Don’t don’t don’t believe the hyper-illumination.

    But also I think it would be good for any styrocaps which people are wearing to have more honest labeling, e.g. “This cycling helmet is designed primarily to protect its user in slow-speed falls in incidents not involving motor vehicles.

  3. I just had a meeting with Michael Mandiberg in New York, a designer who created reflective tape kits that you can put on your bike (http://www.brightthread.com/). They are black in daylight, but turn bright at night.

    In general, I would say that what is needed is not hyper-illumination but hyper-awareness and learning good driving habits on the part of car drivers (in addition to bike infrastructure and good driving habits by cyclists).

    I am starting to think that some of these issues may also just be very different in across contexts. In a city like New York which has about 1% modal share and drivers don’t pay you any attention, maybe you need something bright to heighten their awareness. Michael says that these strips have prevented cars from driving into him approximately once every three weeks. However, in Copenhagen (37% bike modal split), people wear all black, ride black bikes and sometimes forget their lights yet fatality rates are about 20 times lower than in the US.

    What we most need to get visibility (and therefore safety) is to ramp up mode share significantly. However, in places where people don’t have safety in numbers and drivers are not aware of them (eg, most places outside of Holland, Denmark and Germany), maybe it helps to have a bit more ‘bling’ on- if for no other reason than that it helps cyclists feel more confident and thereby actually get on and stay on the road to get those numbers up.

    By the way, he gave me one of his kits and asked me to put it on a bike in Copenhagen. I don’t want to mess up my classic hand-imported 1980s Dutch Sparta frame myself. Any takers?

  4. How does this guy know that these things have prevented cars from driving into him? The people say “Hey, buddy, good thing you got those labels on! Otherwise I woulda hit ya!”?

    Subjective safety is very important BUT not if there is no or little or in any case unprovable objective safety. There is little research about the efficacy of hi-viz, in relation to both the acute and chronic situations I mentioned in my blog. (A bike shop co-owner in the states who is pro-choice on helmets told me that an honest label on helmets saying that they are not tested in typical bike vs. car velocities would not get more people on bikes.) I am not going to stop anyone from wearing this stuff but since there are laws requiring it for cyclists in France and Italy and also for pedestrians (at least in Finland) there needs to be more work on the issue.

    But that Bright Thread website makes several claims about safety… with no proof! It is totally absurd, unethical and possibly illegal.

  5. I was mostly just passing on his comments that roughly once in three weeks he has a car that is about to turn into him that suddenly slams on the brakes as soon as they see his crazy reflective bike. Whether this is ‘safe’ or not for either party, I’m not sure. But it does seem to make him feel more safe, which is important.

    The main evidence I’ve seen on safety is: more bikes = more safety. So in my opinion, whatever it takes to get more bikes, will lead to more safety. If people have to wrap themselves in airbags, so be it. But I’m not going to mandate anyone to wear anything because I think it will have the opposite effect of reducing the number of bikes (thereby reducing the safety).

    Of course, there is evidence from Copenhagen to suggest that more bikes = less perception of safety which is interesting, but really a luxury problem for most places. Here is is probably about reducing congestion at peak hours (eg, promoting flex working hours, and lane widening) and developing norms for traffic behavior (eg, stay right at the light if you are going slow, be courteous when passing to not scare people, etc.).

    I think ‘visibility’ is about getting cars to realize and recognize that bikes are a legitimate part of the road and to be aware of how to deal with this form of traffic. People don’t get out of their cars and then put on helmets and bright clothes to walk across the street. It’s about training the drivers to see bikes and behave well towards them. Once we get that, people won’t feel compelled to wear bright things. Then everyone can wear black and feel safe, like in Copenhagen. Hi-viz stuff is a symptom of the problem, not a cure for the disease.

  6. At least three things need to happen in regards to laws (the second and third outside of most of Western/Northern Europe):

    1 – Slower speed limits (Urban max. of 50km/h and 30km/h on small streets).
    2 – Near impossibility for vehicle operators to use mobile phones while in a moving private vehicle.
    3 – Driver’s training to include bicycle training (also no permanent licenses or renewals via testing only so that all drivers take this course).

  7. I definitely agree on point one. Point two I haven’t seen the research on to know how significant an impact it would have but it probably wouldn’t hurt. If by “bicycle training” you mean teaching drivers what the laws are regarding bicyclists and how they should respond to them, I also agree.

    We also need to do whatever it takes to just get more people on the road since there is clear strength and safety in numbers. If people feel the need to wear helmets and bright jackets, so be it as long as it makes them get out there. I’m opposed to imposing it as a law (aside from lights at night), but don’t care much one way or the other what people choose to do otherwise.

    I think in general, we need to be spending our time focusing on issues like these three you mention and let people make their own choices about wearing florescent yellow jackets and helmets. I worry that being too anti-high viz and helmets can distract the debate from these more central issues, which are primarily about making cars less dangerous, rather than making bikes ‘more safe’.

  8. By “bicycle training” I mean that people need to learn to ride bikes in traffic similar to the conditions in which they will drive.

    Hi-viz is ugly and helmets look especially ugly on people riding e.g. Dutch cargobikes.

  9. What really surprises me is that being “MADE IN CHINA” is considered as a warning.
    What a sticker…

  10. I’m trying to imagine any Danish commuters NOT riding at night in late autumn given how far north the country is. Even when I’m in Amsterdam (for work) it is striking how late the sun comes up and how early it sets in November and December as compared with my snowier (but more southerly) home in Montréal. Most people are commuting in darkness or near darkness.

    I do think lighting use should be encouraged and enforced, and there could be more reflective substances on the bicycles themselves (such as my tires that have a silver reflective band) but hi-viz stuff just imposes the robocop image and puts off a great many potential bicycle users. Here in Montréal, lots of black, grey and dark colours of course – just what people would normally wear. I am pleased to see more cyclists using lights. Our Bixi bikeshare cycles have an integrated dynamo – much less human-energy-consuming than older dynamos were.

    The stem, pedals and brakes stuff reminds me of the warnings that coffee is hot, though. Duh, of course they should be properly ajusted.

  11. I just bought a Gran Royale bike yesterday via Craigslist. When I got it home I noticed a label on it: WARNING–RIDING THIS BICYCLE CAN RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH. Should i be worried about this bike? Anybody seen such a dire message before?

    Bill in DC

  12. Bill, that is simply a variant on the label above. Make sure your brakes work and use a bell and legal lighting. Cycling is safe.

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