Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter wrecked while riding his bike a few days ago. Wrecked hard. I don't have any information other than what I've heard or read in news reports: The Governor was out for one of his regular early morning rides with three or four other riders when his front tire made contact with another's rear tire. He crashed in such a way that he fractured five or six ribs on one side and separated his shoulder. The Governor's injuries are a bit on the severe side, an indication of an extremely awkward and unusually forceful slap-down -- or perhaps of being run into by another rider while on the ground. With a large portion of his rib cage broken, doctors are keeping him in the hospital for a few days. I wish him well. He's going to be dealing with a lot of pain and difficulty functioning for many months. The shoulder alone, or a single broken rib would do it. All that together is going to be tough.

He's not the first Colorado governor to ride a bike. Ralph Carr, World War II era, rode the mile or so from the 700-block of Downing to the Capitol on the back of a tandem piloted by a state trooper. At least, he did that once or twice as a stunt. But Ritter may be the first to ride a bike and mean it. He has starred in a television commercial promoting bike commuting, has given speeches on the Capitol steps with his bike propped in front of the lectern, has promoted and signed bike-friendly legislation, and has discussed with Lance Armstrong the possibility of bringing top-level stage racing back to Colorado. He has (so I'm told) completed the Triple Bypass, a difficult mountain ride which requires real commitment. Here's a Colorado native who understands both the joy and efficiency of bicycling, and he's holding the state's highest office. He promotes bicycling but doesn't grovel for political points about it. From this bicyclist's perspective it is quite heartening, while it lasts. Ritter has decided not to run again, maybe because he sees the state's balance sheet about to go from frying pan to fire, and doesn't want to be the one standing there with the chef's hat on when it happens.

While it's somewhat strange to find a governor on a bike, it is not all that surprising that a bike-riding governor would crash and hurt himself, unfortunately. It makes bike advocates cringe when I point this out, but bicycling does result in the occasional mishap, and frequently these little screw-ups lead to some sort of injury. Beginning riders (and kids) will crash at a far greater rate than old hands, who have been there and done that already, and who make everything seem smooth and breezy, but even the old-timers in their wisdom tumble every once in a great while -- and try to find one that hasn't been injured at some point along the way. It's called Experience. Generally speaking, bicycling is far more likely than driving to result in injury. [For instance see Kifer's "Bicycle Safety Survey," 2001.] The primary reason is obvious: There are a lot more ways to get injured while riding a bike, due to the glorious two-wheeledness of the machine. In that way, you see, a bit of crashing is part-and-parcel of the complete bicycling experience, and not something that can be fully suppressed or traded away. Not without adding a wheel or two.

Strangely enough, there are folks out there who for some reason seem to need bicycling to be "safer than driving," and will only switch to bicycle transportation wholeheartedly if that precondition is satisfied. Well, the unavoidable fact of the matter is that bicycling can not really be said to be "safer than driving," due to the relative likelihood of injury. Is that a deal-breaker for you? So be it. Bicycling isn't for everybody, I always say. Many advocates would like to ignore the troublesome injury thing and declare bicycling "safer" based on fatality rates alone. I think that's a dead end as well. The fatality rates for bicycling and driving are extremely difficult to quantify, but reasonable estimates suggest that bicycling does not even achieve the certification of "safer" by this much more favorable parameter; in fact it appears that bicycling could easily be more than twice as deadly per-hour as driving if we really worked it all out. Solid numbers are elusive. Maybe that's best. What's clear is that the per-hour fatality rates for both bicycling and driving are extremely low, so low that it's silly to worry much about fatality rates. It's also clear that bicycling causes a $#!*load of injuries, any way you slice it. So, it's not a particularly deadly activity, but it's hardly a "safe" one either. That's the unique dialectic of bike danger.

All of this needs to be considered in light of a larger truth. Riding a bike is wonderful exercise and extremely beneficial to one's overall health, and therefore could be considered somewhat "safer" than sitting on one's rear letting a combustion engine do all the work. Old experienced cyclists will probably have some bike-related scars, that's true; they will also look and feel about ten years younger than their non-cycling counterparts. [See Tuxworth, Nevill. White, Jenkins, "Health, Fitness, Physical Activity of Middle-aged Factory Workers," 1986.] As always, the truth is amorphous, funky and difficult, if not impossible, to define.

When the Governor ate a little bit of 23rd Avenue and broke himself apart, no official accident report was filed. That's typical, even though the wreck occurred on the roadway and he went away in an ambulance. Records were made at the hospital, however, and it's in hospital records rather than police reports where we begin to unearth some rather uncomfortably large numbers. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) provides a statistical sampling of data from a few hundred ERs around the country. The NEISS data suggests that some half-million or so bicyclists show up at ERs in the US with some sort of bike-related injury each year; another half-million seek outpatient care for a bike injury. Like the Governor, the bulk of these are injured in crashes not involving a motor vehicle. (Among bicyclists in the ER no more than 20% or so are there due to a collision with a motor vehicle. About 100,000 or so car-bike collisions are reported in the US each year, these resulting in roughly 60,000 ambulance rides and 30,000 hospital admissions. This last figure is a very small number compared to the total number of cyclists seeking treatment in ERs, yet represents a solid majority of all hospitalized bicyclists.) There are so many other ways to crash a bike it's impossible to list them all. The Governor's method -- bashing into another bicyclist -- is one of the many traditional, time-honored ways of doing it. Young cycling enthusiasts learn quickly that riding in a group, or even with one other cyclist, can lead to all sorts of crashes, and demands a special high alert mode. Not sure exactly what happened in the Governor's case, but a very light touch of one's front tire to the rear tire of the rider ahead is all it takes to cause a severe and sudden upending of one's fancy bicycle apparatus. As a final insult, the lead rider keeps rolling as if nothing happened.

Despite the frightening range of potential damage, stretching all the way to lifelong debilitation and death, most bike crashes result in only minor injuries like contusions, abrasions and sprains. Ouchies. The people who suffer them usually don't seek any medical treatment at all. With the lack of reporting it is impossible to say how many of these little wrecks and minor injuries are occurring. A lot. Millions every year in the US. We can say that bike wrecks usually amount to little more than meat-tenderizing and character-building. Road rash. Rightfully, that's the sort of consequence the Governor should have suffered from his morning crack-up.

Personally I can't remember when I've heard of injuries quite so severe resulting from this type of cheap mishap, well below racing speeds. It is statistically evident that the more severe a bicyclist's injuries are, the more likely they were caused by a collision with a motor vehicle. And the faster the vehicles are going, the more serious the injuries are likely to be. Hospital admissions are almost synonymous with serious injury from a statistical viewpoint. Consider that only about 10% of cyclist victims presenting at the ER are kept overnight. The rest are shuffled home with pain pills, slings, ointments, stitches and encouraging words. Most of those who do end up spending several days in a hospital bed have been involved in a more acute brand of car-bike collision, and are somewhat mangled. Many of them have dangerous head injuries. Hospital admissions resulting from a crash like the Governor's are not unheard of but are relatively rare. It's a strange situation.

It seems that our Governor has been punished much too harshly for a garden-variety bicycle wreck. It doesn't seem fair, to the man or to bicycling in general. It will be interesting to see how the experience colors his remaining time in office, if it changes his attitude about certain pieces of legislation which may be crossing his desk, and if he starts riding again after healing enough to do so. Getting back on the bike after a big wreck may take more commitment than the Triple Bypass. I hope he does it. It's good for everybody when Governor Ritter rides his bike.

 

See the BICYCLING RESEARCH PAGE for more information about bicycle accidents and injuries in the US and around the world.